The XX Factor

If You Want To Outlaw Prostitution, You’re Going To Have To Do Better Than This


It didn’t take one of Jack Shafer’s devastating media criticism pieces for me to smell an immediate rat with Newsweek’s splashy feature, John Next Door. From the start, it had “barely hidden agenda” and “desperate for mass readership” written all over it. Obviously, no one takes the time to write, or publish, an article that they don’t want to be both effective and widely read but those goals have to be accomplished without so insulting the readers’ intelligence that they have to fight you, just on principle. I’m amazed by how egregiously an organization like Newsweek violated such a fundamental rule. I blame the Internet. Fortunately, I dawdled in responding and now get to free ride on Salon’s Tracy Clark-Flory’s excellent dissection of all the ways in which it offends while I efficiently focus on just one of its flaws.  

Newsweek relies on a survey “released exclusively” to it, to report that men who buy sex are, basically, much more horrible people than men who don’t. This all but proves that “buying sex,” which the study defines unacceptably broadly, must be outlawed. Among its conclusions: 

Sex buyers were far more likely than non-sex buyers to commit felonies, misdemeanors, crimes related to violence against women, substance abuse-related crimes, assaults, crimes with weapons, and crimes against authority. All of the crimes known to be associated with violence against women were reported by sex buyers; none were reported by non-sex buyers. Sex buyers acknowledged having committed significantly more sexually coercive acts against women than non-sex buyers.

Sex buyers had significantly less empathy for prostituted women than did non-sex buyers and they acknowledged fewer harmful effects of prostitution on the women in it and on the community. Non-sex buyers more often saw prostitution as harmful to both the woman herself and to the community as a whole.

The sex buyers masturbated to pornography more often than non-sex buyers, imitated it with partners more often, and had more often received their sex education from pornography than the non-sex buyers. Significantly more of the sex buyers compared learned about sex from pornography compared to the non-sex buyers.  

Given my suspicion that most of Slate’s readers know (and love) men who’ve viewed pornography in the last month (that’s how broadly “buying sex” is defined), didn’t the study’s author consider that we’d be a tad distracted by her conflating our husbands, fathers, sons, and co-workers with wife-beating methheads who knock over liquor stores, shoot the clerks, then go in search of a child prostitute to ridicule while raping? That’s what being argued, after all, that any form of bought sex – from lap dances to 1-900 calls to that Internet history you forgot to delete – leads straight to the kind of life that Quentin Tarantino characters lead. That’s because, as Clark-Flory points out, the study was conducted by 

self-declared prostitution “abolitionist” Melissa Farley – whose methodology when studying johns in the past has been rightly criticized – but the magazine’s coverage doesn’t bother to mention that until more than halfway through the article. The piece egregiously fails to mention that the stridently anti-porn activist was arrested on multiple occasions in the mid-’80s for entering stores that sell Penthouse and destroying copies of the magazine in protest.  

While I’d never heard of Farley, I was only 200 words or so into the piece before I knew it was based on the work of someone, or some group, with a Tea Party-like opposition to prostitution and pornography. For all the right reasons, let me hasten to add, whether you’re for or against those things. But when you alienate your natural allies with overblown rhetoric and outlandish conclusions, when an undergrad would earn an easy A pointing out the flaws in your methodology and analysis, you just make critics, if not enemies, where there were once potential allies. I think Farley is at least partially right about the potentially dangerous effects of phenomena like phone sex and Internet porn, but condemning Joe Average in such stark, condemnatory terms for consuming it is simply to prefer sanctimony to actual success. (This amazing story about the rapist who genteely blamed his victim for not having agreed on a “safety” word before violent anal rape screamed “porn overload” to me. To get over that story, you must see Dave Chappelle on Internet porn). To effect the sweeping change her cohort advocates requires a consciousness-raising that can only be accomplished with patience and cunning. This is a pimp slap.

So, Amanda, you’re on to something. But, sadly, “sex panic” takes all forms and emanates from the unlikeliest places. I think it also forces those of us who are sorta ambivalent about hook-up culture et al, but officially supportive, to overcompensate towards a sexual free-for-all. The trouble with the Dr. Drews and the Dr. Farleys is that they force us to choose between being wearing a burqa or wearing pasties. Everywhere we go. Pisses us off.