Thursday, July 28, 2011

The John Next Door - Is Your Next Door Neighbor really a sex trafficker?

So one of the major issues with the 'John Next Door' article in Newsweek is that they throw a whole bunch of things together and call them the same thing. The article starts out by describing the men in the control group of the study as 'men who have not been to a strip club more than two times in the past year, have not purchased a lap dance, have not used pornography more than one time in the last month, and have not purchased phone sex or the services of a sex worker, escort, erotic masseuse, or prostitute'. There are two huge problems with this. The first is that pornography and strip clubs are included. I'm willing to admit that the definition of what actually constitutes 'prostition' might be somewhat gray, but I think you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who thinks that going to strip clubs and watching porn is akin somehow to visiting prostitutes. So why is it included in this group? And why does Newsweek emphasize the porn part of this so much?

The other huge problem with it is that Newsweek neglects to tell us that the reverse was not true. The group of men studied who 'buy' sex did not include any men who just went to strip clubs or watched porn, they all used the services of a sex trade worker in some sort of physical way - only the last part of the defintion 'purchased the services of a sex worker, escort, erotic masseuse, or prostitute' applied there. So Newsweek is leading us to believe men who watch porn more than once a month, go to strip clubs or use phone sex lines but have never used the physical services of a sex trade worker are a part of this study group. They were not. In fact, men who fell into this category were not a part of either the study or control group.

So why does Leslie Bennetts, the author of this peice, keep going back to porn? Porn is a major part of the argument made in Newsweek and yet it was not even studied. The authors of the study are not honest in this either. They have created a major selection bias - screening out all the men who watch porn regularly but don't participate in prostitution. And then they go ahead and say that porn is one of the main reasons that the men in the study group do what they do. How is it possible to draw that conclusion.

So they've got pornography and strip clubs all messed up in this 'examination' of prostitution. The other thing that both the study and the article do is make no disctinction whatsoever between different kinds of sex trade work and human trafficking. Bennetts devotes at least a good half of her article to anecdotes about child sexual abuse and human trafficking. The heavy emphasis on this strongly implies that there is no difference between say, an adult woman who provides sexual services through an escort agency and a 10 year old girl who was kidnapped and sold into prostitution (the latter is actually discussed in length, the former not at all). It's not even mentioned at all that there are many ways in which sex work is done, child prostition is really the only thing that is mentioned, plus some statistics with no citations that would lead us to believe that all women who work in the sex trade were sexually abused as children and started in the sex trade as children. This is simply not true.

Both the article and the study take the absolute worst-case scenario of children who were abused and forced into prostitution and then say that because this happens, prostition is a horrible thing. After all, who could say that the abuse and sale of children is okay? Well, of course it's not, but is this an accurate picture of the sex trade?

Child prostition is a problem. It's a horrible thing. But the people who put children on the street and the people who buy sex services from them are a much smaller subset of the entire population that's involved in the sex trade. And it's not really even the sex trade that's the problem here. The problem is the abuse of the children in the first place. The problem is that there are children who are not safe in their own homes, who need protective services, and who are not getting them. What is needed is more services to support and protect those children before they get anywhere near the street. Making prostition illegal will not do anything stop child prostition because having sex with minors is already illegal. If that was a deterrant, this wouldn't be happening. They are focussing on the wrong end of the equation and using these extreme cases to argue against something much larger and much more complex than this.

The other confusion going on here is the claim that prostition is so very dangerous and the people who engage in it are so very damaged that it should be eliminated. But this doesn't hold up. Bennett rarely cites any of her stats so it's hard to know if any of them are actually correct, but let's take it on faith that they are. She says that 'most' prostitutes have been sexually abused. I would guess that is probably true, but depending on which studies you look at anywhere from 25% to 60% of women in North America have experienced sexual abuse, so what is this really telling us. This is a sad fact, of course, but does it mean that prostitution should be illegal? Although I've never seen a study on it I would venture to say that the number of social workers and counsellors who have been sexually abused is larger than the general population. I would also venture to say that the number of women who work at minimum wage jobs who have been sexually abused is larger than the general population. That one just stands to reason - sexual abuse often goes along with a lot of other disadvantages and family problems and it's my belief that it's more those things that contribute to people ending up on the street than the sexual aspect of the abuse itself.

As far as the danger goes. Bennett makes again makes no distinction again between different forms of prostition in her claim that sex trade workers have the highest workplace homicide rate of any type of job. It is dangerous for sure but first of all, street prostitution is much more dangerous than other sex work so lumping them all in together is not fair. Secondly, the reason why most people get into street prostition as opposed to other forms of sex work is that they have no other choice. Third, if a type of work is dangerous, does it make sense to make it illegal. Liquor Store cashier was cited in the article as the next most dangerous job. Do we close the liqour stores because people are murdered there? No, we take steps to make it safer - we install security systems and alarm bells. If we want it to be less dangerous, doesn't it make sense to make it legal so that we can monitor people's activities and protect the people who do it rather than forcing it further underground where there's even less support and protection?

Underneath all of these exposition about how dangerous and exploitative prostition is is the seed that is planted early on by both Bennett and Farley that pornography is central to this entire thing, with an implication that if we banned pornography, we might be able to stop all of this from happening in the first place. This argument is tenous at best and not supported by anything reported in the study or the article.

It's hard to believe but there are still more problems with this whole thing. Next post will be about journalistic integrity and the lack thereof.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Are All Men Like This? No, They're Not

I'm back after an extended family holiday. I would have liked to been posting about this NewsWeek craziness during that time, but playing with nieces and nephews is just more important.

So for those who haven't heard, there was an article published in Newsweek on July 18th which reported on a 'study' just released that seems to show that men who 'buy' sex commit more violent crimes and that actually, most men buy sex. It paints a very distressing picture of men in our culture as misogynistic bastards who see not just sex trade workers, but all women, as their objects to use and abuse as they see fit. The article has got a lot of panties in a twist - I have to admit it had me going at first. But something in the back of my mind kept saying 'This can't possibly be true.' I understand that human trafficking and the sexual abuse of children and adolescents is a horrifying thing that needs to be addressed - but this all just didn't seem right. And so I went in search of answers and I was right. What Newsweek would have believe was proven by this study is not true at all.

This thing is now such a huge mess of controversy and the study and the subsequent reporting of it is so rife with issues that I'm going to bite off small pieces of it and make several posts. It just can't be addressed in one post - my fingers will fall off from hours of typing.

So the first thing is, Are All Men Like This? That was the title of a post on Jezebel about the article. In the article, the author of the 'study' is quoted as saying that they had a hard time finding men who did not buy sex. That sounds awful. It makes it sound like most men are using the services of sex trade workers. And yes, that's what the study author wants us to believe. But let's take a closer look.

first of all, let's just be clear about this, the study was funded by an organization who's express purpose is to eliminate prostitution. Just a bit of a bias, wouldn't you say? Secondly, the lead author of the study is a well-known anti-prostitution and anti-porn activist. Again, a bit biased, don't you think?

Now, their definition of men who do not 'buy' sex was published in the Newsweek article. It was 'men who have not been to a strip club more than two times in the past year, have not purchased a lap dance, have not used pornography more than one time in the last month, and have not purchased phone sex or the services of a sex worker, escort, erotic masseuse, or prostitute'. Okay - there are two big big problems here. First of all, why is the use of pornography and strip clubs included in this definition? How, in any way, are those things the same as prostitution. Secondly, and this is vitally important, what Newsweek does not tell you, is that the definition of 'buyer' was much more strict. It included only men who had bought a lap dance, or used the services of a sex worker. The Newsweek article leads one to believe that the buying group - which they then go on to talk about at length, also includes men who use porn and go to strip clubs but don't use the services of sex trade workers. This is where NewsWeek really loses their credibility. The alarm bells start sounding because they make it seem as if pretty much all men (because you find me a man who doesn't watch some kind of porn from time to time) are a part of this group that is then described as hating women, having violent tendencies, being more likely to commit crimes of all kinds but particularly violent crimes against women. But that's not the case. These things that they talk about are true only of the men in the buying group and those are men who actually used the services of sex trade workers.

The other major issue is, the selection process and criteria as well as the details of the study sample were not described. The sample was only 101 men and the control group was an additional 100 men. That's not a lot of men. Also, the men were recruited through an ad that asked invited them to participate in an interview about their sex lives for which they would be paid. Doesn't it make sense to assume that men who would respond to such as an would be men how are open and comfortable with their sexuality and have more liberal views on things like pornography and prostitution? It makes sense to believe that men with less open boundaries around sexuality would not be interested in participating in an interview like that. So there's a selection bias there.

As well, they do not disclose how many people responded to the survey as opposed to how many were selected into the buying group. The lead author simply says that they had a 'hard time' finding men who did not buy sex. But they don't say how many responded. If 200 responded and 101 used the services of a sex trade worker, that's one thing. If 2000 responded and 101 used the services of sex trade worker, that's quite another.

Another issue is that they do not disclose the questions that were asked. We have no idea what they asked these men in order to elicit the responses they got. They simply give us tables with numbers of men who had done this or that and a table of heinous quotes from the buying group. Oh, and about that table of heinous quotes, they also do not disclose how many of the participants made these comments. Again, if those 20 awful despicable things were said by 20 different men in that group of 101, that's one thing. If one man in that group of 101 said all of those things, that quite another thing.

The study, and particularly the NewsWeek article seem to want us to draw these conclusions:
- men who visit sex trade workers and men who never have but who watch porn and go to strip clubs are exactly the same and most men do at least some of these things
- watching porn makes men want to solicit prostitutes
- men who do use the services of sex trade workers (and who watch porn and go to strip clubs) are alarmingly more likely to commit violent crimes
- it is the prostitution itself that causes them to do these things

Not a single one of these claims about men is supported by the information in that 'study'.

Yes there are some men who do these things, but we know that already. The authors of this study set out to make us believe that most men do them and that they do them because they watch porn and use the services of sex trade workers. It's an insult to all men and it's an alarmist sentiment that it simple not true.

In my next post, I'll deal with the confusion and conflation of pornography, prostitution and human trafficking.