Whenever you see the mainstream media talk about “helping” sex workers, it almost invariably involves the police in some way. If you didn’t realize that was bullshit before, the last couple of years of news stories should have given you some kind of inkling. Just this week, Oklahoma Daniel Holtzclaw was convicted for raping at least 13 black women while on duty. It should be painfully obvious to all but the most obtuse that going to the police is helpful for only a small fragment of United States citizens, and to many, it’s highly risky. The answer to the question “Who guards the guardians?” is a plaintive “No one.”
BETWEEN 11 and 13: Average age when boys and transgender youth become victims of prostitution.
I just published a nearly 4,000-word article in The Atlantic chronicling why this is complete bullshit, so I take the fact that The Advocate can’t be arsed to do their fact-checking a little personally. It’s really easy to find out why this statistic is so bad that it’s “not even wrong” as they say in science.Usually, the “age-of-entry” nonsense is used to refer to girls, and implies heterosexual prostitution. But nevertheless, there’s no research backing up the claim that massive numbers of children go into prostitution at such young ages that they could statistically outweigh those who go into sex work in their late teens, twenties, or older. Those studies that have made such claims have focused entirely on samples of people under the age of 18, which automatically skews your results. They’ve also tended to focus exclusively on young people who have been arrested or “rescued,” which also skews the results towards people who are in trouble. For a really good, detailed examination of what’s wrong with these numbers, I recommend reading Emi Koyama’s blog post, “The Average Age of Entry Into Prostitution is NOT 13.” It’s one of the first pieces that I looked at as a reference for my Atlantic article.
There’s also problems with the claim that go beyond the merely statistical. For instance, look at the phrase, “become victims of prostitution,” which immediately erases the line between prostitution and child-rape. In hindsight, I will acknowledge this as also being a problem with my piece in The Atlantic; I should have been more careful about making a distinction between sex work, which is done as an economic choice, and abuse. It’s a very important distinction, and to ignore it also erases the agency of those who do sex work by their own initiative.
Besides failing to check their facts, The Advocate doesn’t even cite their source for the “age-of-entry” stat, probably because they got it through the journalistic equivalent of chatting at the water cooler. I would be very surprised if the person or persons who created this particular dis-infographic knows where they heard it. However, I can make an educated guess at the ultimate source: The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in the U. S., Canada and Mexico, by Richard J. Estes and Neil A. Weiner. The Estes and Weiner report came out in 2001, and included this snippet, based on interviews with 210 underage subjects:
Average age of first intercourse for the children we interviewed was 12 years for the boys (N=63) and 13 years for the girls (N=107). The age range of entry into prostitution for the boys, including gay and transgender boys, was somewhat younger than that of the girls, i.e., 11-13 years vs. 12-14 years, respectively. The average age of first intercourse among minority boys and girls was younger than that of the non-minority youth we interviewed, i.e., 10-11 years of age for minority boys and 11-12 years of age for minority girls.
Emphasis added, to show it specifically matches the claim in The Advocate’s graphic.
As I say in my own article, I don’t have any particular gripe with the Estes and Weiner study, but I do have major issues with how it’s used. The quote above is referring only to the proportions in their sample; it is not making a universal claim, about prostitution in America as a whole. It is certainly not making such a claim about prostitution in 2014. In a mainstream publication, I would roll my eyes in frustration. When I see this stuff in The Advocate, I feel disgusted at how easily they play respectability politics.
Most current government and nonprofit policies on sex work define their goals as “rescue,” which makes perfect sense if the age-of-entry statistic is central to your understanding of the sex industry. Child abuse and trafficking are crises that require certain types of interventions. But these crimes do not characterize the sex industry more generally. In reality, many sex workers come into the industry as adults and without coercion, often because of economic necessity. By seeing the sex industry through the lens of the misleading age-of-entry statistic, we overlook the people who are most affected by discussions about sex work—the workers themselves.
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One of the strongest and most thorough critics of the statistic is activist Emi Koyama. Koyama says that even when applied only to underage subjects, the stat doesn’t hold up, which does a disservice to the most vulnerable in our society.
“It conceals the reality that most of the young people in the sex trade come from families affected by poverty, racism, abuse (including homophobia and transphobia in families), parental imprisonment or deportation, or from broken child welfare systems, and do not have safe places to return to,” she told me in an interview. “In fact, many young people are trading sex as a way to escape from violence and abuse that they have experienced in their homes and child welfare systems. By treating them as innocent and helpless ‘children,’ we fail to listen to the young people who are struggling to survive in hostile circumstances. We also fail to address the root causes of their vulnerability, and instead promote further surveillance and criminalization of street culture—which actually harms young people who survive there.”
Even by mathematical standards, the numbers don’t add up. In order for 12 or 13 to represent the national average age of entry, there would need to be a significant number who enter at ages younger than that. “The vast majority of young people who are ‘rescued’ by the law enforcement during Operation Cross Country sweeps are 16- and 17-year olds,” Koyama says, “and there are rarely any under the age 13… For the average age to be around 13, there needs to be many more 5-12 year olds that are forced into prostitution than are empirically plausible.” If the massive numbers of children exist in quantities enough to offset those who enter in their late teens or as adults, they’re not showing up in the arrests made by the Federal government, even high-profile ones like Operation Cross Country.
In addition, Koyama says, the age of entry statistic flatters Americans that their own communities are safe, while playing on the fear of outsiders: “It gives the impression that children were safe until ‘bad people’ came into their communities to take them away, and therefore we must arrest and prosecute these ‘bad people’ (often racialized).” —Read More
After you read that, I strongly suggest that you go and read this piece, by Melinda Chateauvert, who goes even farther than I do in my article. Just after the article went up, she said on my Facebook comments, “I really wish you’d contacted me about this,” and boy, do I wish I had. Turns out that she had some of the exact information I’d been looking for. See, although the most common reference for the statistic nowadays is The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in the U. S., Canada and Mexico, by Richard J. Estes and Neil A. Weiner, it’s been around before 2001. The earliest citation I’ve seen is a 1982 paper by Mimi Silbert and Ayela Pines. Unfortunately, I couldn’t for the life of me find a copy of the paper. All I had was a title. Mindy does a great job of debunking the pre-2001 version of the “average age of entry” factoid:
The original academic article, “Victimization of Street Prostitutes,” was published in the journal Victimology in 1982 (7 : 122-133). The data came from research conducted by Mimi Silbert of the San Francisco Delancey Street Foundation and Ayala Pines of UC Berkeley, who interviewed 200 women and girls in SF, all of whom were Delancey Street clients. The authors note that the number of juveniles arrested for prostitution had “doubled” from 38 to 86 from 1976 to 1977. Still, this was 86 minors among more than 2,300 adult women arrested for prostitution in 1977. (FWIW, I was one of the women arrested that year. The SFPD and was engaged in a major crackdown at the time, especially in Union Square and the Tenderloin areas as developers had begun eying those neighborhoods. There were arrests across the entire /hetero/ sex industry: clubs, parlors, bars, hotels, streets, etc.)….
It’s important to understand this data from a historical perspective. In 1977, the drinking age was 18. That meant that “juveniles” could work in strip clubs, serve liquor, and obtain a license from the city to work in a massage parlor or encounter parlor. (There were no educational requirements to receive a massage license at that time). A young person only had to show an ID stating she was 18. (And remember, this was when many states issued a driver’s license on paper, and did not necessarily include a photograph.)
Now that the whole situation with Danielle Lee and Biology Online has mostly been settled, I’m getting ready to write up some of the things that bothered me about how the science/skeptic/atheist communities supported Lee. On the one hand, I think that it was great to see the outpouring of support against a wanker who deliberately insulted a professional scientist because she wouldn’t write for free. On the other, the overwhelming majority of support for Lee implied — if it didn’t come out and say it outright — that there was something foul and distasteful about being a whore. It seems like we need to talk about ways to we can support women against misogynist jackasses without kicking sex workers under the bus. Because that’s exactly what happened: when everyone rushed to stand by Danielle Lee’s side, they made damn sure that they ran away from the sex workers.
I’m not sure if I’m going to write this for this blog, Godless Perverts (which really, really needs to get some new content up), or Slixa. Either way, I’d like to ask for some help. I definitely have my own thoughts, but in the end, it’s the thoughts and feelings of sex workers themselves that are important. If you’d like to contribute your viewpoint on either the DNLee situation specifically, or the use of the word “whore” by civilians more generally, either fill out the contact form below, or use the regular comments. I’d also be happy to do interviews by phone/Skype/IM.
I’m especially interested in hearing from sex workers who identify as atheists or agnostics, but any viewpoints are welcome, godless or not.
Kitty Stryker answers this question today in a very lovely and touching article at Slixa, based on her experiences taking clients in London. It doesn’t actually tie in with the common stereotype:
Working with TLC Trust in London, I found myself encountering a very different sort of client than the media-projected stereotype. I was a companion for an autistic man whose sister wanted to help him learn how to navigate flirting and dating with hands on experience. Just coming to my space was difficult for another person who had social anxiety. I had more than one female lover who sought me out for erotic massage so they could relearn how to be touched intimately and communicate triggers after sexual assault experiences. Sometimes the people I met wanted to snuggle and cry in my arms about the restrictions they felt about their faith, or their struggle with expectations of gender roles, or relationships they had lost. I hadn’t fully realized how being a switchboard operator with psychology experience gave me training on how to be a better provider!
[Update: Thanks to Donna L for calling to my attention the fact that Feministe‘s editors have said that they removed the post at the request of the author. However, that still leaves a lot of questions unanswered, such as: why they made the whole thing disappear without a trace, along with the comments; why didn’t they address the removal in a more public manner, instead of burying it in a “spillover thread”; and what positive steps they’ll take to center the voices of sex workers in the future.]
Sometime late last week, the editors of Feministe made a very embarrassing and controversial post about sex work disappear from their site, along with several hundred comments. As of this writing, they have not posted any explanation, apology, or retraction for the post, apparently hoping that they can just make it vanish down the memory hole.
I wrote about the problems with “Dear Feminists” by Sarah Elizabeth Pahman last week, just before the Feministe staff decided to make it disappear. To summarize: it was not only whorephobic, but racist and classist. Although it pretended to be about poverty in America, and specifically about impoverished sex workers, it was all about Pahman, and how seeing them for the first time made her feel.
Although I shamefully neglected to mention it in the actual piece, my most recent post at Slixa was done as part of Maggie McNeill’s Friday the 13th event, in which she encourage non-sex workers who are allies to write about the decriminalization of sex work. Mine talks not only about decriminalization, but about how we have to destigmatize it as well. Tolerating sex work with a distasteful grimace is little better than calling for its prohibition:
But ironically, decriminalization is as inadequate as it is radical. The stigma around sex work is at least as damaging as the laws. Stigma adheres to all branches of sex work, whether legally or not. It might be perfectly legal to make, market, and sell Lesbian Spank Inferno, Vol. 17, but having it on your résumé will guarantee you don’t get a job teaching grade school. The idea of sex workers as “fallen,” broken, or amoral is the soil in which the laws grow. The State of California was able to enact a regulation denying aid to victims of rape because stigma allows people like Ms. R to be considered disposable.
In the end, decriminalization isn’t enough: we have to say that sex workers — like any other legitimate work — can be a positive thing, not an inevitable blight that has to be tolerated. That’s not just radical in the current climate, but unspeakable. Right now, it’s hard enough to get people to use the phrase sex work without a lewd, patronizing grin.
In yesterday’s post, I made a deliberate point of saying that I wasn’t going to go into detail about specific steps for Feministe and other sites to improve their relationships with sex work communities. As I said, there’s already enough non-sex workers talking about what sex workers need. But I think that reading Olive Seraphim’s “How to Be a Feminist Ally to Sex Workers” would be a good first step for the Feministe staff. The excerpt below seems particularly germane. And like most good things, it doesn’t apply only to sex workers, or feminists.
Acknowledge how feminism actively pushes sex workers out of feminist spaces
A non-sex worker said to me the other day something feminists have been saying to women they’re trying to silence for years; but your analysis isn’t nuanced! (Insert whatever excuse to ignore our perspective you like, as there are many feminists like to use against us and this is but one example). Of course, this is actually code for; I don’t like what you’re saying so I’d rather shut you out of the conversation completely by getting an academic who has no experience with what you’re saying to word things in such a way that you can’t understand them while complicating the issue into a philosophical argument so we don’t need to address the real life shit you have to deal with on a daily basis. Feminism needs to stop being academic to the exclusion of everyone else, especially if you take privilege theory seriously and realize that those with intersecting identities may well have had less access to education than your privileged ass.
Feministe‘s coverage of sex work is pretty seriously fucked up, and it is far past time that they face up to that and do something about it. I feel like that’s so painfully obvious that it’s embarrassing even saying it, but apparently it does need to be said.
In February, Feministe editor Jill Filipovic published a troubling post about how she supports sex workers, but hates sex work. When is the last time that you saw any marginalized person respond positively to the “hate the sin, love the sinner” line?
Sometime after the Feministe post went up, Pahman’s blog was marked “private” and blocked off. You can still find a 2012 interview with her here, in which she cites Melissa Farley as one of her inspirations. If you’re not familiar, Farley is an anti-sex work activist whose research has been so thoroughly debunked that it can comfortably be described as either fraudulent or grossly incompetent. ↩
I have a new piece up at Slixa, about the fight to ban New York police and district attorneys from using condoms to arrest people for prostitution.
In light of the decision yesterday that stop-and-frisk is unconstitutional, my piece seems to be especially well-timed. “Condoms as evidence” is little more than a sub-category of stop and frisk that’s used to target the people who need safer sex resources the most. The fact that it’s been allowed to exist as long as it has is due to the fact that over the last couple of decades, it’s become more and more acceptable to criminalize whole populations of people, instead of behavior that actually does harm.
But in the eyes of district attorneys and police departments, condoms aren’t for everyone. For white, middle-class, straight-looking people, a few condoms in their pocket or purse represents a sophisticated, responsible sexuality. For those who fit police profiles of sex workers, having condoms on their person might be the thing that gets them arrested on prostitution charges.
“That’s something that we’ve had to clarify again and again,” says Emma Caterine, from New York’s Red Umbrella Project. “I think it’s just a habit in any kind of rights-based activism and organizing to say, ‘Oh, this could happen to me,’ and of course, that really isn’t the case in this situation. The people who are affected by this legislation are people who are profiled as sex workers. That includes sex workers, of course, but it also includes people who are profiled as sex workers because of different stereotypes we have about sex workers.”
The people who fit law enforcement profiles of sex workers are overwhelmingly young, low-income, people of color, or visibly queer or transgender. In other words, arrests target precisely those populations most at risk for transmission of HIV and other STIs.
This seems like a particularly cruel joke in New York, the only major American city to issue its own official condoms. Since 2007, the city’s much-acclaimed “NYC Condoms” program has distributed tens of millions of male and female condoms per month to the five boroughs. In 2012, the city distributed 37.2 million condoms — about 70 per minute. This February, NYU commemorated the program’s five-year anniversary with a retrospective of graphic design and public relations material.
But even as New York’s elite celebrate the condom as a pop icon, thousands of residents are faced with a dilemma: carry condoms to protect themselves against STIs, or risk harassment or arrest by police. “These are the populations that the CDC and other public health authorities have targeted for universal condom access,” says Megan McLemore, a Senior Researcher for Human Rights Watch. “They’re really trying to make sure that these populations use condoms every time. So the fact that people who are doing this work and who are profiled as doing this work are carrying fewer condoms than they need has serious consequences for HIV prevention.”