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?
Ashton Kutcher has worked very hard to become the King of Twitter.
Ashton Kutcher has worked very hard to become the King of Twitter. In 2009 he challenged CNN in a race to be the first to collect one million Twitter followers; he quickly breezed past the news giant, and has since reached seven million followers to his "aplusk" account. So on the Wednesday that the Village Voice article appeared, essentially calling him a misinformed airhead, the new Two & A Half Men star retaliated with a series of tweets that started a long public battle between the two media empires.
Here's a small sample of the enormous transcript:
aplusk: hey @villagevoice speaking of Data . . . How many of your girls selling themselves in your classifieds are you doing age verification on?
aplusk: hey @villagevoice Find another way to justify that YOUR property facilitates the sale of HUMAN BEINGS
aplusk: hey @villagevoice I'm just getting started!!!!!!!!!! BTW I only PLAYED stupid on TV.
aplusk: hey @villagevoice hows the lawsuit from the 15 year old victim who alleges you helped enslave them going?
aplusk: No response @villagevoice? Oh I forgot U work business hrs. Maybe that's Y you sell girls on ur platform. They tend 2 work the night shift.
The next morning the Village Voice responded through their Twitter account.
villagevoice: Wow, @aplusk having a Twitter meltdown!! Hey Ashton, which part this story is inaccurate?
villagevoice: what do you have to hide @aplusk?
villagevoice: where's your fight now @aplusk? Did you sleep in, or are you just tuckered out from last night's Twitter tirade?
villagevoice: Wow, @aplusk just deleted a tweet he twittered a minute ago that said, "i'm up now. been up."
The two continued on with this same mature discourse for some time. At one point Kutcher upped the ante and began targeting backpage.com advertisers by saying "hey @disney @dominos are you aware that you are advertising on a site that own and operates a digital brothel?" And then later: "Hey @AmericanAir are you aware that you are advertising on a site that supports the Sale of Human Beings (slavery)?" Two hours later American Airlines announced that they were pulling their ads from backpage.com. In one Twitter post Kutcher referred his followers to a piece of writing he did on the subject of child trafficking weeks earlier. There he admits that the data on child sex trafficking is "extremely incomplete due to the psychological complexity of the issue."
"Proving force, fraud, or coercion can be very difficult," he wrote, "considering that the victims have often times been brain washed, beaten, raped, molested, threatened, and tormented and fear revealing the identity of their trafficker. Often times what appears to be a voluntary commercial sex transaction is not. Therefore gathering a precise data set can be very complicated. In addition to this, many of the 'voluntary prostitutes' are under the age of legal consent. . . . One must also consider a girl who may have been brought into the sex trade by a trafficker at a young age and now has grown to the age of legal consent. Even though this girl may now be choosing to sell her body for sex, given the pre-existing circumstances, it's extremely difficult to assume that she would have made that choice had she been given prior free will."
Perhaps unintentionally, with those comments Kutcher touched on an issue that has been a thorn in the side of many members of the LGBT community. For the last decade or so, many progressive activists have been campaigning for the rights of, as Kutcher puts it, "voluntary prostitutes." The goal has been to change the image of the sex worker from the abused, helpless drug addict on the street, to a professional, consenting adult who makes his/her own money and is in control of the situation.
Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) is a widely respected national network of advocates dedicated to, according to their mission statement "the fundamental human rights of sex workers and their communities, focusing on ending violence and stigma through education and advocacy."
As you could imagine, members of SWOP (or anyone who shared their view of sex working) were more than a little erked during the public battle between Kutcher and Village Voice when no one attempted to draw a clear line between a kidnapped, sex abused child and a consenting adult running their own business.
In a press release by SWOP-NYC, Sarah Elspeth Patterson, M.Ed., commented on Kutcher's debunked facts by Village Voice Media, saying "it's very sad to think that already shaky research is being used to make the American public believe that all sex work is trafficking, and that so many youth are already involved in it."
I met with Beau Laurence, a member of the Denver chapter of SWOP, to discuss the DNA campaign. Laurence was excited to be interviewed for this article because "we rarely get invited to do have these types of conversations," referring to the media's lack of interest in the opinion of someone who is pro-sex worker when discussing child trafficking. "It's harder to combat an image that's already in people's heads, rather than starting from a clean slate," Laurence says, adding that the lack of separating slaves from consenting sex workers by Kutcher significantly damages the work of SWOP.
Beau Laurence was familiar with Kutcher's message (he is certainly not the first to encapsulate all sex work as involuntary), but not having a TV Laurence had not seen the Real Men Don't Buy Girls advertisements. I had an ipad with me and pulled up a few examples of the videos, one of them featuring Justin Timberlake shaving with a chainsaw. When they were over Laurence's face was scrunched with bemused annoyance. "It's insulting," Laurence said, "beyond the larger issue of equating child trafficking with sex working, the definition [displayed in the video] of a real man is very limiting. In the progressive queer community there is a lot of effort to get away from the idea of what is a 'real man' or a 'real woman,' because it leaves out the transgender community." Laurence went on to point out how isolated the Hollywood community comes off in these ads, noting that the shower was running the whole time Timberlake is shaving, which was "environmentally unsound," and that the campaign comes off to Laurence as a tired message of "wealthy people know what's best."
Like most rational adults, Beau Laurence agrees that child sex abuse is a horrible thing and that a great effort should be put to stop it. Though in that effort there must be a sober voice that will separate the issue of an adult sex worker from a child slave. At one point Laurence notes that not every child trafficked as a slave will end up in the sex industry, some will end up working in garment factories or as a nanny or a construction worker. And there is nothing inherently immoral about those professions—it only becomes a crime when that person is forced against there will and receives none of the profits.
It is easy to get support for your cause when you are fighting the rape and enslavement of children. Throughout popular culture it's been a unifying theme used for horror and absurdist satire. In Hunter Thompson's Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas Raoul Duke tries to terrify his acid-soaked mate, Dr. Gonzo, by suggesting they take his new young friend and "load her up on acid and peddle her ass to the drug convention. These cops will go thirty bucks a head to beat her into submission and gang fuck her. We can set her up in one of these outback motels, hang pictures of Jesus all over the room, and then turn these fucking pigs loose on her." Though what Thompson used as a device for dark humor is unfortunately a brutal reality for many children around the world. In the 2007 documentary Very Young Girls a group of juvenile prostitutes are profiled, painting a brutal picture the of manipulation, abuse and enslavement of children that goes on in cities across the US. In an MSNBC profile of trafficked children stories are told of young teens being snatched off the streets, locked up and forced to work 15 to 20 hour days sexually servicing strangers, all while rarely being fed, regularly beaten and often hooked onto drugs that will ensure he or she will not run away or resist while being raped.
When Ashton Kutcher announced the launching of his DNA organization in a press conference last September, he got choked up when he spoke of traveling to Mexico and speaking with a girl who had once been kidnapped, brought to a field in the country, and raped by thirty men on a plastic trash bag. This is nothing anyone wants to be in favor of. It seemed that no one would dare argue with Kutcher when he launched a campaign combating the gang rape of little girls. The Village Voice took a monumental risk when they ran the "Real Men Get Their Facts Straight" article (and the growing collection of rebuttal articles that have since followed). Positioning themselves opposite Kutcher on this issue—especially when considering allegations of advertising underage sex in their adult personals section—can only serve to hurt them.
No matter how inane and offensive the Real Men Don't Buy Girls campaign was. No matter now flawed Kutcher's research and pompous his messianic persona had become. The Village Voice's near flawless research and reporting will never be credited appropriately so long as they have the sword of backpages.com hanging over their head.
They will lose money from pulled ads and Ashton Kutcher will go back to Three & A Half Men. Both of their reputations degraded slightly, everyone wondering if either was sincere in their efforts. Neither will be declared a victor, and neither the argument against child enslavement or the one for the rights of sex workers will be advanced. It's lose lose any way you look at it.