When Arrogance Meets Activism: Ashton Kutcher and Sex Trafficking

from postsecret.com. Click to see full size

I’ve been an advocate for sex workers’ rights for a long time. Unlike many people, I think it’s possible to create a world in which people have the freedom to engage in commercial sex AND the freedom from having it imposed upon them. I’ve known too many people who paid their way through college or grad school with sex work, who have appreciated the flexibility that sex work can offer (perhaps to travel or perhaps to be able to take care of their kids), or who have enjoyed the work and their clients to be willing to fall into the “all sex work is bad/rape/slavery” camp.


I certainly acknowledge that there is a huge problem when folks who are forced into sexual slavery, which happens all over the world. That is a real thing and we need to be able to look at it and address it. And I also need to point out that there’s no other labor that people say things like “since some people are forced to do it, we should ban all of it.” Can you imagine someone arguing that since sweatshops exist, we should outlaw sewing? Or because a lot of agricultural laborers are tricked, lied to, indentured, or forced into it, that all farming should cease? Or since some people are coerced into domestic slavery, nobody should be paid to clean houses? Of course not! So why should that be the case when it’s sexual labor? (It’s worth noting, btw, that the majority of slavery is non-sexual.)

To the people who claim that the voluntary sex workers who enjoy it are exceptional cases, my response is: how do you know? There isn’t any research at all that shows how many consensual sex workers there are, but we do have their stories and we need to hear them instead of pretending they don’t exist. Further, the numbers that we have for how many people are forced into sexual slavery are wildly exaggerated, so there really isn’t any way to know for sure.

What we do know is that there are many different experiences among people who perform sexual labor, ranging from “I love what I do” to “this is hell.” The problem isn’t the exchange of sex for money- the problem is that a lot of people are forced to do it. Unfortunately, there’s a quite a bit of arrogance at play in the anti-sex trafficking arguments and there’s a lot of misinformation.

The other day, the Village Voice ran an article about the anti-trafficking PSA that Ashton Kutcher & Demi Moore produced. The Voice contacted police departments in 37 cities to ask for information on juvenile prostitution arrests, and found that there are about 800 arrests per year. I’m absolutely sure that there are more minors engaged in prostitution, since lots of them won’t be arrested. But when Kutcher proclaims that 100,000 to 300,000 youth turn to prostitution, doesn’t that seem to indicate that maybe something’s wrong with those numbers?

Well, it turns out that 100,000 to 300,000 kids are “at risk”, which includes those who are “outsiders,” runaways, transgender, gang members, and anyone who lives near the Mexican or Canadian borders and has their own transportation. That’s a big distinction that Kutcher and Moore simply gloss over. Using wildly exaggerated numbers is a great way to get a moral panic going and get funds, but it takes attention away from the real issues here. That’s because it’s arrogant and arrogance tends to foster either/or thinking. When we oversimplify the issue, when we lose sight of the nuances and differences in people’s stories and (ironically) we divest people of their agency by forcing them into a narrative that suits our purposes rather than addressing their needs.

One example of this is Kutcher’s tweet in response to the Village Voice article:

First off, it is certainly true that the Voice has a vested interest in the issue of the legal status of sex work since they host ads. And it is also likely that some of the women whose ads appear there are not willing sex workers- they’re folks who have been coerced into it. (Hint- that’s the difference between sex work and slavery.) Of course, that doesn’t mean that the Voice has an interest in perpetuating sexual slavery. I’m pretty sure they’d love to know that all of the people advertising on their pages were consenting sex workers.

However, as Audacia Ray points out, when Kutcher refers to adult women as “girls,” he’s feeding the “ill-informed machine” because he’s conflating adult women who choose to perform sex work, adult women who are forced into sexual slavery, and minors who (by legal definition) aren’t able to consent to do it. That’s the kind of arrogance that perpetuates the inequalities that he claims to be addressing. Not to mention that while a man calling women “girls” can be appropriate in the context of a relationship or between friends, when he calls women he doesn’t know “girls,” he belittles them. It’s sexist, as well as arrogant.

One of the current anti-sex work arguments is that we should outlaw the purchase of sex, but not the sale of sex. This is the Swedish model, which attempts to stop sex work without making harder the lives of the people they want to protect. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work:

from SlutWalk Chicago

This person, who has been a sex worker in Sweden for 21 years, points out that if a landlord finds out that a renter is a sex worker, they’ll evict her since he could be accused of being a pimp if he doesn’t (since he’s economically benefiting from her work), as can an adult child who lives with a parent who’s a sex worker. The law also makes it harder to negotiate with potential clients, which increases risk. Listen to her story and then tell me that this model does what its advocates claim it does. This is what happens when arrogance takes over instead of listening to people.

So to Kutcher and everyone else trying to end sexual slavery, if you genuinely want to help people and if you truly want to make a difference for the better, try listening to the folks you want to support. Learn to listen to all of them because there are many different stories that deserve your attention. Stop looking for an easy answer that’s based on an oversimplification of the issue. And stop being so arrogant.

Post Tagged with ,

25 Responses so far.

  1. Lillith says:

    I really like this post. We have been talking a lot about these issues in my Psychology of Women class, and they’ll be required to read this now (I made them read your “How Slut Shaming Enables Rape” and take a quiz over it too!). Your clear and articulate way of distilling issues down to basics is outstanding. Thank you!!!!

  2. Rick Umbaugh says:


    Love this piece, it is spot on about the issue and the solution, more research to find the truth about sex work.

    I have only one issue, I don’t think I would have conceded that the Voice benefits from sex slavery, while I think I understand what you are trying to say, and agree with it, when dealing with people who have taken an ideologically inaccurate statistic as true, you generally have to deal with an all or nothing stance. Kutcher’s answer to your concession is “just one case is too much”. Again, I don’t disagree, but I do think that it is this idea, that sex slavery can be eradicted completely simply by eraticating sex work is not exactly what you want to support.

    There is nothing more dangerous than a person or movement which thinks it can make the world perfect.

    Rick Umbaugh
    qui bene amat bene castigat

  3. Charlie says:

    @Rick- absolutely true. What I meant is that the Voice has a vested financial interest in the legal status of sex work, not sex slavery. I’ll update that. 🙂

  4. Charlie says:

    Thanks, Lillith! If any of your students have thoughts or questions, please invite them to comment or contact me via my site. I always like hearing from folks and getting ideas for new posts.

  5. […] Charlie Glickman’s When Arrogance Meets Activism… argues for “a world in which people have the freedom to engage in commercial sex AND the freedom from having it imposed upon them” […]

  6. Rick –

    I think you, I, and practically everybody agrees “just one case is too much” when it comes to actual sexual slavery. The problem with those using that rhetoric as an argument against the VV piece is that they are using that argument to justify the reporting of grossly inflated numbers. If “one case is too many”, what is the problem with reporting 827 victims instead of 200,000? The sheer amount of butthurt coming from those who are flaming VV suggest that they see a lot of their case tied up in those inflated numbers.

    The other problem of course, is one of simple accuracy and working toward evidence-based solutions. The strategy with which one approaches a social problem with a few thousand victims is different than the way you approach one with hundreds of thousands. That much should be obvious.

  7. Lillith says:

    I certainly will, and they may!

  8. Sara says:

    My dad has been a social worker for 30+ years, and he runs an organization that works with “high risk” youth, and many of them are involved in sex work, it’s true. However when he found out that I was involved in sex work, he just couldn’t understand the difference between what was happening with the underaged women in his program and me, a 25-year-old, college educated adult engaged in sex work consensually. He got really angry at me, and argued that if I was selling sex I must have a mental illness or addiction. What really pissed me off, is that when I argued “No, Dad, I just like my job,” he said, “I’m an expert in this field. I’ve studied all the research. Don’t tell me I’m wrong.” He’s an expert in sex work?????? BA HA HA HA HA HA!!!! But this is the sort of arrogance those of us involved with consensual adult sex work have to deal with all the time. These people who’ve never turned a trick in their lives, but they have all these fancy titles after their names, and have spent all this time in university “studying the research” so they have the nerve to tell us they’re better qualified to talk about our lives than we are!

  9. Charlie says:

    @IACB not to mention that the money being generated is going to law enforcement rather than actually helping anyone who has been victimized.

  10. Law enforcement, and the private “social service” organizations that may or may not be having impact on the ground.

    I did a double take when I read that a good chunk of this “anti-trafficking” money is going to the Catholic Bishops Conference and the National Association of Evangelicals. I’d heard of “faith-based initiatives” before, but the line between church and state has been utterly erased here. I don’t even know how such funding is legal.

  11. Rick Umbaugh says:

    I agree with you. The problem is that people who believe these imaginary data about hundreds of thousands of sex slaves then try and use the idea that just one is too much do so to inflate the nature of the problem. I would not be surprised if someone went and traced the origin of these fantasies we would find an individual or group who is trying to shut down sex industry. Today they are attacking sex workers, tomorrow it will be the porn models (that fight is already in progress with the mandatory condom business going on in LA) and then it will be all the obscenity in the mainstream media…that kind of thing until the next thing we find ourselves living in a busy little Victorian world where fun is a sunday walk in the park where all we see are more Victorians walking in the park…These things have to be nipped in the bud or they take over the garden.

    @sara I apologize for the bad behavior of your father. I don’t know how old he was, but his psychological prejudices are pretty much obsolete. He sees only people who are in distress and blames the sex work, rather than do the hard work of finding out the real problems these people are having. It is moralist thinking. I’m working on a book about that, it infects the world in lots of ways, many very subtle.

    But, being a rather different kind of psychologist, I would suggest that you forgive your father for his rigid, authoritarian thinking. There is nothing more insidious you can do to a moralist than forgive him or her.

    Rick Umbaugh
    qui bene amat bene castigat

  12. Mindet says:

    I wonder if it would help if it were possible for there to be more open discussion of how sex workers keep themselves safe and how one deals with the inevitable attempts at abuse by clients, without people panicking about the “promotion of sex work as a career”, whatever that is supposed to mean. I think it would be very interesting to hear more about how people deal with setting boundaries and transgressions of those boundaries in a professional context. I’ve never done in-person sex work, though I’ve been considering it of late, and my own ideas are constantly in flux, which is one of the reasons I haven’t gone for it yet. I think people outside the profession(s) might benefit from knowing more about how the psychological safety side of it works.

    Obviously some people will never listen, but unless I’m actually confronted with that personally, getting defensive feels to me like a waste of energy, so I try to leave them aside as much as possible!

  13. Hi Charlie…I always get a great sense of relief when I see a reasoned response to these scary myths touted by the ill informed or the outright liars, that hide behind superior moral righteousness.

    What is most disturbing to me is the lucrative businesses created by conservative fear based morality orgs,and their consultants, that have raked in hundreds of millions of dollars battling epidemics that don’t exist, with programs that don’t work. This is the same kind of faith based, highly profitable scam that went into tax payer fleeced programs for abstinence, anti abortion driven sex education, during the Bush era, to curb teen sex and pregnancy. They were utter failures in influencing teen behavior, while denying them legitimate sex education and access to contraceptives that could have reduced the incidence of abortion.

    Keep speaking out Charlie.

    Conscious Fetish Blog

  14. Rick Umbaugh says:

    The way the religious organizations do it is this. They are 501c corporations for tax purposes, so they supposedly are doing more than just pushing religion, which has a different number in the tax code, which I forget. As long as the federal money is not being used to push religion and it is being used for the purpose intended, it is not considered mixing church and state. I have so much trouble with that…but that is the way it works.


  15. Rick: The line between charity and proselytizing or pushing sectarian moral values gets erase more and more each year with these “faith based” groups. Another thing I was hoping would change under Obama and didn’t. 😛

  16. Rick Umbaugh says:

    Well, this is not something that will happen quickly. First of all, those of us who come from more diverse parts of this country forget just how much the church has influence in the rest of the country. For large parts of this country the church is not just the social center of the community, but the intellectual center. This is what we are fighting and given that for intellectuals and people of socially diverse backgrounds want to be among other like them, for understandable reasons, it is going to be a long fight. One must remember is that once Obama moved into Chicago he became a part of a strong and rather conservative African American community and so his social attitudes are going to reflect that conservative background. He is use to the Chruch being both strong and beneficent, not to the evils that it can commit. He also seems to be very religious himself. He is just socially conservative and unless something radical happens we are not likely to get anyone who is socially liberal any time soon. We just have to keep fighting and taking the wins as we get them…as we did in NY and as we are probably going to in the Prop 8 fight.

  17. whorelizard says:

    Most of the social service agencies serving homeless youth serve youth up to about age 24 or so, and there’s a reason for that. Obviously there is a difference between a homeless 21-year-old who finds herself in a sex trafficking situation and a consensual, housed 21-year-old escort. But youth under 18 are not the only people who wind up in sex trafficking situations. Of course, youth under 18 who consider themselves consensual sex workers (though may not use that term) also exist. So it is complicated.

  18. Odd you didn’t mention the piece I recently published at Good Vibrations, I think, which mentioned Kutcher or any other of my work on trafficking and the sex industry, which I thought you knew about… ?

  19. Amanda says:

    I have blogged about the Village Voice’s “vested interest” in defending the consenting adult who make their living by paying for advertising space on Backpage. I see nothing conflicting about VV protecting sex workers — as opposed to Craigslist completely caving into the demands of anti-trafficking zealots.

    If one trafficked child is just too much to handle, then how come one happily-consenting adult sex worker is somehow a weird anomaly on the level of a unicorn-sighting?

    @Mindet — I talk quite a bit about boundaries in my books for escorts and in my blog posts. Boundaries are hugely important for all sex workers.

  20. nikki junker says:

    This is a great read…thank you

  21. This is such an important post and thread you have here, Charlie. In support of women (and men!) who choose sex work as their career, I recently featured a post by a Canadian sex worker at my Love, Sex, and Family site. Her post received some powerful comments as well that are worth checking out: http://www.lovesexfamily.com/2011/05/healing-power-of-sex-work.html

  22. Robert says:

    Everything Charlie says in the original post is valid, but it doesn’t get to the bottom of the problem with Kutcher, Farley, and the rest. True, they are arrogant. True, they are sex-negative. True, they behave as if the problem with indentured servitude as a sex worker is that it’s sex for money, not that it’s slavery.

    The real problem is that they want to save those subjected to indentured servitude from the effects of being trafficked but don’t want to deal with the causes. That would require recognizing the role of capitalism and imperialism in shaping labor markets on a global scale.

    I would apologize for getting political on a blog that seems far removed from politics — and especially far removed from political economy — except that you can’t have a meaningful conversation about trafficking in any other context.

  23. I can’t speak for Charlie, but I think this blog does discuss quite a bit of politics, but I guess that depends on whether you define “politics” broadly or narrowly.

    I think you are saying what many of us have been saying, that is, “sex trafficking” or more specifically, forced prostitution and exploitational practices in the sex industry are essentially a subset of forced and exploited labor more generally. Not some moral question that is in some way specific to the sex industry, or about sex without intimacy, or sexualization or the rest of it. Yes, forced prostitution does have its own special brand of awfulness in that it involves rape (though there’s plenty of physical brutality in other forms of coerced labor), but its root causes are ultimately the same as those for other forms of labor exploitation.

    And yet for no other industry do we see the kind of over-the-top “end demand” strategies we see with the sex industry. I could just picture cops waiting outside of Wal-Mart busting people for wearing sweatshop clothing. And sending them off to “consumer school” on first offense, jail on any reoffense. I somehow suspect this wouldn’t go over so well politically.

  24. Rick Umbaugh says:

    Part of the problem with writing about sex is that you have to have an understanding of politics, psychology and several other things because moralists from all these fields think that they have a right to talk about sex and sexuality.

    But the issue boils down to this one thing. Sex is not to blame for sex trafficing or sex addiction or anything like that. This is what Gayle Rubin calls, in her seminal essay “Thinking Sex”, sexual essentialism, the idea that we can separate sexuality from the rest of human endeavor. The problem with sex slavery has nothing to do with sex workers, it is about slavery and the slave masters. The problem with sex addiction has nothing to do with sex, it is about people with addictive personalities.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *