Ira Glass

(Update: response from Ira below.)

Ira, hi.

I’m using first names because I feel like we’ve spent a lot of time together – on subway rides, on airplanes, in bed. Even at the peep show. That’s right: the first time I heard your voice, I was in blue leopard print lingerie, thumbing through the radio dial, and since it was a Saturday morning and customers were out doing better stuff than looking at naked girls (perhaps listening to your show?), I had the luxury of an uninterrupted hour with you for my first time. It was great. I loved your strange, slow pauses and carefully casual enunciation. In retrospect, it was a lot like the speaking mannerisms I had to adopt to be heard by the customers through the glass.

You already know part of this story. Back in 2010, your production manager Seth Lind (I can’t even type that without hearing it in your voice) emailed me and asked if he could run a photo of me doing a drag tribute to you on the This American Life blog. It was totally great of him to ask, and so perfectly full circle: I had started up a podcast in that peep show, the first podcast from a peep show ever (hey, it was 2005, we were first at everything, and rubbing elbows with you in iTunes was always a thrill – like that time my show was the #1 show three weeks running in politics, religion, and business? heady days!), and now, you wanted to recognize this tribute I made to you and your show (and for a calendar raising money for sex workers to speak up in the press and produce their own media!). I was smitten before, and now I was honored.

I hope you don’t mind the intimate tone here, but you know this: radio is perfect for creating intimacy. All those voices can just go about anywhere you invite them to, bringing in stories you never expected to even want to hear, let alone hang out with the engine off (or the peep show curtain pulled shut) to finish. Those of us who make a life out of telling stories, we do it because we all at some point had to fight to have our stories heard and understood. Even though these days more and more people have tools available to them to share their stories (podcasting, blogging hey!) the media playground has never been a level one. The odds are still stacked against anyone who has ever been on the wrong side of the mainstream tracks. Because no matter how cool the toys we have available to us are in this ever-expanding media playground, some kids will always have bigger lawyers.

This is what’s troubling to me, this thing where Chicago Public Media has (on your behalf) sent its recess monitors on the producers of This American Whore. I first heard about their show (where else) on Twitter, where they were using the handle whorecast. I thought, oh wow, it’s another podcast called whorecast! That was what I called mine! But this is totally great. They are doing what I don’t have the opportunity to do right now – no longer working in the sex industry, I don’t get to hear the amazing real life stories they do. So even if they are using a name that’s close to what I used to use, I’m so glad for them. It feels like a tribute. Our collective editorial storytelling calendar is tight, and resources are scant – I’m glad to have anyone pick up stories and give them their due.

I was going to send this to Seth, who was also cool enough to invite me onto his show, Told, and tell stories about my time in sex work. (How do you follow Kevin Allison doing a story about losing his anal virginity to a cucumber? With a butternut squash.) But then I thought it really should go to you, because you’re how this all started for me, anyway. You were there for me on late nights and way too early mornings in that peep show, where I followed your media-making maxim for beginners to be willing to be really terrible at it for a while, to give yourself as many years as it takes to figure out how to even tell a story. I’d like to think my peep show paycheck was the journalism internship I could never afford. It gave me the cash to cover those critical years to be terrible and get better. And while I was at the peep show, I went from writing on my own website, to being published in the (much missed) $pread magazine, to getting my first job as a reporter. It’s been almost ten years since I first went to work at the peep show, and I’d like to think I know how to tell stories (finally! I had pieces in Reason, Dissent, and Glamour in the last month, and I honestly don’t know a single other person who can say that). So thank you.

But – even though I first invited your voice into my life when I was half-naked and under (some really cheap-ass) red lights? I would never mistake your show for a show run by and for sex workers.

Can you let your lawyers know?

Thanks, your fan –

Melissa

ps: When I asked Torey Malatia what the lawsuit would cost, he said “it’s $20 for a 2.5 minute show.”

Update, February 6, 2013 / 7pm

Ira Glass responds:

It’s recently been reported in the press that we’re asking the podcast This American Whore to change their name. There’s been a suggestion that we’re singling them out because of their content. We’re not!

I’ve listened to This American Whore. I find them charming. It’s an interesting podcast and a window into a world that’s very different from my daily life, for sure. I’m glad they’re out there making these and hope they continue.

But the way trademark law works is that we or any business with a trademarked name has to protect that name. If you don’t take action when you hear about people knocking off your name, and get them to stop, you can lose your trademark rights.

Whenever we find out about any podcasts with names similar to ours, our lawyers review what action would be appropriate. Some names and shows are parodies, which are a protected class under the law. Some have audiences that are so negligible that they pose no trademark threat.

Last year, we had an issue with a podcast called This American Startup, and they eventually agreed to modify their name. In the past we’ve taken similar actions which didn’t get press attention. There are some other shows and podcasts out there still with names similar to ours that our lawyers are planning to approach. This American Whore is not being singled out.

I wish them the best. Make more podcasts! I’ll keep listening! If I lose this job and become a sex worker, I hope you’ll have me on as a guest. Just change your name.

by Imp Kerr

Of all the tech hijinx I covered while writing for Valleywag (missu), Facebook’s always felt the least inspired. Even in 2006, when Valleywag launched and when Facebook had just barely made itself available to anyone outside an Ivy, there was something antiseptic about it that felt so fundamentally disconnected, like whoever had built it had forgot that their business was actually on the wild, wooly internet.

Of course, it wasn’t. Facebook was in the business of our offline lives, and “frictionless” (right) sharing thereof: the business of generating wealth from and never really for its users.

Except. Except the users under its own roof. In the most recent Dissent, I look at Katherine Losse’s The Boy Kings, her excellent memoir of her time working as one of the first women at Facebook, as a way back into understanding that time, grafted onto my own overlapping years spent in San Francisco, and pointed at the question of, what really makes Facebook go and yet who is still least valued by Facebook but women?

Facebook, we know now, was never meant to be the product; we, its users were. Without us, the “product” would be worthless. Zuckerberg understood this in 2003, when he created the proto-Facebook site Facemash, built from photos of Harvard University women—Zuckerberg’s classmates and peers—and presented to users—presumed to be Harvard men—to vote on their attractiveness. In a Harvard Crimson story published after Zuckerberg beat an expulsion rap for violating students’ privacy in launching Facemash, two campus groups are reported to have opposed the site publicly: Fuerza Latina and the Association of Harvard Black Women. Zuckerberg changed course slightly, creating a site where he would not need to scrape photos off a server. We’d give them to him.

Losse herself was an early Facebook adopter, during the fall of her last year at Johns Hopkins when Facebook launched on her campus. Prior to using Facebook, she never associated her online activities with her legal name. “For women,” she writes, “there is no value in putting yourself online and offering yourself to strangers.” But women have long found ways to reap this worth for themselves, whether as fashion bloggers, porn stars, or attractive TED speakers. In performing some version of themselves online, pseudonymous or not, these women have earned their reputations and their rent.

Bonus extended mix if you want to time machine with me: the two Valleywag stories referenced in the essay, on photo-sharing site Zivity and the perils of “Girl Geek” networking.

Thanks to Sarah Leonard, the excellent editor on this, which appears as part of a feature section, The New Feminism, in the magazine and online. You can read her essay on gendered labor and Marissa Mayer in the new Jacobin. Another great pairing for the piece is Sarah Jaffe’s “Cost to Connect,” at Rhizome, which we were writing over the same weeks, and I dig the overlaps in all these very much. You should also see some influence from Sarah Jaffe’s piece in this same issue of Dissent, on being on strike from feminism:

Whether it’s City Council speaker Christine Quinn in New York City blocking paid sick days or Marissa Mayer taking the helm at Yahoo or Shannon Eastin taking the job of a locked-out worker for less money, we have to recognize that some first steps are taken on the backs of workers, many of whom are also women.

And so we are at this point, where all too many feminists see “saving” sex workers as an appropriately feminist activity but not walking a picket line with striking teachers or nurses or hotel housekeepers. When Dominique Strauss-Kahn was accused of raping Nafissatou Diallo, a hotel housekeeper, feminists rallied to her defense, but that support hasn’t led to increased support for hotel worker unions even as Hyatt hotel workers engage in a nationwide boycott, even though UNITE HERE, the hotel workers’ union, supported Diallo and protects workers like her from being fired for speaking out against abuse. Instead, it led to too many swoons over Christine Lagarde, who took Strauss-Kahn’s place at the International Monetary Fund.

As long as feminists are lauding the ascension of women to boardrooms for equality’s sake and not questioning what happens in those boardrooms, true liberation is a long way off.

The biggest thanks of all, of course, go to Kate Losse for her very sharp book. Besides the tech and boys and fame she made me want to write about San Francisco again, the barely bygone years between 2005 and 2009 – which she absolutely nails, cameras in the air and all.

It’s official: I just got the domain renewal notice, as reliable a memory trigger as any. I won’t run down the whole first year, but I do have a few remainders to share, items that didn’t get enough attention here (though I may have posted them elsewhere), highlights and high marks I want to carry with me into year two.

I was invited to be a guest on a houseboat named for Nancy Boggs, a madam who kept a floating brothel. Nancy was docked in the Rockaways, and after Sandy, is almost certainly lost.


Over the last weekend in May, I headed up to Montreal (thank you, the indomitable Sarah Jaffe, for making this happen) to witness the massive street protests which had grown out of weeks of student strikes, and in response to their attempted repression.

We learned a whole new set of protest conventions, from casseroles (trading the inescapable mostly-white-people-drums of marches for the simultaneously more familiar and more German industrial sounds of banging the pots and pans from your own kitchen)…

…to the habits of the Anarchopanda, who stands on the front lines of marches with students and cops.

I profiled Anarchopanda and his protest politics for Wired.

By coincidence, that same weekend saw the funeral for Montreal’s red light district, which has been targeted by politicians and developers to be cleared and converted to fancy lofts affordable to no one who currently lives and works there. The protest and procession was led by burlesque performers, sex worker allies, and artists. (And thank you, Seska, for tipping me off.)


In July, I spent almost two weeks on the road, between Washington DC and Dallas. In DC, I covered the International AIDS Conference, the first in the United States in twenty years, for The Nation. Though President Obama lifted the HIV travel ban, effectively allowing the conference back to the US, sex workers and people who use drugs are still not permitted visas to enter the US.


Those who could come from within the United States (no small feat, either, at such an expensive conference) and those who risked being turned away at the border to enter protested the opening of the conference, and took part in a large march to the White House alongside hundreds of other activists fighting the criminalization of people living with AIDS.

I was a guest on Democracy Now, talking in part on the failures of criminalizing sex work, drugs, and HIV. They also highlighted the Sex Workers Freedom Festival in Kolkata, where sex workers held their own satellite AIDS conference.

12 hours after leaving DC, I was on a plane to Dallas to cover Glenn Beck’s rally/revival at Cowboys Stadium, “Restoring Love” for Citizen Radio. I talked socialism with the tailgaters (Glenn Beck Parking Lot!), and overheard revolution at the megachuch. And I met the man who makes Glenn Beck’s custom jeans line.

At the end of August, I took off to Louisiana for a week to visit with friends in New Orleans and with the boyfriend’s family, and I did not write a word.

(I did start reading the first and only book of fiction I read all year, which I still haven’t finished, The Crimson Petal and the White.)

Most of my best end of the year news is still under wraps. Two pieces I’m especially proud of writing this year will come out at the first of 2013. And in December, I was made a contributing editor at Jacobin, whose staff and associates have been a huge critical influence all this year.

Here’s the last – in addition to those above, my favorite pieces that were published in 2012:

Happy Hookers,” for Jacobin tops my own list.

Hey Ho! Backpage Protesters Hit Village Voice on the Hottest Day of the Year,” for The New York Observer/Betabeat, contains the most improbable protest chant of the year.

My explainer on California’s Prop 35 (for RH RealityCheck), one of the harshest new anti-prostitution laws passed this year, was my most widely-read piece of 2012.

Organized Labors’ Newest Heroes: Strippers,” was my first piece for The Atlantic, on the last fifteen years of strip club organizing in the US (and with some of my favorite interviews of the year – Mariko Passion in particular).

I collaborated with photographer Fette Sans on an illustrated story about sex and loss and trains for Abe’s Penny, the remarkable postcard-based literary journal.

ACT UP and Occupy joined up for an action in New York City, marking the 25th anniversary of ACT UP’s Wall Street protest. I reviewed the new documentary on ACT UP, United In Anger, through that action, for Waging Nonviolence.

My only personal essay of the year appeared at Rhizome, reflecting on and documenting a performance project I launched in early 2012, called What Price Love?

The Peoples’ Library of Occupy Wall Street brought a lawsuit against the city of New York over the seizure and destruction of their collection during the November 2011 raid on Zuccotti Park. I spoke with some of the Occupy Librarians and members of their legal team for Truthout.

I lent some historical POV on the backbone of the internet to a Vice/Motherboard documentary Free The Network, on a radical tech project to take back the physical infrastructure of the internet.

When the Village Voice tried to break up with their sex ads (for the second or third time this year?), I demanded we “Socialize Backpage“ for Jacobin.

I wrote for Glamour quite a bit this year, which is really best enjoyed in print and on your lap. Fave: asking men about their kinks, which got a MMF threesome into this venerable ladymag. (Thx also, Ms. M.)

And for “DNA Database for Men Who Pay for Sex?,” for AlterNet, I finally got to interview anti-prostitution darling Melissa Farley. To date, this is the only time I have interviewed someone who called me back the next day, unsolicited, to continue.

 

On “the whore stigma,” from Margo St. James, early US sex workers’ rights activist and founder of COYOTE and St. James Infirmary, and Gail Pheterson, author and sex work researcher who coined the term. (Video by Scarlot Harlot, excerpt from “Outlaw Poverty, Not Prostitutes,” 1989.)

Lately I’ve been considering how “slut shaming” grew – unacknowledged – from the experiences and intellectual contributions of sex workers who first identified “whore stigma.” Slut shaming exists now as a critique external to sex worker feminisms and politics, applied mostly by women without sex work experience to describe the loss of social capital they suffer when assumed to be whores. What’s been lost is the centering of people who are marked as whores, in the assumption so common within attempts to resist “slut shaming” that being a whore is the worst thing to happen to you. So long as we cling to that notion of the slut or whore as the ultimate outsider, we reinforce whore stigma. This should be obvious.

Nine years ago, I observed the first vigil of what would become the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. Sex workers, friends, and family from Sex Workers Outreach Project invited us to gather outside San Francisco City Hall. Over the first few years, there were so few of us standing in that circle that we could all make eye contact across its diameter.  (I couldn’t find any media coverage of 2003. The San Francisco Bay Guardian covered the 2011 vigil in San Francisco.)

Here’s a photo that I love from San Francisco in 2008, the last year I lived there. It’s by Steve Rhodes. We had taken the vigil that year to the steps of the police station, then marched in the streets past the Federal building to St. James Infirmary, the sex worker run community clinic.

I first met St. James staff at the vigils in 2003, 2004. I got to go to work there in 2006, and stayed for two years. When I look at the photos from this march, I remember how easily defiant we were – taking the streets, no cops to harass us, unimaginable now. And in many ways, it will feel like how I said good-bye to that community, as someone within it. In a few months, I’d move to New York, retire from sex work, and focus on work as a journalist and writer. From then on, when I went out to cover sex work marches, vigils, and actions, I was greeted first as press. I met people who never knew I did sex work myself. There’s benefits to that, that I hope make me better at the job I do now.

This morning, close to a decade after we first gathered in San Francisco, I woke up to YouTube messages from the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers, Facebook updates from New Orleans and Providence and Los Angeles, and tweets from a march in Kenya. I read this post from Anarchafeministwhore, hitting that hard note that this day does: fighting violence against sex workers might appeal to people – even people who consider themselves allies – who mostly see sex workers as victims. Will those allies support sex workers who also want to fight violent systems? The police who ignore violence, the social service agencies who stigmatize, the rescue industry concerned more with their own numbers games, the so-called “rights” activists who still see jail as a solution to injustice?

In the industry I’m in now, I know very well that I’m part of one of the many systems that has done tremendous harm to sex workers, who daily publishes the names and addresses of people arrested on suspicion of being sex workers, who helps feed money and public support to the rescue industry without asking enough critical questions, who gets acclaim for doing all of this. So I ask myself questions rooted in values from sex worker communities: How can I take care of myself? How can I find ways to resist? How can I do no harm?

Tonight, people will gather for 2012′s vigils. I’m not sure yet, but I’ll probably be home tonight, observing privately, and writing and listening to this.

I’m finally reading a raft of sex worker memoirs I should have years ago, but didn’t. Those that populate the current pile follow the same arc: good white girls gone wild, took clothes off for money, “explored” their “bad” sides, “learned something.” They represent four decades of personal writing about sex work. They aren’t even all that inaccurate. They’re just more representative of what editors like than what sex work is like.

The book I am waiting for is the one where the author admits that sex work didn’t actually make her “interesting,” or radical, or different. That she crossed no great line.

(image: Sydney Biddle Barrows, “The Mayflower Madam,” for New York Magazine)

With 81% of the vote, Proposition 35 – a misguided ballot referendum that claims to fight trafficking, but puts the people it aims to protect as well as many others at risk – has passed in California. That’s a far greater margin than expected: 7 million for, 1.6 million against. Coming home last night from an election party, once the California returns started to come in, I was surprised by the volume of the online reaction to Prop 35′s passage: how did this happen? How did so many people end up voting to put even more people in California under police surveillance, into prisons, and onto sex offender registries on a night when the state’s three-strikes law was successfully challenged? People were celebrating the Obama victory, along with a record number of women elected to Congress, and those who voted Yes on 35 were feeling misled. At the same time, those who fear they’ll be targeted by it were outraged, and already getting organized.

First, on what Prop 35′s passage means: I’ve spoken with sex worker advocates, attorneys and victims’ services providers for people who have been trafficked, as well as civil liberties groups on the potential consequences of Prop 35. Though Prop 35′s advocates have claimed it will not target adult sex workers, or young people in the sex trade, we do not yet know how their claims will play out in terms of enforcement. Given how increased penalties for prostitution introduced into trafficking law are applied currently, we have every reason to believe that police will continue to arrest people in the sex trade, no matter what their experience is or how they got there, and that the increased penalties in Prop 35 could be used against them. In fact, this is exactly what happened in Chicago over the last few years as similar “anti-trafficking” laws have been passed, and overwhelmingly, it was sex workers who paid the price – and more specifically, trans women sex workers and sex workers of color.

Already, the ACLU and EFF have filed a class-action challenge in Federal court, on the grounds that Prop 35′s sex offender registry requirements are unconstitutional. They are not challenging the core of bill, which expands the legal definition of trafficking to include the vague offense “sexual exploitation,” and which creates higher penalties for “sex trafficking” than labor trafficking. But even without the sex offender requirements in the bill, Prop 35 is incredibly dangerous.

Now, putting this in context of the good mood around last night’s victories (and how hard it is to square Prop 35 with them): grassroots support may be what put Elizabeth Warren and Sherrod Brown and Tammy Baldwin in the Senate last night, and what gave us marriage equality and decriminalized marijuana in other states, and sent rapey Republicans packing (though, in one case, replacing a “rape is God’s will” Republican with a “the only rape is forcible rape” Democrat).

But the Prop 35 campaign winning should not be understood as that same kind of victory.

Prop 35 is a classic tough-on-crime bill, primarily backed by a single donor and an author with next to zero expertise on the issue. There is no progressive ethic here, no matter how many liberal Democrats and women’s organizations supported this. And I question what actual movement there is supporting Prop 35.

What Prop 35′s backers depended on was not a groundswell of support from people who want to support survivors of trafficking, or from people who have been organizing in their own communities to oppose forced labor. What they counted on was the profund and damning absence of grassroots support for people in the sex trade and people most impacted by criminalization – people who might oppose them – within the organizations they courted, including progressives. And they got that support: from the Courage Campaign, from Planned Parenthood, and many others. This might be the only ballot initiative in which the anti-abortion California Catholic Conference of Bishops sided with Planned Parenthood. (Meanwhile, the US Conference on Catholic Bishops are the ones who have refused to fund anti-trafficking programs that refer survivors to reproductive health care, and have tried to kill healthcare reform over contraceptive access.) All that should be enough to raise liberal hackles. But because it was about sex work and sold as “sex trafficking,” it was not.

What Prop 35′s backers really counted on was a shallow politics of feelings and fear. Who could oppose any measure to “fight sex trafficking”? Once the ballot was framed that way, Prop 35 was a sure win. But some of the over 7 million voters who ticked Yes, who were not familiar with the issues, now regret this. It’s a flaw of the California proposition system, but it’s also a flaw in the electorate, who, like the bill’s author, get their information on the sex trade from Sunday night movies on MSNBC.

This is also why it’s incomplete to characterize Prop 35 as a “moralistic” or “fundamentalist” or “conservative” win. Prop 35′s campaigners made as many appeals to “human rights” as many sex worker activists do. This should be troubling, and this can’t be countered with a sex-positive, or feminist, or even civil liberties agenda alone.

Because Prop 35′s passage isn’t a failure to protect sexual freedom, women’s rights, or free speech. It’s the obscuring of the real violence that people in all kinds of work face when they have little protection or control. It’s failure is in the reliance on police and private charities with absolutely no understanding of the issues, rather than looking for answers learned from first-hand experience, answers that could be found with sex workers & sex worker rights’ activists, labor activists (like the domestic workers’ movement), and (yes) those who support people who have been trafficked and who believe in rights, not “rescues.”

These people don’t need your “help,” California voters. They need you to get out of their way so they can do their work.

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.” [1]

“You can’t commodify consent.” [2]

“The inherent harm at the heart of this transaction we see evidenced in the astronomical rates of post-traumatic stress disorder.” [3]

“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?’” [4]

“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.” [5]

“It’s not inevitable. As a society we can choose whether or not it exists.” [6]

 

[1] 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 daythrown 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.

[2] 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?

[3] 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.

[4] 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.

[5] 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.

[6] 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.

by Anne Elizabeth Moore and Melissa Gira Grant

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.

Nicholas Kristof: A Collective Evaluation

The Soft Side of Imperialism (Laura Agustín)

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.

The White Savior Industrial Complex (Teju Cole)

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.

Be Aware: Nick Kristof’s Anti-Politics (Elliott Prasse-Freeman)

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.

Mr. Kristof, I Presume? (Kathryn Mathers)

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.

You need Nicholas Kristof (Dan Moshenberg)

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.

Obama, Please Ignore Kristof For Now (Melissa Gira Grant)

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.

Nick Kristof to the rescue! (Irin Carmon)

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.

The Rescue Industry (Paper Bird)

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.

A human trafficker defends Cambodian sweatshops (Erik W Davis)

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.

FarmVille (Maggie McNeill)

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 Grrrl has 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.