* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.The podcast, 'A Sex Worker's Guide to the Galaxy', offers guests in the industry a stage to share their experiences free of sanction and in their own words
By Christine Murray
Feb 26 (Openly) - Parker Westwood is trying to bring sex work out of the shadows with a new podcast that lays bare her industry, asking dancers, dominatrix and strippers what it's like to swap sex services for money.
In a series of intimate interviews, Westwood delves deep and shatters taboos to unveil the humans in her mostly hidden world.
From life in lockdown, stripping for a living to sex with a disability: the host and her guests simply tell it like it is.
It's not their usual media image.
"We're either villainized or over sensationalized," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "The more we can seek to understand one another, the better off we'll be."
Westwood, aged 32, launched the now bi-weekly podcast in January after navigating how to sell sex safely in the pandemic in her home town of Detroit.
The result - 'A Sex Worker's Guide to the Galaxy' - has drawn listeners from as far afield as Australia to Chile.
For the uninitiated, the interviews humanize sex workers.
For insiders, Westwood offers guests a stage to recount their experiences free of sanction and in their own words.
"This is why our stories are so powerful because they don't get told often," she said. "We're so used to operating in the shadows."
Many sex workers are critical of how mainstream media paints their industry, be it running photos that out them or stories that conflate their job with sex trafficking.
Westwood - an activist for decriminalization - said sex workers often prefer to stay hidden, whether from other employers, family or the broader public.
ALGORITHM = SEX
She also worries about censorship due to U.S. laws governing sex work online - websites can get in trouble for hosting third-party content that flouts the rules - so is careful about even the keywords that describe each episode.
"The algorithm is against me so my philosophy is just keep putting it out there, try not to get censored and people will find it," she said.
A self-described queer, full-service sex worker, Westwood had wanted to showcase the whole gamut of experiences but says the pandemic has put some street-based sex workers off limits.
"It changed the whole way I had envisioned...the podcast would go down," she said. People who don't have access to Zoom or a smartphone or whatever - I'm not getting those interviews right now."
But her show - its name is a nod to Douglas Adams' science fiction classic 'The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy' - sets out to show that sex workers collectively hold the answer to life, the universe and everything.
"Sex workers have a legacy of speaking truth and being the ones to demand justice," she said. "Our struggles are so indicative of the world's struggles."
(Reporting by Christine Murray; Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)