Ashton and Demi Tackle Child Sex Trafficking, One Problematic YouTube Video at a Time

If you haven’t seen it already, Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore have founded an organization called the DNA Foundation (or the Demi and Ashton Foundation), designed at targeting the issues of child sex slavery and trafficking. To promote their message, they’ve released a series of Funny or Die-like PSAs (Kutcher’s words, not mine), starring other famous celebrities, including Bradley Cooper, Justin Timberlake, Jason Mraz, Eva Longoria, Jessica Biel, Sean Penn, Jamie Fox and Drake. It’s a star-studded cast, looking pretty foolish and ultimately, painfully missing the point.

See, the PSAs show men doing goofy things, like buying new socks instead of washing the old ones (because “Real men know how to do laundry”), or fighting a robot on the street (because “Real men are distrustful of robots”). Then in each, a short sketch ends with “Real men [do this]. Real men don’t buy girls.” It’s been labeled in the media as potentially too light in its tone, but I’d go so far as to say it’s insultingly simpleminded, too. Because if real men don’t buy girls, who does? Fake men?

While fake men are out buying girls, in the world of the DNA Foundation, real men are busy being completely feckless and misguided in other, less questionable ways than buying an child sex trafficking victim. They are pouring milk into cereal boxes like Bradley Cooper or trying to shave their faces with chainsaws like Justin Timberlake. I get the humor in that, but what’s the message, even? That real men are stupid, but not stupid enough to purchase children for sex?

So you, men of America, may be unable to take care of yourselves properly, but you’re still real men. Not like those fake men who buy underage prostitutes for sex. So don’t worry, you haven’t fallen that far. It’s not only completely insulting to men, but it also fails to address the dehumanization of women and children that goes into child sex trafficking. And in terms of the gender divide between men and women, it seems only to reinforce it.

Both Demi and Ashton have also both been quoted saying things about gender relations in the United States that don’t really, well, relate to child sex trafficking, which starts to make one question how much they really understand about the topic. For instance, in one interview about the project, Demi spoke to USA Today about her experiences as a young girl with older men:

[A]s I look at myself as a young woman…I know I was manipulated and taken advantage of when I was a teen, so I don’t want to see that happen to any girl. When I was 15, I had a boyfriend who was 28, and back then, that didn’t seem so strange. At least he was nice and not like the multitude of others who behaved not so well. The less face-to-face time boys get [with women their age], the less they understand how real relationships work. That goes back to the culture we’re creating, one which finds guys saying, ‘If I can get sex easy like that (with a prostitute), why not?’

While I can wholeheartedly appreciate what Demi is saying about the need for relationship and sexuality education for America’s youth, I’m not sure that’s why adult men purchase sex with minors. It seems to me that it’s a lot more complicated than that. It also gets confusing. Are we talking about women tricked into prostitution, or children trafficked as sex slaves? Or are we talking about sex workers and sex trafficking victims together? The definitions seem very unclear.

Moreover, Demi is not speaking about herself as a young woman who has been forcibly made to submit to sex with men for profit, she’s simply speaking to a common experience of young girl who have yet to find their voices. She is not making any differentiation between consensual sex work and forced child sex trafficking. So the story seems to further confuse the point, rather than isolate it.

Sex trafficking is an extremely complex issue and is often conflated with consensual sex work as being results of the same root causes. Accurate statistics on human trafficking, in general, are difficult to come by and vary widely, depending on the source. Many people have used either false or not well sourced information to emotionally motivated people to support their causes.

This was notably the case with the Women’s Funding Network, which simply used photos of women from Internet sex ads, guessed the ages of the women in the photos, then based their “research results” on the findings to support the notion that numbers of underage sex trafficking victims on the Internet were rising. These results were published in a number of media sources without question, including USA Today, the Houston Chronicle, the Miami Herald, the Minneapolis Star Tribune and the Detroit Free Press. The “statistics,” then, were based solely on whether the viewer of the photos perceived the women in the photo to be both underage and a victim of sex trafficking. Not a strong case for valuable information and yet it was used very widely as hard facts.

Considering what little information on the nature of child sex trafficking is truly out there, and in light of how much attention the PSAs and the DNA Foundation are getting, it is my sincerest hope that Demi and Ashton look more deeply in the facts around human trafficking and examine and ways in which they tackle the issue. Projects like the UNESCO Trafficking Project, which seeks address the proliferation of questionable trafficking statistics, are the kind of things that need support the most. Only in fully understanding the issues at hand with valid, comprehensive research, can we work to improve the situation. Demi and Ashton have started a public dialogue, yes, but I hope that they can ultimately steer it towards a more productive sort of conversation.

About Sarah Elspeth Patterson

Sarah Elspeth Patterson

Masters Student. Sexuality Educator. Bossy Femme.