Monday, February 7, 2011

Wired and Venkatesh Perpetuate Prostitution Myths

The connection between people who buy sex (usually men) and trafficked victims still seems to be a tough one for some members of the media.

We were furious after reading Wired magazine’s latest issue has a piece from Sudhir Venkatesh, “How Tech Tools Transformed New York’s Sex Trade.” The piece glamorizes high-end prostitution, ignores the violent reality faced by many prostituted people and downplays the harm caused by people who buy sex. Venkatesh has many things wrong in this article, so I have addressed just a couple below. I’m sure our readers are going to spot plenty more. Please chime in in the comments here, and over on Wired, and let the world know that we won’t stand for the glamorization of the sex trade.

Venkatesh asserts that women who are high-end escorts experience less violence than women whose bodies are sold on the street. Other studies have shown that the relative rates of physical violence in indoor prostitution are on par with street-based activity. Some studies have actually found that those who engaged in indoor prostitution suffer from higher rates of mental health disorders, such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, from their trauma than those who engaged in outdoor prostitution.

Venkatesh portrays prostitution as a lucrative “business” for the women he’s interviewed. Most women in prostitution are under the control of a pimp or trafficker and keep very little of the money they make, if they get to keep any at all. Pimps exact control and make money by taking cash from women and providing the minimal amount of support necessary to keep women in the trade.

Make sure to leave a comment here, and over at Wired. Thanks.

P.S. I’ll be using the #trafficking and #wired tags to get people engaged in the issue on Twitter. Check us out @TheCAASE

Photo by Cory PiƱa, Creative Commons License


  1. While I can sympathize that any story lacking in the full scope of representation of any issue is frustrating to those not represented, I also think you do this here by invalidating the experiences of many sex workers who have not be controlled by a trafficker and have not experienced violence in their experiences through sex work. As a sex worker for over 18 years, I never experienced any acts of violence, in part due to better working conditions and resources that allowed for greater safety. And my experience is not unusual or solitary, even though it may be less noticeable then situations that call more attention to themselves (violence and exploitation). This is part of the challenge of painting accurate portrayals about the vast experiences of sex workers, as those that are *not* victimized and have better opportunity and resources are also maintaining lower profiles and levels of discretion so as to not draw unwanted attention or problems their way.

    For many men, women & transgender in our society, sex work is the best available option for them and their circumstances, and I would hope that any advocates for an end to trafficking and exploitation could see how supplying better skills and tools to do sex work safely and effectively also reduces the possibility of workers relying on someone else to provide for them, and become a possible victim of trafficking.


    Megan Morgenson
    Sex Workers for Choice

  2. Megan, thanks for your thoughts. CAASE respects the opinions and experiences of all people in the sex trade. I’m glad that you have not been a victim of violence and that you are also concerned about the well-being of people in the trade.

    Unfortunately, the majority of survivors of prostitution do not share your experience of safety. They have been raped, abused and exploited by pimps and traffickers. Study after study shows that violence is endemic to prostitution, both on the street and in indoor venues. Jody Raphael's research has revealed that, here in Chicago, women in escort services and exotic dancing were also subjected to high rates of sexual and physical violence, with 21.4% of women in escort services being raped more than 10 times.

    Venkatesh doesn’t want to talk about those prostituted people and their experiences because it would make readers uncomfortable and sad. CAASE believes that our culture and policy makers need to do more to protect the most vulnerable prostituted people from harm. Venkatesh does not even acknowledge that those people exist, and we find that very disturbing.

    -Kristin Claes, CAASE

  3. You said:
    "Other studies have shown that the relative rates of physical violence in indoor prostitution are on par with street-based activity. Some studies have actually found that those who engaged in indoor prostitution suffer from higher rates of mental health disorders, such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, from their trauma than those who engaged in outdoor prostitution." Can you please provide the names of these studies? I would be very interested to read them.

    Also, you said: "Most women in prostitution are under the control of a pimp or trafficker and keep very little of the money they make, if they get to keep any at all." Can you also provide your source for this? As someone who has also been a sex worker for over 20 years, and all over the world, I would question this assertion. I take issue with the word "most". People who study prostitution have no idea about "most" prostitutes because they necessarily only have access to a small sample. And like Ontario Superior Court Justice Susan Himel, I don't count Melissa Farley's papers as authentic research.

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  6. well,i just don´t know how we women can reach equality if prostitution defense are considered "opinion".I have never seen men defending prostitution for themselves,they are always in the comusmer position and defend it for them,,why we women do our best to convince ourselves that we are commodities? Are that "sex worker" a real sex worker? Sorry,i don´t belive that any women on Earth after being submited to prostuitution has no damage.Besides,only because we find many druged people who loves to get druged nobody can denay that drugs are dangerous,why in case of prostitution that´s valid?
    If we women like to be sex workers why society should give us equal job opportunities,equal payment if we can make high amounts of money just "having fun"? How can we women stopp violence againsd us if many women defend the men´s right of abusing us like toys?
    I am tired and sick to see so many irresponsable bullshit glamourized like "choice",we women must choose to be human beings.Tired and sick of this "American way of life" that shows women´s commodification as something positive and normal!If we wnat to erradicate this,we must stopp to consider such suspicious arguments as "opinion".Imagine if i get strat with "racist opinions",that would be a crime even thought i claimed to be a person of color,why such disgusting stuff i read here isn´t? So,what´s next? to rape is a men´s right as well? to be a serial killer is "freedom of speech"?
    wake up!

  7. HUH? I think you are trying to make a point I just don't get what it is.

    Billie Jackson, M.A.
    SWOP Colorado

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  9. I am confused why CAASE is so angry with Venkatesh's article. It is after all, a study that was conducted and the facts gathered, ridiculous as they may be.

    There is nothing in the artcle suggesting the author downplays the violence against people who work in street-based economies. Kristen, can you clarify "most" and "some" in your response? These two words exemplify the crux of your argument; there needs to be statistics to back up "most" & "some".

    The word "trafficked" is based loosely on your opinion only. Very few trafficking cases are legitimate and/or prosecuted. The fact that African American males are statistically the highest traffickers in the US (BOJ Trafficking statistics), only solidifies that policing and racial profiling is still flourishing in our criminal justice system.

    I appreciate your need to sound off about a subject that obviously is close to your heart, but I need facts not emotions. A misinformed public is dangerous. Street-based economies do in fact present greater risks of violence, but please don't render those who work in economies outside of society's norms as harmless or helpless victims.

    Sex workers are organizing, mobilizing, informing, changing legislation, etc. We are not all trafficked, pimped, or constantly in fear of our lives, even those who work at the street-level.

    Sex workers are against violence and trafficking as much as those who work to prevent it. I would be welcome and open to speak with any agency or organization that works with trafficking, violence, and sex work forums. Only through conversation can we begin to understand one another.


    Cristine Sardina BWS, MSJ
    Desiree Alliance Co-Director

  10. Venkatesh misses the point that when treated as a transaction, sex and/or sexual acts dehumanize and dominate the individual(s) being purchased. Asking if an individual can choose to prostitute is like asking if an individual would choose to be dehumanized and objectified. Prostitutes are not in the sex trade because they want to provide the service to men but because men want to buy them for the sexual service. This cost, at the price of exploitation, is a reconstruction of power and domination by the men who are buying, the johns.

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  12. All:

    Thank you for your thoughtful posts and the time that you have taken to respond to this so our voices are heard.

    Amanda...there are many women who purchase sex not just men. Please do not label men who purchase sex as predatorial in their need for sexual/physical release. We can as a community make this exchange between consenting adults better. Here's how:

    LEGALIZATION!! You will never see end demand. This has been around since reported in the Bible and will continue to be. The only reason it is illegal is because laws were passed to make it so.

    Harm reduction for both worker and purchaser.

    Education: similar to the conversation we are having here :) We need to get to know each other and not be on only our respective sides.

    Coming to agreement that we ARE on each others side.

    Supporting all workers as equal members of society.

    Breaking down the walls of discrimination and ostrazation.

    Have a great day and please! Support your local sex worker!

    Billie Jackson, M.A.
    SWOP Colorado, LLC

  13. Kristen, you name Jody Raphael's research on prostitution in Chicago. I looked up her research and this statement gives me pause as far as credibility:
    "However, the research project itself was designed and implemented within the framework of prostitution as a form of violence and exploitation. For example, the surveyors
    were survivors of prostitution who did not see their own experiences as “work” or a choice
    they had made.", p 8

    This is a serious issue with the research being cited to back up policy that harms people, such as "end demand". (Please see this fact sheet:
    Too much of the "research" used for this is conducted on the most desperate cases (sample pool taken from jails, battered women's shelters, drug rehab units, etc.), or research coming from an initial bias as mentioned above. This serves no purpose but to buttress an erroneous assumption about all sex workers, used to promote policies that harm us, inhibit our agency, and disintegrate our freedoms.

    Please consider how what you do affects real people like myself and my fellow sex workers. These policies (based on such dubious research) that further criminalize us are ruining lives. The laws against prostitution, meanwhile, have never actually helped one person. The criminal justice system is not the right choice for helping people in such bad situations.

  14. A sex worker as me to post this:

    "There are multiple realities in prostitution. For some people, it is a viable, respectable income. For some people, it is abusive and degrading. For some people, it is neither empowering now degrading, but just a way to make a living.

    Speaking of trafficking, perhaps the most common form of trafficking is the legal trafficking of sex workers into jail cages. Just like traffickers use deception and hold innocent people captive against their wills, that's exactly what the vice cops who deceive sex workers into thinking they clients as well as all those who persecute sex workers do...deceiving and traumatizing innocent people, and holding them captive against their will. I consider prostitutes to be innocent people, who are being criminalized simply for exchanging sex for payment.

    It disgusts me how some of the same individuals and groups who talk about how sex workers are such victims are also advocating to keep laws and policies that are resulting in sex workers being criminalized... despite their claims that they don't think sex workers should be arrested. This is a clear case of actions speaking louder than words. Arresting sex workers for prostitution is a form of abuse, in and of itself.

    In case anybody is wondering, I am a sex worker, with experience working as an exotic dancer, webcam entertainer, and a legal prostitute in the Nevada brothel system. Also, I haven't had entirely wonderful experiences in sex work and a bad experience I had while dancing led me to sex worker advocacy. At first I was just looking for a support network, and then I became involved in more large scale social and political advocacy.

    Despite the bad experience that led me to advocacy, I'm not going to pathologize the whole sex industry because I've also had positive experiences and seen multiple realities. Patologizing the whole industry does nothing to make things better. Also, I view exotic dance as a beautiful art form rather than a social ill, and have taken on pole dancing in my personal life as a hobby and a great form of exercise!"

  15. Hello everyone. It is clear that, within this conversation, there are people who are beginning with fundamental differences of belief about the realities of prostitution.
    Thanks to those of you who have respectfully weighed in about this issue without personally attacking anyone else. I have removed one post that does attack another person, and I am closing comments on this post because I feel both sides have been heard.

    I use the word "most" within my original post because the respected researchers who we work with hear, time and time again, about the violence and exploitation experienced by women in prostitution. (The research from Jody Raphael can be found on CAASE's website

    On a personal level, I work with survivors of prostitution here in Chicago who motivate me to do this work. They are powerful, intelligent women who escaped the trade and are now sharing their stories publicly. They have been beaten, raped, drugged, taken across state lines, incarcerated. Now, they are fighting to raise awareness about the realities of prostitution to protect the women who struggled alongside them to survive. CAASE's work honors the experiences of those women, while recognizing that there are a spectrum of experiences among prostituted people.

    CAASE strives to develop policies that will protect the most vulnerable women in the sex trade. I believe we all share the same goal to protect vulnerable people from harm and to seek out the truth that will protect them. To quote Megan (above):

    "it is a disservice to people everywhere, especially women, to invalidate their experiences by negating what they have told you is *their* truth."