It’s common knowledge ’round these parts, and in every sex worker activist circle I’ve ever bumped up against, that the work Melissa Farley does is misleading, ill-intentioned, and downright vile in the way it determinedly misrepresents the whole truth. She’s a self professed “abolitionist,” meaning she wants sex work (and by necessary extension, sex workers) to be eradicated, and everything she’s ever done in this arena has been deliberately intended to further her point of view. This is not how real academics are trusted to work; like scientists, they’re expected to go after information in an attempt to minimize their own bias, not cater to it. And, as was true in the case of Ashton Kutcher, real activists deal with complex realities. They don’t require and supply a histrionic alterna-world where there’s only one story.
It’s always easy to spot the glaring flaws in Farley’s “reasoning.” She habitually ignores the existence of men who sell sex or women who buy it. (That includes porn, lap dances, etc.) She relies on emotional appeal. She draws from self-selected and otherwise skewed populations and treats them as definitive, expansive samples. She equivocates to serve her ideology. (Prostitutes are raped because they are in a job that “exposes them” to rape, not because laws around that job make them unusually vulnerable.) This is a woman who once called indoor sex workers “house ni****s.” You could play a “spot the logical fallacy” drinking game with almost any one of her articles and end up with your stomach pumped.
Miss Farley called us terrible names and accused us of being like toilets! She never talked to any us for her research […] We wish powerful women like you would stand beside us instead of against us. Many other professions have developed from slave like conditions into occupations we all respect today like wife, child care, soldiering, construction, farming, domestic worker and nursing. Why won’t you respect us?
It’s a question Farley is not inclined to answer. She’s very much in favor of dominating the discussion, and she often gets away with it.* She won’t acknowledge sex workers who want rights, because giving us the ability to better control our own labor is not the equivalent of halting that labor altogether. And now Newsweek has given her the floor.
Tracy Clark-Flory has an excellent take down of the Newsweek piece. (As is typical with Farley, Clark-Flory observes that there are “plenty of red flags early on.” That’s sort of her calling card.) Emi Koyama also made some excellent points. Both articles are worth reading, but here are some of my own concerns.
Farley is a psychologist, not a sociologist or anthropologist or policy wonk. I have no idea what training, if any, she’s undertaken on how to conduct an ethically sound, truly informative study. Given her perpetual reliance on individual quotes, which Newsweek heartily promotes as being as good as real data, and her lack of clear definitions—what precisely is meant by “aggressive”?— I’d guess her training is “very little.” Koyama points out that much of Farley’s work has not been published in peer reviewed journals. (Her last book on the sex industry was self-published; usually academics can find homes for their work at university presses.)
Newsweek, like Farley, also feels comfortable extrapolating a single city study to the entire nation. To claim that men who live in Boston are automatically “typical” of men across the United States ignores the fact that we’re a gigantic country, with a pretty considerable amount of legal and cultural differences from state to state and even county to county. But even making that point perhaps presumes some level of accuracy in Farley’s results, the methodology of which is so obscured that it’s hard to take any of it seriously. The “findings” themselves I’m quite confident you can guess at just by being told that Farley is an abolitionist: men who “use” prostitutes are aggressive, become addicted to anal sex, and frequently engage in cannibalism. (That last part is my own embellishment, but I fully trust Farley to run with it.)
Throughout, there are constant references to a “growing demand” or “burgeoning demand” for sexual services (all types of sex-related commerce are grouped together) without ever being proven. Ditto that for the “extreme emotional stress” of being a prostitute. The article’s author, Leslie Bennetts, loves to start a sentence with the assertions that “researchers” or “experts” or “many people” believe [blank] and never backs it up with specifics. Grandiose, unsubstantiated claims wouldn’t fly in my freshman composition course and they don’t fly here. D minus.
According to Bennetts, when Farley says something, she’s “report”ing it, but The Village Voice wasn’t reporting when they tackled faulty statistics two weeks ago. (Bennetts endorses the 100.000-300,000 number that Ashton Kutcher himself admitted was fallacious and proceeds to imply that VV said nothing worth saying.) She includes quotes from CATW, an organization that categorically rejects the possibility of any prostitute anywhere ever choosing that work and has demonstrated a complete disinterest in approaching trafficking or prostitution from a human rights standpoint instead of law enforcement. These people are bad news for sex workers. Where were Newsweek‘s editors? Where was common sense?
Some have suggested a boycott of Newsweek in response to them publishing this steaming pile, and that’s all well and good, but what’s left for those of us who haven’t touched the magazine since it was assigned reading in third grade? (True story. Their articles don’t exactly demand a lot of sophistication from their readers.) I’m going to suggest a letter to the editor for those of you who have the energy to do so: firstname.lastname@example.org Feel free to include your drafts in the comments for others to use or admire.