When it comes to the coverage of sex work or trafficking, the mainstream media often seems to forget a basic journalistic principle — the need to get their facts straight. Here are two recent examples from supposedly top-notch purveyors of journalism. This week, the New Yorker ran a long piece about long-time feminist Gloria Steinem, which focused on Steinem’s non-stop travel on behalf of feminist organizations around the globe. It was mildly interesting but I cringed when I read this sentence:
“In America, sex trafficking is said to be as high today as in any other country.”
Not only is that not true, according to all the studies I’ve read, but the writer doesn’t even stop to provide supporting data for that statement. She merely moves on as if her readers are too dumb to notice the lack of evidence for such a sweeping generalization. As I discovered in researching my book, Getting Screwed: Sex Workers and the Law, anti-trafficking groups have spread grossly inaccurate and inflated statistics about the number of women and children being trafficked for paid sex in the United States. There is little good data out there on the true numbers in large part because even the U.S. State Department conflates prostitution by choice with trafficking. However, one study of indoor sex workers in New York City by the Urban Justice Center found that only 8 percent of the study’s respondents were trafficked into the sex trade.
In addition, sex trafficking in the United States is less than of a problem than in many Asian, African and European countries, according to law enforcement and researchers who study this topic. So why have the editors of the New Yorker let this writer get away with such a profoundly ignorant statement?
Jane Kramer, the writer of the piece, goes on to say that “Steinem finds it unlikely that anyone actually chooses to be a sex worker,” another sweeping and inaccurate stereotype that is left unchallenged. As I discovered in writing my book, there are many women and men who are doing sex work by choice. Indeed, studies show the majority of sex workers are in the profession by choice. They have chosen to sell sex because it gives them the flexibility and economic independence they need — to raise children as single parents, pay their way through school, pay off student loans, or just pay the rent in such high-rent cities as New York, Washington and San Francisco.
Of course, there are sex workers who have been coerced into the trade, most often teenagers who have run away from homes where they were being abused or neglected and are selling sex for survival on the streets. By federal law, anyone under the age of 18 is considered a trafficking victim. But what these young people need are social services — to help them find stable housing, education, support and counseling. What they don’t need is a prominent feminist promoting an anti-trafficking agenda that only ends up with them being arrested and re-traumatized by a criminal justice system that sees them not as victims but as criminals.
Steinem is also dead wrong when she points to the Nordic Model “as being the only system that seems to work for women in the trade.” In fact, the opposite is true, according to research done in Sweden, the first country to adopt this model of criminalizing buyers of sex but not the sellers. In Sweden, the criminalization of buyers has only led to more dangerous and unhealthy working conditions for sex workers — because clients are so afraid of being arrested that women no longer have as much time to negotiate safe sex (i.e. sex with condoms). Sex workers in Sweden are also forced to work in more hidden, isolated spaces, and even though themselves are not supposed to be arrested, studies show that they are being harassed by police and discriminated against more than ever since the Nordic model went into effect in 2000. In addition, the law has not cut down on sex trafficking in Sweden (according to the government’s own reports); nor has it cut down on the total number of sex workers in the country, according to this recent study done for the Swedish government.
In contrast, sex workers themselves say that the semi-legal decriminalized model that New Zealand adopted in 2003 is a much more successful approach — in both cutting down on rates of HIV spread and in improving working conditions for sex workers. In both New Zealand and the Netherlands, where sex work was long decriminalized and then legalized in 2000, HIV rates are among the lowest in the world.
Yet another example of bad journalism by the mainstream press can be found in this article on Nevada’s brothels that ran in the Los Angeles Times, a once-great newspaper that seems to have descended into the kind of yellow journalism so prevalent in the early 20th century. The article starts out with a sweeping headline — In Nevada, there is little love lost for brothels — and then goes on to say that Nevada’s brothels are under seige and on their “last legs.”
Yet the article fails to produce a shred of evidence that this is so. The reporter quotes one state senator to support his contention and then later acknowledges that brothel owners themselves think their industry will survive the latest scandal — former NBA player Lamar Odom overdosing on drugs at the Love Ranch in Nevada. According to all the news accounts I’ve read, Odom was on a downward spiral well before he brought illegal drugs into this particular brothel, and he could just as easily overdosed in a Las Vegas hotel as at a bunny ranch. (Odom is apparently recovering after being in a coma, but cannot talk or move so it remains unclear how much brain damage he sustained.)
When I visited one of Nevada’s more upscale brothels, Sheri’s Ranch, in 2013 in researching my book, business seemed to be booming. I found little support for the notion that the brothel industry is on its way out way. Indeed, Sheri’s had just built a hotel next to the brothel for customers who want to stay awhile.
All of this makes me wonder why otherwise respectable media drop their journalistic standards when reporting on the sex trade. Is it because they’re so desperate to be politically correct, as one of my colleagues argues, or is it because the mere mention of women’s sexuality sends normally methodical journalists into a tizzy of sensationalistic misinformation? As a long-time member of the mainstream media myself, I find such lapses embarrassing. They make me want to repeat the mantra my journalism students have heard from me more than once: do your homework please!
This blog was cross-posted on The Huffington Post.