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Archive for September 19th, 2012

Learning.  The kind of ignorance distinguishing the studious.  –  Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

What drives so many economists to write half-witted, misinformed papers about sex work?  Clearly, these aren’t stupid people, and one would imagine it would be impossible to get through graduate school without some understanding of the basics of research; some of them even seem motivated by a genuine (and laudable) desire to explore the facts about prostitution rather than simply accepting anti-whore dogma.  So why do most of them choose to ignore the ample research which already exists and eschew interviewing any of the many sex worker activists who can be found with a simple Google search?  Barely a week goes by that I don’t get emails from reporters, academics, lawyers and others with questions about the topic, and I’m only one of dozens who could clear up these scholars’ misconceptions before they even start…yet they prefer to ignore us and make asses of themselves instead.  In just the past year we’ve seen Yeoman and Mars’ “sex robot” nonsense and Lee & Persson’s horrible combination of the Swedish & Nevada models, both of which reveal a total lack of interdisciplinary research by accepting “sex trafficking” hysteria as factual; we also saw that gypsy-whore foolishness from Scott Cunningham and Todd Kendall, based on the fallacious notion that escort ads are in 1:1 correspondence with the number of hookers in an area.  And now here comes Cunningham again, quoted in an appallingly-inaccurate Daily Beast article based in part on another paper he and Kendall wrote in 2009:

Once upon a time, becoming a prostitute was difficult.  In, say, 1992, you could risk your life as a streetwalker—if you lived near a street where one could walk provocatively and reasonably expect to find customers.  You could make and place an ad for sexual services in your local alternative weekly, at least if you lived in a city—but the responses wouldn’t begin until well after said weekly was printed and distributed.  Of course, there were brothels, massage parlors, agencies, and so on back then, even an escorts section of the yellow pages.  But it wasn’t as if any 20-year-old with a flash of curiosity about sex work could within hours find a client or a pimp and go into business selling herself…

The idiocy starts right from the get-go, and though we can’t blame Cunningham for author Gregory Gilderman’s use of the grating phrase “selling herself” or his casual assertion of the “all whores have pimps” myth, it seems his paper is the source of the patently-false belief (which any veteran 20th century hooker can debunk) that picking up a phone and calling an escort service out of the yellow pages was somehow harder or slower than setting up an online ad oneself.

…“When you take the profile of Internet prostitutes versus street prostitutes, you find there’s more education, and that more work temporarily, then exit,” says Scott Cunningham, an economist…who has studied the impact of the Internet on prostitution markets.  “They also are significantly less likely to work for a pimp.”  [They]…even look different…[Cunningham]  found that when Craigslist first entered a new area…the body weight of the women advertising sex gradually shifted to, in his words, “a more athletic body type.  It moves from less attractive to more attractive in the eyes of the john”…the Internet…hasn’t merely moved online and indoors those who once worked the street, but…created a different sort of sex worker—more educated, younger—and a bigger market of women selling sexual services in the United States and men purchasing those services…

Though Cunningham starts with two true statements (albeit the second is dramatically understated),  he then compares internet escorts to streetwalkers (rather than to pre-internet agency girls) and assumes that the statements of weight in ads are truthful.  Gilderman runs with that, immediately reiterating the fallacy that before the internet most hookers were streetwalkers and making the factually-unsupported statement that prostitution is more widespread now than in the ‘90s.  It gets worse; next he seems to claim that there were escort reviews on Craigslist, that a man could somehow use it to screen girls, and (most incredibly of all) that ads on Craigslist were more reliable than those on escort review boards:

…in the pre-Internet era…there was simply no practical way for a man to compare the looks and prices of large numbers of escorts, anonymously contact them, and receive reliable information that a provider was, in fact, not working for the police.  Craigslist changed that…there had always been sex ads on the Internet…but their presence on Craigslist was something like the difference between a brothel on a side street in the bad part of town and a brothel in the Mall of America…sex work for women between ages 20 and 40 has mostly shifted from an outdoor activity involving street walking to an indoor activity involving online solicitation and communication.  Second, because is it much easier to buy and sell sex, there are simply more prostitutes, and clients, than there were before…

As I’ve stated many times, streetwalkers have always been a minority of whores in every era of human history, and since the advent of modern anti-whore laws a century ago they’ve been a relatively small minority in most places.  The internet has indeed caused some outdoor workers to move indoors, but the shrinkage was from about 15% of the whore population working the street to perhaps 8-10% doing so; it was hardly the seismic shift that reporters and ill-informed academics keep representing it as.  Furthermore, if prostitution has indeed increased in the past 20 years (and I have never seen any credible evidence that it has), it would merely be a rebound toward normal levels from a probable low in the 1970s due to the high availability of “free” sex at the time.  Kinsey found that 69% of men in the 1940s had paid for sex at least once in their lives, and though the tendency of more recent studies to generate lower numbers is due partly to poor question design and partly to underreporting due to increased social stigma since the 1980s, it’s certainly possible and even likely that the increased availability of “free” sex had some impact.  There’s an historical precedent: during the Victorian Era nearly every middle- or upper-class man saw whores occasionally, and there were many more of them; roughly 5.5% of the female population in a typical 19th-century European or American city worked in the trade at any given time, as opposed to less than 0.3% today.  But as more women entered the industrial workforce in the 1910s and 1920s and premarital sex became far more socially acceptable over the same period, both the number of prostitutes and the demand for their services began to drop to today’s unusually-low level.

Turning back to the article, we see it descend into the usual blather about business migrating to Backpage after the closure of Craigslist’s “erotic services” section, where we find this stunningly obtuse statement:

…But while the bulk of the business moved to Backpage, some of the listings that had appeared on Craigslist simply disappeared—strongly suggesting that Craigslist hadn’t merely picked up the listings that previously were in print or scattered around the Web, but had actually increased the size of the market…

The listings didn’t “disappear”; they simply moved back to the personals and personal services sections they inhabited before Craigslist was forced by the first wave of government interference to create the “erotic services” section in the first place.  But since that fact doesn’t fit the theory that the evil internet is tempting innocent women into harlotry, Maier’s Law demands it be ignored.

The rest of the article is mostly the usual lurid fluff; Gilderman pretends TER is the only escort review site, accuses Village Voice Media of only questioning “trafficking” hysteria in order to protect its profits, then quotes from two reluctant hookers (one of them Rachel Lloyd of GEMS) in order to ensure that the readers get the message that sex work is bad, and that “even part-time sex work with apparently harmless men can take its toll.”  That’s to be expected from a hack outfit like The Daily Beast, but I just wish there weren’t so many academic ignoramuses around to give them ammunition.

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