Melissa Farley, Nevada Brothels, and the effect on the legal sex work debate
Recently, radical feminist anti-prostitution activist Melissa Farley published a report called "Prostitution and trafficking in Nevada: making the connections". Many readers are probably familiar with Farley's "research", since it is often used as a stick to beat proponents of any kind of legal sex work over the head with, whether that's legal prostitution, stripping, or porn modeling. The story goes that sex work is inherently a horrible form of abuse and that "90%" of all sex workers show symptoms of post-traumatic stress, want to leave prostitution, but are prevented from doing so by drug addiction, economic desperation, or some pimp basically keeping them as a coerced sex slave. These data were gathered mainly from urban street prostitutes and from very marginalized prostitutes in developing countries, but the findings are generalized to be applicable to women in any and all situations of sex work.
Farley's study of Nevada brothel prostitutes claims similar findings as for her earlier findings about street prostitutes, this time claiming a figure of "81%" (of a total sample of 45 brothel prostitutes) who want to leave prostitution, most of whom are supposedly prevented from doing so. This has been quite a coup for Farley, because she now has been able to claim that even in a controlled, legal setting, she still has been able to find damning evidence against the effects of prostitution. The report has gotten an enormous amount of attention in the press, most notably in a series of op-eds by New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, who seems to have bought completely into Farley's views on sex work. (Herbert's columns get a much-needed fisking in this post at Sexinthepublicsquare.) These columns, as well as a similar op-ed by Guardian columnist and dyed-in-the-wool radfem Julie Bindel, have gotten a lot of circulation around the liberal and feminist blogosphere, and a lot of people who were more or less on the fence on the issue have now come out against legalization of prostitution, for greater enforcement and penalties against customers, in other words, for the so-called "Swedish Model" of prostitution law. In an ironic turn, Bitch PhD even came out for the Swedish Model in a column on none other than Suicide Girls, a site that, while not exactly entailing prostitution, does entail a mild form of sex work that radfems like Farley would ultimately like to see penalized as employing prostitution. (Not to mention the exploitative reputation of SuicideGirls even among many of us on the pro-porn side.)
As the above example illustrates, I have yet to see many liberals or moderate feminists fully advocate the criminalization of strip-club customers or porn producers, or even make the connections about how their newly hardline stance on prostitution might ultimately implicate areas of sex work they consume or are otherwise involved in. Such implications are quite clearly on the long term agenda of anti-porn abolitionists, however, as the Captive Daughters report I blogged about last month makes clear. The fact that many of the leading sex work abolitionist individuals and organizations have their roots in the 1980s feminist anti-porn movement is no coincidence. The prostitution anti-legalization argument is getting some support now even among relative "liberals", and its only a matter of time before such arguments will be employed against porn and stripping.
Just how reliable Farley's findings actually are is an open question. Admittedly, I have not seen a copy of Farley's Nevada prostitution report. (Basically, its a self-published thing by Farley – there is no electronic copy to download and an OCLC search does not show it to be deposited in any libraries. One has to buy a hard copy from her in order to even see the thing.) Farley states (in a September 7th TV interview on the LV news program "Face to Face") that she uses the same methodology as she did for her earlier studies, so presumably, many of the same criticisms of her methodology in those studies applies here. To quote from the Ronald Weitzer (2005) critique of Farley's methodology:
What about Farley’s own research procedures? Much is left opaque. In one study, Farley and Barkan (1998) interviewed street prostitutes in San Francisco. No indication is given of the breadth or diversity of their sample, or the method of approaching people on the street....No information is provided as to how these locations were selected, or whether alternative locations were rejected for some reason....Finally, though Farley lists the topics covered in the interviews, none of the actual questions is presented. It is especially important to know the exact wording of questions, especially on this topic, because question wording may skew the answers.
Farley reports (in the "Methods" sections of her various papers, for example, here) that she uses a combination of "structured interviews" and questionnaires to elicit information from her subjects. However, the raw findings are not reported, but rather, Farley distillation of those findings. Thus, when we are confronted with statements like "92 percent stated that they wanted to leave prostitution" (an answer that's open to some interpretation, in any event), we have no idea exactly what question or questions were asked and whether there this was subject to interpretation by Farley. Nor do we have any idea as to how Farley chooses her interview subjects. The findings may or may not be valid, but there's a lack of transparency in her methods that casts doubt upon them. And in the case of Farley's Nevada report, the fact that the thing is self-published would seem to indicate that there's been no independent peer-review of this study, a fact that does not speak well for it.
(I also recommend having a look at this recent comment (scroll down) by Jill Brenneman regarding her experiences with Farley back when she was still in the radical feminist camp. The comments on how Farley would elicit information and coach ex-prostitutes on their statements are very illuminating.)
One method of evaluating Farley's findings is simply to compare them to the findings of other researchers who have done similar work. As it happens, other researchers have had entry into Nevada's legal brothels and paint a picture a much more nuanced (if not entirely rosy) picture of Nevada brothel work. Notably, Kate Hausbeck and Barbara Brents have published a number of journal on the topic and are in the process of coming out with a book of their own on the topic, "The State of Sex: The Nevada Brothel Industry". (Brents also states in the above-mentioned "Face to Face" program that she strongly disagrees with Farley's conclusions, based on her own 10 years of research in Nevada borthels. The full interview with Brents from September 5th is no longer up on the Face to Face site, unfortuntately.) Also, Alexa Albert, who recently published an ethnography titled "Brothel: Mustang Ranch and Its Women".
That Farley seems to have a knack for coming up with a litany of horrors not reported by other researchers, combined with the lack of transparency in her methodology raises questions as to how much Farley's findings represent the ugly truth about prostitution and how much, as has been shttp://www.blogger.com/img/gl.link.gifaid about Margaret Mead, is a talent for finding what she wants to find.
(Update, 9/17: Barabara Brents, one of the above-mentioned authors, has reviewed Farley's book here. Sure enough, it suffers from the same lack of methodological transparency as her earlier papers, and "presents none of the elements contained in social scientific peer reviewed research.")
The "Nevada Model" of legal, controlled brothels has never been a popular one among sex worker's rights activists, as it places far to much power in the hands of brothel owners and corrupt local law enforcement, provides only limited protections for sex workers while limiting their freedom of movement and disempowering them in other ways. According to Alexa Albert, the brothel system has not succeeded in getting pimps out of the equation, and in the past, the brothels even required the women to have pimps as a condition of employment. (Farley's accusations go beyond anything claimed to date by other authors, however, claiming that brothel prostitutes are literally prevented from quitting and leaving if they so choose.) And, in any event, the legal brothel system is largely irrelevant in the larger context of Nevada prostitution, since it in no way legalizes prostitution where it actually takes place, namely, in Nevada's cities, particularly Las Vegas.
Nonetheless, Farley's study is being used as propaganda not for reforming the Nevada system and other poorly regulated forms of legal prostitution, but for paternalistic Swedish-style laws, that, while in theory decriminalizing sex work, nonetheless make it much more difficult for sex workers who are there by choice to actually make a living and at the same time, increasingly criminalizes sex industry customers, even those involved in entirely non-violent, consensual transactions.
So where are the voices of sex workers, especially Nevada ones, in this debate? Largely shut out of it, except as reported by academics and social workers who claim to speak for them. However, the sex worker blog Bound Not Gagged is planning a response this coming Monday evening, 9/17, starting at 6PM EST, which will be a response to Farley and the abolitionists in general. I encourage everybody to check it out, and contribute information if you have it.
Also, Ronald Weitzer came out with an absolutely excellent paper this month in the journal "Politics & Society". The paper is called "The Social Construction of Sex Trafficking: Ideology and Institutionalization of a Moral Crusade". It describes the sex trafficking issue as one that, while having a basis in reality, clearly has all the hallmarks of a moral panic. The extent of sex trafficking is exaggerated and sex work as a whole is conflated with it. Sex workers are being cast universally as unmitigated victims, while customers are entirely demonized, and all of this being done to advance the political agenda of a particular set of moral entrepreneurs, in this case an alliance of religious conservatives and radical feminists. The paper also exposes many of the myths and exaggerated claims of the prostitution abolitionist movement. Highly recommended, needless to say.