On April 2, the television network A&E premiered 8 Minutes, a "reality" show premised on "trying to save prostitutes," as executive producer Tom Forman put it. The network cast Forman, cop-turned-pastor Kevin Brown, and their team as heroes, undertaking "harrowing undercover missions" around Houston, Texas—"the epicenter of human trafficking in the United States," according to A&E. Pastor Brown would pose as a client and lure sex workers to a hotel room, where he revealed that his true aim was rescue. "Brown has determined that eight minutes is the maximum amount of time to safely convince these women to leave with his team—any longer puts everyone's lives at risk," said A&E.
But women who worked with 8 Minutes tell quite a different story, challenging the show's claims to both reality and altruism. This week, A&E quietly cancelled the program entirely and removed all episodes from the A&E site.
Even before it aired, 8 Minutes was controversial. In marketing the show, Pastor Brown and producers routinely conflated consensual commercial sex with sex trafficking and portrayed all sex workers as victims of violent pimps. This tone continued in the opening episodes, which were also rife with sensationalist and sexualized imagery.
Then, in late April, a woman calling herself Kamylla came forward with even more damning info about the show. A Texas mother facing eviction and no job prospects, she had taken to prostitution secretly and reluctantly. Kamylla was not forced into sex work, but neither did she relish the situation. When 8 Minutes offered her a seeming way out, she was excited about the opportunity.
No one from the show pretended to be a client, said Kamylla. The caller, a woman, identified herself as an assistant producer with 8 Minutes and after several phone conversations in November 2014 they met in person. On the phone, the producer had promised compensation and help getting out of sex work but been vague about specifics.
In person, she said the show would pay just $150-$200 on the day of filming. But she also promised Kamylla job placement, medical, and housing assistance. When Kamylla agreed to be on the show, the producer told her there was no need "to go back to 'life,'" she says.
On the day of 8 Minutes' "harrowing undercover mission" shoot, producers staged a call between Kamylla and Pastor Brown to arrange a meeting, with Brown acting like a client. At the hotel room, Kamylla was told to act surprised when Brown revealed his true identity and ignore the myriad TV cameras all around. Afterward one of the women drove Kamylla back to a friend who had given her a ride and only paid her $200 when Kamylla brought it up. When she asked about housing assistance, she was told not to worry—and not to go back to sex work—someone from the show would contact her the next day.
That never happened. When Kamylla called them a week later, they told her there was nothing they could offer by way of eviction or other assistance, save for giving her the number of a counselor. They did get in touch once more—to ask if Kamylla could recommend other women for the show.
Kamylla found Pastor Brown's number and contacted him directly. "When I said I am being evicted, I need a laywer, I feel like you guys used me, he started to pray," Kamylla told me.
Buzzfeed's Ariane Lange interviewed several sex workers who had worked with 8 Minutes. One woman, going by the pseudonym "Jazzy," said producers did not honor her request that her face be blurred in the broadcast. Another's husband was filmed posing as her pimp. None of the four women Lange spoke to were given a copy of the contract that they signed.
"8 Minutes also did not keep the sex workers' information particularly discreet," notes Lange. "It took less than an hour for this reporter to find contact information for three women using only the information A&E broadcast on television."
Gina, featured in 8 Minutes premiere episode, told Lange that she, too, was promised assistance from the show—in her case, getting a car and finding housing—that never materialized. An A&E rep told Lange "This show is no longer on the air, so we will have no comment."
After stopping sex work for a couple weeks waiting for producers' promises of assistance, Kamylla went back to it—and was soon arrested and jailed. Her first "client" turned out to be a sting operation by cops who responded to her online ad. She wonders if using the same phone number she used with 8 Minutes may have led to targeting by police.
To help cover her legal and living expenses right now, prominent sex-worker rights activists like Mistress Matisse and Domina Elle have helped Kamylla start and publicize a crowdfunding campaign via Crowdrise. Initial campaigns through GoFundMe and then Tilt were taken down by site administrators (a common problem for sex workers of all stripes trying to crowdfund anything, from art projects to medical expenses to constitutional challenges).
Though those helping Kamylla are themselves happily engaged in sex work, they have not pressured her to stay with it or publicly profess enjoyment for it. Rather, they've mobilized to help highlight her story and immediate finanacial needs, as Tits & Sass bloggers Lane Champagne and Bubbles pointed out recently. "Imagine if A&E had given even a fraction of the production costs to crowdfunding campaigns for sex workers, sex worker-run organizations, or even job training programs that would enable sex workers to enter the formal economy."
"Kamylla's story is one that sits at the messy intersection of failed rescue ideologies, misguided and often violent law enforcement, the reality of profoundly unhappy sex work experiences, and a sex worker rights' community that is at times removed from the realities of criminalization and survival sex," Champagne and Bubbles continued. "But [the sex work] community … was there to support Kamylla when others discarded or ignored her reality."
Domina Elle, a Denver-based dominatrix, artist, and sex-worker rights advocate, suggests that "8 Minutes is a perfect allegory for the rescue industry." By rescue industry, Elle refers to the myriad organizations, from nonprofits to religious groups to government-funded task forces, that have sprung up around the alleged epidemic of U.S. sex trafficking.
"Many of the stories told by rescuers have proven to be completely false," notes Tara Burns at Alternet. "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."
"There's a great deal of rhetoric around 'rescue' 'restoration' and 'help' but we aren't finding much in the way of actual services for people, despite the millions some of these organizations receive," writes Elle.
Many people working in the rescue industry know that most sex workers don't want their 'rescue.' This doesn't stop them from applying for federal grants or accepting donations. The money is predominantly used for hotlines and raising awareness.
Watching a person like Kamylla fall through the cracks, being a person you'd assume the rescue industry would love to assist, is very telling. [It] exposes the narrative for what it is, a ruse to be able to generate more funding for the rescue industry that never seems to manifest into tangible services.
The U.S. Senate recently passed a major package of anti-human-trafficking legislation that has bipartisan support in the House also. It's packed with funding for "rescue"-mission type organizations, be they police or private, as well as "awareness raising" efforts— like posting trafficking-hotline numbers at truck stops and strip clubs or training school principles and TSA agents on how to spot the signs of trafficking. In other words, the kinds of things that keep law enforcement agents, government paper-pushers, and the nonprofits touting this legislation in things to do and money to spend on it. But the bill contains little in the way of impact on the immediate needs of those it claims to help.
Like the producers of 8 Minutes, state and federal lawmakers talk a good game about how they're planning to help victims of sexual violence, trafficking, and coercion. But in focusing so exclusively on the victim/evildoer/savior paradigm, their version of "reality" bears little resemblance to people's actual lives, experiences, or needs. And this ultimately doesn't matter, because the "victims" are just props in the perpetuation of this rescue charade. Lights, camera, action, roll call.
"I do not have a job. I see my arrest like a criminal in my mind all the time," Kamylla says. "I am a person before the show who needed a chance. Now it's after the hurricane." But the online sex-work community is "little by little doing what the TV should have done" in terms of helping her get her life and finances back together, she says.
A&E has not publicly commented on the women's allegations or the show's cancellation.