Back in March, I published an article entitled “Ashton and Demi Tackle Child Sex Trafficking, One Problematic YouTube Video at a Time.” It was about Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore’s project the DNA Foundation and its questionable YouTube PSAs, which used gender stereotyping and unsettlingly inappropriate humor to, as Kutcher put it, “create a cultural shift around the buying and selling of humans.”
Watching other media response to these videos, I felt relatively alone in the opinion that these videos were extremely harmful. Most media outlets either glibly shot off the press released-version of what was happening or dismissed Kutcher and Moore’s effort as, well, just plain silly (and justifiably so). Nothing deeper about the DNA Foundation’s PSAs or the patchworked research materials on their website was basically unexamined.
Turns out, though I was definitely not the only one who was thinking twice about it. This week, the Village Voice published the article “Real Men Get Their Facts Straight,” aimed directly at Ashton Kutcher and his use of the statistic (both in interview as well as in print on the DNA website) that “100,000 to 300,000 children are enslaved and sold for sex every year.”
As the Village Voice rightly points out, this statistic refers to youth who are at risk for being involved in prostitution (not trafficking, which is a different thing), not who are already being exploited or trading sex for survival. Wondering who the youth “at risk” are? Well, they could be “runaways, thrownaways, victims of physical or sexual abuse, users of psychotropic drugs, members of sexual minority groups, illegally trafficked children, children who cross international borders in search of cheap drugs and sex, and other illicit fare.” So if you’ve ever crossed the border with your friends to drink tequila, you are “at risk” for being involved in prostitution (or if you consider the more popular usage, a victim of trafficking). Doesn’t tell us much about the reality of the situation.
It’s not as though Kutcher was alone in using that statistic, far from it. A simple Google search of the phrase reveals a lot. Notables include The New York Times, USA Today, CNN, a United Nations ambassador, Wikipedia and C-Span. So it’s not as though Kutcher wasn’t in very good company.
Ok, you might say, so they’re using a false statistic. So what? Isn’t sex trafficking still an issue? I don’t think anyone can debate that the trafficking of youth into the sex industry is a very worthy cause. Yet it can be very difficult to combat a problem as complex as trafficking if you do not understand how it functions. Emi Koyama of Eminism.org explains how the specifics matter in combating trafficking in the commentary of her zine “War on Terror & War on Trafficking: A Sex Worker Activist Confronts the Anti-Trafficking Movement”:
For example, if you assume that bunch of 10-year olds are being kidnapped into sex trafficking (which one must believe if the average age is somewhere near 13), your solution might be to intensify surveillance at schools and around communities. But that would be a complete misdirection of scarce public resources if majority of the “children” are 16 year old and up, who are running away from home. Without good understanding of the nature of the problem, you can’t enact rational and sensible responses that actually work.
So let’s use the example at hand. You believe, due to shaky research, that there are 100,000 to 300,000 sexually exploited children in the United States that are trafficking victims. That means that a very large number of youth are being transported, sold and used as sexual commodities. You would presumably focus all your efforts with those “facts” in mind. Yet in reality, there’s an unclear number of youth in the sex industry that may be in a variety of circumstances, which are very much dependent on their backgrounds, support systems, social circumstances and so forth. But really, you have no idea, because you thought that all kids in the sex industry were trafficking victims, being sexually exploited through these specific means. That’s why it’s dangerous: you cannot help a population you do not understand.
And that’s why what really matters here is to make a clear distinction between the three groups in discussion – trafficking victims in the sex industry, sexually exploited youth trading sex for survival and consenting, adult sex workers. I’m happy to note that after an extended Twitter fight and much public display, Kutcher acknowledges as much on his blog. I hope it’s sign that his philanthropic efforts might soon be turned in a more productive direction.
And by the way, why haven’t sex worker organizations been brought into this discussion? They need to be recognized as knowledgeable in their own right about issues that affect those in the sex industry, as do organizations that are run by and for youth, like NYC’s Streetwise and Safe. Media outlets and celebrity spokesman alike continue to fail to bring these voices into the conversations, though both sex workers and youth with experience trading sex for survival are likely to encounter trafficking (despite not being given any voice to talk about it).
Likewise, organizations like Safe Horizon of New York City also works with youth on a voluntary basis to help them create their ideal vision for the future, rather than proscribing to them what their needs are. Giving your support (and your money) to organizations that listen directly to the needs of the youth population with respect and without coercion is one of the best ways to support anti-sex trafficking efforts. And in the end, that’s what should be happening here: providing people with the services that they actually need, rather than shouting back and forth about what might happen. Here’s to hoping this very public debate leads to more of that.
Follow us on Twitter @mysexprofessor or Sarah @sarah_elspeth.