Strippers and sex workers have long been used as a trope for others’ agendas. From Chris Rock joking about keeping his daughter “off the pole,”  to Dr. Paul Song hollering about “corporate Democratic whores,” the power of this trope relies on a widespread stigmatization of sex workers. It works as a punchline because many assume that strippers cannot be good daughters and that whores cannot be good politicians. When non-sex workers slip in words like “stripper” and “whore,” the crowd goes wild because they see sexually stigmatized individuals — especially if they are feminine or woman identified — as, well, a joke.

So when Kenny Harvard, a Republican State Representative in Louisiana, recently made a “joke amendment” for a new strip club law (no strippers older than 28; no strippers over 160 pounds, in the spirit of “trimming the fat”), it is no surprise that the response from some of his colleagues was: laughter.

In the following days, what has emerged is a very understandable and justifiable outrage at Harvard’s sexist wisecrack. His women colleagues describe this kind of locker room banter as part of a much larger problem faced by women in politics. Pressure has mounted for Harvard to apologize. But thus far, he has steadfastly refused, saying that this was just a joke about government over-regulation, and that he will not cave to “political correctness.”

It is clear that jokes like this only work in a context of misogyny, which often intersects with fatphobia. And Harvard’s “stop with your political correctness” response is so … early 1990s. He, like too many others, misses the point about how it’s just not cool to make people with less social power and privilege than you bear the brunt of your jokes.

However.  As sexist as Harvard’s “joke amendment” was, what is being lost in this frenzy is this: he was the *only* legislator to intervene with the harmful bill under debate. While the language of Harvard’s joke amendment has been widely scrutinized, the actual bill being amended has thus far been *completely free* of media critique. Namely, the bill, which was passed unanimously in the House (96-0, including Harvard voting yes!), would raise the legal age from 18 to 21 for women working in strip clubs in Louisiana. Introduced under the guise of anti-trafficking efforts in the name of “protecting” women, if signed into law this bill will very likely serve to hurt the women they claim they want to protect.

The poverty rate in Louisiana is the second highest of any state in the U.S. (after Mississippi; it is the third highest if you also count Washington D.C.) The situation is bad. Folks need livable wages. Before this bill, young women could get a legal and potentially well paying job in a strip club at age 18. They could use that money to pay for school, food, & housing for themselves (and potentially their families). Now young women in need of income must wait another *three years* for this work option. In those three years some of these women will likely land in more precarious and potentially criminalized income generating activities. Allegedly for their own good.

And: There is no evidence that this kind of patronizing and punishing legislation of taking away legal work options helps *actual* victims of trafficking in the sex industry. (See my & Barb Brents’ review of the literature here).

If you really want to help individuals working in strip clubs who are dealing with force, fraud, and coercion  (the three critical criteria for qualifying as a human trafficking case), then there are plenty of other strategies. In the words of Alexandra Lutnick:

“If young people’s basic human rights are met, if they have stable and safe housing, employment or another source of income, health care, access to education and welfare benefits, and supportive networks (familial or social) those who really do not want to be trading sex will have other options.” (Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking: Beyond Victims and Villains, 2016, p. 121).

Meanwhile, the vast majority of global human trafficking occurs in jobs *outside* of the sex industry in jobs such as domestic work, agriculture, and construction. No one is making jokes about those workers nor enacting laws to raise the age of legal entry into those forms of work. Instead, what needs to happen in all work environments is securing sustainable and equitable working and living conditions for all individuals, rather than taking away their job options.

So as progressives and conservatives unite in throwing Kenny Harvard under the bus, yet another law is silently and uncritically being slid into creating a legal barrier to employment for poor and young working class young women. All in the name of saving them.







This post is an extension of comments I gave at GeekGirlCon’15 on a panel focused on the feminist potential of Mad Max, Fury Road. I was honored to share the panel with Kristine Hassell, Elsa S. HenrySarah Mirk, Anita Sarkeesian, and Jennifer K. Stuller, who in turn spoke passionately about the film’s representations of WOC, women of size, disability, the hope of ecofeminism, violence as a mistaken feminist strategy, and women as heroes. These perspectives have helped layer my own understandings of Fury Road, as well as to appreciate the diversity of feminist experiences and interpretations of the film. Below is an elaboration of my comments on the panel, focusing on my argument that Fury Road is ultimately an updated White Christian man’s fantasy of being a “good” man in the context of White feminist politics.



IMG_3755 (1)
Max convinces Furiosa that she is on the wrong path; she and her tribe of women should go right back to where they began.

After the May 2015 release of Mad Max, Fury Road (a dystopian sci-fi/action film starring Tom Hardy and Charleze Theron, in that order), the U.S./Anglophone blogosphere erupted around the film’s uses and/or misuses of feminism. Men’s rights activist Aaron Clarey called for a boycott of Fury Road because he saw it as a “feminist piece of propaganda posing as a guy flick”; in the subsequent fury many feminist writers heralded Fury Road as worthy of feminist support, while others offered mixed and even negative reviews.

Much of the positive excitement centered on the Theron’s co-starring role as Imperator Furiosa, who in the words of Natalie Wilson is “a gender-queer, disabled, bad-ass feminist hero who proves that heroism has no one gender, no one body type, no one sexuality.” Yet many others voiced disappointment about the use of “scantily clad models” to portray the former wives/sex slaves (rescued by Furiosa from the evil dictator, Immortan Joe). And in one particularly scathing review, Eileen Jones also mocked the film’s “essentializing Earth Mother nonsense about women,” as well as Eve Ensler’s praise that “(a)ll the women in the film maintain their inherent woman-ness.” (Ensler – of “Vagina Monologues” feminist celebrity status – was a consultant for Fury. More on Ensler’s politics later).

I share some, but certainly not all, of these feminist praises and critiques. Theron’s role as Furiosa – a tall, bald woman warrior with sculpted shoulders and a prosthetic arm – offers viewers a beautiful view of gendered and human variability. I am delighted to see the portrayal of Furiosa’s former Matriarchal tribe, the Vuvalini. A mainstream Hollywood film respectfully depicting a lesbian-feminist-separatist’s fantasy of a vulva-centric tribe lead by wise women elders?! In addition I appreciate Furiosa’s relationship with Max, which builds slowly from animosity to peer-based respect and is free of romantic innuendo, despite Max’s puppy dog eyes and full lips. Max also does not demonstrate any sexual interest toward anyone in the film, including the stunning “sex slaves.”

But from my queer, intersectional, post-colonial perspective, I also have several additional reads of the film. For example, the criticism around “scantily clad models” is for me a (White feminist) red herring for a much deeper problem in the film: the deployment of the sex slave trope. And during my first viewing of the film I nearly shut it off after the first 30 minutes, as it was all about men screaming, abusing, chasing, and killing and each other. (Not my idea of a good time). I also find the film’s ending to be problematic. When Furiosa and her victorious women warriors return to the Citadel with the body of the evil dictator, Immortan Joe, a crowd of grateful minions shout to the White men and boys above, “Let them up, let them up!” The women heroes are then literally pulled up into power by White men.  In contrast, my fantasy ending of the film would involve the large bodied women in the Citadel (some of whom appear to be women of color, and all of whom were formerly used for their “mother’s milk”) taking over the controls to lift up the other women.

Yet ultimately it is Fury’s White and Christian order – swept in under the conservative (AKA “liberal”) agenda of White feminism – that turns my simultaneous admiration of and impatience with the film into political critique.


For anyone who has seen Fury Road, I am stating the obvious that the film is very, very White.  All of the dozens (hundreds?) of boys and men in the film appear to be White. And as if the film is not White enough, the bodies of many of the boys and men are actually also painted white. There are fewer women than men in the film, but at least three women with names and spoken lines can be visibly recognized as (light skinned) women of color. 

And yet, much of the mainstream (White) feminist discussion of Fury Road has underplayed the film’s racial politics. As Nashwa Khan writes:

Witnessing white feminists find ways to make themselves feel better about this lack of diversity in a movie they really want to love points to a larger problem. A big part of feminism is race, but these self-imposed blinders suggest that as long as a movie appeases white feminists, they will not question in solidarity why we women of color are absent.

Khan’s critique highlights the problem of feminist discourse that omits anti-racist critique and fantasizes the struggle as being between cis women and men (holding race constant). In other words, this type of feminism (AKA White Feminism) prioritizes the concerns of White (economically secure, heterosexual, cisgender, mainstream, Global North) women.


As with many Hollywood films, the plot of Fury Road incorporates several familiar Judeo-Christian symbols and cultural narratives. In this case the film features themes of redemption and witnessing, as well as crucifix/savior metaphors.

Redemption: Along their journey in Fury Road, Max and Furiosa both state that they are looking for “redemption.” For Max, it is possible that the redemption he seeks is due to guilt about not saving his young daughter who has apparently died (but who haunts him throughout the film). Clues about Furiosa’s need for redemption are more opaque. (Did she engage in unholy sexual or violent practices after being stolen as a child?). But from a Christian perspective explanations are unnecessary: all are considered to be born of sin and hence in need of redemption.

Witnessing: When Christians speak of “witnessing,” they do not mean that they just watched something happen. To “witness” means that one spreads the word to as many people as possible about how one was personally saved by Jesus’ sacrifice.

But in order to demonstrate the importance of good/God witnessing, the film first illustrates examples of bad witnessing. Namely, the practice of War Boys maniacally yelling “Witness me!” before sacrificing themselves for the evil cause of Immortan Joe (who reassures them that this will allow them to the afterlife of Vahalla and live again.) Christian writer Brett McCracken interprets the War Boy sacrifices as a reference to radical Islam’s suicide bombers, and I concur. (I also see reflections of the death of Libyan dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi in the mob celebration and maltreatment of Immortan Joe’s body after his death).

MM they helped us
Furiosa reassuring the Vulvalini leaders that the Max and Nux are “reliable.”

This theme of witnessing, in the Christian sense of the word, begins to be practiced after Furiosa introduces Max and Nux (the former War Boy who has now switched teams) to her Matriarchal tribe, the Vuvalini. The matriarchs ask: “The men – who are they?” Furiosa reassures them that: “They’re reliable. They helped us get here.”

But the importance of witnessing good/God men is most obvious in the climax of the film when Nux sacrifices himself to kill Rictus Erectus (AKA Big Dick) — the only viable surviving son of Immortan Joe. In an emotionally powerful scene, the camera focuses on longing looks between Nux and his love interest, Capable (one of the former sex slaves, riding in the war rig ahead). Nux points to Capable, whispers “witness me” and then deliberately crashes his rig, killing both himself and Rictus Erectus.

In contrast to the crazed “witness me!” yelling by the War Boys, Nux’s words are not an order. But they are also not an ask. Capable (i.e. a woman capable of loving a flawed man in seek of redemption) is required to witness his sacrifice and hence his redemption as a good man.

Witness me(n)
“Witness me”: Nux’s last words to Capable before sacrificing himself so that others may be saved.


While most of the film’s critical attention has been placed on Furiosa and Max, for me it is clear that Nux and Capable are the soul of Fury Road. The film gestures toward the possibility of Max being a savior (at one point his hand and head are pierced with a long sharp object). But in the words of Capable, it is Nux who has the “manifest destiny.”  As she later witnesses to her tribe of women: “he’ll be bringing us home, bring back what was stolen, as he’s meant to.”

Film critic Scott Beggs Nux is one of the few (apparently) secular reviewers who noted Fury Road‘s religious themes, calling Nux “a genuine Christ figure” because “he seeks death, wrestles with his doubts, recognizes that his god has forsaken him, and then sacrifices himself so that all of humanity can have another chance at redemption.” But what he and the other religiously-informed reviewers tend to miss are the how the Christian themes intersect with contemporary sexual politics.

For me, the moral of Fury Road is this: Women (specifically, White Feminists) must give credit to good White men who renounce their former evil ways. If they do so, together they may return stolen women/sex slaves, defeat the monster men, and lift womankind up into safety and security.


As I have written elsewhere, Hollywood stories about “sex slaves” have weight beyond just the box office — they actually end up reinforcing ideologies that can justify policies which focus on marginalized women, including sex workers, as being in need of rescue by organizations run by White feminists and Good White men.

It is thus not surprising that Eve Ensler, of Vagina Monologues fame, has used the film as a platform to dispense hype about “sex trafficking” as well as heap praise on director George Miller. In an interview with Time Magazine, Ensler describes Miller as a feminist, and explains that her consulting work for the film involved discussion about “sex trafficking in America, which is rampant.” (For a critical academic perspective on Ensler’s claim, see Ann Jordan’s “Fact or Fiction: What do we really know about human trafficking?”).

Given Ensler’s stature as a feminist spokesperson, is also important to note that she (as well as Charleze Theron, and several other Hollywood celebrities) signed a petition that opposed Amnesty International’s historic and important move to work for decriminalization of sex work.

Finally, imagine if this story was centered on White supremacy rather than patriarchy, with POC cast as slaves who are required to witness White people’s sacrifices and redemption, and then rely on more White people to lift them into power. Unfortunately, such a storyline is not difficult to imagine. As Brittney Cooper observed in the controversy over the 2015 film Selma (dir., Ava DuVernay), when Hollywood stories shift the gaze away from White heroes, racist backlash happens.

A (Fury) road for White men’s redemption

After now “witnessing” Fury Road several times, I have come to appreciate much about the film. (In addition to my earlier praise,  I am drawn to Fury Road‘s powerful visual and musical aesthetic). At the same time, the unsettling political undercurrents for me are bright as day. In the opening scene of Fury Road Max explains that he was once a cop, a road warrior in search of a righteous cause; similarly, the current End Demand (anti-prostitution) movement offers policemen and others a morally righteous mechanism to distinguish Good from Bad men. While both Fury Road and the End Demand movement provide the public with gripping tales of sex slavery focused on Good vs. Evil men, neither narrative addresses the sexist, racist, and hyper capitalist ideologies and policies that contribute to war, violence against women, exploitation of labor and natural resources, extreme inequality, and mass incarceration. Nor are such morality tales typically very useful for broad based movements for economic, racial, and sexual justice. On the other hand, both Fury Road and End Demand give Good White men the hope for blessings from Capable White feminists, which in turn further secures their position at the top of a remodeled White supremacist patriarchy.











Does it matter when popular stories about “sex trafficking” are based on half-truths, junk science, and/or religious beliefs? Given that many people are interested in the issue of human trafficking in general and human trafficking in the sex industry in particular, it is critical that we face the consequences of stories told in the name of rescuing girls and women.

Since the passing of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA), stories of human trafficking have been well integrated into the American cultural imagination. While there are now many more reliable scholarly resources on human trafficking today then there were at the turn of the 21st century, many individuals still derive most of their knowledge about human trafficking from sensationalistic media stories about so-called “sex trafficking.” [i]

In the United States, mediated stories of human trafficking of sex workers vary around specific contextual details of who, when, and where, but they consistently portray the same messages about why and how. Hollywood action-adventure characterizations of victims and villains are deployed; complex structural problems are squeezed into personal morality tales; and the stories are then used by anti-sex work politicians and activists to justify heightened forms of criminal punishment. While the stories may have popular appeal, evidence suggests that more criminalization actually hurts all sex workers across the continuum of privilege and oppression.

The argument I will make here is organized around the following interrelated points:

  1. We must critically interrogate dominant stories told about people in the sex industry. (There are numerous examples, but I will focus here on the content and impact of recent feature length film in particular, The Abduction of Eden);
  2. Such stories justify the criminal punishment system via rescue/capture methods as an avenue for social justice (this includes laws being proposed right now in Washington State);
  3. Because the criminal punishment system has a long history of destroying the lives of poor people and people of color — including those of sex workers — academics and activists concerned about people in the sex trade need to rethink this entire set of dominant stories and strategies.

1. Demonizing tales
While there are a plethora of sensationalized media stories about coercion, abuse, and trafficking in the sex industry one recent story – Abduction of Eden (AKA Eden, released 2012) – provides a powerful blend of Hollywood and Biblical tropes. This in combination with the promise that Eden is a “true” story makes it a productive one for understanding the relationship between American cultural storytelling and political policies about sex work and human trafficking.

Eden is a feature length film directed by Seattle filmmaker Megan Griffiths derived from the allegedly true story of Chong Kim. The protagonist (actress Jamie Chung) – a naïve 17 year old girl with hard working, Korean immigrant, Christian parents – is kidnapped and brought to a warehouse/jail with dozens of thin, young, feminine, cisgender, and (mostly white) girls who are forced to stand obediently in line wearing identical white underwear-tanktop sets. The protagonist’s (now renamed “Eden”) first assignment is on a BDSM porn set; she sobs as her hands are handcuffed and pulled upward. At her next job Eden attempts a dramatic escape; bloody and screaming she runs into a suburban backyard with white women drinking white wine (they don’t call the police and Eden is recaptured). We learn that Eden’s best friend in the prison/brothel was stolen at age 13, and when her friend gets pregnant and gives birth, her baby is also stolen and sold. A message portrayed in Eden is that when girls disobey or simply grow too old for the work (20+ years of age) they are executed. The film also implies that this sex trafficking operation is part of an international network directed from outside the US. Although the external controller is never named, there are Russian men working for the operation and Dubai is frequently mentioned. This includes a scene where the drug-addicted supervisor (Vaughn/Matt O’Leary) threatens Svletlana (Naama Kates), a blonde Russian woman with being sent back to Dubai, where she “can get dicked by donkeys all day.”

If these themes are not enough to convince the average American viewer that the world of sex work is pure evil (relying on enslaved cisgender girls enacting forced BDSM porn and probably dictated by an international network of men from Russia and the Middle East who have sex with donkeys), the film hits home the message with multiple Biblical references and metaphors.

This includes the obvious metaphor about the Garden of Eden. It also includes a scene where God appears in the body of a tall white deputy named Ron Greer (Tony Doupe). When Greer questions the corrupt, murderous federal marshal Bob Gault (Beau Bridges) about his possible role in a double homicide, Gault/Bridges looks upward with fear in his eyes and says: “Lord. How are your leads coming?” When Greer informs him that his cell phone activity was picked up near the scene of the crime, Gault replies: “I’ll be damned.” Greer responds: “Well I surely hope not.

Beau Bridges in a screen shot from Abduction of Eden. Bridges is a devout Christian who reportedly refuses to accept roles that take the Lord’s name in vain, when he says “Lord” and “I’ll be damned” – I think we should assume that he means it literally
Beau Bridges in a screen shot from Abduction of Eden. Bridges is reportedly a devout Christian who refuses to accept roles that take the Lord’s name in vain. So when he says “Lord” and “I’ll be damned” I think we should assume he means it literally.

What Eden viewers may not be aware of is that there are many counter-narratives to the “truth” claims of such messages. For example:

  • While there are certainly degrees of coercion or lack of choice found in all jobs especially unregulated or informal economy labor including the sex industry, the portrayal of a warehouse of dozens of kidnapped teenage girls being forced to be prostitutes is simply not consistent with reliable data about the experiences of contemporary sex workers, especially as practiced in the U.S.
  • Individuals representing a spectrum of genders, sexes, races, ages, social classes, sexual orientations, and body types work as sex workers.
  • BDSM is a consensual sexual lifestyle choice for many people as is participation in pornography – but both of these activities have long been demonized by conservative feminists and religious groups. The stigma and fear of BDSM and porn can thus be used as an easy tool to invoke shock and horror from people who are morally opposed to both.
  • Despite narratives about international “sex trafficking rings,” critical criminologists describe trafficking in the sex industry as better described as “crime that is organized” (rather than “organized crime”).[ii]
  • Eden was produced and consumed within a broader U.S. cultural context where fictitious claims about “sex trafficking” are common, ranging from grossly inflated and unreliable global estimates, to debunked claims that the Superbowl creates an uptick in sexual slavery, and statistically untenable assertions that the “average age” of women entering prostitution is 13-14.[iii]
  • As it turned out, none of the content of Eden was based in truth. In June of 2014 multiple investigators into Chong Kim’s story found that she lied about the everything.[iv] Kim was investigated and charged for fraud by a variety of anti-trafficking organizations.[v] But Eden still had several years of celebrity adoration before this news broke.

Initial mainstream responses to Eden
Even before its official release, mainstream (non-sex worker and non-allied) audiences and critics went wild over the story of Eden. While many found the performances impressive and the action-adventure storyline gripping, what sealed Eden’s critical success was that people believed that this story was true. Feminist and women’s groups, churches, and film festivals sponsored screenings; awards were given, local anti-sex work/trafficking politicians were featured, people became enraged en masse and were motivated to join the crusade. The text of Eden folded seamlessly into the curriculum of U.S.-based anti-sex trafficking efforts with its images of taped mouths, chained wrists risen toward the heavens, “in our own backyard” and “stolen innocence” messages, and the idea that the average age of sex trafficked girls in the U.S. is age 13. The true story of Eden appeared to be an American anti-sex trafficking activist’s dream come true.

Even mainstream/secular journalists converted to Eden’s cause, infusing their reviews with Judeo-Christian language and imagery. David Schmader of the progressive Seattle based periodical The Stranger called Eden “a miracle.”[vi] James Rocchi of MSN Entertainment described Eden as “a rewarding, righteous example of how fiction can tell the truth.”

In June 2014, the “true story” sex trafficking film, Eden, was exposed as having no basis in truth. In September 2014 the official website for Eden was still claiming that the film is based on a true story. By at least early February 2015 the website had completely vanished. Director Megan Griffiths, Producer Colin Plank and others affiliated with the film have given no public explanation or apology for the fraudulent story, their strange silence about the controversy, or the disappearance of their website.

Anti-sex work apologists may try to explain away the embarrassment around Eden (as well as other high profile “sex trafficking” stories)[vii] as just an anomaly, or as a few people stretching the truth for a good cause. But Eden is just the visible cultural iceberg of a story that has already become embedded into U.S. policing practices.

2. Context of U.S. policing & criminalizing policies
Part of the reason for the success of Eden is that it was preaching to an American choir that already had the why and the how part of the story in place. It also complemented dominant approaches to end trafficking in the sex industry that feature coercive “law and order” methods where participants are either forced to be rescued/reprogrammed or captured/incarcerated. The rescue side is led predominantly by well-meaning (and mostly white) middle-class women and men (Christians, social workers, feminists) attempting to “save” cisgender girls and women from sex work. The capture side is directed by (predominantly white) men in policing agencies (police, FBI, Homeland Security) who capture girls and women for rescue and men for punishment.

The dynamics between the rescuers/rescued and capturers/captured can also underscore racist power relations. To borrow from Gayatri Spivak’s famous phrase, “white men are saving brown women from brown men”[viii]: Anti-sex trafficking crusaders are often white men and women saving (all cisgender) women from (black and brown) men.

However, we are now in a cultural moment – thanks in part to the Black Lives Matter movement – where many white middle class people are collectively and finally having an epiphany around the reality of police brutality, mass incarceration, and criminalization of everyday life for poor communities and communities of color.[ix] But what many people have not yet made the connection on is how these same principles need to be applied when evaluating the war on trafficking.[x] This war combines many of the same strategies from the “war on drugs” and the “war on terror” (targeting “urban gangs,” people of color and immigrants) to create even more invasive policing and surveillance mechanisms of marginalized people’s everyday lives.

This brings me to the current legislative climate in Washington State: the location where Eden was produced. Washington is currently facing several new state legislature bills intending to create more criminal penalties for clients of sex workers[xi]. The bills are largely generated and coordinated from the desk of Washington State senator Jeanne Kohl-Welles, who is a long time supporter of state level anti-trafficking legislation.

An earlier anti-trafficking bill (also sponsored by Kohl-Welles) resulted in harsh felony punishment for domestic “traffickers” in Washington State. The first individual sentenced under this new law in 2009 was a 19-year-old African American man working as a pimp/manager/boyfriend to a group of young African American women in West Seattle.[xii] He sits now with many other young men of color in prison, many of whom were first incarcerated under the failed and racially discriminatory “war on drugs,” and now also increasingly incarcerated in the name of the war on “sex trafficking.”

With Federal and State punishments now locked in for “traffickers” in Washington State, the new set of proposed state laws are now set on the clients as part of the “end the demand” approach (AKA the “Nordic Model”). The idea is that if men are given harsh enough criminal and social punishments for buying sex, then they will stop trying to buy it. This is a popular idea with contemporary anti-sex work activists despite the fact that:

  • there is no reliable empirical evidence to support that this approach is helpful for reducing harms to sex workers,[xiii]
  • leading global health experts oppose any form of criminalization in the sex industry due to the health harms it poses for sex workers,[xiv]
  • sex worker activists and advocates have consistently documented the harms of criminalization and policing on the well-being and human rights of people in the sex industry,[xv]
  • these policies criminalize sexual interactions between consenting adults, and:
  • more criminalization ≠ social justice.

Is there a connection between sensationalist “sex trafficking” stories such as Eden and policies that hyper-criminalize the sex industry? I think there is. Not only do these stories serve as a popular master narrative around the sex industry; in this case the critical acclaim for Eden (and its director, Megan Griffiths) is also intertwined with the success of Kohl-Welles’s push for increasingly harsh anti-sex trafficking legislation in Washington State. At a May 2013 screening of Eden, Kohl-Welles was featured as an expert on sex trafficking; Kohl-Welles subsequently supported the Motion Picture Competitiveness Bill in Washington State, which directly benefits filmmakers like Griffiths. In October 2014 Griffiths spoke in support to Kohl-Welles’ re-election.

3. Work with sex workers, not against them
Many progressive individuals and communities aspire to support the war against trafficking, and want to trust that laws that criminalize men actors will help girls and women who are coerced, abused, or trafficked in the sex industry. However, evidence from global health and human rights researchers consistently show that more criminalization hurts all sex workers across the continuum of privilege and oppression.

Because of the harms of criminalization:

  • We must insist that the voices of a diverse range of sex workers be included in all panels and policy discussions that impact them.[xvi]
  • It is time for class- and race-privileged individuals to examine their own complicity in supporting sensationalistic stories and moralistic rescue/capture policing strategies.
  • People concerned about exploitation in the sex industry should join activists working for the labor and human rights of people working in the sex industry. This includes opposition to criminalization of consensual adult sexual exchanges.
  • Rather than seek to punish individuals who are already marginalized, and/or punish people for engaging in adult consensual sex, it is time to work with sex workers against systemic punishment, criminalization, and institutional exclusion of women, people of color, poor people, trans* individuals, undocumented people, and homeless youth – many of whom rely on the informal economy including sex work.

If you care about improving the lives of people in the sex trade it is time to advocate for a greater diversity of sex worker stories and perspectives on how to first discuss and then solve coercion and abuse in the sex industry. There may certainly still be space for religious beliefs and metaphors in this wider diversity of stories and plot lines. However, if one truly listens to the bottom line perspectives of sex workers around the world, it will become clear that we need to look beyond the criminal punishment system for solving social justice issues.


References and further readings:

This essay is an extension of an argument that I made in an earlier publication, which was featured as a dialogue/debate amongst experts on human trafficking: Lerum, K. 2014 (Winter). “Human Wrongs vs. Human Rights.” Contexts.

For the 5th year in a row, Sexuality & Society brings you its (highly subjective and mostly North American/U.S.-centered) list of top ten sexual stories of the year!

One of the satisfying aspects of compiling these stories each year is noticing their connections to past stories. Collectively, these “sexual” stories are critical to the societal narratives that are told and retold and sometimes sold to make sense of our lives. Below are some of the stories which struck us as worth retelling and analyzing…..Check out our lists for 200920102011, and 2012!

Also: We maintain an active Facebook Page — please find us there as well!


10. Iowa court says it’s ok to fire women who are “irresistible”

This story is so ludicrous that it is difficult to believe that it is not out of The Onion. Nonetheless, it relies on 19th Century Victorian notions of femininity whereby women were viewed as responsible for controlling men’s sexual desires, and thus ensuing calls for modesty were viewed as minimizing the possibility of sexual attention from men. See below for a 2013 version of this Victorian mentality:

Melissa Nelson was fired because her boss found himself unable to restrain himself around her “irresistible” charms. An all male jury and judge agreed that the scourge of irrisistible women must be stopped.

(CNN) — Melissa Nelson lost her bid Friday to have Iowa’s top court reverse its ruling that held the former dental assistant did not suffer gender bias when she was fired for being “irresistible.”

The Iowa Supreme Court stood by its December finding that Dr. James Knight was legally able to fire the assistant after his wife became concerned about the relationship between the two.

Knight’s conduct was not sex discrimination in violation of the Iowa Civil Rights Act, the court said.

The all-male court had previously ruled against Nelson, finding that employees who are seen as an “irresistible attraction” by their employers can be fired in such circumstances.


 9. Susan B. Komen rejects money donated by exotic dancers 

The Pink foundation has made our list for a second year in a row …. (remember last year, when they cut funding to Planned Parenthood due to anti-abortion politics within the foundation? But then they changed their mind?). This year they kept themselves under the public radar but still received some press when they refused money from a fundraiser held by exotic dancers. Their rationale? “Southern Nevada’s Executive Director Stephanie Kirby said it’s Susan G. Komen’s national policy to not partner with certain businesses, especially ones that may sexualize women.”

“It just doesn’t fall in line with who we are as an organization. There are too many survivors out there who no longer have the body part that is being displayed at a lot of these shows,” Kirby said.”

One of many T-shirts available for purchase at the Save the Ta-Tas Foundation.


Meanwhile, the Komen Foundation also appears to be consistent in their distancing from sexualized breasts as they have no official partnership with the Save the Ta-Ta’s Foundation — a breast cancer research and for-profit organization which sells T-shirts like “Save a life; grope your wife.”

8. Teen girls criminalized for their consensual sexual relationships

Kailyn Hunt (18) was prosecuted and eventually jailed for her relationship with a 14 year old girl.

In the state of Florida the age of sexual consent is 16. The problem is that the age of sexual exploration is much earlier than this. Given increased attention to the issue of child sexual abuse over the past couple of decades (a good thing), there have been many cases of older teenage partners now being defined as sex offenders, even if the relationship with consensual and non-violent (a bad thing). This is what appears to have happened to Kaitlyn Hunt, who was 18 when she entered into a sexual relationship with a girl four years her junior. The younger girl’s parents objected, and found that they could enforce their objections by law. Given the threat of going to prison and being a registered sex offender, Hunt chose a plea bargain, plead guilty to all charges and is now in jail. (Source:

See also:


7.  Russia instigates state-sponsored terrorism against sexual, ethnic, and artistic diversity (e.g.: gay people, labor migrants, and the punk rock band Pussy Riot).

Since 2011, thousand of people have gathered for Anti-Putin demonstrations such as this one in Moscow. See:–13_Russian_protests

In June of 2013, Putin signed into law an “anti-gay propaganda bill” which sought to punish individuals for “promoting” homosexuality. The law imposes fines for those members of society who “disseminate information at minors that are directed at forming nontraditional sexual setups” or which cause “distorted understandings” that gay and heterosexual relationships are “equivalent.”  (see

AmericaBlog reported on these events by stating that “Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into law … one of the most draconian anti-gay laws on the planet.” (right up there with Uganda: see # 6 below).

“The new law, coming only seven months before Russia is to host the Winter Olympics in Sochi, would ban anything considered pro-gay, from gay-affirmative speech, to gays holding hands in public, to even wearing rainbow suspenders. The law also contains a provision permitting the government to arrest and detain gay, or pro-gay, foreigners for up to 14 days before they would then be expelled from the country. That provision ought to send chills to anyone gay, lesbians, bisexual or transgender who is planning to attend or participate in the Winter Olympics.” (see:

The Russian media is also under fire by Putin: One Russian news media outlet is now under investigation for reporting on a gay teacher who was recently fired for being gay (he was said to teach that gay relationships are equivalent to heterosexual relationships). The news coverage did not report negatively (enough) about the gay teacher. (see

While the Putin regime is also instigating crackdowns on ethnic minority labor migrants in Moscow, there is an increased movement to oppose Putin’s politics both inside and outside of Russia. The recently released members of the Punk band, Pussy Riot — imprisoned for two years as punishment for their anti-Putin demonstration in an Orthodox Russian Church — have promised to be part of this ongoing movement for greater sexual and social justice in Russia. See:

6. U.S. preacher behind Uganda “kill the gays” efforts will be tried for crimes against humanity

Since 2009 we have been following the story about the connection between US conservative evangelical preachers and the push by some lawmakers in Uganda for strident and violent anti-gay laws. See our first post on this here:  

Scott Lively, a US based anti-gay evangelical pastor who went to Uganda to preach his hatred, is now being tried for crimes against humanity.

Despite widespread global opposition, a version of this bill passed on Dec. 20, 2013. However, the story continues to evolve with now Ugandan GLBT activists pushing for accountability for the U.S. religious leaders who stirred up this mess. In what is being called a “landmark decision” .. “a federal US judge (has) ruled that the case filed by a Ugandan LGBT advocacy group against American anti-gay evangelist Scott Lively, for his collaboration with religious and government officials in Uganda that lead to the introduction of the African nation’s “Kill the Gays” bill, will be allowed to proceed.”

“As reported in Gay Star News, Michael Ponsor, the US District Judge in Massachusetts, said “Widespread, systematic persecution of LGBTI people constitutes a crime against humanity that unquestionably violates international norms.” This marks the first ruling by a federal U.S. judge calling the persecution of LGBT persons a crime against humanity, possibly setting a precedent for the human rights of sexual minorities will be protected under international law.”

“The case against Lively stems from the evangelist’s 2009 lecture tour of Uganda, the theme of which according to its Ugandan organizer, was “the gay agenda – and the threat homosexuals posed to Bible-based values and the traditional African family.”

A 2010 article published in , The New York Times, wrote about on one of Lively’s speaking engagements in Uganda.”[T]housands of Ugandans, including police officers, teachers and national politicians,” reportedly attended the conference. Lively and his colleagues “discussed how to make gay people straight, how gay men often sodomized teenage boys and how ’the gay movement is an evil institution’ whose goal is ’to defeat the marriage-based society and replace it with a culture of sexual promiscuity.’” Lively wrote days later that “someone had likened their campaign to ’a nuclear bomb against the gay agenda in Uganda.’” (Source:

5. Regnerus’ anti-gay “study” condemned by the American Sociological Association 

The past year showed us not just that U.S. based anti-gay pastors have influenced the laws of other countries (see #4 above), but that flawed empirical studies conducted by credentialed researchers can also inflict malicious impacts. The most striking example of this can be seen with the case of Mark Regnerus, who has a Ph.D. in sociology and is an Associate Professor at University of Texas, Austin. In the words of John Becker from The Huffington Post:

“The study was widely discredited for its flawed methodology, its wildly inaccurate conclusions and its alleged partiality. Nonetheless, it has been breathlessly touted by the anti-gay right as evidence justifying their opposition to equal marriage rights for same-sex couples. Many of the Supreme Court briefs filed by equality opponents rely on the Regnerus study, but the American Sociological Association — Regnerus’ own professional organization — has just demolished those arguments.”

Indeed, given its serious flaws combined with the intent by anti-gay activists to use it to justify anti-gay discrimination, leaders of ASAthe American Sociological Association have roundly condemned Regnerus’ study, including but not limited to the 42 page Supreme Court brief in support of overturning the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).

Fortunately, law makers in the U.S. are also listening to the reasoning of the ASA as well as human rights activists to nip in the bud any ongoing legal influence of the Regnerus study. On November 12, 2013, we saw this news from a Florida judge:

In today’s opinion, Orange County Circuit Judge Donald Grincewicz ruled that emails and documents possessed by University of Central Florida (UCF) related to the flawed study’s peer-review process must be turned over to John Becker, who sought the documents under Florida’s Public Records Act. UCF houses the journal Social Science Research, which published the Regnerus study, and the editor of the journal, UCF Professor James Wright, led the peer-review process for the research. Becker is represented by the Law Office of Andrea Flynn Mogensen, P.A., and Barrett, Chapman & Ruta, P.A; and the Human Rights Campaign Foundation funded the litigation. (Source: Human Rights Campaign press release found at

While Regnerus’ study has been discredited by experts and law makers in the United States, other law makers with malicious anti-gay intent have and will continue to grasp at any “evidence” which supports anti-gay messages. For example, in Russia (see #6 above) the Regnerus study was presented to the Russian legislature and may have played a role in supporting Russia’s recent move to outlaw non-heterosexuality. See:

4.  Transgender justice and visibility 

Laverne Cox plays the role of Sophia Burset, a transwoman prisoner in Orange is the New Black.
Laverne Cox plays the role of Sophia Burset, a transwoman prisoner in Orange is the New Black.

In 2013, many tuned into U.S.-based media and saw several stories featuring transgender individuals and issues. Perhaps the most visible faces were Chelsea (formerly: Bradley) Manning — a U.S. solider who was incarcerated for releasing war-related documents to Wikileaks; and Laverne Cox, one of the stars of the Netflix series hit centered in a women’s prison, Orange is the New Black.

The media attention on the real life and fictional stories of Manning and Cox inspired a press release from the Sylvia Rivera Law Project on “the realties for transgender and gender non-conforming people in prison, jails, and detention centers:”

A significant amount of media fascination with transgender people in prison is about accessing surgery and focusing on the criminalized act underlying an individual’s sentence. Not only do transgender people in prison have problems accessing healthcare, but they experience a heightened level of gender policing.  The clothing they wear, their hairstyles and grooming practices, their bodies, mannerisms and identities are scrutinized and controlled by the state.  Any deviance from norms can lead to violence at the hands of corrections officers or other people who are incarcerated.  Legal “protections” are hard to access as there is little accountability on the inside.  If one is brave enough to risk retaliation and file a grievance, they must follow up with that grievance and timely appeal any denials.  It is not until those appeals (usually two) are denied that one can access the court system.  Finding a lawyer or representing one’s self pro se (without a lawyer) is another difficult barrier that one must overcome, as SRLP’s report IT’S WAR IN HERE has documented.”

Beyond high rates of incarceration, trangender individuals also face an alarming rate of violence and harassment in the US and worldwide and this intersects with race, class, and other social locations. According to a recent report from the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, in the U.S., LGBTQ people of color experience 1.8 times the violence of white LGBTQ individuals. 73% of all LGBTQ homicide victims are people of color. Transgender people are 3 times more likely to experience police violence than non-transgender individuals, with transgender women experiencing the highest rates.

In one legal step toward transgender rights, in August 2013, Jerry Brown signed into law AB1266 that offered the right for individuals “to participate in sex-segregated programs, activities and facilities” (including bathrooms) based on their gender identity rather than by birth sex. Predictably, conservative groups and religious individuals immediately rallied in protest, creating a new “war on privacy rights.”  California Republicans support a referendum that is being prepared to overturn AB1266. While the law goes into effect on January 1, 2014 and the state plans to continue to issue same-sex marriage licenses, there could be enough signatures on Jan 8 against same-sex marriage to push the referendum process forward. We’ll be watching this case unfold in 2014.

3. The Papacy changes its guard

Despite the fact the the majority of the world is not Catholic, the Pope, as leader of the Worldwide Catholic Church, tends to have a lot of influence on sexual politics. (Recent church statistics indicate that 17.5% of the world’s population is Catholic). The Changing of Papal leadership was important in several ways, including the historic resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and the election of the left-leaning Pope Francis.

The old (Pope Benedict XVI , left) vs. the new (Pope Francis, right). Source:

“Pope Francis faulted the Roman Catholic church for focusing too much on gays, abortion and contraception, saying the church has become “obsessed” with those issues to the detriment of its larger mission to be “home for all,” according to an extensive new interview published Thursday.

The church can share its views on homosexuality, abortion and other issues, but should not “interfere spiritually” with the lives of gays and lesbians, the Pope added in the interview, which was published in La Civilta Cattolica, a Rome-based Jesuit journal.

“We have to find a new balance, otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel,” Francis said in the interview.

“The church has sometimes locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules,” Francis said. “The people of God want pastors, not clergy acting like bureaucrats or government officials.” (source:

2. Utah finds itself in a pickle about its marriage politics.

Utah, a state founded by members of the Church of Latter Day Saints (Mormon) church, has long been a bit of an outsider compared to the rest of the nation; indeed it was only after leaders defined marriage as being between one man and one woman that it was accepted into statehood. This was after a long history of plural marriages:

In 1852 church leaders publicized the previously secret practice of plural marriage, a form of polygamy.[52] Over the next 50 years many Mormons (between 20% and 30% of Mormon families)[53] entered into plural marriages as a religious duty, with the number of plural marriages reaching a peak around 1860, and then declining through the rest of the century. (source:

Given the need for the Mormon church to divorce itself from plural marriages it is likely that for Mormon leaders, the moral mantra of monogamous heterosexual marriage is likely undergirded by an ongoing quest for mainstream assimilation. Indeed the success of Proposition 8, the anti-gay marriage ballot proposition in the 2008 California elections, can largely be connected to money from the Mormon Church, which is headquartered in Salt Lake City Utah.  (See, for example the documentary 8: the Mormon Proposition.)

Thus, when in December, a federal judge struck down Utah’s anti-polygamy stance on the grounds that one cannot “prohibitsister-wives-season-4 cohabitation” mainstream Mormon religious leaders were not happy. The challenge to the law was brought by the Reality TV star Kody Brown who stars along with his four female partners (and 17 children) in the reality TV show “Sister Wives.” The Brown family successfully argued that the Utah cohabitation law violated their rights to privacy and to religious freedom.

Ironically, during the same month, Federal Officials also shot down Utah’s discrimination against same-sex marriage — thus striking down the original requirement by the Feds a century and a half earlier that Utah define marriage as a dyad between one man and one woman. U.S. District Court Judge Robert Shelby stated that the law to ban same-sex marriage conflicted with the U.S. Constitution which guarantees equal protection and due process. Thus even though 2/3 of the voters voted to ban same-sex marriage on a ballot in 2004, in 2013 Utah became the 18th state in the United States (17 states and the District of Columbia) that allows same-sex couples to be legally married.

utah.gayWhile same-sex couples flooded the county clerk’s office seeking to be married, movements to reverse both legal the Utah polygamy and same sex marriage decisions are underway. We’ll be following both stories as they progress in 2014.




1. Two victories for sex workers’ rights: Decriminalization of Prostitution in Canada, and the repeal of the Anti-Prostitution Pledge

Finally, we end with two major developments in support of global rights and justice for individuals who work in the sex trade.decriminalize-prostitution-men

The movement for decriminalization of prostitution (much like that of moves historically and currently against criminalization of homosexuality) — arises out of the work of a range of global human rights activists. And after years of work by Canadian activists, on December 20, 2013 prostitution was decriminalized in Canada.

“The Supreme Court of Canada has struck down the country’s major prostitution laws, saying that bans on street soliciting, brothels and people living off the avails of prostitution create severe dangers for vulnerable women and therefore violate Canadians’ basic values.

Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, writing for a unanimous court, stressed that the ruling is not about whether prostitution should be legal or not, but about whether Parliament’s means of controlling it infringe the constitutional rights of prostitutes.” (source:

This ruling comes on the heels of an important statement stemming from the United Nations in 2012 calling for decriminalization of prostitution in Asia. (See:

In a similar spirit, in June of 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the Anti-Prostituion Pledge, stating that “it is a violation of the First Amendment for the federal government to force groups to endorse the government’s views opposing prostitution in order to receive funding to combat AIDS overseas.” (Source:  Finally! A brief breath of relief from global health workers and sex worker activists across the globe — but more work needs to be done as this ruling still only protects US-based organizations.


Happy New Year from Sexuality & Society! Thanks to all the activists, scholars, and practitioners working towards sexual and social justice. May 2014 be filled with stories of hope and justice.

For the fourth New Year’s Eve in a row, Sexuality & Society brings you its (highly subjective and mostly North American/U.S.-centered) list of top ten sexual stories of the year! This year’s stories are full of shreds of hope and resolve for finding allies in the ongoing effort toward sexual justice and a large dose of old-fashioned us vs. them political fights. (Just a heads-up that we won’t be bringing you the story of Princess Kate and her topless photos, but we were amused/bemused at how much press that story received).
For a walk down sexual memory lane we encourage you to (re) check out our lists for 2009, 2010, and 2011 as well!
1. Susan B. Komen foundation defunds breast screenings at Planned Parenthood.
Although we are used to high profile conservatives attempting to put Planned Parenthood out of business, this story of pink-on-pink malignment caught most of us in Sexual and Reproductive Justice circles by surprise. The Komen Foundation’s decision to cut funding to Planned Parenthood due to anti-abortion sentiment in Komen leadership resulted in enormous public outrage, lack of subsequent support for the Komen foundation, and eventually a reversal of the decision. It remains to be seen how well the Komen Foundation will be able to recover, especially given the critical documentary about Komen entitled Pink Ribbons — which was coincidentally released just after the Planned Parenthood defunding debacle. In contrast, public support for Planned Parenthood seemed to grow stronger than ever:
“The silver lining is that more people than ever are aware that Planned Parenthood provides breast exams, and we’re seeing more people calling us today to make an appointment,” Tait Sye, a spokesperson for Planned Parenthood, told HuffPost. “Politics should not get in the way of women’s health, and people respond powerfully when they see politics interfering with women’s health.”
2. Anita Sarkeesian vs. the (online, sexist, and sexually abusive) trolls.

When Feminist Frequency blogger and media activist Anita Sarkeesian announced that she was going to start a new project to address stereotypes of women in video games, some male gamers responded with vicious online attacks:

Sarkeesian, who runs the video blog Feminist Frequency, became a target of abuse—including rape and death threats—last May after launching a Kickstarter fundraising drive for a project promising to explore sexist gender tropes in video games. 

“I love playing video games but I’m regularly disappointed in the limited and limiting ways women are represented,” Sarkeesian wrote. “This video project will explore, analyze and deconstruct some of the most common tropes and stereotypes of female characters in games.”

In response, Sarkeesian was hit with what she calls a “cyber mob” from angry male gamers. Hundreds of abusive tweets flooded her Twitter feed, threatening violence and sexual assault. Vandals attacked her Wikipedia page, plastering it with explicit sexual images, violent images, sexism and racism. Someone even created a video game where users were invited to “beat the bitch up” and punch a digital version of Sarkeesian’s face until it became battered, bloody and bruised. 

Sarkeesian fought back, chronicling the harassment on her blog and speaking to dozens of news outlets. She’d originally set a humble fundraising goal of $6,000. But after the torrent of abuse received widespread media attention, donors flooded her page. Sarkeesian finished the Kickstarter campaign with nearly $160,000, or about 25 times what she’d asked for.  (

3. Chick fil-A hates Gays, er…”supports ‘Biblical’ families.”

Chick fil-A — an Atlanta based company known for their fried chicken sandwiches– went public with its official disdain for those who live outside of the institution of heterosexuality by donating money to organizations fighting gay marriage. As with the Komen public relations debacle, this story was met with protests and boycotts against Chick fil-A, including critical public statements made by Boston mayor Thomas Menino, Chicago mayor Rahm Emmanuel, and San Francisco Mayor Edwin M. Lee, and a decision by the Jim Henson Company (AKA the Muppets!) to cease all business partnerships with Chick fil-A. (Meanwhile they may have gained some new customer loyalty from social conservatives).  

Chick fil-A did eventually announce that it would cease to fund anti-gay organizations, but its president has remained firm in his stance that he still doesn’t like the gays…

… Chick-fil-A President Dan Cathy doubled down on his company’s anti-gay stance yet again, re-iterating the restaurant chain’s support of “Biblical” families.

“Families are very important to our country,” Cathy told NBC affiliate 11 Alive. “And they’re very important to those of us who are concerned about being able to hang on to our heritage. We support Biblical families, and they’ve always been a part of that.” (

Given the enormous diversity of family forms in the Bible, it’s surprising that Chick fil-A representatives have not yet
clarified which “Biblical” families they DO support …(don’t forget that traditional Biblical families are full of polygamy and inclusion of concubines). Regardless, it’s clear that Kermit, Miss Piggy, and their fans stopped going to Chick fil-A for their lunch break

 4. Florida A & M drum major hazed to death; push for an end to hazing on college campuses.

Hazing — and subcultures emphasizing violence and conformity to traditional gender roles on U.S. College campuses — hit the news in 2012 with the death of Robert Champion, an African-American out gay male drum major, and who had made his opposition to hazing openly to his peers. While Champion died in 2011, this story makes our top ten stories for 2012 due to its ongoing media attention and its major impact on institutional transformation at Florida A & M and beyond.

Rober Champion died as a result of hazing in Nov. 2011

Robert Champion died on Nov. 19, 2011, after a ritual called “crossing bus C,” in which band members are forced to walk through a line of band members who are each kicking or punching the person walking by. He began vomiting, complained of breathing difficulty, and later died. Initially, his band mates claimed that they had no idea, according to according to the Palm Beach Press. His parents later told reporters that witnesses had come forward and said that their son was hazed for being gay, or ironically, for being against hazing rituals himself. ( )

The tragic incident resulted in several arrests as well as a newfound commitment by Florida A&M administrators to end the practice of hazing in University sponsored programs. Meanwhile, just before posting this story here, on Dec. 30, 2012 a scathing report was released by the Florida Board of Governors inspector general’s office which “concludes that the school lacked internal controls to prevent or detect hazing, citing a lack of communication among top university officials, the police department and the office responsible for disciplining students.” (see

5. Sandusky goes to prison for child sexual abuse; Penn State officials condemned

The Penn State football sexual abuse scandal made our top ten list for the second year in a row. While individual-blaming solutions have prevailed (sending Assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky to prison for life; toppling the statue of former head football coach Joe Paterno), the evidence is clear that the sexual abuse that happened must be understood and addressed also within the context of big ten football and Penn State. As part of the effort to cast a wider analysis on the situation, scholars of sport and gender continue their critique of Penn State as an example of masculinist sport cultures [for example, see: Cooky, C. (2012). Success without honor: Cultures of Silence and the Penn State Scandal. Cultural Studies/Critical Methodologies, 12, 328-331]. In July of 2012 a blistering report was also released by Louis J. Freeh, former FBI director.

The report is unwavering in its condemnation of the university’s two highest levels of leadership: the president and the Board of Trustees. “By not promptly and fully advising the Board of Trustees about the 1998 and 2001 child sexual abuse allegations against Sandusky and the subsequent Grand Jury investigation of him, Spanier failed in his duties as President,” the report says. “The Board also failed in its duties to oversee the President and senior University officials in 1998 and 2001 by not inquiring about important University matters and by not creating an environment where senior University officials felt accountable.”

The most powerful leaders in the university concealed facts and failed to protect children, primarily because they hoped to “avoid bad publicity,” the report finds. But other factors contributed as well, according to the committee. Specifically, the report blames “A culture of reverence for the football program that is ingrained at all levels of the campus community.” (

6 & 7. RAPE. RAPE. RAPE.

The practice and politics of rape of women continued to lead the headlines in 2012. So much so, that we’re giving it two positions on our top ten list. #6 goes to the ongoing “war on women” (reported also in our 2011 list) being waged by key U.S. conservative politicians. Instigators of this war include the Republican party’s 2012 Vice Presidential nominee Paul Ryan, who referred to rape as simply another “form of conception.” (This attempts to legitimize complete opposition to abortion, including for teenage victims of rape and incest. see: GOP Senate Candidate, Todd Akin also attempted to play definitional magic by telling the public what a “legitimate” rape was, and baffled scientists and progressives alike when he claimed that women’s bodies could prevent pregnancy the case of rape. An interesting chronology of such arguments has been put together here for all of us to read given that this type of thinking is certainly not new: (See:

#7 Goes to the political fury that is currently erupting around harassment and rape of women in India — with most urgent attention being placed on the case of a young woman who was brutally attacked and gang raped for hours and died of assault-related injuries.

The woman, who has not been identified, has become a symbol for the treatment of women in India, where rape is common and conviction rates for the crime are low. She boarded a bus with a male friend after watching a movie at a mall, and was raped and attacked with an iron rod by the men, who the police later said had been drinking and were on a “joy ride.”

She died Saturday morning in Singapore, where she had been flown for treatment for the severe internal injuries caused by the assault. She had an infection in her lungs and abdomen, liver damage and a brain injury, the Singapore hospital said, and died from organ failure. Her body was flown back to India on Saturday.

As news of her death spread Saturday, India’s young, social-network-using population began to organize protests and candlelight vigils in places like the western city of Cochin in Kerala, the outsourcing hub of Bangalore and New Delhi, the capital. Just a tiny sliver of India’s population can afford a computer or has access to the Internet, but the young, educated subset of this group has become increasingly galvanized over the New Delhi rape case.(

Less publicized but also on our minds is the case of another young Indian woman who was recently gang raped; she committed suicide after being pressured by police to either drop her criminal charges or marry one of her attackers. We expect to be hearing much more from Indian human rights activists on this matter in the coming year.(see:

After all that dire news we will end with three more uplifting stories:

8. Movement to ban “gay conversion” therapy for minors in California.

The move to end the practice of reparative therapy (AKA Gay Conversion therapy) has made some movement in California. Governor Jerry Brown supported a new bill to ban gay conversation therapy for minors; however, the bill is currently blocked. On the Friday before Christmas (Dec. 21) “A three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed to block the law, scheduled to take effect Jan. 1, pending a decision on its constitutionality.” (

Gov. Jerry Brown has signed legislation prohibiting a form of therapy aimed at changing a minor’s sexual orientation from gay to straight, the first law of its kind in the nation, officials said Sunday.

Sen. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance) introduced the measure based on his belief that so-called conversion therapy isn’t based on science and is dangerous.

“This bill bans non-scientific ‘therapies’ that have driven young people to depression and suicide,” Brown said in a statement. “These practices have no basis in science or medicine and they will now be relegated to the dustbin of quackery.” (

Story to be continued in 2013….


9. Same sex marriage continues to win.

Cultural representations of same sex couples also proliferated in 2012, including stories and photos in Here Come the Brides published by Seal Press. (disclaimer: Sexuality & Society co-editor Kari Lerum has an article in this book).

Gay marriage makes our list yet again this year, this time with wins in Washington, Maryland, and Maine. Additionally, the U.S. Supreme court agreed to hear two cases (one from California, one from New York), challenging state and federal marriage laws which exclude same-sex couples, and U.S. President Barack Obama became the first sitting president to finally publicly support gay marriage. (Sexuality and Reproductive justice advocates in the US and abroad also breathed a sigh of relief when Obama was re-elected to serve as US President for another four years).


10. Free Condom Machines to be installed in Philadelphia high schools 

And our final story for the year involves a new development in Philadelphia: Condom dispensers in high schools! We commend Philadelphia school officials for including this as part of a pragmatic and non-shaming approach toward reducing STI rates for Philadelphia teenagers.





Happy New Year from Sexuality & Society! Thanks to all the activists, scholars, and practitioners working toward sexual and social justice; may 2013 be filled with your stories!

Warm regards, Kari Lerum and Shari Dworkin

This past March, Appalachian State University (in Boone, North Carolina) put Dr. Jammie Price, a tenured professor of sociology, on administrative leave. Price was suspended after showing a documentary film which critiques the pornography industry, titled “The Price of Pleasure.”  This temporary suspension was enacted as a result of four students’ protest to university administration; they claimed that the film was “inappropriate” for classroom use.

Of course, there has to be a backstory to this. Various sources report that Price was known as a vocal critic of university practices, such as their handling of sexual assault allegations leveled at student athletes.[1] Prior to screening the film, student athletes had complained to university officials that she had created a hostile environment by facilitating classroom discussions on sexual assault accusations against student athletes on the ASU campus.[2]

After conducting an investigation (in which the University states that it did not focus on the screening of the film itself, but the manner in which the classroom was conducted), the Provost has allowed Dr. Price to return to the classroom as long as she consent to a mandatory “professional development plan.”  This professional development plan requires Dr. Price to, among other things, develop and implement steps to contextualize and debrief “sensitive” material in the classroom.

The film at the center of the controversy

Sexuality scholars, researchers, and activists should be concerned about Price’s suspension for many reasons. This includes standard concerns about academic freedom, and questions of academic integrity in dealing with the complex and controversial matters of sexuality, power, and media. This also includes concerns about the “backstory” of student backlash (i.e. critically examining the gender, race, and sexuality dynamics of when students complain about their professors). But this case is also important for an additional set of concerns: that of sexual rights and justice as they pertain to sex work and sex workers.

Dr. Price’s suspension based on her inclusion of “graphic” material in the classroom has lit up the blogosphere. Some have drawn on the language of “academic freedom” in order to conceive of it as a tool to promote truly inclusive democratic debate. Gail Dines — a well-known anti-porn feminist who is featured in the film, has leapt to the defense of Professor Price and the film, The Price of Pleasure. Given the film’s sudden prominence as an educational tool and as a catalyst that re-ignited long held debate about academic freedom, it’s worth pausing to examine the film itself.

The film, produced and distributed by the Media Education Foundation, purports to examine “how pleasure and pain, commerce and power, liberty and responsibility have become intertwined in the most intimate area of our lives.”  The MEF is a popular source for academics seeking to include educational films in the classroom and it is known for producing films that espouse similar anti-porn themes (The Bro Code, Dreamworlds). The Price of Pleasure includes clips from pornographic films with the claim that these clips “represent current trends in mainstream pornography.”  Some porn performers featured in the film have criticized it for the ways in which they felt the film purposefully misrepresented their perspectives and encoded a patently anti-porn message into something they were told would be an “unbiased” exploration.

Gail Dines, a professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies, at Wheelock College was a senior consultant for the film.[3] The film argues that porn has become what Linda Williams has described as “on/scene”: in other words, that “sexual scenarios” once considered “obscene” have increasingly become part of the public sphere (albiet via public scandal) [4]. However, unlike Williams, the filmmakers name this as a universally bad phenomenon.

Some might critique the filmmakers for espousing a nostalgic, moralistic wish for the “way we never were” (a world free of commercial sex and its’ depictions). A brief survey of U.S. history reveals that commercial sex has been an integral feature in public social life (albeit in different ways) at different moments in time.[5] The filmmakers attempt to sidestep this critique by utilizing a somewhat crude version of Marxist mechanics. For example, in the opening scene, Gail Dines explains that she is accused by some for being “anti-sex” because she critiques pornography, but what such critics don’t realize is that you can criticize McDonalds and still eat food.[6]  The comparison doesn’t quite hold up on at least two fronts.

First, unlike food, it is difficult to trace the effects of any cultural product, including pornography. Without rehashing the feminist sex wars and an entire body of social scientific literature, there is no consensus that consumption of pornography causes the perpetuation of sexual violence.[7] Furthermore, the idea that representations directly impinge on or cause individual actions is one that some feminists –via such campaigns as the reform of rape laws—have long sought to contest.

Given the absence of strong direct evidence that porn causes sexual violence, some anti-porn activists instead argue that pornography promulgates a “worldview” that reifies gender inequality writ large and has harmful consequences to the public at large. There are two main components to this anti-porn argument:

  1. porn as a genre universally “objectifies” women, by which they mean that it, more than any other media outlet, trains them to relate to their bodies as a site of scrutiny, to eroticize submission and “degradation,” and that these activities can never be a source for women’s self-creation or pleasure.
  2. pornography leads men (as Robert Jensen, Professor of Journalism at the University of Texas, testifies in the film), to have difficulty distinguishing between the modes of relating to women enabled in and potentially appropriate to erotic fantasy and the modes of relating to women on an everyday basis in which they are not sex objects that are continually available for one’s sexual use.

Embedded in The Price of Pleasure are these logics of direct and uncritical consumption: What you watch becomes who you are. Perhaps this is the message Professor Jammie Price was hoping to introduce to her students.  It’s worth asking whether this message alone is able to stimulate expansive and inclusive classroom debate on the topic of commercial sex. It’s worth asking whether this logic is representative of the diverse body of intellectual thought on media reception—which frequently demonstrates that people contest, resist, rescript, as well as reproduce, inequalities in their interactions with media texts.

But it is actually the second part of Dines’ food metaphor (re: McDonalds) that I am interested in.  The “McDonalds” analogy situates the amorphous public and producers of porn in a morality tale. In this morality tale, the public are those who, barraged by porn, are being sold a dangerous and harmful product. Producers are either callous, usually male, profiteers or the sex workers themselves, who are either victims or “brainwashed” apologists.  To this end, the only self-described former sex worker interviewed at length in the film is Sarah Katherine Lewis, who speaks about what she loathed about working in the sex industry, pointing out that the only options open to her at the time were working in service economies—McDonalds or sex businesses. Either way, the workers in the films are not the ones asked to offer definitive meanings about or set the agenda around business practices. The McDonalds analogy essentially eliminates from the terms of the debate the desires, needs, or interests of those who work at the McDonalds in question, those who for whatever complex array of reasons and motivations make their living via sex work.

Sex workers (and allies) who craft their own intellectual analyses and political agendas around questions of political economy, labor and human rights, and the politics of representation are not even intelligible within the schema of the “anti-McDonaldites.”  Based on watching The Price of Pleasure alone, viewers would have no idea that sex worker advocacy groups have advanced trenchant critiques about what can be done to improve their working conditions and social existence.

The case of Professor Price reveals the extent that academic discussion of pornography often centers on the (presumably) non-sex working academic, or the academic advancing an anti-porn critique.  No one seems to be questioning the anti-porn message of the film —a message that was perhaps lost on the students who felt violated by its graphicness. What then what does that say about the state of protections for academics and aspiring academics who are current or former sex workers? Or simply those who wish to include in the classroom the voices and worldviews of sex workers speaking on their terms?

In response to Price’s suspension, Gail Dines suggested that if Price had given a ringing endorsement of commercial sex businesses or to have invited what she likes to call “pornographers,” or sex workers and adult business owners (often one and the same), to speak on campus, all would be good in Price’s life.[8] This characterization is reminiscent of what Michael Bérubé has described as the movement of “campus conservatives to construe themselves as victims of liberal intolerance.”[9] Dines may not consider herself a campus conservative, but her fanciful claims about the supposed cultural status of sex workers belie the myriad ways in which academic research has historically stigmatized those working in sex industries. Moreover, it defies recent evidence that suggests that the mere introduction of discussions of commercial sex cultures to academic spaces are often met with protest.

Flyer for the 2008 sex worker art show; allowing the show on campus of the College of William and Mary may have lead to the President losing his job

For instance, in 2008 the president of the College of William and Mary did not have his contract renewed in part for his begrudging refusal to censor the Sex Workers Art Show, who had been invited by student organizations to perform on campus.

The implication that former or current sex workers are immune and protected from pervasive forms of discrimination in the academic (or any other) workplace is beyond farcical. Were Price to have been suspended for having once been a sex worker, let alone dared to introduce that in the classroom, who would be speaking up for her? Dines herself proudly admits to a record of opposing the decision to “allow” those working in the commercial sex industry to speak on university campuses.[10]

Make no mistake, sex workers and former sex workers who are also students, are at jeopardy of losing their jobs in education and their place in institutions of higher learning. In 2001, a student at California State University-Fullerton was ejected from the track and field team for working as a stripper to pay her way through school. She was outed by male athletes who attended the strip club and who had no disciplinary action taken against them. In 2010 a former sex worker who had written openly about her experiences in the sex industry was fired from her position with the New York City Teaching Fellows Program. More recently, Stacie Halas, was fired from her position as a science teacher at a public school when students “discovered” that she was a former porn performer.

How might starting our analysis of the state of academic freedom from these stories complicate our understanding of what is at stake, and for whom, in the disciplining of academic bodies? Lisa Johnson, in her astute observations on the Price incident, points out that “there is still no vocabulary for resisting the conservative moral framework that says graphic sexual material is inappropriate for the classroom, and no public statement of feminist pedagogy that says our notions of what is deemed proper in the classroom are part of the very status quo that WGS (Women & Gender Studies) generally interrogates.”

While I agree with Johnson that too often feminist academics avoid publicly articulating the value of the explicit challenges to sexual normativties they explore in the classroom, it’s important to delineate where these challenges actually diverge. These divergences may very well work to consolidate an understanding of academic freedom that claims the virtues in speaking about “disreputable” topics in order to stimulate learning and/or to debate certain kinds of conclusions. Yet in doing so, they may very well replicate and embed social stigma against “disreputable” ontologies or subjects themselves.  The consequences of this move do not just affect the educational opportunities for sex workers. Rather, they go to the heart of how scholars define the ethical and methodological questions that arise in studying historically marginalized communities.

At a moment in which an international movement for sex worker human rights is gaining momentum, it is worth reconsidering how the available intellectual frameworks frame commercial sex and represent commercial sex workers, and remind ourselves of the panics that invariably emerge around the presence of commercial sex in the classroom. Such panics function to demarcate the boundaries of how any stigmatized topic is or is not allowable as a topic of learning and how marginalized groups, including sex workers are allowed to participate in academic cultures.


Jayne Swift is a doctoral student in Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies at University of Minnesota. Her areas of specialty include Commercial Sex Cultures & Obscenity, and Queer and Feminist Theory.


[1] Monte Mitchell. “ASU professor suspended after showing film on porn business, expressing views on athletes, racism,” Winston-Salem Journal. April 24, 2012.

[2] Kellen Moore, “ASU professor decries university action,” April 24, 2012.

[3] The Price of Pleasure. Dir. Chyng Sun, Media Education Foundation, 2008.

[4] Linda Williams. “Porn Studies: Proliferating Pornographies On/Scene: An Introduction,”  in Porn Studies. Ed. Linda Williams. Duke University Press: 2004.

[5] See: Andrea Friedman, Prurient Interests: Gender, Democracy, and Obscenity in New York City, 1909-1945. Columbia University Press: 2000. Mara Keire, For Business and Pleasure: Red-Light Districts and the Regulation of Vice in the United States, 1890-1933. The Johns Hopkins University Press: 2010.

[6] The Price of Pleasure. Dir. Chyng Sun, Media Education Foundation, 2008.

[7] Based on their review of published academic literature, Ferguson and Hartley (2009) conclude that “it is time to discard the hypothesis that pornography contributes to increased sexual assault behavior” (p. 323). See:  C. J. Ferguson, & Hartley, R. D. (2009). The pleasure is momentary…the expense damnable?: The influence of pornography on rape and sexual assault. Aggression & Violent Behavior, 14 (5), 323-329.

[8] Gail Dines, “The Power of the Porn Industry: The Shocking Suspension of Dr. Price,” Counterpunch, April 19, 2012.

[9] Micheal Berube. What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts? Classroom Politics and ‘Bias’ in Higher Education. W.W. Norton & Company: 2006. P. 61

[10] Gail Dines. “The Power of the Porn Industry: The Shocking Suspension of Dr. Price,” Counterpunch, April 19, 2012.



Dear Sexuality & Society readers:

Tomorrow, Jan, 18, 2012, the Society Pages (which hosts Sexuality & Society) will post a “blackout” screen to protest the proposed “Stop Online Piracy Act.” Wikipedia and many other major social media providers will be doing the same. To learn more about this protest as well as the censorship implications of the proposed SOPA legislation, click here:


Here’s a clip from Society Pages’ editor Chis Uggen about the situation:

Blackout: Solidarity against SOPA

by Chris Uggen3 hours ago at 01:27 pm

Image via CyborgologyOne of the core values of The Society Pages is that knowledge should be transparent, accessible, and uncensored. Proposed legislation, known as SOPA in the Senate and PIPA in the House, undermines these core values and threatens the very foundation of the Internet. Many prominent websites, such as Wikipedia, have chosen tomorrow as a day of action regarding these legislative moves.

We have decided to join in with these groups and we will present site visitors to The Society Pages with a “splash screen” or “blackout screen” for the entirety of 1/18/12. The screen will inform visitors of the implications of SOPA/PIPA and link to further reading on the subject.


Stay tuned to the Society Pages front page tonight/tomorrow for more developments :





As the Gregorian calendar year officially comes to a close, we offer once again a sampling of the year’s top ten sexual stories. While certainly not a complete, in-depth, or globally representative list, we do think that this list contains snippets that have both disturbing and hopeful implications for sexual justice.

10. Rick Perry steals gay, secular icons to create anti-gay Christmas message

Rick Perry in a replica of the jacket worn by Heath Ledger in "Brokeback Mountain."

 “​By now, you’ve probably seen Rick Perry’s “Strong” ad, in which he opines, “There’s something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school.” Not only are gays in our military, they’re also composing music for our campaign ads. As the Harvard Political Reviewpoints out, the music that plays in the background of Perry’s ad is inspired by or directly taken from Aaron Copland, a gay composer.” (Nick Greene, Dec. 10, 2011, Village Voice).

9. Herman Cain tests Mainstream American Media: What’s worse in a political candidate: Assault or Affair?

Presidential hopeful Herman Cain’s campaign abruptly crashed and burned after news media learned of his long time extra-marital lover. But this was after his multiple cases of sexual harrassment and assault against his former employees were also aired. Most news media, including reputable news outlets like the Washington Post, failed to differentiate between Cain’s alleged criminal and consensual acts, using the language of “accusation” to describe both. See for example this story with a headline of “Ginger White accuses Herman Cain of long affair.”

…”Cain denied the accusations. In an interview that aired before White’s allegations were broadcast, Cain told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that he knows White and that the two had been friends but that there had been no sexual contact and no “affair.” He characterized their relationship as “trying to help a friend” because of her “not having a job etcetera and this sort of thing.””

The story then goes on to simply state that:

“This month, Cain was accused of sexually harassing several women.”

Such lack of differentiation between criminal and consensual sexual scandals is common among contemporary American mainstream media. Gratefully, Amanda Marcotte (Alternet, Nov. 30, 2011) provides a helpful guide for assessing the significance different kinds of sex scandals. See Marcotte’s article here: “6 Kinds of Sex Scandals: What Should be exposed? What should be left private?”

8. Wienergate

… AND speaking of the need to have more sophisticated interpretative filters around why and how some Wieners constitute a “scandal” … see article above, again. … See also our post about Anthony Weiner:

“In contrast to the Dutch, Americans love sex scandals. We love them so much that in a good year we produce and consume not just one of these high-profile scandals, but several. For many of us interested in sexual justice, the juiciest stories are those of the hypocrites: the Elliot Spitzers who lead anti-prostitute campaigns while purchasing sex; the George Rekers who champion the anti-gay movement while hiring “rent boys,” and the Newt Gingrichs who lead impeachment hearings while engaging in their own extra-marital affairs.”

7.  Obama’s Secretary of Health & Human Services overrules the FDA, pulls “morning after” pill 

Kathleen Sebelius overrules FDA recommendation

“In what can only be called an astounding move by an Administration that pledged on inauguration day that medical and health decisions would be based on fact not ideology and for which women are a major constituency, today Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) overruled a much-awaited decision by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to make emergency contraception (EC) available over-the-counter (OTC) to women of all ages.

According to the New York Times, “no health secretary has ever [overruled an FDA decision] before.”  See Jodi Jacobsen’s full story in RhReality Check here.

6.  The politics of Rape. Rape committed by men against women was frequently in the news during 2011, not because the dynamics of it have changed (it’s always about maintaining/exerting symbolic power), but because some people and institutions have found new tactics of exerting and/or maintaining heterosexism. Here’s a sampling of three such tactics.

Ms Magazine posted several stories on rape this year. This image comes from:

5. Penn State & masculinist cultures of sexual abuse.  Rape and sexual abuse committed by men against boys was again in the news this year. While the Catholic Church and the Military managed to avoid serious spotlight time in 2011, another site of masculine privileged culture — American college football –wasn’t as lucky.

“With former Penn State football assistant coach Jerry Sandusky charged with sexually abusing children—and school officials including iconic former football coach Joe Paterno dismissed for purportedly failing to report Sandusky’s alleged crimes to law enforcement—many observers have compared the situation to a series of similar cases that have rocked the Vatican.”

See: What the Catholic Church can teach us about the Penn State Scandal.” (Patrick Hruby, The Atlantic, Nov. 16, 2011.)

After all these dire (and at times ludicrous) sexual stories, we will end with four stories on a slightly more hopeful note …

4.  Mainstreaming of Transgender stories (including both opportunities and misses for gender transformation).

Transgender actress Harmony Santana

While images of Chaz Bono’s new book and his stint with Dancing with the Stars were ubiquitous, the inclusion of transgender individuals in policies and programs were just as, if not more, influential.  Any sort of mainstreaming can bring missed opportunities for radical transformation (in this case for the institution of gender). But Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality details 14 reasons why 2011 was “a game-changing year for transgender rights.” (See full story in The Advocate, Dec. 28, 2011).

3. Sex workers rights recognized by the UN and US State Department

(Meanwhile the conservative sexual politics of mainstream anti-trafficking rhetoric became increasingly exposed. See: for example, social justice activist Emi Koyama’s brilliant investigative article in Bitch Magazine, American University Human Rights professor Ann Jordan’s series of critical papers exposing the “Hype” of the abolitionist/trafficking movement, as well as of course the Village Voice’s mocking of Ashton Kutcher’s “real men” campaign.)


2. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivers historic gay rights speech to the United Nations

 GENEVA — The Obama administration announced on Tuesday that the United States would use all the tools of American diplomacy, including the potent enticement of foreign aid, to promote gay rights around the world.

In a memorandum issued by President Obama in Washington and in a speech by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton here, the administration vowed to actively combat efforts by other nations that criminalize homosexual conduct, abuse gay men, lesbians, bisexuals or transgendered people, or ignore abuse against them. (Myers and Cooper, New York Times, Dec. 8, 2011).

1.  The Sexual Politics of Egypt’s Arab Spring, featuring:


Happy New Year from Sexuality & Society! Thanks to all the activists and scholars working toward sexual and social justice; may 2012 be filled with your stories!

Warm regards, Kari Lerum and Shari Dworkin


Related Sexuality & Society stories:

As 2011 comes to a close, we are once again soliciting recommendations for top sexual stories of the year. As usual we are looking for stories from around the globe related to sexuality, culture, health, and politics from the past year. Please email us at with your ideas (and we’ll be sure to credit you as well).


Kari Lerum & Shari Dworkin, Eds, Sexuality & Society


When the Obama administration took office on Jan. 1, 2009, many scientists and scholars were hopeful that empirical evidence would play a greater role in defining a range of domestic and international policies, ranging from justifications for war, to global warming, to sex education, to policies about human trafficking. The hope was that the administration would turn away from making decisions that were rooted in ideological agendas and make decisions that were informed more directly by reliable empirical data. To some extent, this has been the case. [E.G.: see the State Department’s (remarkable) response to evidence of human rights violations against people in the sex trade].

However, when it comes to directly criticizing the State Department about its international policies — even using solid empirical data —  it is probably inevitable that the State Department machine will kick into defense mode. And this is what is happening now in response to Rhacel Salazar Parreñas, a professor of sociology at the University of Southern California, for her book Illicit Flirtations: Labor, Migration, and Sex Trafficking in Tokyo which is based on her ethnographic research with bar hostesses in Tokyo. The State Department argues that women who are similar to those Parreñas included in her study need to be “rescued.” Parreñas’ research suggests otherwise, and adds to the mounting evidence which indicates that calls for “rescuing” adult women are simplistic, not based in reliable evidence, and are ultimately harmful to the women who allegedly “need” to be “rescued.”

Parreñas’ more complicated and empirically-grounded analysis puts a wet blanket on widespread popular discourse about “sex trafficking” — a “victim/rescue” narrative that many critical feminist, human rights, and labor scholars critique as a colonialist, patronizing, (ironically) sexualizing fantasy of White Knights swooping in to rescue helpless women. Parreñas’ work also provides yet another push to the State Department — and other all parties interested in alleviating human trafficking — to ground their approaches in rigorous data collection, as well as analysis that addresses labor and migrant rights in the context of global economic inequalities.

See below for Nina Ayoub’s story which briefly summarizes Parreñas’ findings and the State Department’s response:


Scholar’s Views Rile State Department

November 10, 2011, 9:00 pm

By Nina Ayoub

The author of a new scholarly book from Stanford University Press has become the target of criticism from an unusual source: the U.S. Department of State.

In recent weeks, Rhacel Salazar Parreñas, a professor of sociology at the University of Southern California, has received media attention for Illicit Flirtations: Labor, Migration, and Sex Trafficking in Tokyo, a book about Filipina women working as bar hostesses in the Japanese capital. Bloomberg News ran excerpts of her work. She was called the “literary lovechild of Barbara Ehrenreich and Naomi Wolf” by Zócalo Public Square, which said the book will “inspire indignation for reasons you didn’t expect.” Parreñas also was interviewed onThe World, a program of Public Radio International. Following that broadcast, the State Department asked—essentially—for equal time.

The issue? Parreñas was highly critical of the ways in which State Department policies on international sex trafficking characterize the women who are the focus of her book, minimizing, she says, their individual agency as migrant laborers, and seeking to “rescue” them and regulate their lives in ways that Parreñas argues may leave them worse off.

On November 4, Alison Kiehl Friedman, deputy director of the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons was interviewed on The World to “clarify U.S. policy on sex trafficking.” She told the host that “we agree with Dr. Parreñas that there is exploitation inherent in what is going on, and we agree that not all the people there are trafficking victims. And we agree that there needs to be more done to get unscrupulous labor recruiters out of the system and better protect migration flows. Where we disagree is that somebody can go in, have a personal experience for a couple of months, and categorically say these people weren’t sex-trafficking victims, and somehow calling some of them sex-trafficking victims is worse than ignoring their exploitation and trying to address it.”

In an e-mail interview, The Chronicle asked Parreñas for her response. Is she surprised at the public attention her research is getting from the State Department?

“As a scholar who is committed to ‘public sociology,’ that is, sociology that aims to transcend the academy and reach a wider audience, I couldn’t be anything but pleased that policy implementers have given attention to my work,” she writes. “Unfortunately, they seemed to have also misinterpreted the work.”

Parreñas adds: “I do wish that the U.S. State Department gave greater attention to the evidence-based research on human trafficking by scholars such as myself, and others including the anthropologist Denise Brennan, the legal scholar Dina Haynes, and the anthropologist Tiantian Zheng.” The department does not, she charges. Instead, they “insist on making unsubstantiated claims on human trafficking.”

What the sociologist is chiefly calling “unsubstantiated” is the Trafficking in Persons Report, which the State Department describes as its “principal diplomatic tool to engage foreign governments” on the subject. She is critical of the State Department, she says, for not fully accounting for its methods, as well as for its informants and sources. “The TIP Report would get an F if it were a  social-science-research project.”

Parreñas says she is fairly sure that her critics at the agency have not yet read her book. “Otherwise, they would not be able to dismiss my methodology as ‘having a personal experience for a couple of months.’” she writes. As a qualitative sociologist, she used a varied set of methods, including “in-depth interviews with hostesses, brokers, club owners; participant-observation both as a customer (in nine clubs) and as a hostess (in one club primarily); archival research; and interviews with government representatives in both Japan and the Philippines. I spent not just ‘a couple of months’ but a total of 11 non-continuous months in Tokyo to conduct my project.”

Unlike Friedman and the TIP Report, she says, “all the claims that I have made about the situation of hostesses—a group they say are ‘forced into prostitution’—are based on evidence, i.e., concrete interviews with migrant Filipina hostesses who I made sure represented a diverse group.” The women included “those who are college educated and those who are high-school dropouts; some work in high-end bars and others in low-end bars; some undress in the club where they work and others never sit next to a customer at a club when at work.”

Speaking on the radio of the Filipina hostesses, Friedman, the State Department official, used an analogy she said her boss was fond of. “I think that focusing on how they got there and whether there was any initial consent to travel is really beside the point,” she told The World. “It’s almost like criminalizing driving to the bank robbery, but not the bank robbery itself.”

In her e-mail to The Chronicle, Parreñas counters: “As I explicitly described in the interview, the work of hostesses is not prostitution. Instead, the work is to flirt professionally with customers.”

Friedman, notes Parreñas, “said we should not focus on how one gets to commit a robbery, but to focus on the robbery. This statement just goes to show that she chooses not to consider the circumstances of people’s lives and the particular needs that arise out of those circumstances.

In the case of hostesses, she says, “these women are often from the poorest of the poor in the Philippines. We cannot understand why they do hostess work unless we consider the structural contexts that have shaped their lives.” Those who prefer they not become hostesses, she says, should work on easing the structural inequalities that limited their choices and made hostess work the best of bad options.

“But let us say I agree with Friedman’s boss,” she adds. “Let us look at the act of bank robbery. Let us disregard how they got there. In this case, we would look at the act of hostess work. We would actually see that the work is not prostitution but professional flirtation. Professional flirting could be performed in a variety of ways—via showing acts of care such as spoon feeding sensually, dancing on stage (clothed or unclothed), singing, verbal teasing. I would ask Friedman—what is wrong with professional flirting? What is so different between professional flirting and working as a waitress in Hooters?”

“Yes, I would say let us look at the act of ‘bank robbery’ or the act of ‘hostess work.’ If we were going to do it accurately, we would actually rely on evidence to know the specifics of that ‘bank robbery.’ We would perhaps realize that the robber walked away with three pieces of mint candy from the bank and not wads of cash. If one looks at the TIP Report,one sees that the U.S. Department of State provides no evidence related to working conditions. So it is questionable if they know anything about the ‘bank robber.’”

Commenting on Friedman’s statement that “compelled service is frequently misidentified as consent,” Parreñas says that the official is “cloaking the problem of human trafficking. She is looking at the surface and not the structure.” Most migrant workers, she says, are not free laborers. They are often guest workers whose legal residency binds them to a sponsoring employer. This leaves them in a highly unequal relationship of dependency. This, she writes, would apply to farm workers in North Carolina, non-immigrant-visa domestic workers in Washington, D.C.; likewise, domestic workers in Singapore, or the kafala system in the United Arab Emirates, or au pairs in Denmark, or migrant teachers in Baltimore.

“Eminent scholars such as Carole Vance and Ann Jordan have expressed their puzzlement over the obsession of the U.S. State Department on sex workers as well as their conflation of sex trafficking and prostitution,” says Parreñas. She says that the department’s “over-obsession with finding ‘prostitutes’ who are ‘sex trafficked’” has led them to misidentify migrant Filipina hostesses. “Hostess work is not a euphemism for prostitution,” says Parreñas. Yet, she claims, the U.S. Department of State, “without evidence,” misidentifies the hostesses as not just prostitutes but women “forced into prostitution.”

This misidentification is a “setback,” she argues, “because it has eliminated the jobs of tens of thousands of women, many of whom are now living in poverty in the Philippines.” This shift, the book indicates, occurred when Japan changed its visa policies on “Filipina entertainers” in a way that conformed with U.S. preferences. The scholar also cites the research of her Ph.D. student Maria Hwang at Brown University, where Parreñas taught before going to the University of Southern California. Hwang has found a sizeable number of Filipina hostesses displaced from Tokyo working as migrant sex workers in Hong Kong. Hwang’s research, says Parreñas, shows us that “falsely rescuing them from prostitution has actually forced them into prostitution.”

Her student’s finding “tells us that it is very important that the U.S. Department of State only provide evidence-based research in their reports. Not having evidence-based research could backfire on them in more ways than one.”

Parreñas will continue her research on migrant labor. She says she is preparing a second edition of her 2001 book, Servants of Globalization: Women, Migration and Domestic Work (Stanford), which compared Filipina migrant domestic workers in Rome and Los Angeles. She is conducting new research in both cities to update their situations. She also has a new project that will compare the experiences of domestic workers whose legal residency in a country binds them to a citizen sponsor employer, meaning “that they cannot quit their job unless they are willing to be deported.” She will compare domestic workers in that situation in Denmark, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States.


Original story posted here: department/29694?sid=at&utm_source=at&utm_medium=en

See also human rights law professor Ann Jordan’s prolific scholarship on this issue, including her article here:

Other related Sexuality & Society stories: