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 workers, advocates, 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.
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.