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Newsweek, Melissa Farley, Bad Journalism, Bad Research

Newsweek recently published The John Next Door, based on the study Comparing Sex Buyers with Men Who Don’t Buy Sex (PDF here).

The inaccuracies and issues with this study raise serious questions about the objectivity of the project director, Melissa Farley, as well as others who worked on it.  It also raises questions about Newsweek and what level of vetting they do or do not do of studies they publish.

When it comes down to it, this actually isn’t a study at all, but an agenda driven manuscript – propaganda.  Farley and her collaborator’s goal is not to study and learn, but to support their agenda.  Agenda’s should be driven by what we learn, not the other way around.

Historically, Farley’s stated goal in articles, speeches, and elsewhere, is the elimination of human trafficking, a very worthwhile goal.  Her actual goal though appears to be the elimination of prostitution, and attempting to equate all forms of prostitution with human trafficking is her vehicle to accomplish her goal.  Despite Farley’s desire, these two are not synonymous.  Further, efforts to prohibit prostitution actually appear to increase human trafficking rather than reduce it.  Prohibitions of such popular activities only drive them underground.  European countries, with legal prostitution, appear to have much lower incidences of human trafficking than the US.

Efforts such as Farley’s divert attention and valuable resources away from reducing enslavement.  We waste resources arresting men and women involved in consensual adult prostitution (not appealing, but far better than enslaved women and rape) rather than focus those resources on helping the women who really need help – those who are not in the industry of their own choice.

Further, the elimination of or even a minor reduction in prostitution isn’t very likely to happen.  For Farley’s plan to work we’d need to eliminate male libido and women’s desire for money.  Good luck with that.

Now, let’s look at some issues with Farley’s document.

Real research studies are extremely careful to use neutral terms and dialog – to make sure that the facts speak for themselves.  Farley uses loaded dialog.  For example, Men‘s use of women in prostitution”. Note the term ‘use’.  A neutral statement might be “Men’s patronizing of prostitutes”  This is not to say that men don’t ‘use’ women for sex.  A colleagues’ 16-year-old daughter recently gave her virginity to her boyfriend of two years who’d expressed his undying love and devotion to her – only to break up with her a few weeks later.

Elsewhere Farley says “They had little objection if the woman they purchased…”. The customers are not purchasing the woman, they are purchasing a service she offers.  A perhaps less socially appealing service than a massage or haircut, but still just a service.

Next, in the study Farley states:

“The common myth that “any man” might buy sex (i.e., that a sex buyer is a random everyman, an anonymous male who deserves the common name, john) was not supported. Sex buyers shared certain attitudes, life experiences, and behavioral tendencies that distinguish them from their non-buying peers in socially and statistically significant ways.”

However, in the Newsweek article, with regard to finding men for a 100 person control group, she states “We had big, big trouble finding nonusers,”.  The first issue with this problematic 100 is the extent to which she contradicts herself and raises serious questions about her integrity.  Are sex buyers unusual and not a random everyman, or are they so everyman that she had difficulty finding non-buyers?  Are non-buyers really that unusual?  She should have called, I’d have given her a couple of hundred.

The much bigger issue though is that this is the first clue to selection bias in her project.  What demographic of subjects did she target that she had difficulty finding men who didn’t visit prostitutes?  Even a simple random sample of 500 men should yield over 100 who meet her criteria; men who have never been a client of a prostitute nor been to a strip club in the past year.

Farley implies that this project is generally representative of all sex buyers and all non-buyers.  However:

The way Farley obtained interview subjects was by placing ads online and in Newspapers, offering to pay study subjects $45.  This is a good method if you need specific subjects for a pharmaceutical test or for a survey where selection bias would not be an issue.  It’s a poor method for her intended purpose.  (Also, unlike real studies she does not divulge any specifics regarding what newspapers and  websites they used nor the frequency of ad placement.)

One major problem with her method is that the vast majority of U.S. men are extremely protective of their privacy with regard to prostitution (and strip clubs, and porn, and affairs).  They  would not risk possible exposure for a mere $45.

A poster on The Erotic Review discussion forum had this to say about Farley’s project:

….seems way off base to me.  And I wonder if it’s because the men who are more likely to participate in a study like this are more likely to be jerks.

Most of us who “hobby” keep it under the radar, use aliases and fake names, disposable cell phones, etc., etc.  Even if I were assured it was completely anonymous, I don’t know that I would participate in a university study on prostitution.

Maybe the guys willing to talk about it are also the guys who get off talking about it, bragging on their own supposed masculinity, about how they hate women, would rape women if they could get away with it, etc., etc.

The real and reasonable “johns,” meanwhile, stay under the radar and keep our mouths shut.

Is this study a representative sample, or is it skewed towards Farley’s desired outcome?

The racial make-up of her study raises significant concerns.  She includes three times as many blacks in her study as are represented in the U.S. population and are likely represented by all customers of prostitution.  This is a significant problem because there are important differences in sexual attitudes between ethnicities.  Statistically, blacks stand out considerably among other races in becoming sexually active at a much younger age than any other race, by about two years, and they have more sexual partners.  Black teens have a much higher teen pregnancy rate than white teens (by some measures three times as many).  And while most ‘strongly religious’ teens delay sex by about 14 months compared with those who are not religious, there is no such distinction among strongly religious and non-religious blacks.

Many prostitutes, including black prostitutes, refuse black clients because they are known throughout the industry to be far more aggressive and violent than other clients.  You need only consider the hip-hop industry and lyrics if you wonder about this.

Blacks are also more likely to frequent street prostitutes rather than off-street, which, as we’ll see later, is very significant.

So, by increasing the participation of blacks over other ethnicities Farley, at the very least, raises questions about the veracity of her work.  A bigger question though is if Farley intentionally included such a massively skewed racial demographic in order to achieve the outcome she wanted (and would likely not have gotten from a correct representation of whites, Hispanics, and Asians.)

Gender makeup is also significantly skewed.  11% of her buyers and 7% of non-buyers are homosexual or bi-sexual while nationally among men in the U.S. this number ranges from 3.2% to 5.1%.  Though this raises suspicions about the accuracy of her data, it may not have contributed to any actual inaccuracy.  However, most reputable statisticians and researchers would want gender orientation to be accurately representative of the population they are studying.

Some other demographic data raise questions as well.  27% of her sex buyers state their career as management, while 15% of non buyers do.  Both of these are high, but 27% is significantly out of bounds.  40% of buyers and 20% of non-buyers state that their work is ‘Community and Social Service Related”.  Both of these are stratospherically high, even given her hugely skewed racial demographics (a much greater percentage of blacks work in social service organizations than any other race).  17% of buyers state a career of ‘Arts’ while 15% of non-buyers do so.  Both also very high.

It stretches incredulity to believe that either of Farley’s groups, buyers or non-buyers, are in any way accurately representative of men in general or of men who visit or do not visit prostitutes.  This is assuming of course that these career responses, and all other responses in this study, are truthful.

More to come…

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