Media

How Self-Described 'Whore Nation' Killed the TV Show '8 Minutes'

A first-person account describes how sex workers united against an A&E reality show they say exploited them.

I wasn’t paying attention when activists and journalists first started talking about the horrors of A&E’s new reality show, 8 Minutes.  But just a couple months later, I found myself on the phone with one of the show’s first victims, listening to her voice break as she talked about how the producers had lied, promising to rescue her from prostitution to get her to appear on the show. Activists rallied around Kamylla and other victims, and on Monday Buzzfeed reported that the show is no longer airing.

When outrage first started building about 8 Minutes, I was in my state’s capital lobbying for the state to stop arresting women it says it wants to rescue—especially when they are trying to report that they have been the victim of a crime such as sex trafficking, assault or extortion. People tweeted me about the show, but I had this theory that I should keep my focus on things that happen in my state. If I right the wrongs here and you right the wrongs there, eventually we’ll have it all covered, right? It turns out my strategy totally fails to cover things that happen in television.

About a month ago I noticed a well-known sex worker activist talking cryptically about a woman who had been a victim of the rescue industry and needed help. Her story had to be secret for her own protection, but it might be a big deal in the future. A couple of weeks later, Domina Elle called me. She had just spent approximately five hours on the phone with a victim of 8 Minutes. Would I talk to her about media and help her brainstorm resources to help her situation?

Victim 0

I talked to Kamylla the next day. Kamylla is a hard-working mother living in poverty in Houston. A member of several marginalized communities, she had been out of work for a year. Like many women in poverty, she turned to sex work, telling her family she was cleaning houses. Sex work was Kamylla’s secret shame, a last resort to feed and house her family. She called herself a “fake sex worker” because, like many sex workers who provide kink or hands-on services, she didn’t actually have intercourse with clients.

When 8 Minutes producers called and said they were offering her a way out of the sex industry—a job, health insurance, food and housing help—she was ecstatic. All she had to do was go on the show, tell her story and be “saved” by Pastor Kevin. The producers said they would blur her face, and she decided that if she were outed it would be worth it to stop doing sex work.

At the producer’s request she got a ride from a friend (framed by the show as a scary pimp waiting in the parking lot) and she met with the producers before going into the room. Pastor Kevin offered her salvation from her circumstances, and she was whisked away in a rescue van that drove around the block and dropped her back off. Of the $200 the show paid her, she gave $100 to her ride. Then she went home and waited for the help that had been promised.

The producers said they wondered if Kamylla really was a sex worker, if she really wanted to get out of the life. Kamylla tried to prove she was sincere by not doing sex work while her rent fell further behind and her cupboards got more and more bare. Representatives of the show gave her a list of charities to call. Finally, with $10 left to her name, she posted an ad. The first customer she saw was an undercover cop who arrested her. Her husband pawned all their furniture to bail her out.

It’s Fake, But It’s Real

The industry that has sprung up around “rescuing” sexy victims is popularly called the rescue industry. Like 8 Minutes, many of the stories told by rescuers have proven to be completely false. High-profile trafficking activists like Somaly Mam (one of Time's 100 Most Influential People of 2009) and Chong Kim have built careers and raised millions of dollars with their own fabricated stories.

Just like 8 Minutes, in real life there is a huge demand for trauma porn, stories of titillating sexual violence. Rescuers like Pastor Kevin are commonly called rescue pimps because of their desire to be associated with these sexy victims. Ariane Lange reported for Buzzfeed that one of the show’s victims was paid $50 per woman that she brought to the show.

The problem with rescue pimps is that their rescue fantasies begin and end in two ways: by saving the sex worker’s soul, or by saving the rescue worker from an “evil” pimp. Once the rescue pimp has exploited his victim’s story and reinforced his own image with a story of rescuing the woman, he moves on to his next victim. (Though some research shows that about half of sex trafficking victims are male, rescue pimps tend to focus exclusively on women and children.)

While many sex workers are happy with their choices and aren’t being victimized by anyone, those who do want help need more than 8 Minutes of spiritual counselling. They need—and there are often already multiple barriers to them accessing—housing, employment, healthcare, and advocacy or legal assistance. Just like rescue pimps, 8 Minutes’ solution was to give the women a list of potential resources that wouldn’t meet their needs. Truthout reported back in January that the rescue industry gets about $500,000 per year for every victim “saved” from human trafficking in the United States. But most agencies only offer “awareness” and the hotline numbers that provide referrals to already overburdened services which often discriminate against people in the sex trade.

The Aftermath

Families often find out for the first time that their mother, daughter, sister, or wife is a prostitute when she is arrested for prostitution. Employers and landlords also find out, and many property rental agencies have policies against tenants with criminal records. If they apply for jobs, they will most often fail a criminal background check or face sexual harassment on the job. If they are immigrants, they may face deportation. If they have children, they could lose them. They are often discriminated against in accessing healthcare, crisis services and financial institutions. Now Kamylla was facing some of these challenges in addition to the impending hearing, eviction and poverty.

I’ve talked to two other women with similar stories of their experiences with 8 Minutes. Sadly, I’ve also heard of “rescuers” doing much worse to the sex workers they claim to rescue.

I went through all the usual potential options for someone in Kamylla’s circumstances, from potential pro bono lawyers to potential food assistance. I knew that a person can make money online with phone sex, but only if they aren’t on probation, don’t have kids at home, and do have a bank account. Sadly, I’ve learned about all of these resources while trying to help people who have been victims of the rescue industry. What if the groups being funded to help people in the sex trade actually helped people and I didn’t have this huge chunk of my brain dedicated to dealing with their aftermath? 

Kamylla is a totally functional adult and had already checked with all the resources I’ve mentioned, which were a lot of the same resources everyone else had mentioned and the same resources she had tried to access before turning to sex work. She didn’t want to talk to the media, but started tweeting about the show and took the advice of people who recommended she set up a GoFundMe. And she continued to talk and text with supportive sex worker activists. Then she asked a couple of us to help her set up a website.

Domina Elle would host the site. As she listed available domains, SexWorkerSolidarity.com jumped out at me. Usually, when sex workers help victims of the rescue industry, it’s a secret. It just seems like a bad idea to publicize that a youth who just got out of prison for conspiring to traffic herself is staying with you. The former trafficking victim I helped get a hotel room after being discriminated against by a shelter last month definitely didn’t want her story being broadcast to the world. Kamylla, on the other hand, wanted to tell her story. She also wanted the world to know that sex workers were coming through for her where 8 Minutes failed her. 

We didn’t know, and still don’t know, what the future of the website might be. It might just be about Kamylla, or it could be a hub for connecting supporters with the needs of the show’s victims. Or it could become a website to crowdfund for many victims of the rescue industry. SexWorkerSolidarity.com seemed to offer the most flexibility and seemed closest to our intent, so we went with it.

The site launched on April 24 and Kamylla’s story quickly spread across Twitter, dominating the #8Minutes hashtag. Donations trickled steadily into her GoFundMe. She paid enough of her back rent to stall her eviction. The show’s fans, who had so enjoyed hearing about the women being victimized, proved that they actually cared about Kamylla, and supported her leaving the sex industry.

The Show

I located an acquaintance with the right television situation and binge-watched four episodes of the show. Right off the bat, Pastor Kevin started trying to bargain the women he called down on their rates. His insistence that they were all victims made his financial degradation of them even more disgusting. It seemed obvious from the way so many sex workers walked into his room, sat down and started telling very personal sob stories that the show was staged. Most sex workers have had their fair share of customers who, like 8 Minutes viewers, get off on the “intimacy” of trauma porn. We learn quickly to deflect their rude questions. But on the show, women were eager to tell Pastor Kevin details of their childhood molestation within minutes of meeting him.

I recognized one of the women I’d talked to. Knowing that the show had promised to blur out her face, I understood her willingness to tell incredibly personal stories within seconds of walking onto the set. The show didn’t keep its promise to protect her identity. You can imagine the consequences she suffered.

Tweeters continued to rage at A&E, and A&E continued to ignore the tweets. “I must concede,” one tweeter said, “A&E’s silence on these allegations is quite deafening.” Sex workers and allies spread out on Twitter to educate 8 Minutes fans:

8 Minutes’ Airtime Ends

Finally Buzzfeed reported that 8 Minutes was no longer to be broadcast. A&E’s representatives said that since the show was being pulled from the airwaves, they had no comment about the program or the scandal around it. There was much rejoicing in Whore Nation:

The show was pulled before Kamylla’s segment aired, but where is she today? In meetings with attorneys, still trying to put her life back together after her encounter with Pastor Kevin. GoFundMe, which is notorious for discriminating against sex workers, killed her first fundraiser. Her new fundraiser is at CrowdRise, and she hopes to raise enough money to bring her rent current, pay for gas and continue her job search. 

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