“Oh, yeah… Look at that! I bet that’s a victim right there!” – Pastor Kevin, as he hangs out his car window, cruising the streets of Houston looking for sex workers (8 Minutes, S01E01).
A&E’s 8 Minutes is a reality show whose fundamental premise is the divination of meaning from the female form. Combining the obsessive-compulsive voyeurism of good cop/bad criminal/mangled naked lady shows like CSI and Law & Order SVU, with the endless translation of muted behavior that one expects to find on Animal Planet, Pastor Kevin and his team of “Advocates” are possessed of the notion that they know victims. And what is more, every woman that they lure to their hotel room is a victim prior to her having been baited by the show. The word “victim” is used incessantly throughout the series.
Of course, this relentless labeling functions as speech act, at once instantiation and incantation, as Pastor Kevin is a predator who dissimulates his intentions so as to catch sex workers on camera. But then, this lie is meant to reveal “the truth” of his designated Other. And who better than an unmarked Pastor/Cop to divine both the secrets of souls and their bodies of evidence? He’s almost a blank page!
Pastor Kevin is the John from hell, a “Knight with Shining Hard-On” (Juliana Piccillo, “Vice,” pp. 139-152) whose holier-than-thou concern for trafficking victims is limited exclusively to adult cis-women. And that’s interesting! No transwomen. No kids. And no men. As far as I can tell. On a show that claims to care about trafficking victims writ large, what are the odds?
And finally, the show’s death knell was recently sounded over the span of two articles by BuzzFeed. Grassroots reports and fundraising are ongoing for the redress to those who were promised false help by the show. Please donate here!
So why in the hell am I writing about it this late in the game?
It is not my goal to attempt a reiteration of what has already been said. But I would like to offer a reading of the relentless narrativizing of the feminine form and the implicit belief in a hidden corporeal authenticity that 8 Minutes enacts, because I see it elsewhere. I see it in the Laverne Cox/Meghan Murphy uproar, in the furor over teen girls sexting their naked image, and in the treatment of sexual assault victims, writ large.
What I keep noting in the mediatized representation of the semi-nude female form is a need to further unveil “Her” and interpret “Her.” A belief that the words that fall from Her mouth mean something other than what She says about Herself, so that female sexual agents are translated as victims and female sexual victims are translated as agents.
This isn’t Mulvey’s Male Gaze. It isn’t even Metz’s Scopophilia. It’s more like a pinhole camera wherein the self-proclaimed meaning of a woman’s behavior and speech is consistently revealed, unveiled, and exposed as the inverse. Nakedness is a ruse. Nudity is a lie. Her true intention must be wrested from her inert, dumb body. And weirdly, the “Truth” is always the exact inverse of what she says. The speech that comes from a woman’s body is never as is. It is consistently, rigidly upside-down.
Sexual assault victims are ventriloquized as agents. Sexual agents are ventriloquized as victims.
That’s my thesis.
Let’s see how it plays out in 8 Minutes.
The Photos/The Bodies
Each episode commences with the choosing of a victim, and as Pastor Kevin loves to reiterate, all these women can be found online! Scrolling through what appears to be Criagslist, Kevin and his “three little girls” who were once trafficked (yup, that’s a Charlie’s Angels reference) examine the myriad photos and copy whilst explaining the tell-tale signs of a sex slave.
These signs are:
- Provocative Posing — According to Pastor Kevin, a woman is not born knowing how to pose pretty for the camera. And that may be true. However, to the extent that it is literally impossible to conceive of an un-posed femininity thanks to both art and the singular commercialization of the female form, the only pimp here is Western culture. Pastor Kevin is literally disavowing the only version of femininity of which we can collectively conceive, and calling it an indicator of sex trafficking. Again, that might be true, in a flamboyantly academic sort of way… But in that case, femininity is always already a sex slave and to be a woman is to be a victim; the one implies the other.
- Concealed Faces – This “sign” is so ridiculous it’s embarrassing. Violence against women is sufficiently rampant in this culture so as to merit a National PSA. Sex work is stigmatized to such an extent that many sex workers who provide legal services elect to hide their faces, and full sex work, at least in America, is illegal. You go to jail for it! Wouldn’t you hide your face? Pastor Kevin is calling a very reasonable attempt at self-protection an indicator of abuse. But really, it indicates the anticipation of abuse and is an attempt to avert it before it occurs.
- The Imagined Presence of a Photographer/Pimp – Or a timed camera. Or a webcam. Or a selfie stick. Or a friend. Or a hired professional. Or they could even be fake! Beyond Pastor Kevin’s homosocial obsession with pimps, there are whole slew of other, more probable alternatives.
- Tattoos – According to Pastor Kevin, tattoos are often an indication of a woman being owned. You know, like whenever someone tattoos another’s name on them. Dare I say it, I’m tempted to call these inky scrawls “pimp sigils.” And according to an old Fox News poll, 47 percent of women under the age of 35 have one. Damn! That’s a lot of lady property!
- Lastly, Injuries – This is the only overt indicator of abuse named, the only one for which I have any sympathy. And yet, even this assumes far too much to be an indicator of anything. Maybe this woman does MMA or Rollerderby. Maybe she’s a Masochist. Maybe she self-harms. Who knows?
You’d think the woman would, right? (hardy-har)
The Interviews/The Narrative
Although sources have come forward stating that the interview section is staged, 8 Minutes, like any other show on TV, is an exercise in storytelling. Veracity comes second to mythos, and fictions have very real effects.
On the show, Pastor Kevin has been consistently amazed at the ease with which the women on his program, once trapped in a hotel room with a stranger, spill their stories of past hardship. He interprets this as a supernatural sign that the women know they are safe and trust him, a byproduct of his warm, cuddly, pastor/cop air.
I do not. I attribute this to the fact that many of the victims of the show routinely recount never having been listened to anyway. And there’s no need to hold your tongue if no one ever listens.
Courtney, in the first episode, states: “The molestation started as a child. That’s probably why I got into the night life.”
Pastor Kevin leans in and responds breathlessly : “You shared this very traumatic thing and you didn’t even, like, flinch.”
Cut to Pastor Kevin addressing the audience: “Some of the things that you hear from these women will take your breath away. For them, it’s become normal.”
Later, en route to a supposed safe house, Courtney recounts being raped by a John and going to the police only to be told that she’s a “whore.” She says that she’s tried to get help numerous times. This basic structure is repeated again and again throughout the show. These women seek out help of their own accord and are ignored by the authorities who are meant to aid them.
Both Domina Elle and Tara Burns have correctly dubbed such narratives “trauma porn,” meaning that these are abuse stories meant to titillate their audience, not elicit empathy for any one specific woman. But I think there’s more going on here, as well.
In the last aired episode (5), Candi states that she began sex work after a divorce. She discusses an abusive romantic partner and states that he hurt her so bad that “he killed a part of [her] beautifulness.”
Cut to “Advocate” Stephanie on the verge of tears, stating: “I understand where Candi is coming from. This life can really kill you because it takes your life. You just lose a piece of you every day.”
Wait, what!? What “life”? Candi was speaking about what led her to sex work, not sex work itself. Any trauma she has suffered began before “the Life,” in the vanilla/straight/civilian/normative world to which Pastor Kevin & Co. are so eager to return her.
So is the problem sex work? Or is the problem widespread violence against women? Because the one is not the other, despite the nonstop, sloppy conflations made by the “rescue” team. And what are they proposing to rescue these women from? Molestation? Domestic abuse? Unemployment? An unresponsive and nonchalant police force? The threat of homelessness?
No. No. No. No. And no. The only thing 8 Minutes is rescuing these women from is their source of income. The sexist and violent sociological factors that make sex work seem attractive and/or normal and/or necessary are all left intact. In fact, these very real sociological issues are all deafly subsumed into Pastor Kevin’s own sex trafficking narrative, so that “the Life” precedes “the Life” and is indistinguishable from it. Quotidian violence against women has now been localized as a problem of sex trafficking. Oh, wow. That’s great. So as long as I’m not involved with sex work, I’ll be safe. That’s good to know.
“Nowhere is woman treated according to the merit of her work, but rather as a sex. It is therefore almost inevitable that she should pay for her right to exist, to keep a position in whatever line, with sex favors. Thus it is merely a question of degree whether she sells herself to one man, in or out of marriage, or to many men. Whether our reformers admit it or not, the economic and social inferiority of woman is responsible for prostitution.” – Emma Goldman, The Traffic in Women