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Wednesday, 6 July 2011

When Celebrities Attack

By now, you may already be aware of Ashton Kutcher's campaign against the Village Voice, sparked by an article critical of the substance and message of his anti-trafficking adverts. The Voice has form on this one: their earlier article about dodgy stats that get bandied about in the trafficking discussion is a must-read.

The usual disclaimer... I am (as indeed all of Kutcher's critics are) opposed to trafficking in any form, including child sex trafficking. But we must not let emotion exclusively carry the day; it achieves nothing. The Voice hits the nail on the head when they sum up anti-trafficking efforts: "an emotional reaction, based on good intentions, but grounded in bogus information."

The problem of bogus information is this - campaigns such as Kutcher's conflate all sex work with child sex trafficking, and child sex trafficking with all trafficking. Approaches that do so not only encourage criminalisation legislation that harms consenting adults, but also obscures the real victims. How? By using vastly inflated numbers for one kind of trafficking, and pretty much ignoring everything else. Actual children being actually trafficked for actual sex are rarely, if ever, found by the kind of scatterhsot brothel raids and streetwalker crackdowns so many seem to consider "succeses" in the anti-trafficking effort.

Please, please stop kidding yourselves. The raids you hear about are not successes. They are vast wastes of time, money, and manpower. And many groups receiving funding meant to help victims of trafficking seem instead to be lining their own pockets. There is undoubtedly work to be done eliminating trafficking of men and women for any kind of labour. It almost certainly isn't the approach anti-traffickers think will work.

Kutcher’s response against the Village Voice has included tweeting advertisers on Backpage.com, accusing them of supporting slavery. So far, so "concerned". And then this tweet:

Like a lot of people, Ashton Kutcher seems to have some pretty confused ideas about sex work. To be in a position of wanting to help people, yet still falling back on ridicule and stereotype when talking about them, is inexcusable. Someone who says,
"I’ve spent the last 2 years meeting with every expert on the issue of Human Trafficking that I can find, reading countless books, meeting with victims and former traffickers, and studying effective international models to combat trafficking."
Maybe Ashton should have made time for a little bit of victim sensitivity training in there somewhere? (Not that he's known for politically correct tweeting, mind. He seems to channel the spirit of Littlejohn every now and again.)

Kutcher's response has been strongly supported by the Family Research Council who are regarded by many as a hate group. The FRC is one of the main contributors to the Witherspoon Institute’s “research” on pornography that conflates the adult industry with trafficking. That report contained significant input from Patrick Fagan of The Heritage Foundation – you know, those people whose work inspired Reagan’s covert Cold War military actions.

The Witherspoon report encourages celebrities to “use the bully pulpit” and abuses suspiciously similar dodgy statistics as Kutcher’s campaign. And while it doesn't name particular celebrities to be promoted as faces of such bullying, a similar document from Abt Associates does - it specifically names Kutcher's wife, Demi Moore.

I know a little about what it's like to be asked to comment on issues you don't necessarily have expertise in. Sometimes, journalists and television shows approach people like me to provide commentary rather than, say, academics in the relevant fields. It's unfortunate but it's a fact of media life. And I do try, by following academic discussions and talking with friends who are professionals in, say, sex education or the porn industry, to at least not come off as too much of an ignorant tit. I would shudder in horror, though, to ever be described as a "leading player" in the debate around trafficking or related issues. Something that Kutcher and his wife Moore seem to have no problem with. The strategy clearly works, with significant numbers of Kutcher's followers joining in his Twitter tirade, and the man himself being promoted as somehow more of an expert on the issues than, ya know, actual experts.

Not bad for a guy whose credentials, according to his Twitter profile, are: "I make stuff up."

The Voice article pointed out that it's not known how many of the millions, if any, raised by Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher's campaign have actually gone to helping victims directly. With their charity having only been launched 5 months ago, and apparently no financial reports as yet available, it's hard to know when that pointed question will be resolved. I'd like to add another dimension to that question: how many of the millions raised by Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher could be coming from groups such as the Family Research Council?

The well-meaning Twitter fans following Kutcher's lead probably don't realise they're being taken for a ride on the facts front. It can actually be very hard to sort the real from the fake when people keep repeating made-up stuff as true. So I guess my question now is, why are Kutcher’s millions of fans seemingly totally okay with this movement's possible links to the far-right hawkish Christian lobbyists? And when will the likes of Kutcher and Moore realise they're the ones being used, not by evil evil sex traffickers, but by conservative groups with a frightening agenda?