THE BLOG

Good Intentions Are Not Enough: On Community, Voice, and the Ethics of Inclusion/Exclusion

04/26/2013 12:01 pm ET | Updated Jun 26, 2013
Getty Images

"The Ugly Truth" advertising campaign hit Chicago this week. You may have seen the signs on public transportation -- in the "L" or on a CTA bus -- on the sides of a bus shelter, or on a digital billboard at the airport. One sign reads "Prostitution, there's nothing victimless about it"; another "if you're paying for sex, you could be paying for someone's pain." The purpose of the campaign is to raise awareness of the sex trade.

The campaign by End Demand Illinois (the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation) coincides with current legislation (IL Senate Bill 1872) in the Illinois State legislature that seeks to eliminate felony prostitution. (The bill has passed the Senate and is currently in the House.) End Demand, Illinois is a campaign that seeks to increase law enforcement awareness of persons who buy sex and of sex traffickers, and to provide support for survivors of the sex trade. The Voices and Faces Project developed the campaign in partnership with a media company. The mission of the Voices and Faces Project is to give voice and face to rape survivors and to raise awareness about sexual violence. It is a national organization that tells and shares survivors' stories.

On the face of it, "The Ugly Truth" campaign looks good. Raising awareness of the sex trade using these simple messages seems good. From my position, as an educated woman of relative privilege who is not personally in the know about sex work and sex trafficking, efforts to help this "vulnerable population" are overdue. My initial reaction was from my perspective as a mental health nurse, a professor, and a researcher. A naïve one.

Yet, I might have more knowledge than some. I've conducted research about sex work at truck stops. But, this does not -- at all - make me an expert in the experience.

I'm sure End Demand Illinois and the Voices and Faces Project had good intentions. But, what about the campaign's impact? My friend and diversity consultant Maura Cullen, author of 35 Dumb Things Well-Intended People Say, and I had a conversation the other day about "intention" versus "impact." Basically, in any kind of interaction, the impact is more important than intention and we need to try to understand, from the insider's perspective, what that impact might be.

How do sex workers feel about this campaign? A blog post written by a sex worker under the pen name Hadil Habiba shows that, from her real-world experience, the messages of the campaign are polarizing and offensive. "The Ugly Truth" is not, when one listens to those who are closest to the issue, good for all. In the efforts to help, the campaign hurts (at least some). This may seem like news to many, and counterintuitive to others, but all sex workers do not feel like victims.

There are several examples of advertisement campaigns that have offended or missed the mark. For example, the Lung Cancer Alliance's Public Service Announcement billboards last year, "Hipsters Deserve to Die" and "Cat Lovers Deserve to Die" which meant to show that no one, not even people who smoke, deserves to get lung cancer. Hipsters, cat lovers, and others took offense; however well intended the campaign's original message was, it was lost.

Perhaps End Demand Illinois should have reached out to sex workers and to sex work organizations such as Sex Workers Outreach Project-Chicago (SWOP-Chicago) for more of an insider's perspective for a more full range of experiences and potential impact. SWOP-Chicago is an organization that is dedicated to improving the lives of current and former sex workers.

End Demand, Illinois partnered with several organizations including the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, the Cook County Sheriff's Women's Justice Programs, and DePaul University College of Law's Schiller DuCanto & Fleck Family Law Center, and others, but the complexities of this and any work like this must include the perspectives of those who are most affected. And maybe End Demand Illinois did.

Hadil Habiba's powerful and articulate blog post about "The Ugly Truth" multimedia campaign hit home with me because I'm currently working on a transmedia project about another "vulnerable" population and issue -- psychosis. This project is being conducted through my Voices and Visions research group.

Voices and Visions is an interdisciplinary participatory research group based in the School of Nursing at DePaul University in Chicago. The team is led by me and by a person with personal experience with psychosis (schizophrenia, in particular). It is made up of faculty and students from nursing, psychology, game design, and documentary film. And, so far, one partnering organization -- Chicago Hearing Voices.

The transmedia project, led by my colleagues Doris Rusch and Anuradha Rana, will create a comprehensive transmedia hub linking documentary webisodes, experiential games, first-person accounts, social media and links and information regarding local and national resources and supports for persons with psychosis.

The project is in its early stages. "The Ugly Truth" campaign and Hadil Habiba's post, and other reactions of those from the Chicago sex worker community, have sparked conversation among our transmedia project team about the ethical considerations of this project. How do we include more, and diverse voices? How do we ensure that we get it "right"? How do we ensure that our impact is what was intended? What do we need to do now, early in the process to be more inclusive? At the very minimum, we must reach out to more individuals who have psychosis, more family members of persons who experience psychosis, and more providers of care. Some of this we have already begun.

We are a group of academics, artists, game developers, filmmakers, community members, persons with mental illness, family members, and providers. We are wrestling with ethical issues such as voice, ownership, and control, to name a few. We will continue to explore the ethical issues involved with this innovative yet complicated project, which will hopefully help persons who hear voices or experience other unusual phenomenon, and inform researcher and artist collaborators.

Our intentions for the project are good. Much like those of "The Ugly Truth" campaign. But, that's not enough. We need to keep an eye on the impact of our work -- to inform, not stigmatize.