When does media language around sex workers become slut-shaming?
The details surrounding 27-year-old Alix Tichelman’s arrest in Santa Cruz last July—the Lifetime-esque sting operation, the “Harbor Hooker” hook, the drugs, the Google executive with a $345K yacht—were every reporter’s wet dream. But some activists believe the case against her has been distorted by media bias against sex workers.
“It could be anybody in Alix’s position—a sex worker that is meeting with a client and then something goes horribly wrong,” says Kristina Dolgin, who launched the legal advocacy organization Red Light Legal at the beginning of this year.
Dolgin reached out to Tichelman in a recent letter to offer additional legal services and support; she says she wants people to remember that Tichelman is innocent until proven guilty, regardless of her profession.
“They’re using language that is clearly seeking to demonize [Tichelman], strip her of her humanity and make her less than a person—to be vilified and not protected,” Dolgin says.
Dolgin, who has worked in various areas of the sex industry for seven years, pursued a law degree at Golden Gate University after graduating from San Francisco State University. She is the current Co-Law Student Vice President of the National Lawyers Guild’s San Francisco chapter. She sees her mission as fighting for the safety and well-being of sex workers.
“[Tichelman] is an easy scapegoat just by the type of work she does. There’s this respectability polarization happening between the Google executive and the person that he hired,” says Dolgin. “There’s a lot of motivation for law enforcement to hold somebody, anybody, accountable. They see someone working in the sex industry—Alix—as low-hanging fruit.”
Tichelman and Forrest Hayes met through the website seekingarrangement.com before going to Hayes’ yacht in the Santa Cruz harbor in November 2013, where he asked Tichelman to inject him with heroin. After he OD’d, Tichelman was arrested on charges of manslaughter, prostitution, destroying evidence and transporting a controlled substance. An enormous amount of media attention focused on Tichelman’s reaction to the overdose, which, after viewing the yacht’s surveillance video, was either panic or cold, calculating self preservation, depending on who you ask.
The Santa Cruz Sentinel, among others, wrote about the earlier heroin death of Tichelman’s Atlanta boyfriend, Dean Riopelle, which occurred just months before Hayes’ overdose. Tichelman was tagged the “the Harbor Hooker,” and a “high-priced call girl,” and the opening of a July 10 article which ran in the Sentinel wouldn’t have been out of place in retro pulp fiction: “Men seem to fall at the feet of Alix Tichelman. Then they tend to die of heroin overdoses.”
The Daily Beast dubbed Tichelman “The Black Widow of Silicon Valley,” and the nicknames, adjectives, and clichés seeped through national coverage to such an extent that some, like activist Nicolas Marussi, have begun to ask if the sensationalism has dipped into the realm of slut-shaming.
“That’s just a trial by public opinion before the trial even begins,” says Marussi, explaining why he and other protesters have been at the courthouse with a “Free Alix” banner since her first hearing.
“Sex workers are an extremely vulnerable population and don’t have very much support and don’t want to be public with what they do most of the time,” Marussi says. “We think that it’s insane that the police are allowed to do this—just feed, feed, feed these stories and create their own narrative and bias the jury pool. It’s the police versus her.”
Marussi is referring to the 48 Hours episode on CBS in which Santa Cruz Police Department Deputy Chief and former department spokesperson Steve Clark described Tichelman as “cold” and stated, “This wasn’t just some accident gone awry. Mr. Hayes is a victim of the murder committed by Alix Tichelman.”
Santa Cruz Assistant District Attorney Rafael Vazquez and the SCPD declined to comment for the purposes of this story.
Tichelman’s social media image fit neatly into the prosecution’s narrative of a dark, tortured prostitute and drug addict: she has several tattoos and is often pictured wearing lingerie, in seductive poses with lips pursed, eyebrows arched. She makes little pretense about her work.
It’s easy to get swept up in the sinister drama of the case—the drugs, the sex, the money, the intrigue—says Dolgin of Red Light Legal. But the truth about prostitution, she says, is that a sex worker is more likely than a client to be killed.
“Sex workers know that they are generally not thought of as human by police, and not thought of as human by society—people don’t place a whole lot of importance on their lives,” says Dolgin.
Police, lawmakers and voters all have their individual prejudices, and policies around sex work often reflect moral issues, says Dolgin. What communities forget, she says, is that sex workers are also their neighbors.
“What we try to do as an organization—one-on-one and when we do our coalition work—is to remind people that people in the sex industry are people,” Dolgin says. “They come through complex and complicated backgrounds, but no matter how or why they do the work they come to do, they should be treated with respect.”