backpage, ashton kutcher and prostitution

I love this cover

I love this cover

This is a very quick post. I’m sure I’ll think of better things to say this weekend.

a little background

After Craigslist fell, everyone’s attention turned to Backpage. The attention cranked up but Backpage wasn’t saying much, however it instituted new advertising policies that just got in the way of adult sex workers advertising there.

The point of intersection came with the Superbowl in Dallas and the hordes of underage girls being trafficked into the city. Like, so many of them every single hotel in the metroplex would’ve been booked solid with working girls under the age of 18. The Dallas Observer, part of Village Voice Media, made much of the non-event that was the Superbowl (not including the ice storm — which was an event).

Meanwhile, over on the West Coast, Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore, along with assorted other female celebrities, have been braying about the problem of child sex trafficking in the US. They’ve been raising millions, attempting to influence legislation and are making a lot of noise about this huge “problem” that even they admit has no solid numbers.

The Village Voice ran a story making fun of Ashton’s “Real Men Don’t Buy Girls” campaign and questioning the numbers of underage trafficking victims. Ashton took offense and started a Twitter war. He has a scary number of followers who are not sex workers yet consider themselves experts on underage trafficking because they follow his Tweets. Um, yeah.

Which brings us to…

few facts, several thoughts

(Hey, if Ashton can do it, so can I!)

Real men don’t buy/rent/sell girls. Real men also don’t think that merely making a lot of noise and raising money in the name of a problem somehow actually solves the problem. Real men know that addressing a problem requires action. I like men of action. I do not like men of noise.

Real men get their facts straight. Not my original thought but it’s the obvious reaction to Ashton’s “advocacy.”

There are many, many problems plaguing sex workers in America. The major, overriding problem is not the trafficking of minors — it is criminalization. For those of you concerned about the millions of child prostitutes on American streets, understand that criminalization is what drives them further underground and that the only way they can be “rescued” is to be arrested as a criminal first. Yeah, that’s real compassionate. Traumatize an already traumatized victim.

Celebrities like to throw attention at child sex trafficking because it is sexy. Helping old whores who need and want the help isn’t. Adults get trafficked too and I’m willing to bet that the larger numbers of sex trafficking victims are going to be those over the age of 18. After all, adults make up the majority of the population (everyone ages). It makes sense that adults are going to make up the larger number of sex trafficking victims. Even so, those numbers pale against the number of consenting adult sex workers.

Or, if Ashton truly wishes to help victims who are sex workers, how about all the sex workers, nationwide, who every single day get beaten, robbed, raped and arrested? Sometimes all by the same person? There’s a big huge problem, Ashton. What are you going to do about it?

money is sexier than child prostitutes

Ashton Tweeted attacks at Village Voice Media because they own Backpage. Other people have also tossed out the ideas of “conflicting interests” and have stated the only reason VVM still exists today is because of the profits it makes from sex worker ads on Backpage.

Yeah, so what? It’s a newspaper that has a steady stream of advertising revenue keeping it afloat in the Internet age. Backpage is not a pimp, it’s an advertising venue. Small business-people pay to advertise there. Backpage does not interfere in their work, does not collect more than the stated advertising costs, does not force them to take clients, etc. Backpage does nothing else other than provide a popular advertising venue for those who wish to use it.

Two of my best friends make their living from Backpage. I’ve advertised on there but it rarely worked for me (Craigslist worked better for me). I advertise on the places that work for me, both free and paid. None of those advertising venues are pimps. They are services that I freely choose to use and I pay their stated cost for my ad-space. How is this very old and simple concept not being understood?

Does VVM really have a vested interest because it owns Backpage? In the most capitalist sense, yes. If VVM stands up to Ashton and the rescue industry, they are protecting the sex workers who pay their bills; as opposed to quietly throwing all sex workers under the bus (that would be you: Craig Newmark and Jim Buckmaster). They are speaking up for a group of people who are generally given no voice. They are taking care of their constituents. There is nothing untoward about VVM protecting their largest stream of income. After all, isn’t that the basis of every single politican’s campaign?

I can tell anyone reading this that the sex workers who pay to advertise on BP would love to know that their money is going toward their own defense. They support being left alone to make their living in peace. Sex workers do not care about what Ashton or Demi thinks — unless they’re going to book a couples-appointment and tip well.

following the money

Speaking of money…the article that started this Tweet-war pointed out that the millions raised by Ashton and the millions approved by Congress that flows into the rescue industry dwindles down to $0 when we talk about actually helping real-live victims. Funny that. All this Sturm und Drang from the anti-traffickers sure reads like a conflicting interest. Talk about protecting one’s own income!

Just as with Craigslist, there was rumor that a 15yr old girl was pimped via Backpage. In my quick Google search, I came up with this article about a pimp using teens and another about a sweep that netted one unwitting teen. The first article is interesting because the pimp is arrested and then released — apparently pimping teens isn’t such a big deal after all. Yet CL and BP are being taken to the gallows for supposedly “pimping” teens. So…here was a real pimp in custody and yet his offense was so minor that he was released?? My head’s hurting.

The second article’s great because the teen — the underaged victim — is being treated as a criminal. You know why? Because prostitution is illegal. However, there is no mention of her pimp.

If child sex trafficking is such a heinous crime, wouldn’t police throw the book at every single pimp they caught? Wouldn’t they work overtime to catch the pimp of an arrested teen? Wouldn’t they attempt to arrest all the non-real men who were paying to have sex with these teens? Wait, that’s not happening? Why not? Am I to understand that child sex trafficking isn’t really that bad? That being a consenting adult sex worker is somehow worse? If one judges by arrest numbers, yes, being an adult consenting sex worker is of far more concern than being a trafficked teen.

One last thought on the money, and this is a biggie. At the 2009 Toledo Prostitution Conference, I got to listen to several good people from Second Chance. They really do work with teen prostitutes. They have very few beds and they have a waiting list they cannot possibly take care of. Their teens are a mix of trafficking victims and those who made the choice to enter sex work. They never have enough funding and attempting to wrangle more money is an exhausting process. Yet they have real victims! Where are the millions that Ashton has raised? Where is all that anti-trafficking funding from Congress? Where are the anti-trafficking abolitionists and their government grants? At the time of that conference, they said there less than 60 beds nationwide available for underage sex trafficking victims. They could not meet the demand, yet apparently taking care of underage trafficking victims via funding is actually a really low priority for every branch of government.

if you’re not part of the solution…

To the people who think Ashton is making some sort of difference: he’s not. If anything, he’s having a negative impact on consenting adult sex workers. He’s certainly not helping a single actual victim.

I support Village Voice Media and Backpage in their fight against Ashton and the rescue industry. I support them in continuing to provide a needed advertising venue for sex workers. I support them in their right to free speech and their right to question myth, stereotype and prejudice.

PS: Apologies for the lack of links here, it’s early morning and I have a lot to get done today. Maggie McNeil has covered this entire thing exhaustively.

20 thoughts on “backpage, ashton kutcher and prostitution

  1. Pingback: Village Voice vs. Ashton Kutcher « Dedicated to ending violence & stigma against sex workers

  2. Pingback: Special AK vs VV Roundup | Tits and Sass

  3. ashleigh

    Well written, I feel for victims of trafficking, but their self-professed saviors need to get a clue, I’m thoroughly convinced the male savior complex toward sex workers is more a way of self-assurance than genuine desire to eliminate the problem.

  4. Amanda Brooks Post author

    Ashleigh — Thanks! I love your assessment of the real problem: male saviors! Ha!

    Though this is just Ashton (and the occasional man who loves to rescue Thai child prostitutes). Most of the big-name anti-traffickers are women; women who have a real issue with female sex workers.

    XX

  5. Pingback: Friday Sex Links! « Sex with Timaree

  6. Lee

    Amanda – As usual, very well said, especially about the effects of criminalization.

    Every public affairs issue is going to be driven or at least heavily influenced by those who have a stake of some sort in it. To malign people based on this is naive at best, but as you pointed out, much more often it is done to shade hypocrisy and false arguments.

    Ashton’s allies are having a very negative, actual impact on consenting sex workers (as opposed to the fancied impact on children and others that they posit for themselves). I really think that this human trafficking stuff is currently the most-pressing anti-prostitution / anti-decriminalization issue. Especially when looking at the growth of this false savior industry and the convenient adoption of its blather by some politicians (Gavin Newsome, Dick Blumenthal, David Cicilline, et. al.). And how it impacted both the debacles in Rhode Island in 2009 and regarding Craigslist last year – whichever of these was the worse :). And how pervasively the trafficking stuff is brought up whenever there is a massage parlor busted almost anywhere in the county, no matter the age of those arrested. (Side notes: this has been happening at least since 2005; I would say that in at least 90% of the massage parlor cases I’ve dealt with or reviewed – either in the courts or in permitting processes – this stuff is brought up, almost always with easily seen through disingenuousness; there is one of these situation developing now where minding-their-own-business spas are being harassed by a local do-gooder group – fronted by a preacher, naturally – adopting Polaris Project data and arguments without actually doing anything practical to help those they presume to speak for.) And finally, when you consider the advances (slow and small, but still) against the law enforcement / anti civil liberties crowd in favor of less imprisonment for non-violent crimes, etc., mainly because of the economy, and how this could potentially benefit decriminalization efforts.

    So, it was very heartening to see anyone standing up to the Ashton Kutcher-Donna Hughes-Polaris Project crowd, especially when they have obviously put a serious effort into it and kept their nerve and verve. I think it would help substantially to have a politically-focused, coordinated, pro-decriminalization advocacy group or subset of an existing group to work with or parallel to an entity like VV. But I guess for that, maybe I better re-read your invisible majority post.

  7. Amanda Brooks Post author

    Lee — Thank you!

    You’ve said everything so very well. Ashton is a loudmouth but the Polaris Project is scary. They’re silent and insidious.

    Much discussion has been made about starting a decrimn lobbying group but anyone with the power does not want to step forward (even if they help out behind the scenes) and sex workers themselves get no respect. SWOP-USA has formed, or is trying to form, a lobbying group separate from the non-profit — not sure where they are in their paperwork.

    As for any group working with VV, there are a few sex workers speaking with them but no one group (to my knowledge). Not sure that VV has reached out either — they should. After all, they have a ready-made group of supporters who pay advertising! I am very very glad that VV isn’t taking this sitting down. For sure.

    XX

  8. David

    Hi Amanda,

    This is off topic but I tried to email you today and it bounced back.

    I had an interesting article to share.

    Cheers,

    David

  9. Lee

    Amanda – Thank you, too! To take your last paragraph first, who better to work with, than someone you’re already working with?

    In my opinion, looking for someone in or with power to start with is going to put the cart before the horse. Partly from cravenness (the nature of some of the individuals who are attracted to those positions) and partly from the circumstances of those jobs themselves (ever present barrages of suitors), those in power – with the most to lose – are going to be the least likely to take this kind of a risk. The start has to come from the dedicated believers; if necessary or beneficial, when the time is ripe, anyone with the money can hire professional lobbyists or media people; those in power are the icing on the cake. It seems to me that this is how groups on issues like legalization/decriminalization of marijuana, gay rights, abortion (both sides) have been successful. (For what its worth, the guidelines for Political Action Committees are tedious but hardly insurmountable – or maybe I deal too much with these bureaucratic forms and processes.)

    But having a group that looks and sounds professional is a major boost. As unfair and superficial as it is, too many people (and especially media and politicians) base their reports, opinions and subsequent actions and alliances on the sources of information and analysis rather than on the substance of what is being said, and they are rarely going to take the time and effort to find their own facts or fact check others. And you don’t have to look any further than the anti-prostitution people we’ve been talking about to see this – no facts (often outright fabrications), highly biased reports, but slickly spun presentations and cunningly targeted audiences.

  10. Amanda Brooks Post author

    Lee — And this is the whole problem with moving forward. Sex work activists (myself included) tend to be disorganized, have a lot of other things going on and many have problems with forms/rules. We don’t have the money to hire professional lobbyists. Our grassroots efforts are great — but go in a lot of different directions. An entity like VV would be extremely helpful, they don’t have much to lose and they have money!

    And then there’s the whole professionalism thing, part of the issues which I covered in my invisible majority post. Sex work activists lose major points on the professionalism aspect, unfortunately. Dour academics run circles around us on this — effortlessly. They also do a great PR job. I envy their ability to lie with a straight face and present a quickie survey of a few people as “facts.” The hideous irony is that most sex work activists are way too honest to do this because they realize anything they say affects real people.

    Ugh. Just woke up and I’m only frustrating myself.

    But please keep talking, maybe a workable solution will emerge a some point. :)

    XX

  11. Vegan Vixen

    Perhaps, the most common form of human trafficking is the legal trafficking of sex workers into jail cages. The enforcement of anti-prostitution laws is a lot like human trafficking. Just like traffickers use deception to gain control, that’s exactly what vice cops do who are tricking sex workers into thinking they’re clients only to arrest them and hold them captive against their will. If this doesn’t resemble human trafficking, I don’t know what does.
    Resources are being so wasted it comes to human trafficking. The U.S. government under the TVPRA is giving a lot of money to law enforcement to arrest sex workers and clients under the guise of fighting trafficking. This leads me to wonder whether ending trafficking really is the main motive. In the meantime, organizations that really do help trafficking people are struggling just to provide safe facilities for survivors of trafficking. An anti-trafficking activist I knew was telling me all about this, about how they really need resources to provide safe houses. With all the millions or billions of tay payer dollars supposedly being allocated toward ending trafficking and helping trafficking survivors, why are people and groups truly interested in stopping trafficking struggling just to provide basic needs, such as safe houses?
    Also, there’s little to no focus on developing policies that make trafficking less likely to happen in the first place. So much of the focus is just on responding after the fact.

  12. Amanda Brooks Post author

    Vegan — Thank you for pointing out how the laws are used to traffick humans. I totally agree and have felt this way myself.

    Agree with everything else too. It’s very obvious to sex workers (trafficked or not) that the laws and the money put the focus on the wrong places, helping no one, harming a lot of people who wouldn’t be harmed otherwise.

    XX

  13. Lee

    Amanda (belatedly) – I hear what you’re saying, but I don’t think the problems you mentioned are insurmountable. Dealing with the organization, forms, and administration is not something that everyone involved should/would have to deal with. I can think of several other tasks that would also best be done by someone who is interested in them (apart from everyone’s shared interest in the goal of the organization as a whole), who has some experience in them and who is good at them – i.e. website building and maintenance, media outreach, media appearances, research, outreach to potential allies, outreach to sex workers who might want to be involved.

    I think that the professionalism, and the tie-in to your invisible majority post, speaks to the organization of an organization as much as it speaks to the presentation parts that you mentioned. If every part in the band has to be played by sex workers only (let alone known, established sex worker activists), and the first thought is how can we classify those on our side, give them a classification term, and establish a hierarchy, to me you shoot yourself in the foot and turn away many people who agree with you and might be willing to help if welcomed. (This also strikes me as an effect of the over-bureaucratization of our society.) Look at the opposite side: pretty much anyone who hates sex workers is welcomed with open arms (clenched fists and gnashed teeth might be more accurate, but you get the idea). I know that every sex worker, and every sex work activist is not like that by any stretch, but many are, and so back to your invisible majority. And incidentally to the fallacy of people who think they don’t want to be involved in politics – everyone is affected, so everyone is involved, like it or not; its just a matter of whether you want others entirely making the decisions for you, or whether you want to help (in some form or fashion) push things in the direction you want them to go.

    You are spot on with your comments on the academics and their presentations – and it’s to be expected, as they are trained and practiced in it. But to use a military analogy, it seems to me like what you’re saying is that the honest sex workers you speak of are trying to address everything with equal honesty, like an army attacking evenly across the line, instead of focusing their strength on the enemy’s weak points (of which there are obviously plenty). It doesn’t have to mean lying. On the other hand … I seem to remember seeing bits and pieces of an argument conducted by sex workers with great energy and passion … over who had the right to call themselves an activist – certainly in the academic style that one was.

    The last thing for now, is that I think anyone who is pushing for any public policy change that has an economic argument to be made in its favor, has a much better chance to be heard now, for that – far more so than for at least the last 20 years. And just off the top of my head I can think of people or groups whose support might be gained with these arguments for this issue.

  14. Amanda Brooks Post author

    Lee — As always, love your thoughts!!

    The sex worker movement is built on the idea of 100% consensus and this gets in the way of progress. Issues get talked to death before action is taken; usually that action is so belated by the talking or so watered-down as to be completely unnoticed. Stepping forward, taking the lead and making decisive decisions are frowned upon to the point of often just not being “allowed.” Activists would have a real issue with trusting a small group of people with making decisions if they aren’t directly involved with the decision-making process. Which means there isn’t much delegation. Part of that comes from sex workers’ ability to DIY their entire careers (which is an asset), part of it comes from the whole consensus thing again.

    And if we’re talking straight organization/structural hierarchy — there are issues with that, including the simple fact of not having enough people to go around. There are parts that should only be done by sex workers and plenty of supporting parts that should be open to any trustworthy person who believes in the concepts. The “trust” bit of that is a huge gap and one that I share too. The other bit of being more open to others is one the movement does have a hard time with.

    Agreed that sex work arguments tend to give equal weight to every issue. We do NOT push hard enough on a lot of points that are major weaknesses of the opposing argument. Once you get into it and start learning about the problems, everything becomes interconnected (because it is) and nothing is simple (because it isn’t). The opposing side doesn’t care and for them, everything is B&W. Rather, their single goal of abolishing prostitution is easy since all roads lead to it. Our goals are more diverse and lead in different directions. Media-training by media professionals would help.

    I remember the whole “activist” argument too. Yeah, stuff like that doesn’t help.

    Agreed that right now is the time to push hard on the economics of prostitution, particularly on how much criminalization costs. I’ve been seeing comments on news articles leaning that way for the last couple years. People are waking up to the fact that the average prostitution arrest costs $2000-5000. Doing a huge sweep in cash-strapped city isn’t the best way to use taxpayer’s money to fight crime.

    XX

  15. Amanda Brooks Post author

    Lee — I’m dying laughing. So basically Ashton had to give up his Twitter account to the grown-ups since he wasn’t allowed to Tweet by himself anymore???

    Guessing “management team” means “my publicist” though if I said something like that people would automatically assume it meant “my pimp.”

    XX

  16. Amanda Brooks Post author

    Lee — BP doesn’t seem willing to roll over and play dead (unlike Newmark and Buckmaster), which is good. But they haven’t made a mass call to the sex workers who advertise on BP — which is kind of missing the point. They’d have thousands of instant supporters if they just asked.

    Loved how that Twin Cities paper decided they weren’t going to run sex work ads because those ads “objectified” women (regardless of how many women were placing their own ads). I assume they also heavily monitored their ads for all other products and services in order to not “objectify” women.

    XX

  17. Wendy Heckaman

    I wish the best on stopping this crime, I have witness someone using backpages of Craigslist, and if you shut down that site it would take part of the problem. Along with the sites that advertise girls on Meth. site pushes prostitution, and check out truck stops they are using cameras in women’s bathrooms. Wish more Americans would take a stand on this.

    1. Amanda Brooks Post author

      Wendy — Stopping what crime? Prostitution? The “crime” that is only a crime in some countries, like the US, and the “crime” that has existed since the dawn of time? Or stopping the crime of Ashton Kutcher attempting to speak for and save sex workers?

      Shutting down advertising websites, who work with authorities in finding victims, would only push the actual problems elsewhere and victims will become harder to find — like how it was before the Internet existed (hint: victims existed then too and were rarely discovered).

      Sex workers who use drugs are a whole different issue; some may be victims, some maybe are not. Nor do I have any idea what cameras in women’s restrooms are good for, other than invading the privacy of anyone who uses that bathroom.

      I am an American and I’m taking a stand on this issue. Though not the stand you like, it’s the correct one. (For the record, I’m against cameras in women’s bathrooms, truck stops or not.)

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