If You Can’t Accept Facts, You Can’t Be An Ally

by Charlotte Shane on July 5, 2011 · 15 comments

in Activism, Prostitution, Trafficking

A lot of sex workers and sex worker activists had trouble enjoying their July 4th weekend thanks to Ashton Kutcher, who has been waging war against The Village Voice for airing its concerns about his anti-trafficking efforts and misinformation campaign. On almost every non-sex worker helmed website that covered this story, comments consisted of the claims that 1) misinformation is unimportant, irrelevant, or even justified if it’s for a good cause and 2) anyone who criticizes misinformation in the name of a good cause is necessarily against the good cause. In this specific case, that means critics of Kutcher’s bad stats are in favor of child prostitution. (Fun sarcastic commenter’s summation of this position can be found here.) Some have made the similar assertion that Kutcher’s careless campaigning is a good thing because it’s “gotten people talking” about the issue, as if any incidental end justifies the means, or all discussion is automatically beneficial. Judging from what internet “talking” I saw, lots of self-righteous, under-educated people are feeling even more morally superior than they did before, and many experts and activists feel even more discouraged and devalued.

Being unconcerned with facts is just plain bad activism. If you can’t be bothered with the details of the problem, you can’t be trusted with the formulation of an appropriate solution. Advocating the use of false facts is breathtakingly irresponsible, dishonest, unethical, and damaging to one’s own cause—if the cause is truly improving the lives of a disadvantaged group of people (sex trafficking victims; children; sex trafficked children) and not, say, eradicating the practice of prostitution entirely for people of every age by any means available.

I’ve written before about how reckless and poorly researched many trafficking campaigns and news stories are. Contrary to The Village Voice‘s claims that the most commonly quoted statistics have “never been contested,” they’ve been decried and disproved by many sex workersadvocates, allies, and even the occasional mainstream journalist for years. (In England, too. And Jessica Land dug up an article from 2004 that examines abolitionist Linda Smith’s anti-trafficking efforts, a topic the Voice also addresses.) But these justified criticisms have never gained the traction of overblown numbers and off-the-cuff claims, a state of affairs to which Ashton Kutcher and his supporters seem tenaciously attached.

There’s not much of a debate here when it comes to the facts—probably because facts are, by definition, not debatable. Kutcher himself admitted that the 100,00-300,000 trafficked children number at the heart of this firestorm is not accurate, and that he misspoke when he quoted it on Piers Morgan’s show. Somehow, his foundation’s website still states definitively: “In just the United States, between 100,000 and 300,000 children are enslaved and sold for sex. [Emphasis in the original.]” Let’s not hold our breath for that to be corrected any time soon.

Perhaps Kutcher is bristling at the Voice’s reveal that he and his wife immediately hired “celebrity charity consultants” after deciding that “girl” sex trafficking would be their signature cause. (As Jenny Demilo has pointed out, Kutcher seems to either not realize boys can also be sexually exploited or not to care.) That consultant, Maggie Neilson, is excellent at maintaining her celebrities’ celebrity but apparently not so concerned with accuracy. She told a reporter on record that “people who want to spend all day bitching about the methodologies used I’m not very interested in” because she doesn’t care what the real number is. And why should she? She’s hired to make her clients look good, not to make sure they’re acting effectively for those they’re claiming to represent.

Y u no recognize Kutch as girl savior, autofill?

Kutcher finally abandoned the platform of twitter to craft a longer length response which begins with a stated interest in ending his dispute with the Voice only to promptly devolve into accusations of the publication supporting trafficking because it’s so profitable. Bizarrely, he accuses them of reducing trafficking to an “under-age issue” when that’s always been his angle (“girls, girls, girls,” remember, Ashton?) He then goes on to say he’s got no problem with them criticizing his ad campaign or with their commitment to coming up with better statistics for trafficking. He’s only offended because the Voice is motivated by, in Kutcher’s figuration, profits from trafficking. (So if they’d never written the article, he wouldn’t have had a problem with their ill-gotten gains?)

I am incredibly grateful to The Village Voice for their story, but they blew the whistle on something sex workers already knew, and it hurts that they didn’t acknowledge what we were saying for months: Kutcher and Moore aren’t interested in being allies, they’re interested in being heroes, and those two desires are mutually exclusive. Their crusade is a personal one driven by hubris and narcissism, disingenuous at its core. Kutcher doesn’t address the Voice’s claim that the money he raises doesn’t go into shelters or outreach programs for youth. Instead, he claims to “support” one such outreach center in LA where, he implies, all the girls were pimped out on The Village Voice‘s Backpage.com. But we aren’t told if this support is financial and if it is, what percentage of the collected funds it constitutes.

Last and, as usual, least in this conversation, there are the muffled voices of true activists requesting, demanding, and begging to be included. Because of the predictable conflation with all forms of prostitution, any discussion of trafficking will impact sex workers regardless of age, gender, or consent. I know I’m not the only one who felt increasingly angry and disheartened by every AK/VV article I read. I also experienced a emotion I hadn’t felt in some time: fear. Fear over the inability to be heard in a world that will hate me because of my work. Fear resulting from a lack of control over my own labor, from the overwhelming crush of stigma, from the ignorance of a celebrity advocating ID requirements for adults working in an illegal profession where arrest may mean the inability to hold a straight job or separation from one’s children.

Kutcher’s response to the Voice‘s criticisms and his overwhelming support from an uneducated public reminded me that in this world, at this time, my experience as a sex worker and sex worker activist mean less than the words of an actor who claims to have studied the topic for a mere two years and less even than a random internet commenter who conjures some wild claims out of thin air. (How many times has the sole sex worker  in an internet debate been shouted down by hysterical civilians insisting that 90% of the sex working population is there because of force?)

Ashton, you have a powerful platform at your disposal. Could you, for once, use it not to amplify your own voice but rather to cede the spotlight to those who have made this their life’s work? Right now, you’re not listening. You’re yelling. But people who care listen. They never stop listening, especially when someone tells them they’re getting it all wrong. For you, this is a vanity project. For many of us, this is our lives.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Jessica Land July 5, 2011 at 10:12 am

Excellent article! I look forward to checking in throughout the day and reading more.


Jenny DeMilo July 5, 2011 at 10:25 am

You nailed is Miss Shane. Its been so hard for me to put int words all the things ive been feeling over this situation, but you did. I’m impressed and grateful.


Maggie McNeill July 5, 2011 at 1:15 pm

Charlotte, I agree with Jenny; this is a lucid and impressive article which does a fine job of summing up what I daresay are the feelings shared by most of us on this issue.


MUFF July 5, 2011 at 1:48 pm

If Kutcher really spent two years talking to ‘anti-trafficking experts’ (as he claims) and still ended up trotting out the same set of falsehoods and exaggerations that have already been discredited a dozen times over, then either he’s dishonest or he’s been talking to the wrong ‘experts’.

I say ‘or’, but there’s no reason why it couldn’t be ‘and’.


jd July 5, 2011 at 3:31 pm

Someone needs to make a website called getrealashtonkutcher.com and have Charlie Sheen comment on it. Or get some celebrity to it that people recognize. There was a local juvenile prostitution effort here but the owners of it preferred to conflate adult prostitution with juvenile prostitution to inflate their numbers.

The facts should be obvious but they are not. In a country where the puritan ethic is giving way to acceptance of gay marriage one would think consensual pay for sex between adults would be just as or more acceptable.

Until prostitutes organize a little more and give out negative vibes to the underage ones and discourage them then not too many people will take sex workers seriously. That means informing the authorities of underage activity.


Tamarind July 7, 2011 at 11:38 am

“That means informing the authorities of underage activity.”

The only “underage activity” of “sex workers” is rape.

Rape of a minor falls broadly under local mandatory reporting laws.


Charlotte Shane July 5, 2011 at 4:02 pm

Thank you, Maggie and Jenny, for dropping by and for your own fierce posts!

jd, you keep making comments about “people” relating to adult, consenting sex workers. As I asked you before, who are these people you’re referring to? It seems to me like you’re speaking for yourself only but don’t feel comfortable admitting it. Adult prostitutes are not responsible for underage prostitutes and as stigmatized criminals, they are in a poor position to speak to the police for *any* reason. It’s completely insulting and irrational for you to claim this is their responsibility, particularly when clients are far more likely to be interacting with these underage girls, and I don’t see you exhorting them to pop into the local police station to share their info.
I get the feeling you’re pretty new to (or purposefully uneducated on?) this topic or you’d already be aware that sex workers and sex worker activists are usually rendered incapable of talking about other issues by the constant demands that they disavow things no one approves of publicly, like underage sex workers or trafficking. It is a waste of time and it’s a gambit used by abolitionists to avoid talking about sex work with nuance and honesty. Before you comment again, please read this: http://titsandsass.com/?p=2791 If you can’t bother to put a little more thought into what you write, we are not going to bother to publish it.


Belle de Jour July 5, 2011 at 5:09 pm

Kutcher’s stance supported by Family Research Council (http://www.frcblog.com/2011/07/ashton-kutcher%E2%80%99s-tweet-tirade-against-the-village-voice-on-child-prostitution/) who are regarded by many as a hate group (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Family_Research_Council#Statements_on_homosexuality). The FRC one of the main contributors (http://sexonomics-uk.blogspot.com/2011/05/whose-agenda-is-it-anyway.html) to Witherspoon Institute’s “research” on trafficking and pornography (http://www.socialcostsofpornography.org) with significant input from Patrick Fagan of The Heritage Foundation – you know, those people whose work inspired Reagan’s covert Cold War military actions (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Heritage_Foundation). Their publication encourages celebrities to “use the bully pulpit” and abuses suspiciously similar dodgy statistics as Kutcher’s campaign.

I guess my question now is, why are Kutcher’s millions of fans seemingly totally okay with his implied links to the far-right hawkish Christian lobbyists? I mean, That 70s Show was good, but it wasn’t *that* good.


Gorbachev July 6, 2011 at 7:11 pm

This had what the prohibitionists miss: it had clarity and lucidity.

No hyperbole or moral incriminations unjustified by facts.


Rebecca July 8, 2011 at 12:52 am

Let’s be honest here. It’s not Ashton Kutcher “yelling over” the true activists. Its not as if there’s some limit on the amount of hours that can be spent discussing sex slavery. People just don’t necessarily pay attention to an issue unless a celebrity is telling them to. While I agree that that’s not a great thing, its a fact that non-profits and activists have to accept when trying to help a cause. Maybe these activists that you mention could try to team up with Ashton Kutcher and actually make a difference. Even if there are “only” 8,000 child sex slaves, that’s still a problem. And slavery isn’t the only issue, the average age that sex workers enter the industry is 12-14.

Its hard to say that legalizing prostitution (an idea which jd touched on) and child sex slavery are the issue. We shouldn’t let our more liberated ideas about sex cloud the issue.

More– http://www.gems-girls.org/


Charlotte Shane July 8, 2011 at 8:34 am

Rebecca, I endorse your suggestion that we “be honest” and that’s precisely why I wrote what I did. I am quite certain that sex worker activists would have been and would still be thrilled to be invited to participate and inform Mr. Kutcher in his campaign. However, I do not know how you expect them to force themselves on him. If he had wanted to find and include (or rather, if his “philanthropy consultants” had wanted to find and include) these women—and men—he/they could have. Short of tweeting at him and writing articles, I’m not sure what more you suggest they do to get his attention. I also would ask that you read Laura Agustin, one of the most inspiring and original women studying trafficking issues today, and her account of how exactly Kutcher responded when she, an actual trafficking expert, met his dilettante self at a trafficking panel: http://www.lauraagustin.com/only-playing-stupid-about-sex-trafficking-pull-the-other-one-ashton

I don’t understand how you can say that people often only pay attention if a celebrity is speaking, then try to pretend that Kutcher’s voice equals that of true activists, none of whom are celebrities. (Side note: I sincerely appreciate you making that “true” distinction.) If we’re being honest, then I don’t see how you can seriously claim that if you’re Jennifer Aniston and I’m Suzy Hooker, you aren’t capable of “yelling over” me just by virtue of your celebrity.

I don’t understand your last paragraph full stop. It’s clear to me that’s what’s clouding the issue are false numbers and hysteria, not “liberated ideas about sex.”


Bruce Boston December 26, 2015 at 3:30 pm

“Actually, as explained in an amicus curiae brief filed by the Cato Institute, Reason Foundation, and DKT Liberty Project, citing voluminous governmental and academic studies, there are no reliable statistics on which Sheriff Dart could base a judgment that sex trafficking has been increasing in the United States.”
Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 15 C 6340 — John J. Tharp, Jr., Judge.


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