Ozy has complained to me that my post on research on sex work from a couple week ago didn’t go into enough detail. To this I must plead guilty. Partly, once I found the Vox.com article, I got lazy. But there was another factor: I realized I’d seen this movie before.
Nowadays, when you hear evangelical Christians talk about gay marriage, it’s about how if they can’t discriminate against gays and lesbians because of their “sincerely held religious beliefs”, they’re being oppressed. But not long ago–before this started sounding ridiculously homophobic–it used to be common for them to claim that it wasn’t just about religion: homosexuality was a disease and they could prove it.
How? By citing studies based on ridiculously unrepresentative sample populations, for one. For example, they might claim that the median gay man has hundreds of sexual partners during his lifetime–a claim based on studies done in the 1970s, based on self-selected samples (i.e. whoever was most willing to talk about their sex lives to some sociologists), which in some cases relied heavily on advertising the study in gay pickup joints and bath houses. (Source and discussion.)
Similarly, they’ll claim shockingly high rates of sexually transmitted infections among gay men, citing studies which turn out to have recruited their participants primarily from STI clinics. Of course, they’ll never mention this, leaving their readers to assume the studies are representative of all gay men.
Parallel problems exist in studies on sex work. As sociologist Ronald Weitzer explains, claims about all sex workers will be made based on studies of street-based sex workers, or sex workers in jail, or sex workers who reached out to service organizations for help.
In both cases (anti-gay and anti-sex work), writers pushing an ideological agenda will ignore explicit warnings in the studies themselves. For example, in their book Half the Sky, Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn cite a Norwegian government report as showing Sweden’s sex work laws have been very successful at reducing the number of sex workers in Sweden.
However, if you actually read the report, it’s explicit that the decline was only observed in the number of outdoor sex workers. Not only do we have no idea what happened to the number of indoor sex workers, the report also notes the possibility that sex work shifted indoors due to mobile phones and the internet, not changes in the law.
Anti-gay and anti-sex work writers have also used similar rationalizations for generalizing based on non-representative samples. For example Thomas Schmidt, author of the anti-gay tract Straight and Narrow, argues (p. 128):
Some may claim that the studies cited are not representative of homosexuality as they observe or experience it, to which I can only appeal to the evidence: nearly two hundred sources, multiple sources at key points covering different geographic areas, different times, and samples both clinical and nonclinical, random and recruited.
Similarly, clinical psychologist turned anti-sex work activist Melissa Farley wrote the following in her a reply to Weitzer:
Weitzer bemoans our lack of a random sample. As other researchers of prostitution have noted, it is not possible to obtain a random sample of people currently prostituting (McKeganey & Barnard, 1996). Investigators, therefore, use a variety of techniques to learn about the experience of prostitution for those in it. Generally, smaller numbers of interviewees limit the generalizability of results. We have reported data from a large number of respondents in different countries and in different types of prostitution.
In both cases, the problem, as anyone who understands social science research will realize, is that things like geographic diversity are no substitute for true random sampling. Flawed sampling techniques can easily produce similar biases in multiple locations.
Of course, just because many of the relevant studies are flawed does not mean that gay people or sex workers are not at higher risk for certain problems than straight people or non-sex workers. But that brings me to another similarity between anti-gay and anti-sex work arguments: the assumption that if X is associated with something bad, X itself must be inherently bad.
For example, there is unambiguous evidence that gay teens are at increased risk for suicide. But the cause of that increased risk matters enormously. If homosexuality somehow caused suicide directly, and ex-gay therapy really could cure it, sending teens off to ex-gay camps might be defensible. But because we know the problem is stigma and ex-gay therapy doesn’t work, parents need to realize that sending their son off to an ex-gay camp could kill him.
Similarly, it matters how much of the problems that sex workers face is the result of stigma and criminalization. Furthermore, high rates of mental illness among sex workers may be due to some mentally ill people turning to sex work because they have trouble finding other jobs. That’s an argument for a stronger social safety net, and stronger support for the mentally ill, but simply taking away those sex workers’ one means of supporting themselves seems unlikely to help them.
Some of my readers may assume that the difference between the battle for gay rights and the battle over sex work is that gay rights were only opposed by people who hate gays and lesbians, while opponents of sex work are motivated by a genuine desire to help sex workers. But it used to be common for anti-gay propaganda to strike a similar compassionate pose.
This may be a little hard to imagine now, now that attempts to “cure” homosexuality have been so thoroughly discredited, with even former proponents admitting the therapies do not work. But not long ago, it was easy to find people claiming with a straight face that because homosexuality is so harmful, true compassion towards gays and lesbians meant trying to cure them.
Similarly, rhetoric about “rescuing” sex workers is disingenuous if we’re talking about police raids on sex workers who don’t want to be “rescued.” For example, Kristoff and WuDunn write, without a trace of irony:
It’s enormously dispiriting for well-meaning aid workers who oversee a brothel raid to take the girls back to a shelter and given them food and medical care, only to see the girls climb back over the wall.
Shockingly, Kristoff and WuDunn admit that the police who conduct these raids are often deeply corrupt and “crackdowns” on sex work are sometimes a matter of police demanding larger bribes from brothels. Pardon me if I’m unable to take their “compassion” any more seriously than I take the “compassion” of the anti-gay right.