In the early 2000s, the New York Times published a series of articles by Pulitzer Prize winner Judith Miller about the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. In an era of intense media competition and feverish quests to eke out profits, the Times appeared to welcome the heightened buzz. The rest of the story is well known and some held up Miller as evidence of the press's "submissiveness" in reporting. This chapter in irresponsible journalism resurfaced with the Times' magazine publication of Emily Bazelon's feature piece, "Should Prostitution be a Crime?"
Rather than objective in-depth reporting, Bazelon, whose sterling academic and professional profile includes a Soros Media Fellowship, offers her subjective opinion that Amnesty International, a prominent and impactful human rights organization, is right in calling for the decriminalization of buyers of sexual acts, pimps and brothel owners as a means to protect prostituted individuals. Bazelon opens her article with one person's version of what transpired last November when Amnesty USA voted in favor of legitimizing prostitution.
"That week-end was one of the most painful moments in my life," said Alisa Bernard of Organization for Prostitution Survivors, who attended the Amnesty conference in Los Angeles with seven other survivors. "Watching one unidentified buyer after another and pimps disguised as business managers line up behind the microphone to tout toxic notions of empowerment through prostitution was unbearable. Many Amnesty members stood with us, but the leadership visibly preferred to embrace the sex trade."
The edgy photo spread adorning Bazelon's article features mostly white, mostly well-educated self-identified "sex workers" who, Bazelon acknowledges, represent a tiny sliver of the total population bought in the sex trade - the "1%" who dabble in prostitution and who can opt to sell dominatrix services that generally exclude sexual invasion by buyers. The group is a far cry from the vast majority of women, mostly women of color, sold by brutal exploiters who mandate daily quotas; women purchased by men whose monetized "dates" inflict pain, suffering and dehumanization with impunity.
The stories Bazelon's subjects share, including on the Times' videos accompanying the article, are heartbreaking. Many evoke fragility and weariness, recounting pimping by intimate partners, police brutality and harassment, social isolation, poverty, discrimination, the absence of viable choices and their wish that no one else would ever have to do this "job." We must honor their journeys that led them into the sex trade, a ruthless industry that feeds on childhoods of sexual abuse, domestic violence and other extreme vulnerabilities. We must call on governments to offer services and exit strategies, as well as decriminalize those who sell sexual acts, as France has recently achieved. Bazelon's ocean-wide leap from these testimonies to endorsing the sex trade as an employer, defies logic. Or perhaps logic isn't the defining principle here.
Bazelon's article generously highlights the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP-USA), a pro-legalization advocacy network. What Bazelon fails to tell the Times' readers is that SWOP USA was founded by Robyn Few, who in 2002 was federally charged for promoting prostitution across state lines. Bazelon's argument also heavily relies on Sweden's Pye Jakobsson of the Rose Alliance and the Global Network of Sex Work Projects whose job was to recruit women for strip clubs. Margo St. James, whom the journalist equally spotlights, was convicted of pimping.
Bazelon could have verified her source's quote about the police targeting landlords for possible prostitution on their premises in countries that only penalize sex buyers and not the prostituted. Detective Superintendent Kajsa Wahlberg, also the National Rapporteur on Trafficking in Human Beings in Sweden, would have told Bazelon that in her eighteen years as National Rapporteur, she has never heard of a landlord in Sweden getting arrested on those charges. Wahlberg could have also added that a positive social development since their 1999 law is that the Swedes believe the purchase of sexual acts is a barrier to gender equality.
Furthermore, Bazelon could have followed up when Shabana stated: "I started doing sex work* when I was 12 years old." Bazelon could have asked Shabana and other women in the pimp-controlled Indian "collectives" how many of them were sold as children; perhaps offer them the international legal definition of trafficking and inquire about which mechanisms could distinguish a 17 year-old sex trafficked child from a 18 year-old engaged in paid "adult consensual sex"?
Bazelon could have perused "Johns' Boards," the online sites where sex buyers rate women by their smells, ethnicities or levels of enthusiasm for unexpected sodomy. Or instead of indiscriminately praising the New Zealand full decriminalization model, she should have glanced at the US State Department's Trafficking in Persons report, which confirms that trafficking of Asian women into New Zealand is thriving.
Sabrinna Valisce was in the sex trade prior to and after the Prostitution Reform Act passed in New Zealand. She was also a volunteer with the New Zealand Prostitutes' Collective periodically for over two decades. She explained to Bazelon, who reportedly interviewed Valisce for the article, that brothel owners gained control of the industry after decriminalization by introducing "All-Inclusives," which allowed them to set prices and increase their cut of the money.
"They wanted the johns' business so they appealed to them with young women and competitive cheap rates," Valisce explained to me by email. "To get more money out of the girls, brothels introduced various fees. These could include shift, laundry, advertising, drivers' fees and fines for appearance, missed shifts or being late. We are considered Independent Contractors responsible for our own taxes. On paper, we're meant to have full control of time, services and charges, which is not happening under the current law."
Impartial research would have led Bazelon to the 2007 UNAIDS' "Guidance Note: HIV and Sex Work," which linked the demand for prostitution with "male attitudes..., gender-based violence, sexual exploitation...and discrimination against women and girls..." that "...continue to be critical contributing factors driving the HIV epidemic." Around the same time, Amnesty UK launched an ad campaign against prostitution and linking strip clubs to the sex trade.
So why did these organizations change their ideological shift from recognizing prostitution as harmful to normalizing it? Bazelon would have easily found that the 2007 UNAIDS report was so heavily criticized by the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP) and others that a revision of the Guidance Note was immediately undertaken leading to the 2009 report, which Amnesty cites to support its position on wholesale decriminalization.
Bazelon could have asked whether it was a coincidence that then Vice President of NSWP, Alejandra Gil, known as the "Madam of Sullivan," was one of the most powerful pimps of Sullivan Street, a neighborhood in Mexico City where prostitution rings flourish. Gil was sentenced in March 2015 to fifteen years in prison for sex trafficking. As for Amnesty's anti-prostitution campaign, we remain curious about its leadership's change of heart.
There is insufficient room on this page to rebut every contention that Bazelon's article requires; perhaps the Public Editor of the Times could once again write about its flawed journalism.
History showed there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the world is tragically living its deadly consequences. The failure in that reporting, the Public Editor said, was not individual, but institutional.
Decriminalizing the sex trade is a weapon of destruction of the most vulnerable individuals, overwhelmingly women and girls of color, from the global South and the Indigenous, living at the margins and in whom governments have failed to invest toward the realization of their human potential and fundamental rights.
Our culture's current lack of understanding of women as full human beings must evolve into a conviction that indivisible rights include freedom from unfettered male sexual access, from female genital mutilation to child marriage; from reproductive health to sexual violence; from sexual harassment to prostitution. Achieving equality depends on it.
And if any journalist is interested in the truths behind the push for legalization of prostitution, one recommendation comes to mind: follow the money.