Book Review: “Sex, Lies & Statistics” by Dr. Brooke Magnanti

The biggest uphill battle for advocates of sex workers’ rights and dignity is the constant barrage of bogus research and misrepresentation on the part of radical “feminists” and right-wing religious fanatics. Sex workers and their allies have had to comb through the Internet, finding bits and pieces here and there, like scroungers in a prison camp gathering what meager resources are available for survival and eventual escape. Imagine you’re such a scrounger, and you come across a treasure trove of maps, blueprints and other documents providing vital intelligence for the escape committee.

Brooke Magnanti’s book is just such an invaluable trove of information. She dissects the falsehoods of the “rescue industry” being peddled as research, and presents solid evidence that the best path towards assuring safety and human rights for people in commercial sex is full decriminalization. Skilled in both writing and scientific acumen, her work is both thorough and accessible, critiquing and dismantling her opposition, while providing solid evidence for her case.

She begins in the first two chapters at the unproven assumptions and sloppy studies used to “prove” negative effects of pornography, strip clubs, and even “sexualized” imagery in mainstream media. Chapters 3 through 6 are devoted to distinguishing the various legal models around prostitution, demonstrating the practical and ethical failures of the various forms of legalization and criminalization, especially the “Swedish model” and its fallacious “end demand” ideology. Her overview of the history of prostitution in the 19th century American West shows how commercial sex provided many women with economic independence, even the wherewithal to help build their communities. She shines a skeptical light on the claims of “anti-trafficking” organizations, takes aim at various prohibitionist leaders – Melissa Farley, Julie Bindel, and Swanee Hunt of Demand Abolition – revealing their ruthless machinations and profiteering at the expense of sex workers and their families. Chapter 7 is a transcript of her appearance with Paris Lees before the UK parliament’s Home Affairs Select Committee in 2016, bookended by her observations and commentary.

“Sex, Lies & Statistics” is the book for anyone who needs to sort fact from fiction regarding sex work. Get it, read it, and share it!

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Trumping the Prohibitionists

Donald Trump’s latest debacle has weakened him even further by revealing that he’s not merely using the far-right as a steppingstone to power, but that he indeed supports their bigoted beliefs. This is not, however, Trump’s real Achilles’ heel. His entire methodology of “shooting from the hip” without concern for consequences, and most importantly his refusal to admit to, and apologize for, any mistakes he makes, is what will lead to his ultimate undoing.

This is the same weakness in the prohibitionist camp – their own sense of self-righteousness and absolutism prevents them from seeing when they make mistakes, much less owning up to them.

When journalists began to question Somaly Mam’s story, then expose her pattern of deception and fraud, did “anti-trafficking” activists in this country step back and take stock? Hardly. Many like Nicholas Kristof tried to minimize the damage, and some like Susan Sarandon even supported her efforts to form a new foundation in her name.

Groups like Polaris continually claimed that “the average age of entry into prostitution is thirteen” – and when this was thoroughly debunked those groups waffled and took their time pedaling back on the bogus figure.

Anti-prostitution activists and law enforcement have been pushing the panic around sex trafficking so much, they are now seeing histrionic claims multiply beyond their own control – yet they are still unwilling to admit that their own distortions and confabulations are the fatal flaw. Let’s also not forget the radical feminist concept of “re-framing experiences” by embellishment, exaggeration and even outright fabrication.

This is no reason, however, for sex worker rights groups to be overconfident. Just as Trump tries to divert attention from his errors as part of his “doubling down” tactic, it makes sense that prohibitionists will do the same. They will look for any flaw, any error, any shortcoming in their opposition, and exploit it for their own purposes. We need to anticipate these attacks, own up to any mistakes, show how we responded, and most importantly, bring the conversation back to the core issue of empowering sex workers by removing legal barriers, and holding the architects of the prohibitionist movement accountable for the harms they have caused.

A Paradox of Prohibitionism

The reader will note the use of the singular article in the title, as there are indeed many paradoxes to the anti-prostitution position. For this post, I’ll be discussing one which recently has come to the fore.

Prohibitionists have crowed repeatedly how their “end demand” strategy of targeting sex work clients for punishment and derision is “the most effective means” to achieve their desired goal of “ending the sex trade”. Recently, however, I’ve noticed many of these groups lamenting that sex trafficking is on the rise, even in Sweden where “ending demand” became law and public policy almost two decades ago. So, how is it that this strategy is being adopted at an increasing rate, based on claims of success, yet the evil of sex trafficking and exploitation has also increased, indicating failure?

The first likely response to this paradox is to allege that “the problem is bigger than we thought” – that all the figures cited as to the number of people and amount of profits involved were too conservative. Such a claim would make sense, except that the peer-reviewed research of scholars indicates that such estimates were not only unreliable, but frequently exaggerated. See if you’re able to follow the logic: Prohibitionists make claims about the definition and scope of sex trafficking, which legitimate researchers find dubious and likely overblown, so the same people who made the original claim now turn around with even higher numbers, again without solid substantiation.

Another problem with the original trafficking claims is that the activists who make them frequently conflate consensual sex work with sex trafficking, either for ideological reasons or as a blatant public relations ploy (see page 17 of 20 in the paper hyperlinked here). So, is it likely that what prohibitionists are doing is stretching the definition of “sex trafficking” even further, to include legal forms of sex work such as web cam performance and stripping? You already have groups linking porn to trafficking, again with little to no substantiation. Plus, on even more extreme fringes, there are those who would argue that egg donation and reproductive surrogacy ought to be banned as “human trafficking”. This begs the question of where the definition of trafficking will ever end, if at all.

It seems the most obvious reason for claiming an increase in sex trafficking is to mobilize more people to do more work and give more money to one’s anti-trafficking organization. Such appeals to urgency are not new, but eventually lose their effectiveness. Think of it – how long do you expect volunteers to work, or donors to give money, while you continually claim that the problem they’re fighting is continually growing? Sooner or later, repeated use of this tactic leads to more questions, greater scrutiny, and abandonment by once-committed individuals who now feel used and deceived.

Finally, I’d like to propose the possibility that the problems related to the commercial sex industry may indeed be getting worse to some degree – but because of prohibitionist strategies, not in spite of them. This would fit with historical precedents, such as the banning of alcohol in the United States from 1920 to 1933, the exorbitant taxation of tea in Great Britain up to 1784, and other instances of excessive government control leading to increased problems from smuggling and adulteration to corruption and violence. Once one realizes that exploitative practices in otherwise consensual activities are not prevented by prohibition, but exacerbated by it, the paradox disappears. Would that the scales fall from puritanical eyes.

Woozle Effects and Heffalump Atrributions

[With thanks to Cris Sardina]

In the stories of Winnie the Pooh, he becomes concerned that certain creatures will try to steal his honey – namely, Heffalumps and Woozles. At one point, he and Piglet go on a Woozle hunt, walking about a clump of trees until they find some tracks and follow them, growing more worried as the number of footprints grows and grows. Then Christopher Robin comes along, and points out that the two have been walking in circles, and the tracks they are following are their own. Later on, Pooh is out on a search when he falls into a pit on top of Piglet. He remembers that he would dig such pits as a trap for Heffalumps, and now wonders if the Heffalumps dug this pit to catch him. It’s later suggested that this is one of Pooh’s own pit-traps.

woozlehunt
Oh, bother.

At any rate, the first story has given rise to the concept of the Woozle Effect, whereby a study of dubious veracity is cited over and over, and as a result of such repetition is assumed by more and more people to be true, without ever checking the original source. The anti-prostitution camp is particularly prone to the Woozle Effect, with examples such as:

  • The average age of entry into prostitution is thirteen – This “statistic” was actually manufactured by drawing from and misrepresenting two separate sources: a 2001 study of young people under 18 years old, and a 30 year-old survey of 200 sex workers who were asked what age they first had sexual intercourse. Despite being repeatedly discredited, many prohibitionists keep repeating this claim, often never citing the source.
  • The Super Bowl and other major sporting events are magnets for sex traffickers and sex buyers – Again and again, so-called “anti-trafficking” groups keep raising this alarm (and raking in donations as a result). Police in the locales where these events are held rush in to “rescue the victims”, often estimated to be in the tens of thousands. The reality? According to this study by the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women: “There is a very wide discrepancy between claims that are made prior to large sporting events and the actual number of cases found. There is no evidence that large sporting events cause an increase in trafficking for prostitution.”
  • Most prostitutes suffer from PTSD and low self-esteem – The only source for the PTSD claim was a study done by Melissa Farley, which was roundly criticized for both its evaluative and sampling methodologies. As for the self-esteem question, this seems to be more an assumption based on cultural prejudice, whereas actual research indicates that “97% of the call girls [surveyed] reported an increase in self-esteem after they began working in prostitution”.
  • The vast majority of prostitutes are controlled/coerced by pimps – I’ve heard this from people I meet several times, and I always respond with two questions: “How many is this ‘vast majority’?” and “Where are you getting your information?” In response to the first, every single individual who has provided a percentage has given me a different one, ranging from 65 to 97 percent. As to the second, not one person has been able to cite an actual study, with most saying that they heard or read it “somewhere”.

heffalump
This leads to what I call the Heffalump Attribution, where people reductively assign cause for a behavior or social phenomenon to the deliberate actions of some outside agent. At the least, this is a sloppy misuse of Occam’s Razor; at worst, it’s scapegoating. Either way, attributing prostitution to some person or organized group isn’t just prevalent with contemporary prohibitionists, it’s a foundational article of faith. Since they believe that no woman would choose to sell sex, they must have been coerced in some way by one or more people. And who are they?

  • Pimps and traffickers – The most obvious choice, with pimps being stereotypically portrayed as abusive overseers. Problem is that there’s no evidence to support for such a claim, even when studying underage sex workers.
  • The Pimp Lobby, a.k.a. Pro-Prostitution Mafia – Prohibitionists not only believe that pimps control all “prostituted women” (or, “prostituted people” on the rare occasions when they acknowledge that men and transfolk also sell sex); they insist that pimps, traffickers and other evildoers are part of some vast conspiracy to push to make their business legal. Now, who are the principal group of folks advocating for commercial sex to be decriminalized? Sex workers. And how do prohibitionists respond? By accusing those very same sex workers of “actually being pimps” or “coerced by pimps” or just plain “not representative”. It’s ironic that the sex worker rights movement is the only labor movement in history which is routinely accused of being a front for their supposed bosses.
  • Sex work clients, a.k.a. “johns”, “punters” and/or “sex buyers” – Demonized as pathetic losers or sick deviants, the only disagreement among prohibitionists appears to be whether they should be rehabilitated through so-called “johns schools” or just plain locked up. I’m sure that clients have also been accused of being part of the mythical Pimp Lobby, despite the fact that client activism for sex worker rights has only very recently gotten off the ground.
  • Backpage, preceded by Craigslist, preceded by alternative weekly papers – The legal pressure to close any and all venues by which sex workers may advertise their services and communicate with potential clients is based on the belief that the folks running such venues aren’t just businesspeople trying to make money, but part of the grand conspiracy to “sell women and girls”. Forget that the best evidence shows the overwhelming percentage of advertisers to be the sex workers themselves. Forget that Backpage did more than any other site like it to identify and report suspected trafficking of minors. Forget that closing such sites increased the dangers to the most marginalized and vulnerable sex workers. They must be blamed, shamed and punished at all costs! And now that they have shut down their adult section, just how much trafficking has been stopped? None.
  • Amnesty International – I could go on a rant about this, but I think the satirical video below captures it splendidly:

Dorothy Allison noted that “Things come apart so easily when they have been held together with lies.” Whether the Woozles and Heffalumps of the prohibitionists are the result of rationalization or deliberate deceit, the best way to hunt and trap them is by simply asking – even demanding – to know the source for such assertions, and to keep questioning in the press for proof. No one who is genuinely confident of the truth of their claims should object to such scrutiny – and no one is obliged to believe anyone who tries to avoid it.