Melissa Farley in Scotland: Trivializing prostitution and trivializing violence against women

Melissa Farley and her fringe research mill Prostitution Research and Education have teamed up with a Scottish anti-prostitution group to produce a new ‘research’ report with the problematic title “Challenging Men’s Demand for Prostitution in Scotland: A research report based on interviews with 110 men who bought women in prostitution” (PDF here).

Readers of this site will understandably be rolling their eyes and groaning, “not again!” But it is important to remember, awful though it is, that other folks take Farley’s research seriously and that it deserves serious attention to help mitigate the damage it can do to real efforts to advocate for women’s safety and sex worker safety. Such ‘studies’ play to particular political positions, in this case pressure to export the Swedish ‘solution’ through Europe, but political expedience is not the same as sound policy. Check today’s Daily Record (Scotland) for the most recent orchestrated flood of bad news coverage of a poor study to support wrongheaded policy.

It is important to stress, again and again, that Farley’s research cannot be considered reliable and certainly doesn’t approach even basic scientific standards. The problems with the current study are many but can be summed up in terms of ethical concerns, bias and inadequate attention to detail in the write up. The write up is problematic enough that it is hard to judge the quality of the research, but the very clear bias is enough to call the findings into question. The bias also leads to the making of recommendations that are not proportional to the findings. Below I address just a few of the major problems. (Watch this space for links to critiques by other feminist sex worker advocates and researchers.)

Ethics and Methods

In the section describing the research methods we learn that most of the respondents were recruited via newspaper ads that read in part: “Ever been a client of a prostitute? International research team would like to hear your views.” We don’t learn what they were actually told about the study once they called the number listed. We do not know if they signed consent forms. We do not know if they were informed of the policy positions advocated by the sponsoring organizations. We do not know if there was any ethical review of the methods prior to the conducting of the study. Instead of any statement of ethics regarding the use of human subjects we have a long statement about the pain and anguish suffered by the researchers. While recognizing the subjectivity of researchers is an important aspect of feminist methodology, this statement is over the top:

“The interviewers reported feeling skeptical about the men’s professed ignorance about prostituted women, fearful about the possibility of being stalked by the interviewees, physically revolted, had flashbacks to their own previous experiences of sexual violence, questioned some aspects of their own relationships with the men in their lives, and at times felt the inclination to dissociate or drink alcohol in order to numb painful emotional reactions to the interviews. ” (p. 7)

I applaud the authors’ acknowledgment of the interviewers strong reactions, but the fact of those reactions causes me to be very skeptical about their ability to maintain, as the authors mention earlier, a “nonjudgmental and friendly rapport with the men.” Is it possible that the degree of revulsion felt by the interviewers is because they went in to the research prepared to be revolted, expecting to be revolted, and that they constructed the conversations in such a way as to make sure that the revulsion occurred? In fact, one interviewer even questions her own sanity for being able to participate in the research in the first place:

“What does it say about me? How did I manage to interview so many men and not lose my temper, not react angrily or indignantly with them? It is a comfort to me that I do feel anger now, and did after the interviews. It is a comfort to me that some of the things they said hurt me. This reassures me that I’m not some hard-hearted individual who is at ease with hearing about the abuse of women.” (p. 7)

While this interviewer reports that she maintained a calm demeanor with her interview subjects it is difficult to believe that all the interviewers did. And even if they did, it is hard to believe that, going in with the assumption that they would be hearing about the abuse of women that they had an open mind about the answers the men might give.

Of course the men apparently gave the kinds of answers that Farley’s team was expecting. Now, because of inattention to methodological issues and to the write-up itself, we are not given a copy of the 100-item questionnaire on attitudes toward prostitution, rape myths, and about sexual behavior and sexual violence. Nor are we provided a copy of the 34-item questionnaire about “hostile masculinity” designed by Dr. Neil Malamuth. Nor are we given a copy of the 64-item structured interview guide on men’s history and preferences around purchasing sex, their perceptions of prostitutes, their knowledge of pimps, and how they talk about prostitution with their friends. Since we can’t see the questions it is difficult to evaluate the findings.

Given, though, that some of the basic demographics can’t be trusted (the income categories overlap, for example, we don’t know whether a person with a family income of, say 20,000 pounds is in the 20,000 or less category or is in the 20,000-30,000 category) it is hard to have faith in the other data.

And perhaps the biggest methodological flaw, the one that Farley and her research partners commit most often, is the lack of any comparison group. We learn a lot about these 110 men, but we know nothing about any similarly situated group of 110 men who do not purchase sex. So we don’t know whether the propensity to violence or the misogyny has anything at all to do with these men’s purchasing of sex.

For example, the authors tell us that there was a statistically significant association between the men’s pornography use and the frequency of their purchasing of sex. They can say with confidence that among men who pay for sex, there is some kind of relationship between the amount of sex purchased and the amount of porn used. That may reflect nothing but differences in sexual interest levels. What we don’t know is whether the amount of pornography used by these men is at all different from the amount of pornography used by men who never buy sex. It is possible that those men exhibit the same range of pornography use. Likewise for the believing of rape myths, the violence toward partners, and so on.

Editorializing and unsupported statements

Another problem with calling this scientific research is the tendency of the authors to editorialize and make unsupported statements throughout the report. For example, in a section on men’s first purchases of sex, the authors note that for 17% of the men a commercial sexual transaction was their first experience of intercourse. Quoting one man as saying “It’s uncomplicated, it’s a good way to have your first sex,” the authors then dismiss their respondent with the unsupported claim that “the sex that men learn in prostitution – disconnected and unemotional – is the opposite of the sex that most women are interested in when they are in relationships with men” (p. 10). Based on what do they declaim that men learn disconnected and unemotional sex in prostitution? They don’t say. But it is hard to imagine they have talked to many escorts, who often put a tremendous amount of emotional labor into providing a connected and intimate – if temporary – experience for their customers. (It is ironic that the authors don’t note this given that they mention Elizabeth Bernstein’s work in the References section. Then again, there is no actual reference to Bernstein that I can find in the text, another indication of lack of attention to detail.)

Logic and proportionality

The authors find that, when asked, a vast majority of their respondents (89%) agreed that being added to a sex offender registry would deter them from buying sex (p. 27). They use this data to recommend exactly that policy. This is interesting given that just a few paragraphs earlier they note that “the men’s responses suggest that there are a number of equally effective alternatives that would reduce men’s demand for prostitution.” Why do the authors then go for the most damaging of the public humiliations? Precisely, I imagine, because it creates a legal connection between prostitution and sex abuse. It reifies the sense that buying sex is committing rape, which is exactly the starting point from which these authors began.

If cutting off hands were acknowledged by shoplifters as a reliable deterrent would we be pursuing amputation as a public policy? Sex offender registries are deeply problematic, and the conflation of truly violent sex offenses with offenses that might better be considered disorderly conduct, if anything, will only serve to ruin careers, families and lives — way out of proportion to the offense in question: the purchasing of a sexual encounter.

Why does this matter?

Deconstructing “research” like this is very important. Because this kind of work fits into dominant political and ideological agendas it is often accepted at face value despite its tremendous flaws. Policy should be based on scientific research and sound logic, not on biased research that simply fits into a political or ideological agenda.

Prostitution needs to be understood as a complex social phenomenon involving the exchange of sex for money in a multitude of ways and for a wide range of reasons. When we reduce it to “men violating women” we render invisible all of the male or transgender prostitutes, all of the women or transgender clients, and all of the respectful interactions between purchaser and provider.

We do no service to women, to families, to communities by accepting reductionist and reactionary analysis of sex work or of violence against women. There is no shortage of real research that looks at these issues carefully. Any of these would be a much better start for a conversation on sensible approaches to studying prostitution and the policies that control it.

(NOTE: This was first published on SexInThePublicSquare.Org – our community-building site.)

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2 responses to “Melissa Farley in Scotland: Trivializing prostitution and trivializing violence against women

  1. Excellent takedown, Elizabeth…and hardly surprising that Farley and her allies would exploit the usual mainstream pruiency and tabloid journalism to promote their “research”.

    It shows the collapse of basic fundamental common sense that a “paper” that would fail even the most basic high school standards of statistics and research, is being accepted as fact….mostly because it mimes popular anti-sexual prejudices.

    And, it’s good to see that real scientists and researchers are speaking out against this nonsense…let’s see if they get the publicity that Farley does.


  2. bluebell

    I’m confused by your post. I read the Scotland study and participated in public debates in legislative circles in Scotland. Melissa Farley is a highly-regarded researcher in field. From what I can see, you have done no research whatsoever. In fact there seems to be a cottage industry of people trying to make an academic reputation out of slamming the research of others, particularly Farley.

    We would be happy to take a look at your research, but where is it? Mr. Goodyear’s site is a collection of links to people, many of whom seem to share a career plan based on destroying the reputation of a solid and careful researcher. Their “research” is usually a literature review. I assume you know the difference.

    It is high time for sex worker advocates to prove their point or risk coming off as simple sex industry advocates with big vocabularies but no depth.

    Does prostitution harm women or not? Do johns respect or despise sex workers? Is legal status really the problem causing harm to sex workers or is the work itself damaging? These are straightforward questions that legislators need answers to. Attacking the only credible researcher in the field is not the equivalent of providing actual facts and numbers from peer-reviewed, standards-based questionnaires administered by highly trained researchers.

    Do the work or get out of our hair. We are working for public safety. What is your interest?