Ashton Kutcher vs. The Village Voice: Looking for Real Men on the Internet
The feud between Ashton Kutcher and the Village Voice sparked a firestorm, and highlights a need for a greater understanding of sex trafficking -- and media representation of it -- across the board. How should the media and Hollywood approach this complicated subject?
Earlier this spring Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher launched their "Real Men Don't Buy Girls" campaign. In an effort to combat the increasingly public issue of sex trafficking of underage girls, Kutcher and Moore produced a series of television ads featuring big name celebrities like Justin Timberlake, Jamie Fox and Sean Penn.
The ads were centered around quick scenarios of manly men doing manly things (such as fixing a grilled cheese sandwich with an iron or playing basketball on a broken ankle). After flashing the title card "Real Men Don't Buy Girls" the camera pans to a gallery of portraits of masculine icons like Harrison Ford and Bruce Willis; the camera settles on a framed picture of yet another celebrity endorser, with a buxom gameshow style babe next to the portrait saying "Donald Trump is a real man, are you?" Or, in other ads: "Arianna Huffington prefers a real man. Do you?"
The ads are an extension of Moore and Kutcher's DNA (Demi 'n' Ashton) organization. Soon after launching the campaign the celebrity couple were making cameos at the UN, hosting press conferences and creating an online empire of philanthropy through social media sites like facebook and Twitter.
Last spring Moore and Kutcher appeared on CNN's new Larry King replacement, Piers Morgan, to discuss their burgeoning DNA project. There they repeated the now infamous statistic that there were somewhere between 100,000 to 300,000 child sex slaves in the US. Demi and Ashton were bravely coming out against this.
"There's a cultural conditioning in society," Kutcher explained to the starry eyed British host, "mostly that happens in locker rooms and other places, where guys get together and say 'Oh yeah, well, it's not that big of deal [to buy an underage prostitute].' And that's where it's gotta stop; those guys need to stand up and say 'NO! REAL. MEN. DON'T. BUY. GIRLS.'"
Going after those who purchase the sex, the "Johns", is a relatively new approach to the issue of prostitution. Many law enforcement agencies around the country are adapting this strategy, as opposed to prosecuting the sex workers who Kutcher believes are, for the most part, (regardless of age) having sex against their will.
"The reason we're going after the demand side," Demi Moore elaborated, "is that the risk is so low for the buyers and sellers. Eighty percent of the girls [involved in prostitution] are criminalized, and only four states have a Safe-Harbor Act, which identifies underage girls as a victim of rape.
"Seventy-six percent of all child sex trafficking is done online," Kutcher said, laying out his strategy for combating the issue through his DNA Facebook page. "Inside our 'action tab' we lay out some specific initiatives that people can do online to flag this. We want the social web to become the police for human trafficking. You can go to craigslist and you can flag the pages that look like child trafficking, or you can go to backpage.com and flag that. People can start to unroot these things."
Thanks to campaigns like Moore and Kutcher's, craigslist.com were hauled in before congress in September 2010 to discuss the issue of "Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking." Several groups testified against the online advertising company, claiming they were partly to blame for the 100,000 to 300,000 underage prostitutes in the US.
The hearing ended with Craigslist announcing they were shutting down their adult classifieds section. Fearing a similar retribution, Village Voice Media, who owns backpage.com and have, for several decades, depended on the income of adult classifieds, began researching the claims that there were even "100,000 to 300,000" underage prostitutes in the US.
The figure had been accepted as gospel truth by most in the media, reporters for CNN, Media Bistro and Salon all running it unquestioningly; UN ambassadors have used it in testimonies and the Orphan Justice Center in campaigns. It was one of those things that no one ever thought to challenge. Or were ever motivated to. As Bill Maher joked with Christopher Hitchens on his Real Time HBO show "we never have anyone here who's pro child molestation to argue that side." It was an issue similar to global warming—no one felt the need to disagree until dollar choking legislation was at stake. Then all kinds of professionals came out of the woodwork to debunk the statistics.
After two months of investigating US police records of arrests of juvenile prostitutes, the Village Voice released a scathing article on the front pages of their many weekly newspapers (they own ¼ of all alternative papers in the country). Titled "Real Men Get Their Facts Straight", the cover featured an Ashton Kutcher look-a-like, confused as he held an abacus next to a thought bubble that read "I was told there'd be no math?"
Among dissecting the statistics of child trafficking, Village Voice also questioned the credibility of a Hollywood airhead like Kutcher involving himself in such a complex issue, referring to him as a "scruffy doofus", "the titular dude of Dude, Where's My Car" and a "technically literate, ill informed advocate." Essentially saying: Why does Kelso give a shit?
Attacking Kutcher's intelligence because of the characters he's played in movies is comparable to saying Jerry Lewis was too nutty a professor to have really cared about muscular dystrophy, or that Johnny Cash couldn't have been a devout Christian because he once shot a man in Reno just to watch him die. But when it came to the figures on child sex trafficking, the Village Voice article fired a flaming arrow straight into the bulls-eye of a once unargued statistic. There apparently were not 300,000 underage prostitutes in the US.
The statistic came from the book The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in the US, Canada and Mexico (2001) by Richard J Estes and Neil Alan Weiner. Both University of Pennsylvania professors, their figure of "100,000 to 300,000" was apparently taken out of context by Ashton Kutcher (as well as a host of reporters and advocates that followed him). A simple examination of the text (provided, conveniently, by the Village Voice) revealed that what the professors were referring to were children who were "at risk" for being targeted by pimps, such as any homeless or transgender youth or any living in a town that borders Mexico.
In Village Voice's research of police records it was discovered that the average annual arrests of minors involved in prostitution (taken from 37 major US cities) was a paltry 827. Compared with the six figure numbers that Kutcher and Moore were quoting on Piers Morgan months earlier, the Village Voice seemed to have a slam dunk against the scruffy dufus that was threatening the stability of their company. The article also questioned the reliability of Estes' and Weiner's study, noting that it was never published in any pier review journal and had some sketchy methods of gathering data. "The study cannot be relied on as authoritative," Professor Steve Doig, a Knight Chair in Journalism, told the Village Voice (who contracted him in order to critique the study of Estes and Weiner). He claimed Weiner and Estes were "citing various approximations and guesstimates done under a variety of conditions."
When the Village Voice pressed professor Estes for a guess of how many children were being kidnapped and forced into sex slavery, Estes confided that it was probably around "a few hundred people." The article went on to cite that Moore and Kutcher (who first learned of the child slavery problem while watching a documentary in the bed of their Hollywood home) hired renowned celebrity philanthropist Trevor Neilson to run their campaign. Neilson reportedly charges up to $200,000, a figure that Village Voice proposes could go to more pro-active solutions to combat child slavery.
The article contains some pretty convincing reporting that the figures cited by Kutcher's organization are wildly inflated. It is difficult to finish the piece without feeling that the DNA campaign is simply another pretentious Hollywood philanthropy project that serves to massage the egos of celebrities more than help the needy. Yet despite the thorough reporting and admission of having a stake in the fight, you can't help but feel in need of a good shower after absorbing all the sleeze and politics emanating from the Village Voice.
"There's no one to admire here—at all," said Slate Editor Stephen Metcalf when discussing the feud in his Cultural Gabfest podcast. "If there is one child being exploited for sex in America that's a tragedy. The problem is: How you frame an issue determines what solution you craft in order to deal with it."
"I'm inclined to believe the reporting of the Village Voice," Dana Stevens, the Gabfest co-host responded. "The journalism seems sound, but the reporting, taken in the larger context of the skeezy business practices of the Village Voice, totally undercuts the journalism."