Nikita Singareddy ’13 Presents CAMD Scholar Research On Media Portrayal of Sex Workers

After walking through the streets of a red-light district in India, Nikita Singareddy ’13, the inaugural Barbara Landis Chase CAMD Scholar, reflected on stereotypes regarding sex workers and decided she wanted to critically examine the world of prostitution. “What I saw on the streets of India was significantly different from the media portrayals of America’s sex workers. Other than the obvious national-cultural variances, why were the images so starkly dissimilar?” wrote Singareddy in an e-mail to The Phillipian. This past summer, Singareddy interviewed six sex workers and analyzed films and television series for her CAMD research project, titled “The Perversion of the American Dream: Deconstructing Media Portrayals of Immigrant Sex Workers Through Their Own Voices,” which she presented last Friday. In her presentation, Singareddy said that sex workers portrayed in films fall into four categories: “good-punished”, “good-unpunished,” “evil-punished” and “evil-unpunished.” “Good-punished” centers around an innocent child who is forced into sex work and unable to escape. “Good-unpunished” describes a person who is saved from prostitution and breaks free from sex work. Portrayed as using her sexuality to seduce men, the “evil-punished” sex worker is punished through her inability to leave the industry. An “evil-unpunished” sex worker has both seductive and evil traits; she brings her lovers to ruin but suffers no consequences. “These assumptions and myths have underscored sex work discourse for too long. Now that these stereotypes have been identified, the way to deconstruct them is to take the narratives of today’s U.S. sex workers and show how their realities and futures are more than just a script,” said Singareddy during her presentation. Singareddy analyzed the gradual change in the media portrayal of sex workers since the 1990s. Comparing lead characters from the 1990 romantic comedy “Pretty Woman” and the 2003 film “Monster,” Singareddy said that the main character in “Pretty Woman” is a high-class escort, intended to be well-liked and envied by the audience. In “Monster,” however, the main character is a low-class prostitute who kills the men she sleeps with and who is mentally unstable after a childhood of abuse by her father. Singareddy said this victimization or glorification of sex workers typified a phenomenon she labeled as the “hooker’s dichotomy.” Sex workers, she said, are depicted in two modes. The first mode is the “high-class hooker” and the second is split between “dirty streetwalker” and “despondent sex slave.” Singareddy said that, because the average audience member views sex workers as both fascinating and reprehensible, the media shapes characters to cater to audience expectations. Films and television series use repetitive formulas to dramatize the characters of sex workers. Though backgrounds and storylines can differ, sex workers’ sexuality, sultry nature and beauty are nearly identical, said Singareddy. “The media has one goal… to arouse and electrify the audience. These traits so successfully cultivate a reaction that the media finds no reason to diversify their portrayals of sex workers,” said Singareddy during her presentation. “These characteristics have become more than just stereotypes. These fictions have now become the only realities. By repeating these narratives, they are generalized,” added Singareddy. Singareddy quoted the workers whom she interviewed over the summer. Most disagreed with the way sex workers are depicted in the media. “Prostitutes are portrayed as good for nothing. They wear trashy outfits, turn tricks for little money. They are dirty and impoverished. These prostitutes are almost portrayed [as] subhuman. But they’re still human beings,” said “Alice,” a 26-year-old sex worker. Over the summer, Singareddy watched numerous films and television shows about sex workers in the United States and contacted organizations that support prostitutes to find actual sex workers whom she could interview, though only a few agreed. “Getting six people to talk to me was a successful achievement,” she said. Singareddy is the first CAMD Scholar to research sex workers. She is also the first Barbara Landis Chase CAMD Scholar. The scholarship was founded last year in honor of former Head of School Barbara Chase and funds a CAMD project that researches a topic in race relations or human rights in the United States from a historical perspective, according to the CAMD Scholar brochure. “I feel so honored that Mrs. Chase and the CAMD Scholar Committee would award me something like this. It is an amazing opportunity for me. I can’t thank them enough,” said Singareddy. After her presentation, Singareddy led audience discussion groups that examined additional examples of sex worker stereotypes in modern films. “She led a very specific and well-crafted discussion,” said Junius Williams ’14. “The prostitute’s dichotomy and the graphs Nikita drew were the most important components of her presentation. I [learned] that the media played such a vital role in not necessarily establishing stereotypes of sex workers, but in reinforcing them.” “I [thought] Nikita set up the dichotomy very well. She broke down media portrayal of the extremes of either very well-off or very abused sex workers. I thought that the discussion and her method of introducing this subject was very unexpected,” said Haonan Li ’13.