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Houston Sex Workers Accuse Reality Show Producers of Fraud

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Last October, a television producer called the woman while she was at the West Oaks Hospital in a drug rehab program. The cable TV network A&E was producing a reality series about sex work in Houston, and producers were looking for anyone willing to be interviewed.

Producers with the show would twice visit the woman in rehab. She was reluctant to be on camera, but producers promised that her face would be blurred. Even more important, they knew the woman wanted nothing more than to quit sex work. They promised her medical, housing and even job assistance if she agreed to be interviewed on camera.

Parts of her one-hour interview aired on April 2, 2015. She feigns surprise when her prospective client turns out to be a former cop-turned-savior who rescues women from a life of prostitution. A narrator mentions the “dangerous trafficker” waiting in a car for her outside the hotel room. In reality, it was the woman’s mother. 

In a lawsuit filed in Harris County on Friday, the woman is listed as “Jane Doe II.” She’s one of three local sex workers who claim television producers with the short-lived A&E reality show 8 Minutes baited them with promises of job, medical and educational assistance. The women each claim that after filming their episodes, producers did little to help them.

According to the lawsuit:

“Despite the show’s bold philanthropic proclamations, the women who participated in the show were either wholly ignored following the filming or merely provided a list of already overburdened publicly available resources in the Houston area and left to fare on their own. At its core, the show was taking advantage of the most marginalized and powerless people in society in order to get them to provide edu-tainment, thrills, and cathartic release for a jaded audience.” 

The show 8 Minutes was centered on the work of local pastor Kevin Brown, a retired cop who claims to rescue women out of sex work. In each episode, Brown claims to seek out sex workers in danger, poses as a client and then offers those women a way out. The show’s title comes from Brown’s claim that he and his crew have only eight minutes to convince the women to leave the life, because if they linger, they might be putting the women and the TV crew at risk. The gimmick gives the show some dramatic tension, a whiff of real danger.

Some of the women interviewed on the show, however, have since claimed that most, if not all, of the drama on 8 Minutes was contrived. The short-lived series drew public scorn from advocates for sex workers and even some of the very women who appeared on the show not long after the episodes began to air. A&E canceled 8 Minutes after only five episodes. (A&E representatives were not immediately available for comment. We'll update if and when we reach them.)

Earlier this year, five women told Buzzfeed News, which first reported Friday’s lawsuit, that A&E lied to them about providing resources and protecting their privacy in order to get them on the show. It appears three of those women are behind the lawsuit filed in Harris County.

“Jane Doe I” claims that when 8 Minutes producers approached her about being on the show in November, they told her it would be a “life-changing” experience. The woman, an immigrant from South America, says she began doing sex work when she couldn’t find a stable job to provide for her children. Producers told her they’d help her find medical and job assistance. Before her interview, the woman contacted producers saying she was about to be evicted from her home. The producers said they couldn’t give her any money or help until after her interview, according to the lawsuit.

The woman says she told producers she’d already exhausted local public assistance and charity resources. She either didn’t qualify or resources had dried up, she claims. Here’s what the producer told her, according to the lawsuit:

“Oh please…We are A&E and a Hollywood production company … they have advertisers that are huge companies with tons of connections. Anything you need for them is only a matter of a few calls, a car, medical and dental treatment, clothing, an allowance. They will do what it takes to get you and your family back on their feet.” 

The woman gave an interview inside a room at a Holiday Inn Express on Westpark days later. She pretended not to know the “john” was a pastor waiting to save her. She accepted Brown's offer on camera and then, later out in the parking lot, was pressured into signing a contract she didn’t really understand or even fully read, according to the lawsuit.

For her appearance, the woman was given $250 and a promise that someone would soon call her with the help she needed to start her new life.

After filming, the lawsuit alleges, the producers wouldn’t return the woman’s phone calls. Soon enough, those producers' phone numbers were disconnected. “After weeks of waiting on Defendants to provide assistance that never came," according to the lawsuit, the woman "was left economically and emotionally devastated.”

You can read the entire lawsuit here:

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