An ad campaign to target demand?

05Jan09

I was in my car on the way to see the eye doctor. ($78 for the exam, and $320 for a year of contacts? No wonder people enter the sex industry.) I was stuck behind a bus, and that’s when I noticed it. A poster in part of Chicago’s new campaign to target demand. This charming ad is appearing on public transportation in neighborhoods demeaned problematic for sex work.

I wonder how many sex workers they consulted about this ad. According to the website, it’s based on a study done by a local organization, which is about as scientific as it gets. Men were recruited through Craigslist, the Erotic Review, and other, may I say, hobbyist-friendly sites, and paid a whopping $40 for interviews. These are men who first and foremost bargain hunt for sex workers and then were offered $40! Way to give them a free sex act! And any good researcher will tell you that offering money introduces a coercive element into the research, especially that kind of money. So, basically, they targeted men who already think about sex workers in really fucked up ways, offered them the equivalent of what they’d spend on a hooker anyway, and then treated their results like scientific fact.

That said, the justification for this poster campaign is that 80% of men interviewed thought prostitution hurt communities and 83% thought jail time would deter them. So, that’s based on what these men thought, not science about the impact of sex work on the community. And, duh, hello, 83% of men interviewed, it’s already illegal for you. But you are so much less likely to be arrested than the sex workers you visit. Gee, the law is sexist and classist? No way!

The DePaul study mentioned, and not, of course, properly referenced, is a study by the Schiller DuCanto and Fleck Family Law Center at DePaul University. The study looked at women under the age of twenty-five in Chicago who all had pimps. Basically, it was a study of women in domestic trafficking situations. Thus, it cannot be said, universally, across the board, forever and amen, that sex workers in general start under the age of eighteen.

There are three problems here. First, the magical age of eighteen thing. Second, the trafficking versus consensual sex work thing. Finally, the generalization of conditions within sex work.

Why on earth do Americans have such a fetish about the age of eighteen? It’s a line established by the law, that’s all. Before I was eighteen, I couldn’t buy cigarettes, porn, or hell, work in porn. At midnight that magical day, a world of legal options suddenly opened up to me. Did my brain change? Did I as a person suddenly acquire a set of skills and abilities closed to me before that magical moment? No.

I’m really not trying to minimize the harm that young women face when they enter the sex industry at an early age. I just wonder why the fuck it matters how old they are. Harm is harm. Consent is consent. If you are in a bad situation or a sex worker because of force, it doesn’t matter how old you are. Do you matter more if you are 13 than if you are 33? God, I hope not. I’ve met sex workers who started working before the age of eighteen. And nothing was different for them before and after that magical moment the law recognized them as full adults.

I wonder how much better things would be if people would stop conflating sex work and trafficking for their own agenda. In these studies that support this ad, there is no distinction made between people who voluntarily work in the sex industry, and people who are trafficked into sex work. Scratch that, people who are coerced or forced into sex work. Not everyone who is in a trafficking situation didn’t want to end up as a sex worker. And not everyone who is in a trafficking situation is in sex work.

A woman who is in a domestic trafficking situation, or who is under the control of a pimp against her will looks a lot different than a woman who makes a decision to become and continue to be a sex worker. And age doesn’t matter at all in that equation. Conflating consensual sex work with trafficking is incredibly harmful, which I could write another post about (and will), but in the context of this research, it’s pretty flawed. I’m not a genius. I’m not a professional researcher. I don’t have a fancy degree. But I do remember the statistics class I had in high school. And it’s that problem of generalizability.

Sex work is a vast, vast world, which is better thought of as an occupational category than as some stereotype you see on the back of a bus when you’re just trying to buy contact lenses. There is as much diversity within the sex industry as there is in, say, doctors. Or lawyers. There are different specialities, different reasons for being there, different five-year plans, different pay rates.

This is not to put my fingers in my ears and la-la-la Pollyanna the sex industry is awesome! It’s not. It sucks. But it’s also great. It all depends on the conditions. Which is what activists like me care about. I care about conditions and I care about consent. If you want to be a sex worker, I want you to have the best possible work conditions. If you don’t want to be a sex worker, I want to find a way to get you out of sex work. (And here’s the first piece: a criminal record is going to bar you from a lot of “straight” jobs.)

But back to this ad. I do believe that a certain amount of education needs to be aimed at the clientele of sex workers. But the ones who are assholes are always going to be assholes. What might help is sex workers being able to oh, I don’t know, share information about clients or maybe go to the police when the violent ones get out of line. By and large, most clients of sex workers are just regular guys. You don’t get that from soliciting hobbyists off Craigslist. You get that from sensitive, rigorous science, like R. Danielle Egan’s Dancing for Dollars, Paying for Love. This is a researcher who, according to her book, became an exotic dancer in order to better understand the clients of dancers.

Ads like these are going to be ignored by asshole hobbyists and burned into the brains of conscientious clients. These clients will then show up to me and other sex workers genuinely concerned that we’ve been abused or we are on drugs or we started at 13. And that’s why we see them. They actually treat us like people. This has happened to me before, several times.

I’m not saying there shouldn’t be ads like this. I just want them to be undertaken with better science behind them, and executed in a far better manner. If I were to design an anti-trafficking ad, I’d probably put up a picture of a person mopping in a large chain retail store with the headline: Not every person trafficked is chained to a bed in a brothel. Or if I put up an ad to educate the clients of sex workers, I’d show a picture of a normal, average looking person holding a condom and the line: When you “pick me up”, keeping me safe keeps you safe.

What kind of ad would you put up?

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4 Responses to “An ad campaign to target demand?”

  1. You should’ve gone to America’s Best.

    I saw that poster for the first time at that very stop since, when I ride the RL, I get off at Clark/Division if I’m going home. I immediately started ripping on it in my head.

  2. 2 serpentlibertine

    Do you remember when we met with that woman from CCH last summer and she told us about that ad campaign? I saw one of those signs on a bus a few weeks later and was just dying to do a RedLight episode on that ad campaign. Then I stopped seeing those signs. If that sign is still up I’d love to re-visit it and do an episode on those ads.

    • Yeah! I remember that. The ad is still up on buses, at the bus that I saw. If I can find one on a nonmoving CTA place, I will let you know. I would love to do a RedLight episode with you on it.


  1. 1 Being Amber Rhea » Blog Archive » links for 2009-01-17

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