I’m trying to decide what makes me maddest about Bob Herbert’s recent op-ed pieces about sex work in Las Vegas.
It might be his use of a tug-on-your-heartstrings story and alarmist title in today’s piece, “Escape from Las Vegas.” In that piece he uses Amber, a 19 year old with a disabled mother and an abusive and drug addicted step father, who finds herself stripping in Las Vegas as representative of all sex workers:
Amber’s story is far more typical than many Americans would like to acknowledge. There are many thousands of Ambers across the country, naive kids from dysfunctional homes who are thrown willy-nilly into the adult, take-no-prisoners environment of the sex trade with no preparation, no guidance and no support at all.
They are the prey in the predatory world of pimps, johns and perverts that goes by the euphemism: adult entertainment. (This is a TimesSelect piece which means it requires paid registration for most readers, though I’m told that readers with a “.edu” email address can sign up for TimesSelect for free.)
Herbert is often a strong advocate of the kinds of social changes that would help the poor and reduce the amount of injustice and inequality in the United States. If he were writing about runaways who were seduced or coerced into the drug trade and then exploited and abused, he’d be calling for all kinds of social changes to help support poor families, to help improve education in poor neighborhoods, and to reform the juvenile justice system so that the kids who get caught in it would be truly helped.
But as soon as the exploitation becomes sexual Herbert’s solution is no longer to make sure that kids from disadvantaged neighborhoods or troubled homes have the support the need not to end up on the street, but instead seems to be to demonize an entire industry many parts of which don’t involve kids and are not more exploitive than lots of other kinds of exploitive work. That kind of irrational panic won’t help address the needs of people who are forced into sex work or the needs of people who choose sex work from a list of better and worse options.
Or maybe I’m angry because of his reliance on antipornography and anti-sex-work researcher Melissa Farley, treating her as an expert on the sex industry even though she shows little understanding of its complexities. Melissa Farley has compared Kink.com to Abu Ghraib, has written that there is no such thing as safe, sane and consensual BDSM, and since she believes that all pornography represents abuse and prostitution she recommends that nobody should keep or use any kind of pornography, and that if a person is involved in a relationship with a porn user that relationship should be ended.
Though she is touted as an expert researcher and holds a Ph.D. as a clinical psychologist, her positions are hardly backed up by scientific evidence or reasoning.
Then again, maybe I’m angry about the overgeneralizations and irresponsibly inflammatory and unsupported statements he makes. For example, from “City as Predator,” published on the Times op-ed page on September 4, 2007:
What is not widely understood is how coercive all aspects of the sex trade are. The average age of entry into prostitution is extremely young. The prostitutes are ruthlessly controlled by pimps, club owners and traffickers. (This is also a TimesSelect piece. )
Huge numbers of foreign women are trafficked into Vegas. The legions of Asian women in the massage parlors and escort services did not come flocking to Vegas from suburban U.S.A. (Also from the Sept. 4 “City as Predator” piece)
Phrases like “all aspects,” “extremely young,” “huge numbers” and “legions of Asian women” all keep readers from learning about the complexity of the sex industry while keeping us in a state of moral panic about it. That’s not a good way to create a rational solution to a problem.
And then there are passages like this one:
The women are exploited in every way. Most of the money they receive from johns goes to the pimps, the brothel owners, the escort service managers and so forth. Strippers and lap dancers have to pay for the right to dance in the clubs, and the money they get in tips has to be shared with the club owners, bartenders, bouncers, etc. (“City as Predator”)
Now, if Herbert were writing about forced labor or exploitive working conditions in any other industry he’d be calling, rightly, for reforms in the industry. He wouldn’t be reflexively linking that industry to slavery and then calling for the whole industry to be abolished. If Herbert were writing about the exploitation in agricultural work he wouldn’t suggest we stop farming. He’d call for stronger enforcement of workers rights laws. But here he’d prefer to say the work simply can’t be done in conditions reasonably free from exploitation.
Had he been talking about any other kind of exploitive work I suspect he’d also have been critical of the cuts in health care, education and job opportunities that produce the kinds of choices with which Amber was faced. But not here. No, because it’s sex work we don’t have to criticize other policy. We just have to condemn the sex industry.
It’s true that sex work is often exploitive and sometimes dangerous. Many kinds of work are exploitive and dangerous. It’s also true that within the sex industry the jobs done by the poorest workers are probably the most exploitive and most dangerous. That is also true of many industries. And it’s true that we should be fighting exploitation and abuse. It just isn’t true that to do so we need to try to eliminate all sex work.
If we want to help people like Amber, the young woman in Herbert’s op-ed piece today, we need to stop singling out the sex industry as a monolithic evil and start treating it like an industry. We need to organize workers, we need to fight for reasonable working conditions and we need to be addressing issues of poverty and unequal access to public goods like education and health care so that people are not forced to make brutal choices in the first place.
And if we’re serious about combatting trafficking we need to broaden our focus on forced labor to include all the industries where it occurs. (See this piece by Debbie Nathan for a poignant reminder of Trafficking Victims Protection Act often neglects those trafficked for nonsexual purposes.)
Email firstname.lastname@example.org to send a letter to the editor of the New York Times. Confront the assumptions made by Herbert in his pieces and challenge the use of “experts” like Melissa Farley. Letters are most likely to be published if they keep to about 150 words, are well written, have a clear position, and directly refer to a recent Times article. Click here for the Times’s own advice on writing letters to the editor.