There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest. – Elie Wiesel
I humbly apologize for misinterpreting the motives of Backpage’s management back in November; emails sent out to Backpage users at that time caused me to accuse them of “crawfishing” and “cozying up to the cops to avoid bad publicity.” Well, I’m eating my words; though Village Voice Media (owners of Backpage) did indeed tighten up the advertising content rules, it was obviously not done to get in bed with control freaks but to cover its collective arse while preparing for a frontal assault. Since the beginning of this year Village Voice has been increasingly vocal in its criticism of “sex trafficking” hysteria and the concomitant persecution of prostitutes, and is now prepared to launch a full pro-decriminalization campaign.
My first hint of the company’s true position came just two days after my criticism appeared, in the online “Blotch” column of the Fort Worth Weekly, a Village Voice property. The article, “Morality, Arlington Style” by Jimmy Fowler, criticized the Arlington, Texas Police Department’s “Scarlet Letter” campaign to shame men who were caught in prostitution “stings” by displaying their pictures on a billboard, and was called to my attention by the fact that he linked to my November 23rd column in the article. But that was (apparently) an isolated blog entry, so I paid it no further mind until late January, when Village Voice reporter Pete Kotz interviewed me for his Dallas Observer article “The Super Bowl Prostitute Myth: 100,000 Hookers Won’t Be Showing Up in Dallas”; during that interview Mr. Kotz told me that unlike Craigslist, Village Voice had no intention of simply rolling over and playing dead for the busybodies.
The next shot was fired on March 23rd in the San Francisco Weekly, with a story entitled “Women’s Funding Network Sex Trafficking Study Is Junk Science” by Nick Pinto; I discussed this story extensively in my column of March 24th, and eagerly awaited the next installment. My first hint at it came on May 26th, when I was contacted by Martin Cizmar of the Phoenix New Times and pointed him toward a few sources; he told me he was working on the story with several other reporters and that it would be published in late June. The story, “Real Men Get Their Facts Straight” by Cizmar, Ellis Conklin and Kristen Hinman, appeared late in the evening of June 28th and uses the widely and justly ridiculed Ashton Kutcher/Demi Moore anti-prostitution ad campaign I mentioned on April 16th as a springboard for examining the fantastically exaggerated claims of “child sex trafficking” fetishists.
First, the story compares the widely-touted “100,000-300,000 trafficked children” myth I debunked back in January with the police arrest records of the 37 largest American cities and found that in the past decade there were only 8263 juveniles arrested for prostitution among them, an average of 827 per year (roughly 22 per city per year). Even if one assumes that these cities together have only half of the underage prostitutes in the U.S., that still gives us fewer than 1700 per year. Ask yourself: Even considering the incompetence of police departments, which is more believable: that police catch roughly 5% of underage prostitutes per year (by my estimate), or that they catch only 0.27% per year?
The article then moves on to the 2001 Estes & Weiner study, the original source of the fabulous number; as I reported in my column of April 2nd, the study “guesstimated (by questionable methodology) that ‘as many as 100,000-300,000 children and youth [of both sexes] are at risk for sexual exploitation’ of one kind or another…this guess is for BOTH sexes, for ‘children and youth’ (not just children), and most importantly represents those at risk of some form of ‘exploitation’, not currently involved in one specific form (sex trafficking).” That “questionable methodology” (such as including all runaways, female gang members, transgender youth and those living within a short drive of the Mexican or Canadian borders as automatically “at risk”) was criticized in the Village Voice article by the University of New Hampshire’s Dr. David Finkelhor, who said “As far as I’m concerned, [the University of Pennsylvania study] has no scientific credibility to it…That figure was in a report that was never really subjected to any kind of peer review. It wasn’t published in any scientific journal…Initially, [Estes and Weiner] claimed that [100,000 to 300,000] was the number of children [engaged in prostitution]. It took quite a bit of pressure to get them to add the qualifier [at risk].” Professor Steve Doig of Arizona State said the “study cannot be relied upon as authoritative…I do not see the evidence necessary to confirm that there are hundreds of thousands of [child prostitutes].” He also said, “Many of the numbers and assumptions in these charts are based on earlier, smaller-scale studies done by other researchers, studies which have their own methodological limitations. I won’t call it ‘garbage in, garbage out.’ But combining various approximations and guesstimates done under a variety of conditions doesn’t magically produce a solid number. The resulting number is no better than the fuzziest part of the equation.” And when pressed by the reporters, Estes himself admitted, “Kids who are kidnapped and sold into slavery—that number would be very small…We’re talking about a few hundred people.”
Not that any of this bothers Maggie Neilson, Ashton & Demi’s “celebrity charity consultant”; she told the reporter “I don’t frankly care if the number is 200,000, 500,000, or a million, or 100,000—it needs to be addressed. While I absolutely agree there’s a need for better data, the people who want to spend all day bitching about the methodologies used I’m not very interested in.” Presumably it would still “need to be addressed” if the number were 827, so why not just say 827? Because, of course, that wouldn’t justify pouring millions down police department and NGO toilets instead of spending it on programs to help actual underage prostitutes (as opposed to phantom multitudes of “trafficked children”): as the article explains, “…though Congress has spent hundreds of millions in tax-generated money to fight human trafficking, it has yet to spend a penny to shelter and counsel those boys and girls in America who are, in fact, underage prostitutes. In March of this year…[two senators] introduced legislation to fund six shelters with $15 million in grants. The shelters would provide beds, counseling, clothing, case work, and legal services. If enacted, this legislation would be the first of its kind…[it] has yet to clear the Senate or the House.”
The article ends with a clear indictment of government attitudes in prohibitionist regimes and an equally-clear statement that sex work is work: “The lack of shelter and counseling for underage prostitutes—while prohibitionists take in millions in government funding—is only one indication of the worldwide campaign of hostility directed at working women.” Village Voice recently told a group of sex worker rights activists that they are behind us, and that this is only beginning of a campaign for decriminalization; this could at last be the public voice we’ve needed for so long, and I eagerly await the next salvo fired in defense of whores.