Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Let's talk about sex (trafficking)

Tom Friedman is a buffoon, his buffoonery so apparent and well-documented I don't much see the point in getting annoyed at what he writes anymore. Trashing one of his columns is like panning the latest single from LMFAO (or their earlier iteration, The Black Eyed Peas) for being vapid, over-produced dreck: well yeah, no shit.

Nick Kristof, on the other hand – now that's a dude who, like a lover or a war criminal, knows how to hit all my anger buttons. Perhaps because he doesn't have a mustache and has never said “suck on this” while on national TV, Kristof enjoys an air of seriousness among serious liberals that Friedman lost somewhere around his 358th mixed metaphor. Being a New York Times columnist, he's no less an imperialist, obviously, but his imperialism is of the crusading white savior variety, which is in vogue these days among the Kony 2012-retweeting set.

Besides selling a savvier, hipper brand of American empire -- "shock and awe" giving way to "the responsibility to protect" -- Kristof is a master at making noble white liberals feel noble for feeling noble. Be it saving poor Africans or exploited sex workers or undereducated Americans or the uncomfortably (for a privileged white liberal) black-like "white underclass," Kristof knows how to couple the aw-the-poor-thing dramatizing with stock neoliberal, imperial policies, from standardized testing to bombing Libyans. Wrapping these policies up in heart-wrenching stories allows Kristof and his like-minded readers to feel morally enlightened for supporting them; we're doing something! That they don't achieve their stated ends -- peace and prosperity, a better educated populace -- is besides the point: they make Kristof and friends feel better. Superior.

This was certainly true of his latest column, "Where Pimps Peddle Their Goods" -- not a reference to the Times -- on the problem of white slavery human trafficking. The problem, as Kristof tells it, is that pimps are using websites like the Village Voice-owned Backpage.com to, well, peddle their "goods": legally underage women who have been coerced into sex work. His solution, as it were, is to have Backpage remove its sex ads altogether.

Now, Kristof freely admits that of those posting on the site, “many” – by which he presumably means “the vast majority“ – are consenting adults who, while one may disapprove of their lifestyle or lament the socio-political conditions one believes contributed to their line of work, are doing what they do as freely as one can in a state capitalist economy. But the small matter of not just inconveniencing but possibly jeopardizing the lives of these sex workers -- who, barred from posting online, may seek clients on the street -- is of no concern to Kristof. Like a kindergarten teacher or Israeli prime minister keen on collective punishment, he maintains the bad actions of a few justifies punishing the many.

Because Jane spoke out of turn there will be no recess today. Put your heads down on the desk and, god damn it Jimmy, quit running with the scissors or we'll call in the IDF and end this playtime shit once and for all.

While banning sex ads isn't the same as bombing Gaza, Krisof admits in his penultimate paragraph that it will be just as ineffective at achieving its stated goal (which may not, of course, be the real goal):
Let’s be honest: Backpage’s exit from prostitution advertising wouldn’t solve the problem, for smaller Web sites would take on some of the ads. But it would be a setback for pimps to lose a major online marketplace. When Craigslist stopped taking such ads in 2010, many did not migrate to new sites: online prostitution advertising plummeted by more than 50 percent, according to AIM Group.
Hey! Notice what he did there? First, Kristof begins his column by talking about forced human trafficking, which everyone can agree is a Very Bad Thing. Using that as his hook, he then advocates banning all sex ads on Backpage. Though he admits this won't "solve the problem" of human trafficking, he then points to statistics showing that after Craigslist got rid of its sex-for-money ads, "online prostitution advertising plummeted by more than 50 percent."

Putting aside the validity of that statistic, recall that in a piece about the need to address human trafficking Kristof is here bolstering his case for banning online sex ads from Backpage by pointing to a decline in said sex ads, not human trafficking. This is because there is not the slightest evidence that a decline those ads, if there in fact is one, has had the slightest impact on trafficking. Maybe, then, while trafficking is the public target of anti-trafficking campaigners, it is that icky matter of consenting adults engaging in consensual sex via the Internet that weirds people like Kristof out.

But who cares what the real motivation is or, worse yet, the result of the policies that are pushed? Like the Kristof-approved air war on Libya, which Amnesty International says killed “scores” of civilians, the crusade is more about the crusaders than those they are claiming to save. The impact of the policies doesn't matter so much as the spirit behind them. Kristof hasn't written about life liberated Libya, where blacks can't walk the streets without fear of murder or kidnapping, since September because the situation there is complicated. It doesn't lend itself to nice little morality tales, where you can do good by signing an online petition or deploying a few Predator drones.

Kristof meant well and he demonstrated his super-human levels of Concern with a couple 800-word, pro-war columns. And that's what matters.

Now, human trafficking is a problem, even if it's been overblown into the latest moral panic -- and by the time it hits the Times, it's indeed a certified moral panic. But it's not a problem that can be meaningfully addressed, much less solved, with feel-good measures and online advocacy; with a petition here, a letter-writing campaign there. Beware those suggesting it can: like the online petition sites, they probably just want your email address; like Nick Kristof, they probably just want your admiration.


  1. Kristof just wants to be loved. Concern is the wings of his Angelus. The world a stage where Kristof's appreciation for the enduring spirit of the less blessed(eg. Vietnamese sweat shop girl) or "innocent victims"(sex trade, women in Libya, etc) edifies him and, by extension, should edify you. Off stage brutality or burial(from his elevated perch Obscenity asks for it) is always the appropriate thing to do. What could be wrong when Angelina Jolie is your BFF?

  2. Anonymous3:54 PM

    Also note that anti trafficking groups don't always get the whole picture

  3. Anonymous10:22 AM

    We know that online classifieds for sex workers have reduced violence against sex workers, so by advocating the elimination of these ads Kristof is advocating that we put 18 year old sex workers in harm's way so that we can put 17 year old sex workers in harm's way.

    What's more, the chief factor driving 15, 16, and 17 year olds (about 40% of whom are boys) into sex work is that they are legally prohibited from seeking other work, especially if they have run away from an abusive home and cannot get parental permission.

    But it makes Kristof and others feel good because they're "doing something", so I don't suppose it's going to make much difference if I point out that what they're "doing" is endangering the lives of vulnerable people.

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