Home Activism Newsweek Embraces Melissa Farley’s Unscrupulous Crusade

Newsweek Embraces Melissa Farley’s Unscrupulous Crusade

Farley in action, probably explaining how all prostitutes are "slaves"

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.

When she argued against legal prostitution for The Economist, readers across the pond overwhelmingly rejected her shoddy case. Empower Thailand commented, movingly:

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: letters@newsweek.com Feel free to include your drafts in the comments for others to use or admire.

*Quick edit to add what Firecatkitty pointed out: Canadian Judge Himmel was, refreshingly, one authority figure who completely saw though Farley’s phony “research.”


  1. My favourite piece of Farley misinformation is when she reworded a question that was asked in the New Zealand Prostitution Law Reform Committee report:

    Actual question asked: percentage of sex workers who “felt they had to accept a client when they didn’t want to” – 35.3%

    Farley version: 35% “were coerced to prostitute with a given john”

    I don’t only wonder why she’s still taken seriously as a researcher, I wonder why she hasn’t actually been shamed out of the field.

  2. I equate her to fairy tales. I don’t read Cinderella stories and I don’t ready Melissa Farley. For shame on “Newsweek” for giving this blatant agenda driven fact-less drivel a platform. I think they should be required to change their name to “We make shit up week” seems more appropriate.

  3. […] Today, I read about a feminist named Melissa Farley who is one of those self-proclaimed abolitionists lumping all sex work into one basket, trying to eradicate the vice of sexual services for sale completely. Charlotte Shane, a brilliant writer and escort who contributes to TitsandSass.com, summarizes the situation here […]

  4. Unfortunately, there are many many people (like right wing/religious interest groups) who will take these statements and run with them. There is a tendency for people who are adamant about their opinions on X to only even listen to statements that unequivocally support their opinion. Usually you will hear the same tired falsehoods being repeated over and over (“Women don’t like sex!” “People hide razors in candy apples!” “Nazi’s used flouride to brainwash people!!!”) with no effort ever made to check primary sources.

    Our reliance on secondary sources is why making up facts, especially when it comes to publishing houses and news media, should be illegal. (Obviously, I’m not a libertarian). Relying solely on the value of the “reputation” of reliable journalism is not enough, and while I’m not suggesting repercussions for things like print mistakes, there needs to be serious consequences for people who continually propagate lies in the public sector.

    But that is probably not going to happen.

    On a side note, psychology might be considered a “soft” science, but even a first year psychology text book will stress the importance of internal validity in research and experiments. Which means, if she has a degree, that information passed between her ears at some point.

    • You’re right, and honestly any four year degree program should have turned out someone capable of better critical thinking than she is. I didn’t mean to impugne other psychologists or diminish the validity of a degree in the field. My complaint is that Farley mascarades as an expert in fieldwork while true, highly educated experts like Melissa Ditmore (Phd, Sociology), Ronald Weitzer (PhD, Sociology) and Laura Agustin (PhD, Sociology and Cultural Studies) whose education undoubtedly stressed methodology first and foremost, are treated like fringe characters.

      • Actually, I’d say some of your misgivings on psychology are well-founded. There is scientific psychology, of course, but as a discipline its a real haven for poor research and out-and-out pseudoscientists. Including, I might add, Colin Ross, one of Melissa Farley’s coauthors and somebody who strongly influenced her ideas on dissociation:


        “I have no idea what training, if any, she’s undertaken on how to conduct an ethically sound, truly informative study.”

        Farley has a weird academic background. She was from the SF Bay Area where she got her undergraduate and Master’s degrees, got a PhD from University of Iowa in 1973, than stayed in Iowa for many years practicing counseling (not research or clinical) psychology, basically not publishing anything and otherwise dropping off the face of the academic world for 20 years. In the mid-80s, she got caught up in feminist antiporn activism alongside Nikki Craft (google “Rampage Against Penthouse” for more on that). In the early 90s, she returned to the Bay Area as a clinical research psychologist at Kaiser Permanente and by the mid-to-late 90s was hawking herself as a “prostitution expert”. That somebody, even with a PhD, could be away from research for that long and still be up-to-date and sharp on statistics and research methodology is a stretch.

        I will also note that although Farley does occasionally publish in academic journals (though she seems to prefer unreviewed organizational reports or outright self-publishing), they are almost always either women’s studies journals or small journals specializing in the area of psychological trauma and abuse. I’ll also note that she only seems to publish research papers in peer-reviewed journals when she can find a co-author with a more respectable grounding in research psychology. There seems to be an inverse proportion between her being touted as an “expert” in the popular media and her actual achievements in her field.

        • Thanks for the rundown on her past. I knew about her involvement with Nikki Craft after stumbling on that “Why I Became a Prostitute” piece of garbage a few years ago.

          I also know that her first book on prostitution—which I’ve never attempted to read because, as a prostitute, it is a serious emotion challenge for me to be exposed to her writing—was published by Routledge, and I thought they were a fairly reputable press. But I guess everyone makes mistakes.

          • Actually, it was published by Haworth a few years before they were acquired by Routledge/Taylor & Francis. Specifically by an imprint of theirs with the wonderful name “Maltreatment & Trauma Press”.

  5. I work for an Academic Publisher. The reason she probably had to self publish was most likely the fact that her “research” couldn’t hold water. 99% of everything Academic Publishers publish needs to be peer reviewed to make sure it doesn’t damage the integrity of the publishing house and if it doesn’t pass the test it gets rejected. .

  6. What’s really more interesting to me is how bunched-knickers Americans are about prostitution in general. I recently spent four months in Italy, and prostitution is just no big deal–in fact, individual prostitution is legal while brothels aren’t (there are, of course, lots and lots of brothels; Italians don’t much care about laws and corruption is rampant). Italian men would laugh at crusaders like Melissa Farley.

    I think we should join them, frankly. This woman deserves less attention, not more.

    Anyone who can’t see fit to care about the people who do the work, to ask them to tell their own stories, to report those stories accurately and to respect adults and their experiences is a giant asshat. It’s shocking that Newsweek would enable this kind of empty-headed knee-jerk drivel.

    • Unfortunately it’s not just Americans. I’m in Ireland, and we’re fighting an extremely well-financed campaign to bring in the Swedish model, which is being led (as usual) by a coalition of church groups and Farley-influenced feminists. The media simply report everything they say as fact, while the voices of sex workers and their allies are almost entirely ignored.

      Regarding Judge Himel’s comments in the Bedford case, an even stronger criticism was made in the South African case S v Jordan by the head of the Psychiatry department at the hospital attached to Pretoria University. He basically said that her entire PTSD screening system was a load of hooey.

    • As tempting as it might be to look to Europe, especially Mediterranean Europe, as a refuge from this kind of puritanism, this sadly isn’t true. The latest country that is said to be considering implementing the Swedish model is, of all places, France!:


      I would have thought this kind of silliness and “woman as victim of rapacious male sexuality” mentality would be quite foreign to French culture, but that sadly doesn’t seem to the case, at least when it comes to the Socialist Party that is pushing this law. Sadly, this kind of legislation is being pushed throughout the EU by most of the social-democratic parties there who seem eager to mimic any and all Swedish social policy. Not to mention that Sweden itself has been downright evangelical about pushing this approach to prostitution throughout and beyond Europe.

      Europe, especially the European Union, can also said to suffer from “democratic deficit” in that, while governments are elected, there is very little mass participation in the legislative process, and instead big NGOs, “experts”, and political parties play the dominant role in making laws. This is true in the US as well, of course, but in Europe, based on what I’ve read, this is even more the case than it is here.

  7. This is chilling, and bothers me the most because we do need solid, legitimate research in this area, not easily discredited nonsense.

    However, re: Wendy’s comment – I realize that various respondents may interpret the question differently, but for me (an off and on sex worker) “having” to accept a client I don’t want is indeed equivalent to coercion (even if no physical force/weapons/threats involved) and I have unfortunately experienced it and am dealing with PTSD symptoms years later.

    • Hi Betsy, obviously the question encompasses situations that everyone would agree is coercive. The problem is that it is broad enough to also encompass situations that are subject to different interpretations. There is no breakdown as to why they felt they “had” to accept the client, even though the question was asked of sex workers in all sectors and with different degrees of control over their working environments. A sole operator who finds herself short of cash one month might consider that she “had to” accept an extra client when she really wanted to pull down the shutters for the night, but she may not experience this as “coercion”, and Farley has no right to impose that experience on her without her consent.

      But my basic objection is the sheer dishonesty of the choice of words. If Farley herself believed that “had to” necessarily equalled “was coerced to”, then there would be no reason for her to change the wording. She deliberately rephrased it to ensure that readers would put the interpretation on it that suited her own agenda. This is academic fraud.

  8. I just wanted to say thanks for the great work you’ve done exposing the lies that Melissa Farley and the anti sex-work brigade is pushing. I’m a sex worker in Vancouver and am worried about the a bill being brought into our parliament this fall espousing the Nordic Model of criminalizing sex work clients and am doing my best to organize some resistance to it in the midst of all this sex trafficking paranoia currently happening. Your website is a great resource.

  9. I’ve read the post and the comments, and skimmed Farley’s article. But to address Newsweek’s conclusion directly, in your experience, do men typically respect women? And by “respect women” I mean do they consider men and women equal? Do the men who buy sex think that the death of a prostitute is less important than the death of a baseball player? Would they vote for a woman?
    (I don’t know the answer. I know lots of men who don’t really respect women but I haven’t asked them how often they go to strip clubs.)

    • Relevant questions Peter, but they’re not especially relevant to this topic. Whether or not men “generally” respect women is a question that can be asked in any context. I’m not really sure what the strip clubs comment means either. I don’t go to strip clubs anymore because as a man with money, I felt commoditized and exploited when I went.

  10. Re: France and Europe.
    The french union of sex workers and public health groups such as act up organised a demo with more than 500 people against the proposal to criminalise our clients. The politicians were not interested and the media not so much either.
    One of the worst thing we heard from one female left wing politician was : ” All prostitutes are pimped and we need to arrest those pimps. And well, for those who work independently i guess we could find a way around that by saying that they are “self-pimping” and therefore committing a criminal activity and arresting them too !! ”
    What about that ? 😉

  11. Do you think the majority of women who are sex workers want to be? Do you think that this question is important in considering how to study sex work? Do you think sex workers who really do have a choice are relatively privileged over those who are forced or coerced and do not have a way out?


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