Tag Archives: prostitution

SITPS.org: A Labor Day Call to Johns

From Sex In The Public Square dot Org, Friday, May 2008:

sex worker rights red umbrella logo only rights can stop the wrongsYesterday I’d intended to write a Labor Day post. It was going to be about the importance of workers organizing across all types of work, recognizing that we are all workers, and it was going to be the beginning of a conversation I want to have about why established unions need to support the organizing efforts of sex workers.

And then I read about Deborah Jeane Palfrey’s death and all that went out the window for a while.

This morning I went back and looked for last year’s May 1 post. I couldn’t remember what I’d written about. My breath caught in my throat when I found that I’d written this, also about Deborah Jeane and about my speculation that perhaps the exposing of high profile clients would help in the effort to reduce the stigma attached to sex work.

Obviously I’d been overly optimistic last year. While there continues to be the occasional exposing of a high-end john, we also continue to see sex work trivialized in the press and sex workers treated as criminals and victims and rarely as people making choices, sometimes difficult and sometimes obvious, but always from a range of options that is circumscribed by economic and social circumstances.

I no longer think that the exposing of clients is going to be the source of any great reduction in the stigma attached to sex work. Why? Because they always apologize.

They apologize by admitting their “sins” a la David Vitter or they apologize and resign their posts, a la Eliot Spitzer, but they always apologize, and by doing so they reinforce the impression that consciously and explicitly exchanging sex for money is wrong, and they reinforce the stigma. In fact they often refer to that stigma when they include in their apologies their regret for bringing shame on their families.

Note that they do not apologize for any mistreatment of the workers. They apologize for being clients in the first place.

So my new call on Labor Day is a call to the clients and not a call to the workers. Clients of the sex workers of the world: stand up for the people whose work you are paying for. Treat those workers respectfully and protect their safety and don’t apologize for paying for their services.

Yes, you may have much to apologize for:

Apologize if you have actively worked to keep the services you pay for criminalized.

Apologize if you have said insulting, demeaning or paternalistic things about sex workers.

Apologize if you have contributed to the shaming of sex workers.

Apologize if you have jeopardized the health of a sex worker.

Apologize if you have committed violence against a sex worker.

And by all means apologize if you have lied to your partner about sex you are having with other people.

But for being a client of a sex worker?

Please, no more apologies. We can’t afford them.


Links to sex worker organizing efforts:

Please add others in the comments on this thread and on Sex In The Public Square dot Org.

Technorati Tags: Deborah Jeane Palfrey, labor unions, labor day, prostitution, sex work, sexuality

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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.)

Technorati Tags: prostitution, Melissa Farley, Scotland, sex, sex work

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The Myth of the Liberal Media, or Further Evidence that the NYT is an Elitist Paper

Originally posted on SexInThePublicSquare.org – join us there!

I’ve always known that the New York Times is an elitist paper. Most national papers are pretty directed at the upper middle and upper classes. You can tell just by looking at their advertising. Million dollar studio apartments and thousand dollar watches are not for the masses, after all. And I learned from a beloved sociology instructor in college to recognize the significance of the fact that there is never a labor section but always a business section and that the Times has two “Style” sections a week where you can learn about the newest expensive trends. So it isn’t like this is a revelation. But today’s Metro Section really beats all:

new york times screen shot of headline emperors club sold an oxymoron high class prostitution

The story itself is worse than the headline. It contains stereotypes, overgeneralizations, faulty logic, bad assumptions and lots of other problems that I warn my students about. And aside getting the prostitution stuff wrong, it’s very clear message is this: don’t try to pass yourself off as belonging to the upper classes if you weren’t born and bred among them.

Where to start?

Perhaps with the faulty logic. Susan Dominus asserts that Emperor’s Club was selling a fantasy image of “Kristen” that didn’t match Kristen’s real life. Of course many sex workers do in fact shield their identities by disguising other aspects of their lives. Dominus must know that. What she is pointing out in her article is that Kristen’s image was one of upper middle class or upper class upbringing, and to prove that Kristen was not in fact of such a background she poses a series of what she presumes to be inherently contradictory statements:

that she was a successful swimsuit model who’d traveled the world (as opposed to a singer getting nowhere with a boyfriend who’d paid her rent, as The Times reported yesterday); that she enjoyed civilized pursuits like dining at exclusive restaurants (actually, she’s been hoping for work at a friend’s restaurant); and that she liked sampling fine wines (no mention of the drug abuse she’d reported on her MySpace page). The site also described her as 24 (in fact, she’s 22, an age that might have sounded dangerously collegiate to an affluent clientele).

Can Dominus really believe that a working class or middle class person could never enjoy “civilized pursuits” like dining at fancy establishments, or that a person who enjoys fine wine never abuses drugs? (Wall Street, anyone?) Are these things really logically related in any way at all?

Only if one buys the assumption that pursuits like fine wine and fancy restaurants are reserved for the upper classes. And only if drug abuse is somehow different from addiction and the Betty Ford Clinic only serves the masses.

Then there are the overgeneralizations:

Once the story of Ashley Alexandra Dupré’s life actually came out, it was a fresh reminder that the words “high class” and “prostitution ring” pretty much never make sense in the same phrase (expensive prostitution ring, yes; high class, no). This was not someone who’d been turned down by the consulting firm of her choice and decided to make an alternative entrepreneurial move. Ms. Dupré’s MySpace page said she’d left home at 17 and had been abused. She’d been homeless. She said she knew, at 22, what it was like “to have everything and lose it, ” even if she’d built herself up since. Her story was not self-empowering; it was, even in its scant detail, profoundly sad, all the more so because of her extreme youth.

Somehow because this young woman herself is not of the upper classes no prostitute ever is. Somehow because her profile fits that of the stereotypical sex worker she must represent all sex workers. And somehow the fact that she reports having built herself back up (in part using sex work) after having lost everything is not evidence of any kind of self-empowerment.

Sudhir Venkatesh is quoted later as if his work supports this overgeneralization about prostitutes but if you heard him on the NPR the other day or read his piece on Slate.com you’d know that he has in fact interviewed women who left professional-class careers for upscale escorting. I have not reviewed his research so I’m not attesting to its quality, though I think highly of some of his other work. (And I should note that Melissa Gira Grant has taken Venkatesh to task for oversimplifying things, too.) But he introduces a three-tier categorization of prostitution that would certainly challenge the statements that Dominus makes in this article.

My real anger, though, actually comes from Dominus’s acceptance of the term “high class.” I know that is the term that much of the press has been using to describe the escort service in question. But to accept its use and to apply it to people is appalling.

“High class” is a value judgement and a way of obscuring the real stratification of wealth, power and privilege in the United States. Why not talk about the upper class, the elite, or the working class or the middle class, which are much more meaningfully descriptive?

And why not come out and make the message clear:

If you aren’t born among us you can never be one of us and we’d much prefer it if you’d stop pretending.

The ad at the top of the NYT screenshot is for Loro Piana and the Americana Manhasset, shopping for the wealthy.

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Filed under Eliot Spitzer, feminism, Gender, inequality, New York Times, public discourse, sex, Sex in the Public Square, sex work, sexually oriented businesses

Spitzer coverage on Sex In The Public Square

Forgive me for not posting here for a while. I’ve been concentrating my attention on the other Sex In The Public Square and have been so busy that I forgot to mirror everything here. (Really, don’t you want to just come over and join us on SexInThePublicSquare.org? There’s a lot more going on over there!)

Some quick news about where I’ve been and what I’ve been up to first:

Last Wednesday night I was interviewed by Seska Lee on Audio Smut, a feminist radio collective that broadcasts on CKUT in Montreal.

From Friday through Monday I was at South by Southwest, where I presented a core conversation with Lux Alptraum. I also saw a great movie about bisexuality, a not so great movie about training of US soldiers, and some good panels on sexual privacy, 2257/2257a record keeping requirements, and creating interaction online. I got to talk with Cory Silverberg, Melissa Gira and Karen Rayne and Violet Blue in real live face-to-face space, and I’m finally starting to recover from the general lack of sleep. (More on SXSW later, I promise!)

I landed in NYC on Monday to a misplaced bag and to the news of the Spitzer/Emperor’s Club story. It’s been a busy week! You can follow our coverage of the story on SexInThePublicSquare.org. Here’s what we’ve had to say so far:

For updated lists of Spizter-related posts from SexInThePublicSquare.org click here.

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Filed under Eliot Spitzer, New York Times, News and politics, pink ghetto, prostitution, public discourse, sex, Sex in the Public Square, sex work, sexually oriented businesses, SXSW