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August 22, 2014

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Bewildered, academics pore over sex-trade hysteria

They try to figure out how they got steamrolled

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It’s four months later, and they’re still licking their wounds.

In September, UNLV sociologists Barb Brents and Kate Hausbeck were steamrolled by a publicity-savvy out-of-town researcher who courted the media with a crude picture: Las Vegas prostitute as poor wretch.

For Brents and Hausbeck, who have spent more than a decade researching Nevada’s prostitutes, this was like watching an Etch A Sketch being hung in the Louvre. And it worked. The media sucked up sensationalized stories of women ground up like meat by the Vegas sex industry while the researchers were silenced in the stampede.

What happened? they wondered at a quiet academic gathering Sunday. And why was Las Vegas, that bastion of anti-puritanism with its short-skirted cocktail waitresses and its women direct to your room, so quick to hitch up to the anti-prostitution bandwagon? So quick to bite the hand that feeds it?

The duo was caught off guard by a media blitz over San Francisco researcher Melissa Farley’s self-published book, “Prostitution & Trafficking in Nevada: Making the Connections.” Days before Farley started selling it, the book was catapulted into credibility by New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, who swallowed Farley’s thesis — that sex work is violence against women and Nevada is the epicenter of that violence in America — and repurposed it for an article in which he declared: “There is probably no city in America where women are treated worse than in Las Vegas.”

This national coverage horrified the professors, who questioned Farley’s methodology and said she cited their academic work but misinterpreted it in her text. They say her research is anecdotal, not peer-reviewed, and funded by questionable sources.

Why didn’t Herbert, the professors asked, stop to suggest what their own research bares: That some women choose to sell their bodies. And why was Farley’s viewpoint presented as gospel by local reporters, though whenever either Hausbeck or Brents winds up in the media, asserting that not every woman is so helpless as to fall into sex work without a say in the matter, a reporter inevitably seeks out someone like Farley for a flaming counterpoint? Why, they want to know, does the quest for journalistic balance cut only one way?

The tone of the conversation was almost bewilderment when Brents and Hausbeck joined UNLV women’s studies professors Lynn Comella and S. Charusheela and grad student Krystal Jackson at the Far West Popular Culture Association’s convention Sunday for an 8:30 a.m. round-table discussion, “Commercial Sex in the Media.” It was a what-happened-here kind of wallowing, not just because they disagreed with Herbert’s sentiment and questioned Farley’s research, but because of a subtle and shared sense of abandonment.

They are left with a feeling that Las Vegas residents who have historically agreed that sex work isn’t all good or all bad, that the commodification of intimacy isn’t so simple, are being won over by fast-talking prostitution abolitionists who stormed into town with blinders on.

Perhaps, they volunteer, it’s the reemergence of what the round-table widely agreed was a “nostalgic feminism” — one that recalls a time when pornography was widely seen as exploitative and dangerous. That was before it became accepted that some adult starlets had chosen their path and enjoyed it, before such liberated sexuality became almost chic.

Perhaps Farley and the people who think as she does are situated in the right place at the right time, researching prostitution in a period when the government will not give academic grants to people who research sex work (as if it’s a contradiction in terms) or to academics who study the plausibility of legalized prostitution. Farley’s research was supported in part by a federal grant, Brents said, implying that any conclusion she drew about prostitution in Nevada was foregone before the research began.

And, Comella said, the presentation of sex workers as women who are universally exploited, trafficked, raped and coerced also plays perfectly into the commercial aspect of the media, which must sensationalize and oversimplify if they’re going to sell.

But if five academics sit in a casino conference room on a Sunday morning to discuss how Vegas sex workers are being manhandled by the media and misrepresented by researchers of dubious authority, does anybody hear it?

No, not really. And perhaps this is the answer to their questions. The very format of the discussion, the nature of their dissent and dismay, expressed in erudite dialogue and scholarly musings, is the stuff of academic journals, not of the 11 o’clock news or the morning paper. And they’re up against an agenda, not an academic inquiry. It’s a cause that will be advanced at any cost, not in quiet conference rooms but in dramatics and hysterics that are hard to ignore.

So the professors must watch as a very dangerous assumption, advanced by anti-prostitution activists, is paraded with all the tact of a Tupperware salesman: If you aren’t saying prostitution is bad, you must be saying it’s good.

This is where the dialogue gets dangerous, the round-table agreed. Dangerous because it is anti-intellectual, so black and white that you’re either in the dark or snow-blind, so reductive that even the people who want to use such reasoning to stop prostitution won’t be able to — not for want of trying, but because they’ll never elevate the discussion to the root causes of the problem.

And perverse though it may sound, the more Brents and Hausbeck are criticized for their research, the closer it seems they can get to their subjects. Sex workers and brothel owners have decided in the past that they’d let the researchers into their intimate lives — because the researchers wanted to study them, not save them.

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