Oversimplifying Sex Slavery: Demi, Ashton, and Badvocacy

This is a guest post by Jessica Mack. Jessica is a global feminist and reproductive rights advocate. She enjoys exploring, making trouble, speaking out, and learning languages. She’s very tall, so that makes her extra scary. Jessica is an editor at Gender Across Borders and currently lives in Seattle, planning her next adventure.

Photo of Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore. Ashton holds a sign reading, "Real men don't buy girls!!"

If you haven’t yet watched the “Real Men Don’t Buy Girls” campaign from Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher’s DNA Foundation, do. And be prepared to scratch your head, or maybe weep a little bit.

Others have already have already pointed out the confusing and offensive messages of the campaign, which feature hunky celebs delivering messages of what real men do (i.e. laundry, cook, iron, read directions, etc.) to suggest what they shouldn’t (i.e. buy girls). Sadly, what surely began with good intentions has become an even better example of what is wrong with celebrity aid today.

Even before the launch of the “Real Men” campaign, the DNA Foundation, launched in 2007, rubbed me the wrong way. I first came across them last year, while doing research on anti-trafficking efforts. Their mission is to “raise awareness about child sex slavery, change the cultural stereotypes that facilitate this horrific problem, and rehabilitate innocent victims.” So how will they achieve their goals? The action center offers “three steps to end child slavery” (ready?): 1) Make your own “Real Men Don’t Buy Girls” video; 2) “report” any suspicious activity on Craigslist; and 3) buy a tee-shirt.

My problem is less with these suggestions as it is with the implication that these activities will end child slavery. When supporting any kind of development initiatives or charity work, you need two essential things: comprehensive information (about the issue, about key players in the field) and a healthy dose of reality. There are very few (if any) panaceas or over-night fixes.

The website is an homage to hyperbole and generalization. The first sentence tells readers, without citation, that “more people are slaves today than ever before and the numbers are soaring.” The gratuitous use of the word “slave” in anti-sex-work circles is borderline exploitative, and suggests that all individuals engaging in sex work are slaves who need rescue. The truth is predictably more complex.

Sex trafficking and slavery are some of the most complicated and layered global development issues out there, and these ads allow for no nuance. By making it about men and geared toward men, the ads suggest that there is no one else involved. In fact, trafficking and slavery involve many players – some women, some men, and even family members.

Women’s experiences are erased. A gradient exists among those who have been kidnapped and enslaved and those who are engaging in sex work commercially and voluntarily. It’s easy for anti-trafficking efforts to devolve into a paradigm whereby a [privileged] [man] rides in on a white horse to “rescue” a [poor] [woman]. With this dynamic, it’s easy to steamroll over the individual rights and dignity, and complicated personal experience, of the individual.

As Alanna Shaikh pointed out in her analysis of Greg Mortenson’s (Three Cups of Tea) unfortunate fall from grace, the public is constantly looking for that panacea and that happy ending. Sometimes we allow that
simple lie to continue because we don’t want to accept that road to success if far messier, far more meandering. Initiatives like DNA, which focus only on the end point – a total end to sex slavery – and suggest it’s easy to get there risk actually undermining everything it really takes to get there. And in that over-simplification is where women’s rights, voices, and experiences get squashed.

Sometimes efforts to address one end of the spectrum end up hurting those at the other, and sometimes good intentions do a lot of harm. In 2008, for instance, Cambodia passed the “Law on Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation” to comply with the US policy on trafficking in persons. This basically set in motion a series of brothel raids that resulted in the abuse and criminalization of sex workers, and the unraveling of many effective health outreach programs, which used brothels as a platform.

I want to give them credit for drawing attention to this horrible issue… but what if the attention they draw is ill-informed and misaligned? Isn’t that more harm than good? Demi and Ashton could at least take note as one celebrity initiatives after another has flopped, for different reasons, but mostly for what Shaikh points to: Hope for a better world, but the lack of mettle to actually get there. Madonna’s Raising Malawi recently folded in a heap of disgrace, Kanye West’s foundation for high school drop-outs just mysteriously closed, and even Greg Mortenson’s Central Asian Institute might fall into this camp.

Celebrity aid has now become a development issue in itself, (maybe soon warranting a new arm of the Global Fund?) and aid critics like Bill Easterly have discussed the fundamental flaws at length. Why not just support existing programs doing good work instead of leveraging your fame to start your own (ineffective and competing) efforts? The best thing that could happen now is Demi and Ashton pass the mic to someone who knows what they’re talking about, and some damage control can begin.

This post originally appeared at Gender Across Borders.

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65 comments for “Oversimplifying Sex Slavery: Demi, Ashton, and Badvocacy

  1. April 22, 2011 at 2:20 pm

    I’d like to think that all help is good help but in reality it is not. Sometimes helping someone can actually be detrimental. In this case it just seems like good pr and not digging deeper as you note with the hyperbole. Ugh.

  2. Brandy
    April 22, 2011 at 2:26 pm

    Can anyone recommend other (with similar goals, but better run) organizations to support?

  3. Kathleen
    April 22, 2011 at 3:03 pm

    “Why not just support existing programs doing good work” ?

    YES. Yes, yes, yes. This kind of stuff is *soooo* insanely ego-driven when it’s in the “help the unfortunate” mode (it’s totally different when it’s starting organizations about one’s own situation — many of the best forces for good come from that). There are a lot of great organizations already, people who need something with their own names on it to help defenseless orphans or whatever, gah.

  4. anna
    April 22, 2011 at 3:06 pm
  5. anna
    April 22, 2011 at 3:08 pm

    Shared Hope International has nothing to do w/celebs as far as I know by the way.

  6. April 22, 2011 at 3:19 pm

    See, I see what Ashton and Demi are doing as complementary rather than irrelevant to feminist work. We’re largely preaching to the choir, and enlarging the choir from already sympathetic folks. What this “real men” campaign does is build awareness in a group that until it started to see this ads literally didn’t know and didn’t care about child sex slavery.

    Sure, there are problematic pieces to it, but the target of the ads is so different from the usual target of feminist action (the dudebros, fercryingoutloud) that the campaign is going to be very different as well.

    In social work and substance abuse, the term “harm reduction” relates to efforts to change that are not necessarily what those who “know what works” would prefer that a person does, but are a step in the right direction. What Ashton and Demi is doing is very different from what we do, but its target is very different as well, and if a few dozen dudebros start talking about sex slavery at a party and state their disapproval, that’ll be some inroads that convential feminist methods might not have had.

    Perfect? Not hardly. Worth a second look? Yes, I think so.

  7. Kathleen
    April 22, 2011 at 3:44 pm

    Maureen O’Danu, I’m gonna have to disagree with you. Your average group of “dudebros” is not so depraved as to usually *approve* of child prostitution; Demi and Ashton are “taking a stand” that is pretty much along the lines of “nice people don’t kick puppies”. The idea that the problem of child prostitution is one of CONSCIOUSNESS RAISING is ridiculous, and their somehow wanting congratulations for promoting that message is shameless.

    People who buy sex with children are well aware that it is a bad thing to do. It’s not an innocent mistake, like forgetting to check the battery on your home smoke alarm.

    ARe you honestly suggesting that the public at large has no idea that child prostitition exists, and they “don’t care” that it does? If you really think that’s true, sure, *thank heavens* Ashton is holding up that little paper sign.

  8. April 22, 2011 at 3:51 pm

    I always wonder how celebrities would feel if somebody showed up as the director on their movie set and said, “Okay, so I don’t know anything about making a movie, I don’t have a stable source of financial backing, I don’t know any of the relevant industry people, and I wrote this script outline on a piece of tissue while I was sitting on the toilet last night, but I have HEART, dammit, and I’m going to film the world’s greatest blockbuster in two days and win Oscars that haven’t even been invented yet!”

    Because that’s what it sounds like when celebrities try to be social organizers with no experience, no credibility, and no meaningful ties to the people who are *already doing that work*.

  9. anna
    April 22, 2011 at 4:12 pm

    If a celeb really wants to help, they should find a reputable charity doing good work for whatever cause the celeb likes, and donate, fundraise, and spread the word, possibly doing PSAs. Starting your own charity when you know nothing about charities is self serving bullshit.

  10. April 22, 2011 at 4:15 pm

    Kathleen — I’ve worked with homeless people, including women who are sex workers at the bottom end of the spectrum, though not sex slaves, because most of these women are “independent operators”. Yes, I think that most Americans are either unaware of sex slavery or deliberately put it out of their minds, especially among the set that Kutcher is targeting.

    There have been multiple studies that show that if you don’t actually use the word “rape”, a substantial minority of men are willing to *admit to* committing acts of sexual assault on a survey. And as Kutcher points out when interviewed about the subject, most men buying sex aren’t going to ask if the girl is 1) old enough or 2) a sex slave. Any campaign that gets the *buddies* of those men aware and standing up and saying “that’s not cool” is all for the good.

    A good analogy: In the homeless field, a lot of very conservative churches provide a LOT of the services, including shelters. While those churches have significant problems with regard to delivery of services, they have deep pockets and penetration in a field that needs as many people helping as it can get.

    Even though those churches often actively discriminate against homeless individuals o are gay and lesbian,for example, and even though their services are usually provided at the cost of a mandatory church service, their work is valuable and I would never step in and say that they shouldn’t be doing it. And certainly, they are often far more effective at getting deeper penetration than non religious organizations in this area.

    I don’t think DNA is competing for donation dollars so much as it is complementing what established feminist organizations are doing with dollars that wouldn’t otherwise be going to this field at all. Certainly its directed at a group that is partially or wholly unaware of the problem in a way no feminist is. And yes, I think that’s valuable.

  11. George
    April 22, 2011 at 4:23 pm

    I agree that this PR campaign has been oversimplified, but even uncritically accepting the terms ‘trafficking’ and ‘sex slavery’ (as much of the mainstream feminist community does) serves to simplify the issue of sex work among migrants/runaways. These terms are often not useful or accurate descriptors at all, but rather serve to infantilise and deny agency to certain groups of sex workers (primarily the young, working class and/or non-white) and create a fantasy in which they can be ‘rescued’ by wealthy, white men. This fantasy is so pervasive that when reality intervenes and sex workers who have been ‘rescued’ (i.e arrested and sent to shelters) react badly to their ‘rescuers’ it is explained as a case of stockholm syndrome. Its bizarre the lengths that people will go to in order to avoid accepting that non-elite, non-white women can also choose to have sex for money.

    The whole idea of a sex slavery crisis strikes me as a boogeyman. The rhetoric of anti-trafficking/sex slavery is incredibly similar to that of right wing anti-prostitution activists, and much of the response from (predominantly Republican) policymakers has been to enact laws which punish all sex workers.

    Anyway, for a more thorough radical feminist analysis of sex slavery hysteria and the right-wing opportunists who are involved I recommend reading http://www.lauraagustin.com

  12. wl
    April 22, 2011 at 4:45 pm

    Can anyone recommend other (with similar goals, but better run) organizations to support?

    Prax(us), the Sex Workers Project at the UJC, Safe Horizon’s Streetwork Program, etc.

  13. wl
    April 22, 2011 at 4:47 pm

    Don’t be put off by the Sex Workers Project name. They provide quite a lot of social and legal services to trafficking survivors.

  14. April 22, 2011 at 5:01 pm

    @Maureen O’Danu Yea, if you don’t use the word rape more people admit to raping. That in itself is a whole different problem but the principle is still applying here. When Ashton and Demi say “don’t buy girls” even the guys who actually do so won’t admit that’s what they’re doing. There is no problem solving, there’s no awareness-raising. For this they would have to advocate along the lines “talk to your friends openly about sex, sexuality. talk openly about paying for sex. ask, if those who do, are sure they’re visiting adult women who are doing sex work because they want to. talk about promoting enthusiastic consent”. All this stuff that is a tad more complicated than a shirt reading “Real Men Don’t Buy Girls”.

    I mean they even write

    For the most part, the justice system currently punishes girls for their involvement in human sex slavery, rather than prosecuting the men who pimp and purchase them.

    But there’s zero stuff to do about this on they’re page. Not even a “talk to your neighbours and then let’s all write to the Congress”. Nope. Just buy the shirt and support them doing… whatever they’re doing besides having a website.

  15. Kathleen
    April 22, 2011 at 5:06 pm

    Maureen — *what’s* not cool? Buying sex? Buying sex from a “sex slave” (defined how)? Buying sex from a child? What conversation are you imagining men are having now that Ashton Kutcher has “raised awareness” in some ill-defined way? Are the dudes in the “set” you think he’s reaching having a conversation about “when I buy sex, I make sure the other person is an adult, and also, is receiving minimum wage and health benefits”?

    and the other dudes are like, “that is the way to go! Because buying sex from ‘sex slaves’ and children is not cool, have you heard the latest from Ashton?” You really think this is a real conversation anyone is having anywhere?

    This “awareness” is so fuzzily defined as to be useless and in fact counterproductive — to the extent there is a “set” being reached, they may well conclude, “hey, I pay grown women supporting their own drug habits, yahhhh, real men, you know how we do”

    That’s helpful how, exactly?

  16. April 22, 2011 at 5:14 pm

    I still think that when you’re talking to people whose knowledge *and sympathy for* sex slaves is at a kindergarten level, speaking to them at that level is a good start. This is an opening of the dialogue with this population. If DNA never advances the discussion and never adds more sophisticated analysis to what they’re offering these guys, that’s one thing. But I think they’re operating on “first you get the mule’s attention” basis. The fact that they were able to get Hollywood guys to sign up for their ads at all is a good start. Their interview suggests that they had a lot more turn downs than acceptances.

    The culture of “the right to womens’ bodies at any cost to the women” is pretty strong in that population, and you’re not going to get them cooperating without a little self congratulatory bullshit. If DNA were the only game in town, it would be more problematic, but as a complementary campaign, what they’re doing is beneficial enough. At this point, they’re starting the conversation. It’ll be interesting to see if they up the ante over time.

  17. Kathleen
    April 22, 2011 at 5:14 pm

    also, to follow up on what Helga said — your analogy about homelessness is not “good”, it’s terrible. Church organizations that provide meals, shelter, clothing, addiction programs, job search services, etc. etc. to homeless people might have a different *ideology* than mine, but pragmatically, they are getting stuff done. Their mission is not to “raise awareness” about homelessness and then breaking their own arms patting themselves on the back about it.

    As far as “child sex slaves” go, I am sure that Ashton, Demi, and I all agree “ideologically”: awful! just awful! But pragmatically, they don’t seem to be getting anything done (and what concrete outcomes might result from what they are doing look potentially damaging)

    So these things are not analogous, but more inverse to one another.

  18. Kathleen
    April 22, 2011 at 5:19 pm

    Maureen — say the phrase “sex slave”, and I guarantee you everyone is rapt and sympathetic. By positing a public so depraved as to be like, “sex slaves, who cares, not me”, sure, you can congratulate yourself for being ALL HEART for CARING.

    But everyone thinks “child sex slavery” is just terrible. That work is done. No need to do it! No call for congratulations! What’s much harder – and what Ashton and Demi’s message actually might undermine — is a realistic approach to the many kinds of inequality that generate sex work as we know it.

  19. Norene
    April 22, 2011 at 5:20 pm

    I think that although “the public” may know that the commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC) exists, generally “the public” envisions a young girl, probably not born in the US, tied to bed. That of course is not the reality the majority of the time. There is a world of grey between the chained sex slave and the mature sex worker who has full agency and choice. Let’s remember that the current research has found that the average age of entry into sex work/csec is between 12 and 14 for girls and 11 and 13 for boys. With that said, although little research exists about who buys sex from children/youth, we do know that many are not pedophiles by definition -that is someone who prefers sex with prepubescent children- but rather opportunistic abuser- that is one who wants to buy sex and really doesn’t care how old the person is who shows up. There are countless examples of this in the media (“she said she was 18!”). With that said, yes the public is out to lunch on this subject and yes consciousness raising is most certainly still needed. I would wage an educated guess that most of “the public” doesn’t recognize the 16 year-old in heals on the local track as a victim. In fact, whore and/or addict I would guess are more commonly used to describe her. Although, I have many complaints about the current campaign (boys are also bought and sold for one) it does bring attention to the issue, and frankly, in a celebrity obsessed, 2 second attention span country, this campaign has undeniably drawn attention to the issue. That’s better than nothing, not perfect, but better than nothing. The many great CSEC orgs out there who have been in the field for a long time could have done better but then we wouldn’t be having this conversation now would we? And the ten of thousands of people who generally don’t care wouldn’t have seen them either. Also, something to consider, the D and A foundation is just that: a foundation. In the social service world they do not provide services to survivors nor do they conduct research, they raise money and give it out and trust me CSEC service providers (many who have been listed here) can use the money.

  20. wl
    April 22, 2011 at 5:21 pm

    All of the above also do political-type work, as does the PROS Network in NYC.

  21. April 22, 2011 at 5:42 pm

    I agree that changing the underlying inequalities is much more difficult work, but I disagree that Ashton and Demi’s work will undermine it *or* that there aren’t a whole bunch of guys out there that have either *never considered* the issue of sex slavery or if they did, didn’t think it mattered *because their friends didn’t*.

    I hear jokes about Rush Limbaugh’s activities in the Dominican Republic all the time, and I know personally at least one man who went on a “Thai adventure” and bragged about it. (He was a former employer). I have a really bad habit of lurking on the underbelly of the internet, and I find a whole lot of people who find child sex slavery to be “not that big a deal” and frankly don’t believe that it happens in the US, in part, because it’s mostly just us feminists telling people about it.

    People have an amazing ability to separate themselves from unpleasant thoughts if they can convince themselves that it has no conceivable impact on them. I think DNA’s contribution is to point out that it is happening here, and now, and that guys that watch and appreciate Ashton’s movies are *the market* for it.

    I feel, in watching this conversation, that we have become too possessive of our issues, and that a part of us resents even a clumsy attempt by an outsider to help. Rather than simply saying “DNA is a problem”, why not try to engage them, and point out the difficulties you see, and ask them to expand their message somewhat?

    They are entirely likely to get a lot of cash inflow, and with any luck at all, Demi and Ashton realize that the better way to spend that money is to funnel it through to all of the organizations like the ones listed in this thread who are already doing good work.

    Rather than condemning and refusing to engage, it seems to me that those who are working for sex workers and to stop sexual slavery now should be doing outreach to help them do what they apparently want to do very badly, and are not doing as well as they could.

  22. Kathleen
    April 22, 2011 at 6:05 pm

    people who have been advocating on behalf of sex workers should now re-orient their efforts to helping Ashton and Demi’s pet project succeed. great! as long as we have our priorities in order.

  23. April 22, 2011 at 6:08 pm

    That’s not what I said at all. What I said is that they are likely to raise a lot of money, and if you want that money to be allocated where it will do the most good, engaging them and helping them to understand the issues and what is already being done is a better way of doing that than allowing that money to simply be misspent.

  24. April 22, 2011 at 6:16 pm

    or, since “allowing” is a bad word, while we don’t have a “duty to educate” everyone who is out there doing bad faith argument, we do, if we care about an issue, have some duty to tell people who are trampling through the crop and ruining it (if that’s what we think they’re doing) how to get through the field without causing damage, at the least, and even how to help with the harvest, if we have some responsibility for that harvest.

  25. kung fu lola
    April 22, 2011 at 6:58 pm

    Can anyone recommend other (with similar goals, but better run) organizations to support?



  26. April 22, 2011 at 10:27 pm

    Does anyone else find it a little weird that on their site the two options are “Are you a real man?” and “Do you prefer a real man?” as though those are mutually exclusive?

  27. Lisa
    April 22, 2011 at 10:28 pm

    I recently organized a panel discussion on the topic of trafficking and how many differing views of it there are. Organizations working to end or prevent trafficking often don’t agree on the definition of it, so the field is really fractured and people who could be allies often refuse to work with one another.

    One great resource I learned about in the process was the Freedom Network, a coalition of organizations that works against trafficking while protecting the rights of trafficking survivors. http://www.freedomnetworkusa.org/about_us/index.php

  28. Natasha B
    April 23, 2011 at 2:02 am

    I prefer to listen to actual sex workers when it comes to discussing issues of sex work. The actions of abolitionists, and celebrities like Demi and Ashton, etc, often endanger the lives of people who have chosen to sell sex. By keeping sex work illegal (in order to ‘protect’ sex workers, of course) we endanger their lives – police raid brothels and frequently abuse, rape, and even murder the people they find inside, as the author of this piece mentioned. Sex workers are forced to work in the most dangerous parts of town, they have no recourse with the police if a client gets violent, etc. And many times, people who have freely chosen to leave their home and cross borders illegally are counted as having been trafficked, when in actuality they moved completely of their own free will.

    Yes, there are real trafficking victims (and they of course should be liberated and helped and assisted), but the numbers are inflated and exaggerated, and not all people who are trafficked end up forced to sell sex. Many are forced to perform other kinds of labor (house cleaning, building, child care, cooking, etc), but there are no celebrities fearmongering that we should shut down those industries. (It is the sex after all, that at the end of the day is so objectionable to them, not just the slavery or trafficking.)

    It is so important that we look at the larger issues as well – much of the money raised to stop ‘trafficking’ and fund anti-trafficking agencies go to installing networks of security systems, militarized border crossings, harsher penalties for those that have illegally crossed borders (if you flee a brutal regime for the safety of a foreign country, end up selling sex to support yourself, and are ‘liberated’ by a rescue agency and sent back to your home country against your will and end up being imprisoned or killed in a gulag, you probably aren’t so thrilled that you were ‘rescued) – that all add up to a huge system that is built to control the flow of migration and movement, not to help people who have been forced into sexual slavery. The fact that the rescue industry boomed after 9/11 when governments all over the world were looking for a way to shut down all free flow of people, is quite telling.

    Empowering and supporting sex workers is a key piece in the struggle to ending actual (not hysterical, exaggerated) sexual trafficking and slavery.

    I’m writing a series interviewing sex workers, sex workers that have been hurt by the actions of rescue organization, sex workers that have run rescue agencies out of town, sex workers that have organized into unions to protect their rights as workers and their very lives – you can read more here –


    And here are a few links about the dangerous habit the rescue industry has of inflating numbers of trafficked victims –

  29. April 23, 2011 at 8:24 am

    The cult of personality known as celebrity is ridiculous enough as is anyway. That it gives certain people in the public eye the agency to concoct these lame-brained schemes in the first place is part of the problem. One cannot be a successful activist, in my opinion, if the focus is centered upon gaining attention for the self and not caring for other people.

    Though attention for attention’s sake may not be the primary drive here, their fame prevents others from stepping into to suggest alternate courses of action. Money often speaks louder than sense.

  30. Norene
    April 23, 2011 at 9:13 am

    Natasha I think the work you’re doing is needed and most certainly valid. With that said, I think we must consider that D and A is focused on children and youth, not all sex workers. I object to calling a 14 year old girl or boy a sex worker. Kids/youth end up performing transactional sex because they are indeed forced or because they have no other choice to eat/have shelter, not because they are mature and empowered and have chosen to be a sex worker. This of course gets problematic when young people reach the age of majority however, if the average age of entry into prostitution is between 11 and 14 (as the research has found), then I again would question the autonomy, agency and availability of choices for the 18 or 19 year-old who has been in the life for a number of years already. Although the arguments you make are valid, particularly around some half concocted “rescue” groups, I think it falls flat when you consider this conversation started around a foundation that is focused on children/youth not sex workers. And trust me, although sex slave is most certainly not the optimal term, children/youth trafficking survivors absolutely exists in every corner of this country.

    This issue is not black and white and I’m not sure running social service agencies or “rescue groups”, many of which are founded and run by survivors, out of town is how to make sex work safe.

  31. anna
    April 23, 2011 at 9:40 am

    on their site the two options are “Are you a real man?” and “Do you prefer a real man?”

    Oh yuck. Way to ignore lesbians, and way to imply that men should oppose sex slavery because it’ll make women “prefer” them (that is, you’ll totally get laid, doods!) Newsflash: I prefer men who act out of their convictions and don’t pretend to care about issues that are deeply meaningful to me just so I’ll fuck them, like I’m some kind of charity whore. “You opposed sex slavery? Good boy! Here’s a free fuck!”

    And I agree that abolition is often not the answer, but like the post above states, I think at some point you can call it sex slavery. I don’t think it’s right to talk about “sex workers’ have rights and agency, they’ve chosen to be sex workers, how can we improve their working conditions without ruining their business” when you’re talking about children below the age of consent.

  32. Kathleen
    April 23, 2011 at 10:24 am

    Natasha B — *so* right on. and yeah, we never get the titillating language around “landscaper slavery” or “cleaning office buildings slavery”.

  33. Gayle
    April 23, 2011 at 10:39 am

    Trafficking is slavery.

    More power to these and other abolitionists. We need many more of them.

    Real men don’t buy girls. Indeed.

  34. Gayle
    April 23, 2011 at 10:52 am

    Natasha, I notice your often listening to the rare and few women who claim to choose prostitution while steadfastly ignoring the 80-90 percent of girls worldwide who are forced into the industry prior to the legal age of maturity

    Puzzling as to why such a rose-colored view of a blatantly exploitive and sexist industry gets so much of a hearing on feminist blogs while the other view is pushed off, lied about and ignored. If nothing else you have to admit the reason why women and girls are ones bought and sold (and not het men) is based in a sexist double standard, which tells us men deserve a subset of women are set aside to meet their natural needs while women don’t really like sex much. If “sex work” was really just sex work men would be jumping into the industry left and right, no?

  35. wl
    April 23, 2011 at 11:09 am

    Gayle, are you trying to say het men don’t do sex work, at all? That is just plain untrue. No I am not counting any kind of employer/”employer” – I do not consider those people to be sex workers unless they also do sex work.

  36. Kathleen
    April 23, 2011 at 11:48 am

    Gayle — sexism is *everywhere*, including, of course, in sex work. The sexual exploitation of children includes more girls than boys but it does include boys. And if you look at men doing sex work you see many of the same issues (addiction, poverty) but yes, there are more women than men involved. Feminists are not going to argue these points with you.

    What you don’t seem to be interested in grasping is that there is a whole chain of exploitation and inequality of which the sexual exploitation of children is the depressing nether end. If you are only interested in condemning the worst of the worst, and if you are so historically ignorant and invested in titanic self-regard as to compare yourself to an abolitionist for announcing your public condemnation of what everybody else publicly condemns — child sex slavery — you really don’t get where feminism is coming from or hopes to go.

    If we dealt with other — less scandalous and titillating — forms of labor exploitation and human trafficking properly, if we dealt with more complex forms of inequality and injustice properly, then the very worst of the worst (“child sex slavery”) wouldn’t exist at all. Congratulating oneself for condemning this form of exploitation — and having the nerve to compare oneself to an *abolitionist* for doing so — and having nothing sensible or thoughtful to say about any other forms is not helpful, and it is far from admirable.

  37. So...
    April 23, 2011 at 12:12 pm

    Kathleen/Natasha B – your claims that no one is interested in non-sex work “slavery” are offensive, stupid and show your privilege. “Landscaper” slavery? Is that your way of trying to diminish and ridicule the very real problem of abuse to domestic workers across the developed world and the United States? I suppose people have agency when they are being beaten or have had their passports confiscated? Wait, if we just legalize domestic work then all the abuse will go away… wait, see that sounds pretty stupid.




    And of course, “listening to sex workers” really means “listening to adult sex workers who are allowed to speak”. I’m sure there is no bias at all in who is able to participate in a symposium and be interviewed in magazines. It’s so weird to me. I mean if I came and took your 11 year old cousin or sister or daughter and offered her some food in exchange she could have sex with my 40 year old friend, I’m guessing you’d have some problems with that. Yet, paint her brown and make her poor and it gets applause from some feminists. I guess as long as it’s not innocent white womanhood being violated…

  38. chava
    April 23, 2011 at 12:57 pm


    I think Natasha is pointing out that if this mythical 11 year old wasn’t put in a situation by a larger global class structure that made her and her family vunerable to sex trafficking, the incidence of such horrific incidents would decrease.

    In other words, you have to get at the root of the problem, not just focus on its most abhorrent end products.

  39. chava
    April 23, 2011 at 12:59 pm

    Although, I find myself doubting that we’ll ever manage to eliminate sex trafficking w/minors, regardless of how well or how long we manage to address other forms of inequality.


    If we dealt with other — less scandalous and titillating — forms of labor exploitation and human trafficking properly, if we dealt with more complex forms of inequality and injustice properly, then the very worst of the worst (“child sex slavery”) wouldn’t exist at all.Congratulating oneself for condemning this form of exploitation — and having the nerve to compare oneself to an *abolitionist* for doing so — and having nothing sensible or thoughtful to say about any other forms is not helpful, and it is far from admirable.

  40. wl
    April 23, 2011 at 3:14 pm

    So&# 8230;: Kathleen/Natasha B –your claims that no one is interested in non-sex work “slavery” are offensive, stupid and show your privilege. “Landscaper” slavery? Is that your way of trying to diminish and ridicule the very real problem of abuse to domestic workers across the developed world and the United States? I suppose people have agency when they are being beaten or have had their passports confiscated? Wait, if we just legalize domestic work then all the abuse will go away… wait, see that sounds pretty stupid.

    Actually, if we decriminalized *migration* many of those abuses would go away. It comes down to not criminalizing certain populations and then being surprised when abuses get worse.

    As for your last paragraph which I will not quote because it is so offensive, please do not erase the great work being done for the rights of people in the sex trade, sex workers, and survivors of coercion and/or trafficking; BY: survivors of coercion and/or trafficking, people of color, poor people and people with experiences of extreme poverty, drug users and former users, street workers and former street workers, etc. Trust me, there a lot more folks doing this work than you might think. (note: Andrea Ritchie is now with the Peter Cicchino Youth Project, also part of the PROS Network).

  41. Kathleen
    April 23, 2011 at 5:49 pm

    “Sooo…”: the feminists you’ve invented do sound like awful people holding cruel opinions, and the pleasures of denouncing them are surely considerable. Your rush to indulge that pleasure does seem to get in the way of your ability to hear what actual feminists are in fact saying, however.

  42. Raja
    April 23, 2011 at 10:22 pm

    How about this; sexual slavery of any kind whether the person is underage or not is abhorrent and should be continued to be fought against until it is eradicated.

  43. Bitter Scribe
    April 24, 2011 at 2:29 pm

    The idea that the problem of child prostitution is one of CONSCIOUSNESS RAISING is ridiculous, and their somehow wanting congratulations for promoting that message is shameless.

    THIS. Thank you for putting your finger on the sheer absurdity here. No one worth listening to actually believes that having paid sex with children is a good idea. “Real men” don’t do a lot of things, like break into houses, embezzle money, murder, etc.

  44. Manju
    April 25, 2011 at 12:34 am

    Wow! Those 2 are still married? And celeb-married years are like dog years. Considering the flipped-age scenario, this is definitely a victory for feminsm.

  45. Random Observer
    April 25, 2011 at 2:26 am

    The average age of entry for an *underage* girl in prostitution is 12-13 years old. That is not the average age of entry into sex work overall, and those who are making this claim are simply repeating sources that grossly misquote the actual research. (BTW, the average age of entry for an *underage boy* in prostitution is more like 11, but for some reason that never gets quoted either.)

  46. Norene
    April 25, 2011 at 11:15 am

    Random observer, I did in fact quote the boy stat (11- 13 years old) in an earlier post specifically, and then combined the stat (12-14 for girls and 11-13 for boys making it 11-14) in the second post, please scroll up. If you are finding an exclusion of boys in those stats they are your own assumptions about the conversation and not based on what is written. Also, no, the average age of entry into prostitution is before the age of majority based on the most current and comprehensive literature. If you have current and comprehensive literature that says that in fact the majority of those involved in transactional sex enter as mature adults with full agency please pass it along. “Child prostitutes” (a misinformed term in my opinion) become adult prostitutes by law the day they turn 18 but that doesn’t change their experiences. Separating children and adults often gets pretty gray.

  47. Nia
    April 26, 2011 at 12:53 pm

    I’ve just got to say, it’s amazing to me the level at which people who have never worked in the industry feel entitled to talk about sex work, the sex industry, and “what it’s really like.”

    Look, I really don’t know what’s so hard about this: sewing clothes for a living isn’t wrong, sweatshop and slave labor is. Working in the cleaning industry is fine, being forced to do so for little or no pay isn’t. The industry, in both these examples, isn’t the issue – the issue is whether the worker in question is enslaved or not.

    WHY is this so different when people talk about the sex industry? Look: me and the girls I work with aren’t unhappy to be at the club we work at, no way. When the occasional customer asks what a “smart girl like me” is doing working there (because of course I guess sex workers are dumb, thanks doood), I always say that with the way the economy is going and the fact that I get paid under the table, how could a smart girl like me not be doing it?

    And you know what else? We’re not a minority, those of us who work in the industry and like it. And we have good days and bad days, things we enjoy and things we don’t, like EVERY. OTHER. WORKER. in just about every other industry.

    I’m sorry some feminists think that what I do encourages a sexist society. I’m sorry for those who won’t come out and say that, and instead seem to imply that you can support workers without supporting the industry itself – I dunno about that, the industry is pretty much paying for my dreams to be possible, I support it pretty strongly, but whatevs. The women I know in the industry are, for the most part, tough, empowered, and some of the kindest people you’ll ever meet.

    Serpent Libertine, who has a blog I much admire, did a great PSA on how sex workers stop trafficking – because being in the industry, we are often in a position to spot trafficking cases that the cops don’t. Slavery is awful, and it makes what can be a great industry shitty where it happens.

    I wish more people would engage us as allies in this fight. But please, stop spouting off about how X-Y % of us supposedly feel exploited when you know nothing about it. Ima go to work on Friday, and love it, because I’m gonna make some damn money. Okay? And so is every other girl I work with.

    Second the commentator who said that het men DO engage in sex work. Claiming they don’t is just ignorant.

    I’m gonna say something else too, that may be controversial. I agree with the spirit with which a previous commentator said that s/he objects to the use of “sex worker” when applied to a minor. I think, in general, the spirit of this is probably good policy. BUT: people are individuals, and everyone has a different life experience. I was a sex worker as a minor, and at the time, honestly, it helped me a lot. I worked with mostly good people. I don’t regret it, and I’m not left with a lingering sense of having been “exploited”. I’m not saying what happened is okay. I’m just saying, remember that individual experiences can differ… even when it comes to youth, don’t assume we all feel “victimized,” don’t assume none of us want to be there, and don’t assume that all of us are working under conditions that are oppressive due to something intrinsic about “sex work” – the conditions at the time that were oppressive to me had much more to do with being a youth in the U.S., and with poverty.

  48. Amber
    April 26, 2011 at 1:17 pm

    Nia- sex with someone under the age of 18 legally constitutes rape. There is not a lot of room for controversy there. A lot of times, these children were victims of abuse long before they became “sex workers.” Thus, because this type of sexual contact is now (sometimes) on their terms, they don’t see it as abuse… And sadly, for a long time, neither had the authorities.

    D&A is specifically dealing with CHILDREN, so let’s try to stay focused.

  49. Nia
    April 26, 2011 at 1:26 pm

    @ Amber – when that situation happens, it’s tragic and wrong.

    But it’s not what happened to me. I’m not advocating changes in laws around consensual sex and statuatory rape for minors. I’m saying that there are varied and different experiences, even in the world of sex work and youth, which rarely get examined or acknowledged. Including mine. And I’m not a brainwashed abuse victim, thanks.

    Slavery in any industry is wrong. Enslaving children in any industry is repugnant. These things should be stopped. No question.

    I would like to see them stopped in ways that are (A) effective and (B) do not contribute to the further stereotyping and discrimination and criminalization of sex workers. I am not convinced that D&A’s initiative fulfills either of these points.

  50. Norene
    April 26, 2011 at 8:39 pm

    Nia, you mentioned poverty as an antecedent to sex work for youth. I think you’re hitting the nail on the head for many young people (although yes, of course as you’ve said everyones experience is different). Many young people need to provide for themselves for a variety of reasons not least of which can sometimes be because they need to eat. I have meet and worked with many young people over the years who engaged in sex work of one kind or another and at the time, or in the years following, also did not consider themselves victims. With that said, I have never meet a minor engaging in sex work who had a whole lot of other choices. That has been my experience with minors. I also have known young people who at the time stated that they were happy with their work but later in life felt very differently. Your experience, as you’ve said was different, but in a world where people have been working their asses off not to have 14 year-olds thrown in jail for prostitution (which still happens in 46 states) presenting “sex work” as viable option for some minors some times is a slippery slope.

    Also, you may not want to assume you are the only person engaged in this conversation who has personal experiences with sex work. Personal experiences are personal experiences and research is research. They are both immensely valuable in understanding an issue and do not need to be contradictory.

  51. Norene
    April 26, 2011 at 8:44 pm

    Oh, and sex workers being in a position to intervene when need be and not being engaged… Yes! yes! and yes! so true. This whole issue is so polarized that the left hand doesn’t talk to the right and instead shoots itself in the foot often.

  52. Nia
    April 26, 2011 at 9:06 pm

    @ Noreen – sure. I get that. I don’t feel like anything I said contradicts your statements.

    And I’m not assuming I’m the only sex worker in this conversation. My reactions were more in reaction to certain statements made by specific commentators who I percieved as taking agency from us or confusing being anti-slavery with being anti-sex work. The issue wasn’t with the thread as a whole.

    I really hear you on the issue of minors. It’s a hard issue. I guess one thing I’d say is… you’re right, in many cases (such as mine) poverty restricted our choices, and I chose sex work. But you know, that’s true of many groups of people… one of the sex worker friendly articles cited in the comments above talks about sex work in areas of the world where poverty is a huge factor, and sex work is the option that makes sex workers the most money, and they don’t want to be rescued, in that context. It makes sense to work towards the eradication of poverty, so that all of us have more choices in terms of the work we engage in.

    But in my experience, and correct me if I’m wrong, it’s not as tho most abolitionist organizations engaging sex working minors are having an egalitarian conversation about “what it is that you’d like to do and where you’d like to live” etc. I personally avoided all government and social work organizations as much as possible, because all they’d do is put me in a program where I didn’t want to be. Also I would probably have chosen to engage in certain forms of sex work anyway, because the money was so good. I never encountered an organization that would have been cool with that choice, while helping me do other things like live in a stable environment, or go to college.

    Obviously my experience isn’t everyones. But it bears thinking about: when abolition is the only acceptible stance on minors and sex work, what are the consequences for those minors engaged in sex work?

    I get that this is a difficult conversation. And it might not be one for this thread. It would be interesting and important to explore further.

  53. JFK
    April 27, 2011 at 6:21 am

    @ Nia – thanks for some very insightful posts. I’ve been involved with quite a few sex workers from the, uh, buying side, and in many cases have gotten to know the women quite well. The picture painted by the media and research communities just doesn’t square with my experience, at all. I suspect that (a) few of these commentators have really met people in this line of work, and (b) what they “know” is mostly an expression of their puritanical values, insecurities, and fears. I think there’s too much smug grandstanding and not enough listening and understanding.

    The truth I see is that sex workers are mostly just normal people, with a diverse set of backgrounds and motivations. I haven’t met any “slaves” or women chained to beds. It just turns out that a fair number of women will have sex with strangers if the money is good. And for her it’s pretty much like any other job: On a good day rewarding, but it’s mostly just a way to earn a buck (and probably a pretty good one too). The average sex worker just doesn’t need to be saved. Go save the woman earning $20k a year at the neighborhood daycare first.

    On the buying side, it’s a similarly boring story. The men buying sex (men being the vast majority) are generally not abusive. They don’t want sex with kids, they don’t want to rape the sex worker. (Yes these criminals exist, just as criminals exist in every part of society.) They aren’t looking to act out some patriarchal fantasy of control and objectification. They just enjoy sex, and enough to pay for it.

    I think sex work makes a lot of people on the left uncomfortable because it forces us to confront the large differences between genders on matters of sex. Many end up rationalizing it away as an abusive and misogynistic act on the part of men.

  54. wl
    April 27, 2011 at 11:18 am

    Pedophiles mostly aren’t out looking for sex workers who are 12. They become teachers or whatever or abuse their own children – that is easier and safer for them. Minors in sex work generally have to lie about their age.

  55. wl
    April 27, 2011 at 11:19 am

    But JFK – don’t speak for sex workers until you’ve walked in our shoes. Same goes for the “abolitionists” on this thread…

  56. wl
    April 27, 2011 at 11:20 am

    Or for trafficking victims.

  57. JFK
    April 27, 2011 at 1:26 pm

    @wl : We agree, I do not speak for anyone. The experiences of sex workers and their customers are as diverse as the experiences of people in any broadly-based economic activity.

    My main gripe is that I think many people really oversimplify this situation. People have this mental model that the industry is predominantly 12 year old girls stolen from Russia and Thailand, transported to the US and Western Europe, and brutally raped by sadistic men. This mental model is wrong. Not wrong in the sense that these crimes do not occur (and as Nia says we can be unanimous in our condemnation of these acts), but wrong in the sense that it doesn’t convey the gist of what’s really happening.

    It’s like the mental model some Americans have about Muslims: That they are all suicidal extremists out to kill non-Muslims. This model is flawed not because such violent extremists don’t exist — they obviously do, and all sane people are united against them — but because it fails to capture the overall gist of what’s happening.

  58. wl
    April 27, 2011 at 4:16 pm

    I do agree with that.

  59. Nia
    April 28, 2011 at 8:01 am

    @ JFK – am thinking about what you said – for the most part, think I agree with the spirit of what you are saying. Especially, re: how normal we are.

    Coupla points maybe to keep in mind:

    – I really don’t want to assume that “most” commentators here have X Y of Z experiences, or that nobody else here has had any experience with sex work. Honestly, I get a lot out of the Feministe community. If I didn’t think people here were insightful, well meaning, and smart, I wouldn’t have bothered to post. And my post, while frustrated, certainly wasn’t directed at all commentators.

    – I get freaked out by phrases like “a fair number of women” etc. Reason being: I don’t think we have any real idea how many sex workers there are, or how many women (men, etc) engage in sex work, or how many “would if they could”. This convo started with trafficking, and I don’t even think we have real solid numbers on trafficking victims forced to perform sexual acts. (I’m not gonna call it sex work in that context, it’s not. It’s slavery.) I think a lot of damage, actually, is done in conversations like these when we start throwing numbers around, even generalized ones, about whole populations (like women) without a whole lot to back it up (it’s happened several times in this thread, not just here). I mean, it’s just as valid to say that you’ve met several women who are happy selling sex, and that’s your experience, and that’s that. Incidentally, I really wish we had an accurate sex work status, but… long time coming, and for now, lots of risks maybe…

    – Men do sex work as well as women. Including het men. And women buy sex. Please keep this in mind. This isn’t just a PC thing, it happened to me last week, and I know male sex workers, including straight men. I think it’s really important to keep the movement for sex workers rights inclusive of both genders. For clients who want to be allies, I’d say, it’s important to keep in mind that we are a wide and diverse group, and it’s helpful when you support all of us and don’t forget any of us, even if you don’t want to buy services from all of us. Make sense? Reinforces movement unity, and is good ally behavior.

    I also want to acknowledge you for being open about coming from “the buying side”. This isn’t the place to go on about it, but I often feel like my clients get stereotyped as sh*tbags, and it simply isn’t true in most cases. I also feel a weird social pressure to come home from work and “justify” what I do by making fun of my clients. I mean, when they deserve it, I let it rip, but… mostly, they don’t.

    Mostly, they are just normal, too.

  60. Nia
    April 28, 2011 at 8:04 am

    – sorry I should edit that third paragraph to say “all genders.”

  61. Norene
    April 28, 2011 at 11:25 am

    Nia, I’m not a big fan of any org who deems themselves a “rescue group” but there are many legitimate orgs out there who work with survivors of trafficking or young people involved in sex work or the many people in between in the gray and who absolutely care about “what it is that you’d like to do and where you’d like to live.” You can’t hold a person, even a minor, against their will so putting someone in a program they don’t want to be in is not an option (unless it’s jail and that’s what the cops do not service providers). That would just be a shitty program that wouldn’t work. Also, just food for thought, many of these orgs believe in the decriminalization of prostitution as well.

  62. wl
    April 28, 2011 at 12:31 pm

    For clients who want to be allies, I’d say, it’s important to keep in mind that we are a wide and diverse group, and it’s helpful when you support all of us and don’t forget any of us, even if you don’t want to buy services from all of us. Make sense? Reinforces movement unity, and is good ally behavior.


  63. Nia
    April 28, 2011 at 7:50 pm

    @ Noreen – seriously? I don’t know, I must just be a weird case then. As a minor, I was in plenty of so called hospitals and youth lockups against my will, without being formally charged with a crime or diagnosed. And most of the young people I knew in there weren’t too enthused either. Granted, this was in the US, and I don’t know where you’re writing from, but, uh… none of us were free to walk out.

  64. Nia
    April 28, 2011 at 7:52 pm

    Actually, when I think of the privileges many adults have over youth, in the privilege / oppression sense, I think of being free to walk out of a program unless you are charged with a crime.

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