A&E is launching a new “reality” “docudrama” series called 8 Minutes, featuring one of the more appalling concept in recent years. Set to premiere April 2, it’s basically an intervention-style TV show, except for sex workers, and under time pressure. An old interview with the producer at EW reveals that he’s also the man behind Sex Box, and this show is his bid for respectability.
The premise is laid out in the press release:
With the help of strategically placed hidden cameras, the team undertakes harrowing undercover missions to offer help to women they believe may be in danger. In a non-descript hotel room, [Pastor Kevin] Brown poses as a client and once he established his credentials, he then brings in a victim’s advocate—a woman who has successfully escaped being trafficked herself. Throughout the season, we meet over forty women; ranging from one who saw her twin sister killed in front of her to another woman sold at the age of 10 by a family friend. The stakes are high and there isn’t much time to decide if they want to take the offer of help or return to their life on the streets.
Kevin Brown is a pastor and former law enforcement officer who performs these interventions regularly, of his own volition. And the show’s title stands in for the amount of time the sex workers in question are allotted to “decide,” with cameras in their faces and a team pleading with them (their permission is granted retroactively). Eight minutes, according to parties involved, is the time that it takes for a pimp to get suspicious. While producers claim such a time limit is about “safety,” the high-stakes timing does sound mighty enticing to viewers.
For a group of people who claim to care about the exploitation of women, the hypocrisy evident in this show is bizarre. Of course, this blatant disregard for people’s actual circumstances is old hat for people who advocate for the rights of sex workers, who are protesting the show with vigor. An open letter from many groups to the producer is asking him to pull the show.
In fact, the anti-trafficking world and the sex workers’ advocacy world, which sometimes clash over policies like law enforcement’s role and the legality of sex work, are actually in agreement that this show doesn’t help anyone. Even Christian groups and media types have jumped on the bandwagon of critique: “This is no way to treat Scripture. This is no way to treat human beings. This is not entertainment,” says one Christian blogger.
“It basically coerces someone into a situation where they’re in front of cameras having a personally violating experience. It’s public shaming,” says Kate D’Adamo, National Policy Advocate for the Sex Workers Project. D’Adamo and I both drew the connection between this sleazy-seeming show and a more highbrow example of the same phenomenon. New York Times columnist Nick Kristof has written about his purchasing and “freeing” of brothel workers, and live-tweeted a brothel raid in Cambodia. But every time Kristof takes up the issue, advocates speak up to say that these dramatic rescue narrative do the “victims” no good:
… when women and girls are “rescued” by the anti-trafficking organizations, they may be taken to state-run rehabilitation homes that have jail-like conditions. Human rights and sex worker organizations have long documented what rehabilitation might mean for a sex worker: overcrowded conditions, a lack of healthcare, and violence at the hands of the police and guards.
So while “raiding” brothels and “freeing” women in the sex trade makes for good press and good story arcs, the actual conditions faced by sex workers before, during, and after their time in “the trade” get completely erased. “The overlap between this kind of vigilante justice and entertainment media is becoming thinner and thinner, ” says D’Adamo. “If our primary motivation is supporting and serving people, using them for entertainment purposes is the opposite of that.”
One of the big quarrels advocates have with shows like this isn’t limited to the individual harm they might do to participants, but extends to the broader narrative. The concept of 8 Minutes also reinforces myths about sex work that prevent sound public policy from being enacted (take a look at the dismal trafficking bill before the Senate). Common myths include the idea that “everyone in the sex industry [is] trapped and in need of rescue,” says D’Adamo. Some sex workers have made a conscious choice, weighing the factors of their lives, and until their circumstances change, their decision won’t budge.
Furthermore, there’s not always a shadowy pimp figure pulling the strings, as implied by the very premise of 8 Minutes. “It’s completely false that every single person in the sex trade is working for a pimp or third party, or they have to be saved from that person,” D’Adamo says.
Finally, the idea that sex workers can be hustled out a back door and into a life of freedom is a particularly frustrating myth for activists. “When people do want to leave the sex trade, it’s a complex, long-term process,” says D’Adamo. “There are reasons why people are in it to begin with, which are challenges that have to be addressed.”
Michelle Goldberg’s recent piece on campus “PC” culture notes that, “In many young feminist circles, criticism of sex work is dismissed as slut shaming or whorephobia.” Yet the existence of shows like 8 Minutes reveals that the broader culture has a long way to go before it catches up to these kinds of elite feminist arguments.
D’Adamo recalls going through “pretty much the same thing with MSNBC doing the show Slave Hunter with Aaron Cohen last year.” She laments that “this keeps popping up in place of discussing what it really does take for people to exit a situation they don’t want to be in. It’s hard to talk about the fact that we provide the scantest resources for housing, for single parents… [Reality TV] cannot stand in place of [that discussion], but apparently, once a year, it does.”