Unethical practices produce New York Times’ ‘sex work’ story

Screen shot -- New York Times Magazine cover story.
Screen shot: New York Times Magazine cover story, May 5, 2016.

Over the weekend, Emily Bazelon, a staff writer at the New York Times, published an article called “Should Prostitution Be a Crime?” What she didn’t say was that she had already answered her own question, and that she chose to distort (or outright ignore) facts and interviews in order to push a narrative in support of full decriminalization, under the guise of neutral reporting.

Her bias becomes clear early on to anyone who is familiar with the politically loaded term, “sex work,” which she adopts uncritically, claiming this is “the term activists prefer.” While Bazelon admits that most of those who speak publicly as “sex workers” are white and very privileged in comparison to most women in the industry, she doesn’t challenge the language.

The piece centered itself around Amnesty International’s recent decision to adopt a policy supporting the decriminalization of pimps and johns. Due to the choice of organizations like Human Rights Watch (HRW), World Health Organization (WHO), UNAIDS, and Amnesty International to advocate for the legalization of prostitution, Bazelon is able to claim this as the “human rights” approach to prostitution legislation, without acknowledging the unethical ways these organizations came to this advocacy, the hypocrisy of this position, and without fairly representing the opposition. In fact, defining decriminalization as the “human rights argument” is a distortion tactic itself as, by comparison, those who oppose the legalization of the industry are positioned as not being onside with human rights goals. In truth, prostitution itself is defined as “incompatible with the dignity and worth of the human person” by the UN, meaning that organizations like Amnesty International and HRW defy their own mission statements, core values, and responsibilities by advocating for a system that accepts and normalizes prostitution.

Bazelon claims that “sex work” activists are “fighting the legal status quo, social mores, and also mainstream feminism,” leading me to wonder who and what, exactly, Bazelon believes “mainstream feminism” is…

Feminism is a radical movement that fights a system of oppression called “patriarchy,” so to call it “mainstream” is strange, in and of itself. But I myself have, admittedly, used the term from time to time, in reference to the large, mainstream, liberal publications that promote a version of “feminism” that is pro-capitalist, pro-objectification, pro-sex industry, and that fail to challenge male power at its root. This is to say that, when I have used the term “mainstream feminism,” (which I have, in the past, used interchangeably with other terms such as “Playboy feminism,” “liberal feminism,” and “corporate feminism”) I don’t mean “feminism” at all. My perspective is that feminism is not, as celebrities like Matt McGorry and corporate beauty magazines like Cosmo and Glamour claim, a thing that happens any time a woman makes a choice about anything at all, nor is it something that is not specifically about “women’s liberation” but rather about “gender equality,” nor is it something that must necessarily be inclusive of men. No. Feminism is a movement that is focused on ending the oppression of women under patriarchy and on ending the male violence women are subjected to within that system.

That Bazelon positions those fighting for men’s right to legally buy and sell women as “fighting mainstream feminism” confirms either ignorance with regard to what the feminist movement actually is or a strong bias.

But Bazelon not only doesn’t acknowledge a bias, but denies one, saying in a video conversation posted to Facebook shortly after the article was published, “Six months ago, I really knew almost nothing about this topic.”

This claim is hard to believe, even without considering the perspective put forth in the piece, which left out testimonies from survivors, distorted quotes from abolitionists, presenting them as out-of-touch conservatives, irrational ideologues, and misogynists, and provided false information about both the Nordic model and decriminalization.

In one case, Bazelon writes, “Melissa Farley, a psychologist who received Bush funds, wrote in 2000 in the journal Women and Criminal Justice that any woman who claimed to have chosen prostitution was acting pathologically — ‘enjoyment of domination and rape are in her nature.'” The actual argument from “Prostitution: a critical review of the medical and social sciences literature” reads:

“Pornography, for example, is a form of cultural propaganda which reifies the notion that women are prostitutes. One [john] said ‘I am a firm believer that all women… are prostitutes at one time or another’ (Hite, 1981, page 760). To the extent that any woman is assumed to have freely chosen prostitution, then it follows that enjoyment of domination and rape are in her nature, that is to say, she is a prostitute (Dworkin, 1981).”

The argument being referenced here is Dworkin’s, which says that normalizing prostitution or saying that women freely choose to work in the sex industry because they “enjoy it” leads to the conclusion that women, in fact, enjoy being dominated and raped, as this is what we see both in porn and in prostitution.

Likewise, Farley does not argue that she believes women enjoy rape and domination, but that buyers (johns) believe this and that men who buy sex have antiquated, sexist notions about gender and accept male sexual aggression and entitlement as “natural.”

For Bazelon to read all that and then to rewrite Farley’s words, framing her argument as one that says “any woman who claimed to have chosen prostitution was acting pathologically” and that “enjoyment of domination and rape are in her nature” is deeply disturbing in its overt dishonesty.

While Bazelon centered her piece around the perspectives of those who support a legalized sex industry, she intentionally left out stories of survivors who would have disrupted the chosen narrative for her story. A woman named Sabrinna Valisce who was involved in the sex trade in New Zealand on and off for many years, both before and after decriminalization, told me she spoke with Balezon for the piece, but that her interview was cut. Valisce was a volunteer with the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective (NZPC) until about two years ago and had advocated for full decriminalization until she experienced its results firsthand.

While the Prostitution Reform Act was meant to make the industry safer for women in it and enforce safe sex practices, it’s done the opposite, Valisce says. Women were suddenly expected to engage in “passionate” kissing and oral sex without protection (called “NBJ” or “Natural Blow Job”) — things that had previously been viewed as “a betrayal of the sisterhood” and internally policed by the prostituted women themselves. “All that has gone by the wayside [due to] high competition and lowered rates,” Valisce says. “Girls are also now expected to let men cum as many times as they can within the booked time. It was never that way before. They paid once and received one service.” Under decriminalization, Valisce’s efforts to institute exiting programs were rejected full out.

Not only that, but a kind of routine violence was normalized by johns. “I’m not talking about punching and beating… [though this still does happen] I’m talking more about the everyday violence of gagging, throttling, spanking, hair pulling, rough handling, and hard pounding.” Valisce says there has been a notable rise in men’s sense of entitlement and a normalization of abuse since the new law came into effect.

Just weeks after decriminalization was implemented, Valisce says just about every brothel in the country rolled out what they called “all-inclusives.” This meant, she told me, “that women couldn’t negotiate their own fees or services, nor could they decide what their boundaries were.” The reason she had supported decriminalization, Valisce said, was because she wanted “the power in the hands of the people who work in prostitution” and to ensure that women weren’t getting arrested or ending up with criminal records. She was told that decriminalization was the only way to go.

Her goals remained the same, but she realized the only way to address the problems she was seeing under decriminalization was through the Nordic model.

Regardless of the real effects of decriminalization and contradictory testimony from survivors, Bazelon parrots Amnesty’s claim that legislation in New Zealand and Australia places “greater control into the hands of sex workers to operate independently, self-organize in informal cooperatives and control their own working environments.”

When I spoke to her over Skype, Valisce said she had told Bazelon that she had worked alongside trafficked women post-decriminalization. Trafficking was hard to track, as it had been rebranded as “sex worker recruitment,” but it still went on. Nonetheless, Bazelon reported that “the New Zealand government has found no evidence that sex workers are being trafficked,” and left it at that. Bazelon’s desire to paint a rosy picture of decriminalization in New Zealand seems to have led her to expunge Valisce’s testimony from the record, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that she was the only person Bazelon interviewed who had worked under decriminalization in New Zealand.

“The things she’s said about decriminalization in New Zealand are absolute falsehood,” Valisce said.

Everything Valisce told me, she also told Bazelon. Which makes her statements about New Zealand and the benefits of decriminalization all the more shocking, and Bazelon’s choice to leave Valisce’s testimony out of the story all the more telling.

Bazelon’s claim that she’d known nothing of this topic or debate prior to beginning work on this piece seems even stranger as I discovered her connections to George Soros, a billionaire whose Open Society Foundations (OSF) not only is a major donor to Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch (HWR), and UNAIDS, but a number of sex work lobby groups across the world. Soros and OSF funded the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP), which was revealed to be a front for a pimping operation last year, as their vice president, Gil Alejandra, who served as co-chair of the UNAIDS Advisory Group on HIV and Sex Work & Global Working Group on HIV and Sex Work Policy, was arrested for sex trafficking. (Bazelon spoke to the president of NSWP for her piece, but didn’t mention the trafficking conviction, though she had been made her aware of it by another interviewee, Rachel Moran.) The man who appears to be the biggest financial backer of the pro-legalization lobby in the world, whose organization is overtly pro-legalization and funded reports Amnesty International relied on in order to support their position also has longstanding ties to Bazelon and her family. Bazelon herself was a Soros Media Fellow in 2004 and her grandfather’s foundation, the Judge David L. Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law (Emily’s sister and mother both serve on the Center’s board), receives over a $1 million in funding from OSF.

Bazelon says that it was only Amnesty International’s recent vote to adopt a pro-industry position that led her to support legalization. But this claim is hard to believe when we consider the bias she conveys in the piece, her connections to Soros, and the fact that she doesn’t acknowledge that Amnesty International, HRW, and WHO did not simply “discover” a grassroots “sex worker movement” independently, leading them to push for legalization. Rather, these organizations, alongside Soros’ OSF, have been working with pimps, traffickers, and industry lobbyists to develop policy for some time.

The report by Kat Banyard, which points out that NSWP was appointed Co-Chair of the UNAIDS “Advisory Group on HIV and Sex Work” in 2009, explains:

“UNAIDS is the international body responsible for leading global efforts to reverse the spread of HIV, and the advisory group was established to ‘review and participate in the development of UNAIDS policy, programme or advocacy documents, or statements.’ Alejandra Gil is also personally acknowledged in a 2012 World Health Organisation (WHO) report about the sex trade as one of the ‘experts’ who dedicated her ‘time and expertise’ to developing its recommendations. NSWP’s logo is on the front cover, alongside the logos of WHO, UNAIDS and the United Nations Population Fund.”

How can reports and policy funded by a billionaire who is specifically invested in the legalization of prostitution and that were developed in consultation with pimps and traffickers be either unbiased or be considered connected to “grassroots movements” in any way? The “movements” Bazelon references as having inspired Amnesty International, HRW, and WHO to develop these policies and positions are, in fact, organizations funded by Soros himself.

Bazelon’s dismissal of the Nordic model is yet another mistake made in her efforts to cling to neutrality. In an interview on the Diane Rehm show, she repeats erroneous claims that, while street prostitution appears to have decreased in Sweden after the implementation of the Nordic model, the purchase of sex did not, based on the increased number of ads online. But reports from Sweden say the ads are unrepresentative, as many of the ads posted are duplicates and/or posted by the same person. From the report:

“Authorities who have studied escort ads in the past have noted that one and the same seller of sexual services is often found in several advertisements. This finding is also indicated by the internet surveys, mainly in the form of the same telephone number cropping up during a search of several advertising sites. The overlap between the number of advertisements and escort sites and the duplication of many ads is shown by both surveys. This is also confirmed by other authorities working the field. Against this background, there is nothing indicating that the actual number of individuals engaging in prostitution has increased.”

While she admits that abolitionists are “oppos[ed] to arresting” prostituted women, Bazelon adds, “But they want to continue using the criminal law as a weapon of moral disapproval by prosecuting male customers, alongside pimps and traffickers — though this approach still tends to entangle sex workers in a legal net.” She fails to explain what she means by that and quickly moves forward to paint support for the Nordic model as something clueless American celebrities and ideologues do: The “man” vs the little guy, is the impression we are meant to get… The “man” being Gloria Steinem and Meryl Streep, and the “little guy” being, of course, the so-called “sex worker.”

Bazelon casually throws out the term “carceral feminism,” quoting Elizabeth Bernstein, a sociologist who studies “sex work,” who explains that abolitionists “have relied upon strategies of incarceration as their chief tool of ‘justice,'” going on to imply the history of abolition is connected to “faith-based” and “evangelical” groups who worked with George W. Bush to raid brothels for American TV audiences. She continues to connect abolitionists to Bush and to evangelicals throughout the piece, failing to acknowledge that the feminists who support the Nordic model today do so through a socialist lens and have always been part of an actual independent, radical, grassroots feminist movement.

Ignoring the decades-old grassroots women’s movement and the ongoing, tireless work of underfunded working-class women and women of colour who have been fighting prostitution for years is one of Bazelon’s most suspect choices. She discusses organizations funded by Open Society Foundations and the Gates Foundation, many of which have ties to pimps and traffickers, without question but erases or misrepresents the work of movement women who have nothing to gain from their fight against prostitution but a better life for women and girls and a more equitable world in the future.

Bazelon’s claim that decriminalization will make “people’s lives better, and safer” is not only untrue, but is based on money, not facts… The money that supports efforts to legalize is vast and passed around among sex industry lobby groups, civil liberty and human rights organizations, and, apparently, journalists. The incentive to support decriminalization is very clearly financial — prostitution is yet another billion-dollar global industry. It is unconscionable to ignore that reality when discussing key players. Support for decriminalization is also rooted in a deep desire to believe that a situation that is clearly not “okay” by any means can somehow become “okay,” despite ample evidence showing that this will never be the case.

Like the cover photo, which aims to convince the reader that “diversity” was a priority in Bazelon’s reporting (but, in fact, only featured those who both identify as “sex workers” and live in three American cities: New York, San Fransisco, and Seattle), the entire story intentionally removes or distorts the perspectives of abolitionists and survivors, positioning sex work advocates as the diverse expert voices that legitimize her piece.

While Bazelon claims the view she presents (which is, to be clear, her own) “poses a deep challenge to traditional Western feminism,” she’s ironically ignored the fact that Indigenous women and women’s groups say that prostitution never existed in their cultures until they were colonized by the West. Beyond that, almost all liberal American publications (many of which claim to be feminist) support the legalization of prostitution, as do, of course, privileged men. These are the voices and publications that dominate Western discourse and have the funding to promote their views. Men are the people who, at the end of the day, benefit from prostitution — their power is reinforced through its existence.

Bazelon herself is nothing if not a voice for Western privilege and liberalism, based on her Ivy League education, career, connections, and the ideology she supports. After all, is there anything more “mainstream” than the commodification and sexualization of women’s bodies? Certainly there is nothing more “traditional” than patriarchy itself.

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Meghan Murphy
Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, I-D, Truthdig, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and lives in Vancouver, B.C. with her dog.

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