On May 18, New Zealand’s favourite psychologist, Nigel Latta, penned an angry online note about how the death of a young South Island woman was being reported. His message on Facebook reads:
“An open, short, and really frickin angry letter to New Zealand journalists:
“Stop referring to the young woman whose body was found in Canterbury as a ‘sex worker’. It’s an appalling thing to do. Utterly appalling. Her name was Renee, she was 22, and she was an actual person. She has a family, and friends, and people who care about her.”
Renee Larissa Duckmanton was found on May 15 by a member of the public, near the Rakaia River. Her body was badly burnt.
Mr Latta is right about the reporting of her death. Only 40 or so years ago, New Zealand dailies commonly reported crime by referring to the race of the alleged offender — if he or she was not white.
We may think we have now matured in our ways of viewing others. But the death of Miss Duckmanton suggests we have not come nearly as far as we might like to think.
Mr Latta’s note continues:
“I get why you all use the term ‘sex worker’ all the time when you refer to her, but try and remember that even though she’s just a catchy headline or soundbite for all of you, to her family and friends she’s Renee.
“Just try, just a little bit, to think about her as an actual person, and spare a tiny thought for the people who loved her, and cared about her, and are grieving for her today.”
The comment racked up a huge number of likes — about 70,000 within a day.
Why, when a victim of crime is sex worker, do people so quickly link the line of work to what has happened to the victim?
Perhaps an unconscious bias comes into play, thinking that the victim is in some way responsible for the harm she or he has suffered.
Mr Latta’s response, though, highlights something else.
The Prostitutes Collective website points out, in part, that New Zealand laws pertaining to sex work are the same as those for other workplaces; “sex workers are able to have the same rights as workers in other occupations. They are entitled to workplace protections and access to healthcare.”
Some women’s groups have suggested that sex work is a legitimate career choice, that women can make empowering choices to undertake sex work, that it can be a dignified lifestyle.
Mr Latta’s response illuminates the shallowness of that viewpoint.
The reason his argument touches a chord is because huge numbers of people intuitively understand that labelling Renee Duckmanton as “sex worker” diminished her and even objectified her. That would not have been the case if those people all believed in their heart of hearts that sex work was comparable to, say, being a landscaper, or that it is empowering, and that it lends dignity to a person.
We know that many people in sex work abuse drugs to cope with the psychological distortion and emotional coldness involved in relating so intimately and often to strangers who have no interest in them as people.
Let us pray for Renee and her soul, for the Police to find anyone who had a hand in causing her death, and for us all to get past stereotypes so we are better able to see all others as people God loves.