Hype, Hustle, Harm: Why Ashton Kutcher, Demi Moore, and the DNA Foundation Need To Stand Down
Hype. First, terminology. “Sex slavery” is a hot issue, and a non-issue. I refuse to use the term “sex slavery,” because all of the people, practices and conditions that the term “sex slavery” has been applied to vary so greatly. It’s a huge mistake to label absolutely everyone involved in commercial sex as a “sex slave.” Even when people are coerced into selling or trading sex, it is not clear that calling forced labor or rape a form of “slavery” is accurate or beneficial. By using very emotional terms like “slavery,” paired with images of young girls — and usually girls of color — campaigns against “sex slavery” play on stereotypes, fears, and melodrama in order to gain public support. Anyone who faces force, fraud, or coercion in the sex trade does not benefit from having their whole lives reduced to “slavery,” “trafficking,” or “exploitation.” People in the sex trade are not slaves in need of rescue. They do not need saviors, no matter how well-intentioned. They need power and control over their own lives.
Hustle. Kutcher, Moore, and the organizations they support hustle a public who want to do good into believing that keeping men from buying sex is not only possible, but some kind of solution. The assumption that the “real men don’t buy girls” campaign rests on is that there are good men and bad men, and that any man can become a good man by demonstrating his willingness to not buy sex. Does not buying sex give someone in the sex trade a place to sleep at night, a school to go to the next day, and food on the table? Does not buying sex help keep a family together in the midst of struggling with unemployment and immigration issues?
Kutcher, Moore, and the organizations the DNA Foundation supports don’t give us ways to confront systemic poverty and racism, lack of access to education, or strict immigration policies and community policing practices that make people reluctant to engage with the systems that might support them. Instead, their campaigns focus hype and hustle on one target — the market for commercial sex. They don’t address the fact that this market does not exist in isolation of these other political and economic factors. When they do attempt to address human rights or misogyny, they do so only in rhetoric. They still place men in the paternalistic role of savior, and people in the sex trade as innocents to be protected. Then they ask us to pay them to perform the role of savior — a role they created, and a role people in the sex trade do not benefit from. In this way, the money that Kutcher, Moore, and the DNA Foundation raise will do nothing to address the real harms in the lives of people in the sex trade.
Harm. In insisting that “sex slavery” (not poverty, racism, violence, etc.) is the problem, and that stopping men from buying sex (not working for economic well-being, social justice, and safe communities) is the solution, Kutcher, Moore, and the DNA Foundation not only miss any opportunity to meaningfully support people in the sex trade — they actually do harm. They hype up the “epidemic” of “sex slavery” in order to secure the support of politicians, tech entrepreneurs, and NGOs, and they hustle the public into supporting solutions that do not address real problems. In so doing, they drain resources from the kinds of solutions to poverty and violence that might make a real difference in the lives of people in the sex trade. They support organizations in the extreme anti-prostitution arm of the anti-trafficking movement that refuse to work with the very people they claim to want to protect. They do not respond to criticism. They act as if they are on a moral crusade that is above reproach.
For these reasons, I ask that Kutcher, Moore, and the DNA Foundation stand down. Stop using the issue of real violence in the sex trade to get your names in the media. Stop fundraising for organizations that refuse to work with the people they claim to want to protect. Stop using bogus science to support these aims. Stop allying yourselves with politicians who would rather see people in the sex trade behind bars and are only using your celebrity to prop up their own moral campaigns. Stop bullying the few business who will still accept sex workers’ advertisements. Stop backpedaling when called out for all of the above. Stop claiming the moral high ground. Stop insisting you know what’s best for people in the sex trade and creating ways to profit from your work to “save” us.