Newsweek Publishes Prohibitionist Fear-Mongering About Sex Work, Tries To Pass It Off As Journalism

Newsweek’s provocatively titled article The John Next Door has been causing quite a stir on the Internet for its endorsement of Melissa Farley’s shoddy, biased research tactics. At the base of this backlash is its reliance on slanted and often anecdotal “research” that was gathered by well-known “abolitionist” Melissa Farley, who is not trained in sociology, polling, or any kind of accurate information gathering. (“Abolitionist” here is code for “prohibitionist”–Farley wants to outlaw all forms of sex work the world over, from strip clubs to pornography to pro dommes.) There are too many things wrong with the article to go into in just one blog post, but here are a few of the major ones.

1.) Right off the bat, it conflates “buying sex” (which is illegal) with lap dances, porn, and phone sex, which are legal. The reason she had so much trouble finding a control group of “non-sex buyers” is because her definition of “buying sex” was so absurdly broad that it included any and all forms of adult entertainment. Surely there’s a difference between watching the occasional adult video and frequently enlisting the services of a prostitute? In the eyes of this “study,” though, they’re exactly the same.

2.) As Salon’s Tracy Clark-Flory writes, “Farley has a very narrow view of what type of sex is healthy and OK.” Number one on her list of “bad sexual acts” is anything having to do with BDSM (check out this extremely wackadoo, ignorant, and hateful piece she wrote called “Ten Lies About Sadomasochism.”) She holds up the existence of BDSM sex-workers as evidence that all sex work is bad. But, operating under the belief that BDSM is a twisted abomination of human sexuality, one might just as quickly hold up BDSM practices between married people as evidence that all marriage is bad. This is clearly an absurd line of reasoning.

3.) She completely ignores the fact that many consumers of adult entertainment are female, and many prostitutes are male or transgendered.

4.) She distorts the facts at every turn. In addition to extrapolating things about the whole country based on people who live in Boston, she intentionally skewed her sample populations. Also, the article itself straight up lied about some things. (Maybe don’t do your journalistic research about prostitution by talking to someone who hates prostitution?)

Via Eminism:

The article cites the 2004 study in American Journal of Epidemiology by Potterat et al. to indicate that “Prostitution has laways been risky for women; the average age of death is 34.” But this is misleading, because it does not mean that the average life expectancy for prostitutes is 34 or that the average prostitute dies at age 34. Potterat et al. are simply reporting that among the active prostitutes who died in the studied period, the average age at which they died was 34. If that is not clear, consider this analogy: average age at death for those who die while enrolling in college is probably somewhere near 20, but nobody would claim that the average college student dies at 20.

This might be laughable, if I didn’t think people would actually fall for it. The average prostitute dies at 34! We must save her from herself before she reaches that age, or her blood will be on our hands! But wait, there’s more.

The article also cites the same Potterat et al. study to say that “prostitutes suffer a ‘workplace homicide rate’ 51 times higher than that of the next most dangerous occupation, working in a liquor store.” But working in a liquor store is not “the next most dangerous occupation.” Potterat et al. state that taxicab drivers are much more likely to be murdered than liquor store clerks: the “workplace homicide rate” for prostitutes is seven times higher when compared to taxicab drivers. That is still pretty high, but why does Bennetts feel the need to exaggerate the already horrible figure?

Further, “the overwhelming majority” of the “prostitutes” in this study were streetwalkers, and almost two-thirds were recruited at sexually transmitted infection clinic. Other participants were found at HIV testing sites or addiction treatment facilities, or identified by the police. Thus, the study systematically excludes prostitutes who are less visible to public health and law enforcement officers (e.g. escorts), who are likely to be much less prone to violence.

I could play this game all day, but I’ll stop. I think those examples are good enough.

5.) She fundamentally rejects the idea that any adult person could ever consensually choose to be a prostitute, lumping child and adult prostitutes into one catch-all “victim” category. This is condescending to the adults who choose to be prostitutes, as well as counterproductive to helping underage prostitutes and other genuinely abused sex workers.

Via Tits And Sass:

According to Bennetts, when Farley says something, she’s “report”ing it, but The Village Voice wasn’t reporting when they tackled faulty statistics two weeks ago. (Bennetts endorses the 100.000-300,000 number that Ashton Kutcher himself admitted was fallacious and proceeds to imply that VV said nothing worth saying.) She includes quotes from CATW, an organization that categorically rejects the possibility of any prostitute anywhere ever choosing that work and has demonstrated a complete disinterest in approaching trafficking or prostitution from a human rights standpoint instead of law enforcement. These people are bad news for sex workers. Where were Newsweek‘s editors? Where was common sense?

6.) The article relies on anecdotes to support its arguments. They didn’t publish the actual study, because it’s “exclusive to Newsweek.” If this study ever makes it into a peer-reviewed journal, I will eat all my pornographic DVDs.

In the end, articles like this are harmful because they perpetuate the inaccurate idea of sex workers all being uniform, voiceless victims. Instead of convincing men not to buy sex (which is simply not going to happen) or stepping up law enforcement (as the article recommends), we should recognize the fundamental personhood and agency of sex workers. It’s not going to help them to get arrested, talked down to, or denied their ability to make a living. Instead, they need laws that will make their jobs safer, as well as education and resources with which to help themselves if and when they decide to leave the industry (all of which Farley seems to have little interest in, because that would necessitate accepting that they’re still going to do this job). Resources currently going towards law enforcement could go towards things that actually help prostitutes, like drug counseling, housing, job programs, etc. (This is excluding the cases where children are actually getting kidnapped and trafficked; I agree that the people who do that should rot in jail.) That Newsweek would publish this biased dreck as journalism instead of editorial is evidence they either care nothing for objective reporting, or have done zero research on Farley’s background.

Some people are suggesting a boycott, but it’s not like most of us were reading Newsweek to begin with. I think a flood of angry emails to will get our point across quite well. Happy ranting!

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    • Catherine

      I wholeheartedly agree with all of your points about the need for appropriate and responsible research methods. However, I couldn’t disagree more with your position. Admittedly, I am a therapist who has spent time working in advocacy centers with clients who have been abused sexually, so I am biased toward the viewpoint that the buying and selling of sex is demeaning to all parties at best and abusive in many cases. I don’t embrace the view that “boys will be boys” and that we should just accept that sex must and will be sold and that we should ONLY work to make it as safe as possible. I do, of course, agree that the focus should be less on arrests/judgment and more on the provision of opportunities for education, etc., but I think a great and longer-range focus should be on adjusting the cultural view that a human body is nothing more than a product for sale. Will there ever be 100% success on that front? No, but I don’t think shrugging our shoulders and turning away is a better option. Maybe I’m politically incorrect or antiquated for thinking so, but I just don’t think true sexual freedom is about reducing a person to a price tag.

      • Dove

        Do you really think you are risking being politically incorrect to say that you aren’t in favor of sex work? Really??

        I agree with your point about strategy focusing on the opportunities etc for sex workers who don’t want to be sex workers, but you, like so many people, are ignoring the idea that some people choose to be sex workers not because they have no other choice but because they actually want to do it.

        It’s the world’s oldest profession for a reason, and people who understand that aren’t simply shrugging their shoulders and ignoring it, but accepting that it has a place in the world.