I skipped the debate last night – I was working, and then watching the second season of the The Wire (for the first time), which so far revolves around the discovery of the bodies of thirteen (or fourteen) “Jane Does,” who maybe (I’m only on the second episode, don’t wreck it) were trying to get into the US or were smuggled into the US for sex work.
I was working late because I was up until 3 the night before finishing a review (will tell you when it’s out) of Katherine Losse’s memoir about her time at Facebook, The Boy Kings, in which she makes a compelling argument for Facebook building their value on the digital photographs (if not actual leadership, or fair compensation) of women.
I woke up yesterday to a phone call from an old friend in San Francisco worried that if Proposition 35 passes with California voters, she’ll have to register as a sex offender and surrender to internet monitoring for the rest of her life – all because she was arrested for prostitution as a teenager. That’s thanks to provisions in Prop 35 that its proponents (like lead funder and former Facebook privacy officer Chris Kelly) claim will help with prosecutions for human trafficking: she’ll be forced to give her name, her address, her online profiles, and her photo to their database, or could face further penalties herself.
I got an invitation to a discussion of Prop 35, where a friend who attended told me a pro-Prop 35 organizer who works as a Silicon Valley HR consultant pled with the folks there to vote yes on the bill because she was scared her teenage daughter would be trafficked over Facebook.
I had a client years ago who told me a long and questionable yarn about the old escort agencies he once favored, where even after escorts moved on to the internet to advertise, the madams would still bring you – once you wrote a check to prove that you were a serious customer – a photo book of all the women who worked with them, so you could still make your hire in private.
Feminist author and activist Kat Banyard’s arguments against the sex industry (in the Guardian over the weekend) are so flat they could have come from the original GIF craze era. This isn’t unique to Banyard; I’ve heard the same shabby claims from many different kinds of people who also have no expertise in the trade, be they university professors, journalists, NGO workers, or policy makers.
So for the sake of having a handy reply, here we are – a typical anti-sex work argument, using Banyard’s words as just the most recent example of a quite exhausted line of thinking, set to motion pictures and annotated for your future reference.
“Commercial sexual exploitation has been industrialised, on a global scale, and the profits for a small few at the top – pimps and pornographers – are astronomical.” 
“You can’t commodify consent.” 
“The inherent harm at the heart of this transaction we see evidenced in the astronomical rates of post-traumatic stress disorder.” 
“It’s often argued that it’s just like stacking shelves. That it is ordinary work, just like any other work. But if you’re stacking shelves, is it a bit different if your manager says: ‘Right, before you go at the end of your shift can you give me a blowjob?’” 
“People see it as an inevitable aspect of our life that commercial sex is now firmly embedded in society, and the point is there’s an alternative.” 
“It’s not inevitable. As a society we can choose whether or not it exists.” 
 Figures on sex industry profits are notoriously unreliable, as the majority of what is considered the sex industry operates within a larger informal economy. Sometimes you’ll see the estimate that [the sex industry/sex trade/sex trafficking/sex slavery – it's never clear what they mean] profits “87 million a day” thrown about, which appears to be extrapolated from an ILO estimate of global profits from forced labor. That – as an economist friend pointed out – is about a dollar a day per adult male in the US. That’s not even a real sex trade figure, mind you. The exception is the mainstream porn industry, which self-reports its own profits – which are also quite easy to debunk if you dig a bit: here’s Forbes doing just that in 2011, challenging a report that porn nets $12-$14 billion annually, which is still not very much money using that “how much per US man per day” model. But you know, “astronomical” at least sounds big.
 This grossly exaggerates what is being sold in a commercial sexual exchange. Though it would make for a fascinating argument if extended to other forms of labor – can we commodify consent to offer child care, food preparation, psychotherapy?
Perhaps Marx has something to offer on this one?
 More astronomy metaphors! This seems to be pointing towards a survey of incarcerated women who had been involved in the sex trade from 1998, which was conducted by an anti-prostitution advocate who submitted this study as testimony before courts as evidence for criminalizing prostitution. A Canadian court refused to accept this as evidence in a case in 2010.
 That would be sexual harassment, not sex work. Feminists fought long and hard to create a workable definition of sexual harassment. Let’s not wreck it just to claim that sex workers, unlike other workers, have no expectation of consent at work.
 Here is where it’s not useful to make a “world’s oldest profession” defense. Instead, you could point out that the only significant “alternative” offered by sex work opponents to date has been prison. (Or a laundry that looks like a prison. Or a sweatshop that looks like a prison.) For opponents to sex work, an “alternative” is usually understood as an alternative sexual outlet for men, not alternative employment for women.
 We actually can’t, as a “society,” “choose” whether or not sex work exists. (What a notion, btw, “choice,” re: those who want to eradicate sex work! So for Banyard, “choice” is just a neoliberal fantasy when it comes to sexual expression and power, but when it comes to abolishing sex work and sex workers’ livelihood along with it, that is an unproblematized choice?) What “society” (which is not a flat object) can do and has done, through the power of the state supported by business, is to marginalize sex work and in so doing marginalize sex workers as people. It can, with the law as an instrument, coerce sex workers out of sex work. That is quite different than “choosing” to end sex work. But that is, from the code of Hammurabi to the brute arm of Giuliani, how that “choice” has been expressed. We can have no meaningful proposal on the “end” of commercial sex without proposing an end to patriarchy and to capitalism. Let’s stretch our imaginations, young feminists, shall we? It’s what we’re here for.
Nick Kristof is a big fan of workplace evaluation for teachers—so we hope he won’t mind if we gather and share the following by way of conducting a performance review of our own.
The occasion? This week Kristof and his wife Sheryl WuDunn’s book Half The Sky premieres on PBS as a two-part mini series, providing an opportunity for his audience to step into his well-worn white savior shoes. From this unique vantage point, viewers will survey the lives of young women whom Kristof and WuDunn have chosen as the best ciphers for their agenda, to, as the subtitle of their book puts it, “turn oppression into opportunity.”
Yet even linguistically, something nags about that title: one does not go from being oppressed to being opportuned—or do they? Perhaps a better question to ask is: for whom does Kristof’s particular mode of humanitarianism provide opportunity? Some young women may benefit, certainly. But NGOs, private-public partnerships, and other enterprising (and entrepreneurial) young do-gooders are jumping into the fray, too. All turning oppression into opportunity—but ultimately not doing much about eradicating the oppression in the first place.
When Kristof is not proposing dubious schemes for advancing women’s rights—like arresting sex workers in order to “rescue” them from prostitution, or enthusiastically supporting the creation of “sweatshops” to accommodate sex workers and other women in the global south—he is marshalling support for such “solutions,” enlisting folks from George Clooney to President Obama, and from evangelical youth missionaries to the United Nations. Everyone seems to love that he’s created simple solutions (Video games! Donating money! Building schools!) but few note that such “solutions” fail to address the deeply embedded, long-standing, structural problems that cause poverty and gender inequity in the first place.
Let’s not forget that although Kristof may position himself like a walking, talking, reporting NGO, Kristof is not himself a charitable venture. He is a media-maker: his job is to talk and get talked about. Each young woman’s story that he tells bolsters up his own brand; each solution he offers casts himself in a prime-time starring role.
Here he is beaming down at obedient-looking Cambodian girls, or smiling broadly beside a dour, unclothed black man with a spear, whilst there he is with Ashton and Demi, Brad and Angelina, George Clooney. He professes humility, but his approach to journalistic advocacy makes himself a celebrity. He is the news story: Kristof is visiting, Kristof is doing something.
In interviews, he refers to the need to protect his humanitarian image, and he got one Pulitzer Prize because he “gave voice to the voiceless”. Can there be a more presumptuous claim? Educated at both Harvard and Oxford, he nevertheless appears ignorant of critiques of Empire and grassroots women’s movements alike. Instead, Kristof purports to speak for girls and women and then shows us how grateful they are.
I want to tread carefully here: I do not accuse Kristof of racism nor do I believe he is in any way racist. I have no doubt that he has a good heart. Listening to him on the radio, I began to think we could iron the whole thing out over a couple of beers. But that, precisely, is what worries me. That is what made me compare American sentimentality to a “wounded hippo.” His good heart does not always allow him to think constellationally. He does not connect the dots or see the patterns of power behind the isolated “disasters.” All he sees are hungry mouths, and he, in his own advocacy-by-journalism way, is putting food in those mouths as fast as he can. All he sees is need, and he sees no need to reason out the need for the need.
Kristof’s ability to frame and deliver the world’s horrors to millions—in a way that keeps those millions coming back for more—seemingly should make him worthy of the hero worship that has attended his rise. Indeed, what is worse than a privileged bourgeois population that knows nothing of the way the other half (or rather the other 99 percent) lives? And yet the devil as always remains in the details—or in Kristof’s case, the lack of details. For, when exploring why Kristof has become a high priest of liberal opinion in America (arrogating the right to speak on almost any sociopolitical phenomenon, provided it involves an easily identifiable victim), we crash into what can be called Kristof’s anti-politics: the way his method and style directly dehumanize his subjects, expelling them from the realm of the analytical by refusing to connect them to systems and structures that animate their challenges.
All of the copies of Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s book Half the Sky were checked out of the libraries of nearby universities last summer. My students know that there are problems with the development and aid industries and can even offer biting critiques of celebrity interventions in aid programs in Africa. But they believe that they can do it better, that their generation understands the failures and can solve them, and that their intentions are pure enough to overcome the cynics. Their confidence is made possible in part by the examples of individual young Americans just like them establishing and running educational, health, and technological programs in Africa trumpeted by a serious journalist like Kristof in a serious newspaper like the New York Times. Kristof’s writing about humanitarianism in Africa makes possible a very limited but accessible form of aid by asking his readers to focus on what they can do and the importance of one individual saving another. So, no, I do not want to write about Nicolas Kristof. But I must, because he has claimed such an authoritative voice in conversations about Americans’ relationship to Africans that he has somehow made the act of writing about them an actual intervention in the lives of poor people in the world.
If you’re an African girl in trouble, there are only two things you can rely on. Your courage … and Nicholas Kristof. At least, that’s what Kristof would have us believe.
The story Kristof tells is the story he’s told before. This time he’s in Sierra Leone. A 15-year-old girl named Fulamatu is raped by her neighbor. This happens repeatedly, and Fulamatu remains in terrified and terrorized silence. She loses weight, becomes sick. Finally, when two girls report that the pastor had tried to rape them, Fulamatu’s parents put two and two together, and asked their daughter, who reports the whole series of events. They take her to the doctor, where she is found to have gonorrhea. Fulamatu lays charges against the pastor, who flees.
That’s where Kristof comes in… He argues for US Congressional passage for the International Violence Against Women Act, but his story suggests a more important line of action. The story says, if you’re Black and a girl, in `a place like Sierra Leone’, you better have the phone number of a prominent White American Male. You need Nicholas Kristof.
Nicholas Kristof has been issuing ad-hoc Presidential guidance on the sex trade for years now. The archive of his editorial column in the New York Times serves as a record of his proposals. In 2004, he “bought the freedom” of two women working in brothels in Poipet, Cambodia with the intention of returning them to their villages. Kristof wasn’t prosecuted under US law for the purchase of sex slaves — he wrote of this sale as an “emancipation,” and in 2005, he was back in Poipet to check up on the women. One had returned to prostitution, prompting Kristof to offer another round of recommendations to President Bush, pleading with him to commit the United States to a New Abolitionism. Now he’s back with his 2009 agenda, delivered like the others, as a kicker to his column. In it, he asks that the Obama administration pressure the Cambodian government to bust more brothels, on the premise that the risk of going to jail for selling sex will hurt brothel owners’ profits and will protect more women from abuse and violence. Yet such stings and raids are already the centerpiece of a disastrous crackdown on Cambodian prostitution.
The narrative proceeded in a familiar fashion: There were villains, even some with military ties; then there is a rescue. Kristof tweeted, “Girls are rescued, but still very scared Youngest looks about 13, trafficked from Vietnam.” And then, “Social workers comforting the girls, telling them they are free, won’t be punished, rapes are over.” He was accompanied by Cambodian anti-trafficking activist and forced-prostitution survivor Somaly Mam. Post-presidential niece Lauren Bush chimed in perkily, “Awesome reporting by @NickKristof as the (sic) raided a brothel in Cambodia with @SomalyMam this morning!” The trouble is, nothing involving sex work is ever quite as cut-and-dried as a sweeping rescue.
During the Egyptian Revolution, when the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof was wandering Midan Tahrir giving the uprising his ponderous approval, I told friends that if Mubarak wanted to get at least one pesky journalist off his back, he need only give Nick directions to Clotbey Street — the capital’s ancient red-light district — and tell him there were girls who needed saving. Such is Kristof’s passion to rescue misused and trafficked women that he would have dropped everything to head there. And given that Nick permits no struggle for human freedom to go on without him, the revolt would surely have been suspended, and Mubarak would still be in charge.
Kristof suggests that an expansion of bad sweatshop conditions (and despite relatively better conditions, Cambodian factories are largely sweatshops) is a solution to poverty. He’s full of it. His heart might be in the right place, but he’s stopped using his reason. The factories are not doing the job that development economists expected it to do from the beginning, which was to industrialize the country and expand the off-farm job base (and therefore, reduce poverty). Today, 91% of Cambodian heads of households still list agriculture as their primary employment, and at least 80% still live in the impoverished provinces. The factories won’t expand (indeed, as I point out, they are rapidly shrinking) just because Kristof thinks that the scavengers at Stung Meanchey dump could use a better form of subsistence.
If Kristof had ever demonstrated some actual regard for the complex and often contradictory desires, needs and behaviors of real women I might not read this subtext into his silly game, but he hasn’t; females of every age are simply props to him, little game-pieces whose function is the aggrandizement of Nicholas Kristof. He treats the real lives of sex workers as FarmVille players treat the existence of their virtual creatures: as things to be manipulated for profit and “points”. He uses the stories of girls to build up his own reputation, exaggerating their lurid details and reworking them into enslavement porn from which he reaps the profit while condemning others as “pimps” (talk about pot calling kettle black…) He participates in Hollywood cowboy “brothel raids”, then never stops to wonder what happened to the women he “rescued” afterward. And he no more bothers to consider what the girls he “rescues” and writes about might want than a FarmVille player considers the desires of his digital farm animals. To Kristof, individual women are as interchangeable and passive as endlessly-duplicated digital beasts, and our function is to stay wherever he puts us and earn him money and status.
Have your own “critical take”?
Let us know in the comments.
Anne Elizabeth Moore has been working in and around young women’s issues in Cambodia for five years. Her book Cambodian Grrrlhas been suggested as a Half The Sky alternative, for folks made reasonably uncomfortable with white neoliberal portrayals of feminism.
Melissa Gira Grant writes on gender, sexuality, politics, and more often than she would like, on badvocacy like Half The Sky. She is indebted to the sex worker rights’ activists around the world and in Cambodia in particular for their firsthand accounts of the damage this dude has wrought.
Well, that was frustrating. In an address today at Clinton Global Initiative 2012, President Obama gave his most elaborate policy position yet on trafficking, and used it as an opportunity to throw some red meat to the anti-prostitution activists who are jumping on the anti-trafficking bandwagon to get money and legitimacy for their activism, thereby necessitating my having to know who they are and what they do in order to report on sex work responsibly.
Here’s my rough-up based on tweeting the speech. Again, I am not an expert on human trafficking writ large, and I have great respect for the evidence, justice-based activism done to support those who endure and escape forced labor, and those who address root causes of forced labor. Obama’s speech was not really about them. It was crafted to hit anti-prostitution keywords and fuel the new Evangelical anti-prostitution activist base.
After all Clinton’s introductory talk of Obama the community organizer, I am aching for him to walk not just a picket line but anywhere in my own old work shoes.
“…happy hookers, says Kristof, don’t despair, this isn’t about women like you – we don’t really mean to put you out of work. Never mind that shutting down the businesses people in the sex trade depend on for safety and survival only exposes all of them to danger and poverty, no matter how much choice they have. Kristof and the Evangelicals outside the Village Voice succeed only in taking choices away from people who are unlikely to turn up outside the New York Times, demanding that Kristof’s column be taken away from him.
Even if they did, with the platform he’s built for himself as the true expert on sex workers’ lives, men like Kristof can’t be run out of town so easily. There’s always another TED conference, another women’s rights organization eager to hire his expertise. Kristof and those like him, who have made saving women from themselves their pet issue and vocation, are so fixated on the notion that almost no one would ever choose to sell sex that they miss the dull and daily choices that all working people face in the course of making a living. Kristof himself makes good money at this, but to consider sex workers’ equally important economic survival is inconvenient for him.”
That’s from Happy Hookers, my critique, in part, of feminism’s departure into special-white-lady-ism, and a critique made possible by one fundamental text.
Thanks to Bhaskar and Peter over at the Jacobin for working with me on this. And thanks to Sarah Jaffe and Mike Konczal, also, for the late Thursday night thinking-and-drinking that inspired it in the first place.
If you are reporting a story about sex work that requires sex workers as sources, and you find yourself blindly emailing escorts on the Internet for quotes? Stop. You don’t have sources and you probably don’t have a story. You have what your readers already have – the Internet.
Sent this Monday under the subject line, Village Voice: Stop child prostitution, MoveOn.org is now leaning on their lists to pressure Backpage off the internet. The email reads in part:
Dear MoveOn member,
My name is Victoria, and I’m 13 years old. I recently found out that girls as young as me are being sold for sex by people using a classifieds website called Backpage.com.
You can buy and sell stuff on Backpage.com, look for an apartment, or find a job. That is all cool. But pimps are using Backpage.com to advertise girls my age to men twice their age and older, and that’s not okay.
It makes me so upset to think that every night while I sleep safely in my bed, there are other girls who are spending the night being raped and abused.
Backpage.com is owned by Village Voice Media. They read the news—they know that pimps have advertised girls for sex in the adult section of their website, but so far Village Voice Media has refused to take down the section. That’s why, with the help of my mom, I started a petition on SignOn.org to tell Backpage.com to close the adult section so that girls aren’t bought and sold for sex by sick people using the site.
In it, an actress plays a young woman, and graphically describes her experience of sexual and domestic violence, ending with two points: “[my boyfriend] sold me on Backpage.com” and “I’m thirteen.”
What this young woman experienced is horrific. But does putting the blame on Backpage help us end this abuse? As Emi Koyama points out, reflecting on interventions to prevent violence, much of what is described as “domestic minor sex trafficking” overlaps with and might be more accurately understood as domestic or partner violence. How might our responses to the violence this young woman and young women like her experience be different if we took Backpage out of the equation? I’m sure some of the anti-Backpage campaigners would argue that Backpage fosters rape culture, but I don’t buy that, and I certainly don’t buy that alone. It’s an argument built on feelings and gut reactions, and wholly dependent on myths about prostitution (which is, and I can’t believe I need to say this, not rape).
We are told a story about rape and Backpage, and then told it’s a story about prostitution – not an individual piece of a very big puzzle through which, if we worked to understand it, we actually could end gender-based violence and economic inequality.
What do they say in the slacktivist email petition world, about choosing your targets based on who can actually make some change? This email might be better titled, “Village Voice, stop making us feel bad about not having a reasonable analysis of sex, class, and the law for so many years that we went in for this sensational mess.” The click-throughs would suffer. But people economically dependent on Backpage might suffer less.
Magic Mike isn’t a critique of capitalism, even if it is a stripper movies about dudes. “I don’t understand why if a guy is naked in public, it’s comedy,” asks Diablo Cody in an interview with Marc Maron many months before the movie came out, which is circulating again now. ”And if a woman does it, it’s tragedy.” Because sexism, okay, but also, because herself. Because a few seconds before that Diablo says she “wouldn’t be here today” if she hadn’t “put walls up,” if she had “surrendered to it.”
At the same time Diablo was blogging from her peep show booth in the Midwest, so was I, in California. I did it longer than she did. Am I a real stripper? Did I “surrender”?
Unlike anything else you can do for money, including dangerous things, in sex work, needing the money is somehow the dangerous part. And it’s considered a lesser motivation than “intellectual” ones.
Marc Maron didn’t ask me (he asked Diablo, a writer), but: I’m a writer by necessity. I get paid for intellectual reasons: I can’t afford to do what is necessary for me – to write – without it being my job.
“It always looks better in the rear view,” a former drug addict and journalist advised me once, on talking about sex work and how I did it, as a journalist myself.
“There’s no such thing as gonzo journalism in this,” I told the interns at The Nation at a seminar last week. There’s no such thing as “doing it for the story.” While you’re “making your name” as a sex worker, you aren’t: you’re making your rent. There’s your body, and there’s the story, and at least to start, they’re both in the the same place.
(A twist: in Sheila McClear’s excellent memoir Last of the Live Nude Girls, she recounts both the divey strip club she worked at and the way she wrote about it at the time for publication, but without revealing she had worked there, until she wrote about it again for the memoir.)
Diablo Cody and Channing Tatum, each in their own way, stripped towards Hollywood. Magic Mike stripped towards – it’s not clear, actually, at the end of the movie. He stripped towards love? Artisanal furniture? Maybe he didn’t strip towards anything. Maybe he just quit. Can’t you just quit and change jobs? Without indicting the life you lived and worked at before that moment? Without it being a statement? Without taking swipes at the people in the rear view?
The prosecution could still appeal, or try to argue that, as the Journal quoted their attorney, “if the website itself is not a place where prostitution is practiced, encouraged or allowed, and neither is a computer, is the room where the computer is stored?”
So the creation, collection, or transmission of data about prostitution in a room constitutes enough of an act of prostitution to render the room itself a house of prostitution?
What server room, hotel, or high rise isn’t a brothel, then?
I'm a contributor to TheNation.com, Wired.com, the Guardian, Reason, Glamour, Slate, Jezebel, Rhizome, AlterNet, and $pread, among others. I'm a contributing editor at Jacobin, and my essays have been selected for inclusion in the annual anthology Best Sex Writing.