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Another Tacky Headline: The Media Outing of Alisha Smith, Lawyer and Purported Fetish Worker

by Sarah Elspeth Patterson, Community Organizer, SWOP-NYC

In a culture in which celebrities regularly don latex or leather and talk about kinky sex, our media outlets still have a way of trying to keep the average individual’s sexuality in check when it comes to private sexual behaviors. Tabloids such as the New York Post has a long history of taking pieces of schoolyard-like gossip and treating them like news articles, especially when it comes to women’s sexuality. In the last year alone, the Post has thrown the title of “hooker” at no less than three women in its headlines, one of which was a murder victim, and even managed to get the frontpage headline of “Crazy Stox Like a Hooker’s Drawers…UP, DOWN, UP,” complete with a photo of a lady in red, to fit what might otherwise have been a piece about the fledgling economy. The Post, it would seem, has got sex (and sex workers) on the brain.

The latest victim of the the Post‘s sharpened tongue is a lawyer for the state Attorney General’s office, Alisha Smith, who was suspended without pay from her position, following the Post’s inquiry regarding her participation in BDSM activities in her off hours. An anonymous source for the Post cited a standing executive order in the Attorney General’s Office, stating that employees must “obtain prior approval from the Employment Conduct Committee before engaging in any outside pursuit…from which more than $1,000 will be received or is anticipated to be received.”

Whether Smith is in breach of her contract remains to be seen. However, the ability of the Post to create the piece out of Smith’s story, which they then published, is now well documented. Using little more evidence than some tweets by Smith about personal lubricant and the unsubstantiated claim that “it is common in the S&M community for dominatrixes to receive payment for appearances at fetish parties,” the paper has singlehandedly managed to call a professional’s conduct into enough question to launch an internal investigation.

Responding to the suspension, the spokeswoman for the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom, Susan Wright, had this to say: “NCSF supports the rights of consenting adults to have a private life apart from their employment. Alisha Smith is another victim of the persecution that often occurs against people who engage in BDSM. Our research has found that one out of three kinky people have lost their job, lost child custody or has been the victim of violence because of their BDSM interests. The media should never out individuals simply to create a sensationalized story.”

It is certainly worth questioning what is more scandalous here: the nature of Smith’s puported side profession or the obtainment of an outside income, equal to or greater than $1,000. If Smith has indeed engaged in the side job of professional dominatrix, she would not be unlike many Americans who, for economic reasons, have decided to engage in sex work as a supplemental income in a struggling economy. The suggestion that Smith has done so brazenly, or with some kind of disregard for her role in the Attorney General’s office, seems to suggest more about how sex workers (even purported one) are treated by the media as greedy and self-serving individuals, interested only in the bottom line, not simply trying to make a living.

Inevitably, this news story has spread to other outlets, including the Huffington Post, Gawker and ABC News, further increasing the chances that Smith’s case will be tried in the court of public opinion, not simply by any internal investigator. Whether she maintains her job with the Attorney General’s office or not, her name in a Google search is now indelibly linked to this story, marking her association with them for a digital lifetime.

It’s ironic, though, that many of the online commentators on these news articles have reacted with a resounding “So, what?” response, raising the question as to which issue is really being spoken of here. The public’s reaction makes it unclear whether the Post‘s fixation on policing individual’s (particularly women’s) sexual practices is at play or whether an actual professional misstep has occurred on Smith’s part. Indeed, what if she has committed no other crime than engaging in adult sexual acts? Is engaging in BDSM activities in your private life still something that warrants being publicly shamed, or have we as a society come further in our allowance of individual’s private sexual behaviors as just that – private?

Clearly, the outcome of this investigation remains to be seen and in many ways, the damage has well been done. If Smith’s involvement in BDSM amounts to nothing more than a lifestyle choice, it is particularly disappointing that all of this has resulted from the singular and ill-intentioned pursuit of a news story. Yet even if Smith is in violation of her contract, it certainly stands to reason that she would not endure a public assault such as this one, were her side job not one so juicy for the headlines. If it is indeed true, should it be deemed her fault, or the fault of a paper that actively seeks out sexualized stories of women, in order cast them as jezebels and profit off of the subsequent misfortunes? It’s neither pleasant nor particularly comforting to think that a person’s entire professional life is worth yet another tacky headline. 

 

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