I had a feeling the Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher sex trafficking cause would go off the rails: it did exactly that this past weekend. Back in April when I saw that Moore and Kutcher had launched an anti-child-sex-trafficking campaign (“Real Men Don’t Buy Girls” and the Demi and Ashton Foundation), pulled in celebs for influence and reach, but had teamed up their launch with the wingnut extremists at Shared Hope, I wrote, with no small amount of irony, I’m sure this will turn out well.
Shared Hope – in case you don’t know – has an extreme anti-pornography stance and state debunked myths as fact, specifically that ‘porn makes men rape’ and ‘porn makes men into child molesters’ which are in their organization’s foundation. Regardless of what side you come down on with sex trafficking and celebrity causes, it stands to reason that lending credibility to an organization whose studies and data have been notoriously discredited (and have a moral sexual agenda outside adult freedom and legalities) might signify the beginning of a problem. That’s why I mentioned it at the time.
Dude, Where’s My Data?
In early June, the New York Times reported that Demi Moore was to host their CNN Report on Human Trafficking in Nepal. When I shared that article here, I was beginning to become increasingly alarmed that Kutcher/Moore – and those they are marshaling and influencing – do not know the difference between sex trafficking and sex work.
- See also: Dr. Charlie Glickman’s Perspective on Sex Work [and sex trafficking]
After this weekend’s social media shouting match between Ashton Kutcher and The Village Voice, we have a clearer picture of the mud they’ve made.
On Friday I posted that The Village Voice had launched an investigation into the numbers behind Kutcher and Moore‘s sex trafficking campaign. The Voice was not engaging in unbiased reporting, and they took every chance possible to ridicule Moore and Kutcher. But at the end of the day, they exposed that the numbers Kutcher and Moore had been throwing around (and were being re-cited as fact on major news outlets that should know better) were not actually statistics on child sex trafficking in America. The false stats were repeated on NYT, CNN, Salon, others, and of course, the ever-reliable Wikipedia.
“The real issue is that no one has called out Kutcher and Moore for their underlying thesis. The underage-prostitution panic has been fueled by a scientific study that was anything but scientific.” Real Men Get Their Facts Straight (Village Voice)
What’s worse, it turns out transgender under-18s (and literally any underage “outsider” including at-risk youth and kids in gangs) had been added up to create the numbers. Mind you, the Voice is striking out in defense of holding on to their problematic Backpages sex worker ads, which do not require age verification (unlike Eros Guide, which requires ID). But look: take away Craigslist sex work ads, take away Backpages ads – it won’t matter. Sex trafficking and its oft-incorrectly-conflated counterpart – sex work – will always find a way. Any punter, or any sex worker, will tell you that.
Let me be clear: I am not (nor have I ever been) a sex worker. Let me disclose: I do know a hell of a lot of sex workers across the entire spectrum, many of whom are close friends, and at the same time I know a couple hard-boiled journalists that have been covering trafficking along the US-Mexico border since at least 2004. Why am I telling you this? Because it’s important that you know where I’m coming from, and that I only speak for myself.
Never Ascribe to Malice What Belongs to Stupidity
After the Voice’s piece went up and made the blogrounds, Ashton Kutcher threw what more experienced web celebs would call a Twitter Tantrum. The Voice goaded him further on Twitter, which is a good tactic for increasing followers. The flamewar did not do Kutcher any favors – flamewars never do. But then again, politicians and Hollywood celebrities don’t seem to understand that the economy of internet capital is credibility and reputation, but I digress.
In fact, Kutcher used his power and influence to do something predictably childish: he said he would destroy the Voice, and subsequently pressured Village Voice Media’s advertisers via social media, to withdraw. He did this by Tweeting @ brands such as American Airlines telling them they were supporting the “Sale of Human Beings” by advertising in the Voice. Essentially, he was using his influence and celebrity to publicly shame brands in order to further his personal agenda.
It worked on American Airlines, but I was determined not to get distracted – he made a lot of noise, and wasn’t answering crucial questions about his data. Kutcher is the face and voice of anti-child-sex-trafficking in America now, whether we like it or not, as that is the way of money and fame and media. It seemed as though in this endeavor, to punish the Voice and distract from the troubling issue of launching a worldwide campaign based on inaccurate statistics, Kutcher was all too willing to lump sex work and sex trafficking into one phrase: “the sale of Human Beings.” Twitter is only a 140 character economy, sure, but Kutcher did not use the word “children.”
Alas, the show must go on. In a blog post following up the Voice-Kutcher fight and saying he wanted to “put it to bed” (his unfortunate choice of words, not mine), Kutcher admitted probably much more than he intended in Why Fight? It could be YOUR daughter, YOUR niece, YOUR neighbor…
(…) I don’t dispute nor have I ever disputed that the data around human trafficking is not sufficient, nor do I dispute that sex trafficking and voluntary prostitution statistics are often times conflated. In fact I wrote a post on Quora prior to the Village Voices article stating just that.
While on the Piers Morgan show, when presenting the data that I understood to be accurate, I miss spoke in saying that 100k-300k children are being trafficked in the US. The data point that I was referring to assumes 100k-300k children in the US are at risk of being Trafficked. I am by no means the authority on Human Trafficking statistics. There is great value in disputing the hard numbers and pointing to insufficient allocation of government spending and this effort would be commended if Backpage.com, which is owned and operated by the Village Voice, wasn’t profiting off of the victims at the same time. Due to this, I question the bias data that is being delivered by the Village Voice that will earn 20 plus million dollars this year on Backpage.com, through facilitating the sale of women and girls for sex. (…)
Ashton Kutcher either does not check his facts or cannot be relied to present them accurately. Knowing what the hell you’re talking about – when you’re talking about people’s lives and you have the money to buy your way into anything and the fame to influence reputable media outlets to run fiction as fact – is really fucking important.
When the State Department’s 2011 Trafficking in Persons Report was released last week, global human trafficking was shown to be more comprised of the people that assembled whatever device you’re Tweeting from than “YOUR daughter, YOUR niece, YOUR neighbor…”
Kutcher bracketed the post with his own anecdotes about child sex trafficking horrors. At the end, he challenges the Voice, saying “I might not be doing enough, and I will continue to research and find better data, but I can sure as hell say, “I’ve never made a dime at the expense of a sex trafficking victim.” Can you?”
I’m sure this will turn out well.
Speaking of making a dime, after seeing how wisely Kutcher spends his social capital, I don’t think I’d go into business with him on any long-term issues. And as we all know, at least around here, is that the plural of anecdote is not data.
Update: Today, the Sex Workers Outreach Project New York City has issued this press release in response: SWOP-NYC Responds to the “Real Men Get Their Facts Straight” Debate
Image: “Maid Fantasy” – Ginta Lapina by Greg Kadel for Vogue Germany July 2011