The television network A&E has ordered eight episodes of a new reality show in which a cop-turned-pastor hires sex workers, then “surprises” them by trying to convince them to quit and start their lives over.
8 Minutes, the show’s working title, is about Pastor Kevin Brown and his church’s “undercover prostitute intervention operation,” a venture first covered in the Los Angeles Times in 2013. Its executive producer is Tom Forman, of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and The Great Food Truck Race. He gave an interview with Entertainment Weekly where he discussed the premise of the show, which is still in production:
“This is one of those great shows that was actually happening whether anybody was shooting it or not,” Forman said. “Brown told his congregation that for 20 years he’s had to arrest these women when what he’s really wanted to do is help them. It launched a drive within his church to run these undercover operations. We read that and thought somebody should put a camera on this, it’s the most incredible thing I’ve ever heard.”
Eight minutes is the maximum amount of time Brown will speak with someone, the interview states, because any more time could allow a third party to arrive or intervene, potentially endangering the pastor, the crew, and the woman they’ve interrogated.
Here’s a clip from the L.A. Times article about how Brown and his associates, like fellow retired cop Greg Reese, do the work:
To prepare for the missions, Reese trolls backpage.com or craigslist for potential victims, particularly those who look like they might be minors with an “emptiness” in their faces.
Reese also helped Brown revamp the training — two eight-hour sessions on a weekend — for the group’s volunteers. The classes cover identifying victims, the culture of prostitution and undercover tactics.
The group practices by using a Bluetooth as a walkie-talkie, driving around in a caravan and deploying as a surveillance team across motel properties, with each person assigned a specific role.
“Everything is done just like a police operation,” Reese said.
The missions have met with skepticism within the law enforcement community.
“It’s not a method we endorse,” said Cpl. Anthony Bertagna, the spokesman for the Santa Ana Police Department. “It’s very dangerous.”
So, what does Brown tell them?
He first talks personally about what he’s seen and how badly the path they’re on can end. This is a guy who’s seen girls murdered, and he doesn’t pull any punches in his shock therapy. He says, “Even if this all seems okay to you right now, it’s quickly going to become something very different.” There’s also two other members of the team he uses who are former prostitutes themselves. The most powerful thing he does is bring in someone he rescued who says, “I was right where you are, I was scared my pimp would find out and beat me, I didn’t know if I could trust [Brown], I didn’t like the idea of leaving my stuff behind and running away in the middle of the night, but I said yes and my life has never been the same.” They vouch for him. That’s how he closes.
And here’s more on how he chooses who to call (and, more creepily, how he hypothesizes which women will be most likely to accept his offer):
He doesn’t know when he calls. But after 20 years on the job, he can decode an ad or solicitation or posting on the Internet like no one you’ve ever seen. He looks at a photograph and notices things you and I wouldn’t notice — makeup covering bruises, that this is obviously someone being held against their will. The story comes out when he gets them alone in a room and says, “I’m not here to have sex with you, I’m here to offer you a whole new life if you want it. Tell me your story.” What you learn is that none of these girls would have chosen this life.
According to the article, Brown’s “success rate” is “about 50-50.” If the eight minutes run out before a woman has made a decision, he gives her his phone number for support and leaves. And while some women have firmly told him they are not interested, he says nobody’s been angry or resentful about his attempt to “save” them.
Here’s another passage from the L.A. Times about a failed “mission” by Reese:
A year ago, he met a girl in the parking lot of an Anaheim hotel. Once the two were in the room, she took off her large, round sunglasses and revealed a swollen black eye. Her slim arm was bruised.
She nonchalantly told Reese that she had been beaten by a date in San Diego.
“This is after a week or so of healing,” she said, pointing toward her face. “I couldn’t even work.”
“How many times did he hit you?” Reese asked.
He made his pitch.
“I’m here to offer you help. To help you get out of the life. Obviously, you’ve got a hard life going, getting beat up.”
The woman sat down on the bed and stared into her cellphone. She appeared bored.
“Have you ever thought about getting out?”
“Not really,” she said. She was fine.
“I can get out whenever I want to. It’s not like I’m being forced to do it.”
As a last resort, Reese asked if he could pray for the woman, who called herself Madonna.
“I don’t believe in God,” she fired back.
I don’t doubt that Pastor Brown feels sad for these women and wants to help them, though his sympathy may be misguided. Some sex workers may do the work they do out of necessity, but many others do it by choice. There are health and safety risks involved, yet each person has their reasons for continuing.
That’s why showing up unannounced, cornering a person, and attempting to “liberate” them in the name of God is not a calling — it’s traumatic and dangerous. Bringing cameras along is even worse.
Women will consent to having their faces shown on TV because they think it will make them famous or rich, or simply because they’re caught off guard. What happens a few months or years down the line, when they’re recognized on the street or at a new job and mercilessly harassed or harmed? How do they protect themselves from the man who approaches and propositions them on the street, yelling, “Didn’t I see you on that prostitute show?”
What sorts of resources does Brown have to ensure these women’s survival and continued well-being? Here’s what the article says of his plan to “liberate” them:
The ones where he succeeds, we follow them out of the rescue and see the girls subsequently get back on their feet and see the good he’s doing. Sometimes they turn and leave, but that’s the case when trying to save prostitutes. If she says yes, they’re sneaking her out the back of that hotel into to a van and off to a safe house. If an angry pimp is coming to look for her, they want to make sure he can’t find her. They’re also getting her out of the city, if not out of the state. They’re putting her first in a rehab program if she needs one, and then a halfway house teaching her life skills, helping her get a job and rebuilding her life. It’s a pretty big decision and a fairly intensive program if you choose to take him up on his offer.
Unless Brown has an entire congregation devoted to protecting and essentially sponsoring these women, it is virtually impossible for him to provide for more than one or two to this extent. Housing costs money. Rehab costs money. Protection — in this case, decades’ worth — costs money.
Which gives way to another problem: I’m certain that a condition of these sex workers’ “saving” is that they confess their sins, accept Jesus Christ as their lord and savior, and become lifetime members of Brown’s church. If they don’t, or if they break one of the church “rules” by using drugs, returning to sex work, or any number of transgressions, there is virtually nothing stopping Brown from throwing them back to the streets. This has the potential to turn into a Salvation Army situation: “We’ll help you, but only if you’re one of us.”
Lastly, putting this all on television for women to be scrutinized, judged, and perhaps even retaliated against is one of the cruelest kinds of exploitation there is. Here’s Forman’s unsatisfying response to that issue:
EW: Are the girls shown? As a producer, that has to be a bit of a dilemma.
At their discretion. We go back to them later and ask [for permission]. As much as I like to look into someone’s eyes when they’re talking, the stories you’re hearing are pretty riveting. A surprising number of these girls, especially the ones that opt to leave the life, are comfortable about being used as a cautionary tale. It’s always their choice.
There’s already a petition brewing on Change.org for A&E not to air the show. Here’s a snippet from the petition’s author, Jackie Parker:
Sex workers are human beings with a brain just like everyone else and can make choices for themselves about how they earn their living. The problem is with the law that continues to enable broadscale discrimination such as this.
If this ex-cop/church group/TV station really want to assist sex workers, they should be lobbying to recognise sex work as a legally recognised occupation and pushing for full decriminalisation of the sex industry. This would mean that those who do want assistance to leave could do so without being criminalised and subjected to this kind of discrimination and stigma, while allowing those who continue sex work to be treated equally to all other citizens.
Comments on the L.A. Times article echo what’s above: Sex workers can make their own choices and do not deserve to be stalked and harassed because of another person’s moral judgment about their work. Their private lives are not to be commodified and attacked in the name of mediocre entertainment; they do not exist for public spectacle. Eight minutes might be this pastor’s cutoff before he feels like his safety’s at risk, but it’s plenty of time to ruin a woman’s life — on national television. Shame on A&E for condoning a series that is dehumanizing, demoralizing, exploitative, and will without a doubt do more harm than good.
(Image via Shutterstock)