I first became aware of contention between Village Voice Media and anti-sex trafficking activists earlier this year, when the Super Bowl came to Dallas. Anti-sex trafficking activists were ratcheting up awareness campaigns in advance of the event, a couple of which I covered for the VVM’s Dallas Observer before the company apparently took the stance that all coverage of human trafficking would be dedicated to proving that it happens to practically no one. Certainly it is possible that anti-trafficking groups take advantage of a newsworthy event to promote their cause. They did it with the World Cup, and were both lauded and ridiculed for it. Certainly it is also possible that child sex trafficking exists in the world despite this. Certainly we should take note that Village Voice is not the only nor the first media outlet to question the numbers put forth by anti-trafficking groups. It’s the company’s smugness, its glibness, its overall comportment, that I think calls into question its motives and methodology.
Indeed, I couldn’t be more disappointed in Village Voice Media. The journalism conglomerate that sells itself as a progressive, social justice-driven group of alternative newspapers in fact appears to be so blatantly and callously driven by its own self-interest that it is more interested in quibbling about some statistics than taking real steps to address a terrible, and a terribly real, problem: sex trafficking. It appears to me that Village Voice Media thinks it is brave, or somehow “speaking truth to power” by taking the stance that estimates of the actual numbers of sex trafficked individuals have been overblown or poorly estimated at best. That argument has been made, and made frequently, by academics, feminists, mainstream media outlets and misogynists alike. That the Village Voice sees itself as some kind of journalistic savior for saying so is self-aggrandizement of the highest order. Indeed, what we have here, I think, is a case of protesting too much.
Forgive me, but it doesn’t seem brave to do this when the company itself has been accused in court of facilitating the trafficking of children in sex work, and openly profits from advertisements for sex work on its subsidiary Backpage.com and in the physical back pages of most of its papers. It seems rather pathetic, in fact, for them to take the tactic of arguing that well, it only happens to a couple kids anyway and it’s real hard to tell whether some prostitutes are doing so voluntarily or not so so what get your panties out of a wad. Ashton Kutcher certainly is no role model, either as an intellectual or activist, and his “Real Men” anti-trafficking PSA’s were a flop and a half, but it’s shameful to start a fight with the guy over statistics when there is even one child being trafficked. The Village Voice seems to want to argue that because it is, has been, and very likely will always be, difficult to quantify the actual numbers of trafficked individuals, people like Ashton Kutcher and, more significantly, women’s and children’s rights activists who are not attention-obsessed celebrities, should quiet their hysterical little selves and let the boys explain.
I do think it’s interesting that, previous to the Village Voice company being accused of sex trafficking, which happened in September 2010, writers at at least one paper–the Dallas Observer, where I used to work–did publish thoughtful, critical, eye-opening pieces about sex work, prostitution and trafficking. I should note that I didn’t work for the paper when either of these two pieces came out: Jesse Hyde’s piece on the Letot Center in Dallas, which “tries to save teen girls from prostitution” or Megan Feldman’s piece on STAR court, which seeks to help women who need and want to do so, to get out of the “life.” These articles strike a notably different tone from say, this piece by Nick Pinto, or this piece by Pete Kotz, wherein all prostitutes are happy and fulfilled by their work (because he interviewed one), and the government, media and Christian right-wing movements have conspired to keep Americans from having good, old-fashioned fun.
Read the comments section of any of the Village Voice’s newer stories about human trafficking, and you’ll find that when commenters are not berating them for their hypocrisy, those in agreement tend toward the, shall we say, “men’s rights” spectrum of not-so-critical thinking. Many take this as an opportunity to talk about how domestic violence numbers are overblown, and how women cry rape too easily. Anti-feminist and misogynist forums rejoice in the Village Voice’s championing of their belief system: that women, all women, are asking for it, and to help them is a man’s greatest shame. If I am in error in believing that sex trafficking exists, I’m quite happy to be lumped in with those commenters who live their lives with compassion rather than misogynistic hate.
Calling out specious claims by for-profit, non-profit, government, or otherwise categorized groups eager to grub money any way they can is certainly a goal of journalism, and an honorable one. However, anyone who works with women’s and children’s advocacy groups can tell you that the money is not exactly pouring in. Women’s and children’s advocates are not living high on the hog, laughing all the way to the bank as they cash their many and varied checks. There are many scams and scammers out there, and that the Village Voice has targeted advocacy groups like, for example, the Dallas Women’s Foundation, is deeply saddening–especially considering the excellent reporting that the company has done on, say, immigration. I think the honorable thing to do is for the Village Voice to choose its battles–and choose to leave this one alone. If more money than would go otherwise gets funneled to help abused kids because activists use pegs like the Super Bowl to raise funds, well … I can think of worse things that happen in this world.
Do I think some sex workers are oppressed, trafficked and forced, either by socio-economic circumstance or threat of violence, to continue in a line of work that demeans, shames and harms them, physically and psychologically? Yes. Do I also believe that some sex workers do their work with empowerment, consciousness and agency? Absolutely. But the Village Voice seems now to want us to believe the former situation is a myth and the latter situation is truth, and if that is the case, they seem to be no less interested in nuance than the government, mainstream media and religious groups they condemn.