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Some thoughts on the Newsweek story on the new Farley “research”

Date: July 19, 2011

Leslie Bennetts who apparently drunk the prostitution-is-violence-against-women cool-aid wrote an article in Newsweek (07/18/2011) titled “The John Next Door,” which is based on anti-prostitution “researcher” Melissa Farley’s new “research” on men who purchases sexual services.

The “study” was made “exclusive to Newsweek,” so we can’t actually read the report itself. So my comments are preliminary but here are some quick (and not so quick) thoughts:

1) The report is made “exclusive to Newsweek,” so we don’t know what methodology they used beyond what is included in the story (which is very little). Melissa Farley, the author of the report, has produced multiple previous “researches” on johns in different countries and regions, none of which (as far as I know) has been published in a peer-reviewed journal. The article does not refer to any other studies on the johns that have been published in peer-reviewed journals. (Edited to add: Apparently one of Farley’s articles have been accepted by a peer-reviewed journal. See comments for detail.)

2) In her previous “researches,” Farley recruited study participants (men who have purchased sexual services) via newspaper ads that read “Ever been a client of a prostitute? International research team would like to hear your views”, offering financial compensation. I don’t know how they recruited the participants this time around, but whether subjects who have been recruited this way are representative of all men who purchase sex is highly questionable. The new report seems to be different from the previous studies in that it includes the control group, but we do not know how the control was recruited either.

3) Much of the article consists of anecdotal statements that are supposedly illustrative of general tendencies among men who purchase sex and those who don’t, but there are no quantitative comparison between them. It is impossible to tell if the statements are actually representative of each group.

4) There are many unfounded editorializing and logical leaps. For example, one paragraph reads: “Many johns view their payment as giving them unfettered permission to degrade and assault women. ‘You get to treat a ho like a ho,’ one john said. ‘You can find a ho for any type of need–slapping, choking, aggressive sex beyond what your girlfriend will do.'” But the john’s statement (i.e. you can find a sex worker who would agree to participate in the enactment of violent fantasies like those described) does not indicate that he views his payment as giving him “unfettered permission to degrade and assault women.”

5) The story states “Farley’s findings suggest that the use of prostitution and pornography may cause men to become more aggressive.” She has made similar claims in her previous “researches” which have not been (and will probably not be) published in peer-reviewed journals, but has not provided the evidence that one causes another.

6) The story states that prostitutes “typically enter ‘the life’ between the ages of 12 and 14,” which is based on a demonstrably faulty interpretation of data. T.O.M.’s story is sad and infuriating, but its use as “a case in point” is questionable, as her experience (i.e. having been sold for the first time at age four) is very unusual.

7) The second half of the story slides the discussion on to sex trafficking rather than adult consensual commercial sex, as if they are the same thing. But it is the illegality of commercial sexual transaction itself that makes it more difficult to separate the two and confront the actual abuse and exploitation of children and women (and others).

8a) The article cites the 2004 study in American Journal of Epidemiology by Potterat et al. to indicate that “Prostitution has laways been risky for women; the average age of death is 34.” But this is misleading, because it does not mean that the average life expectancy for prostitutes is 34 or that the average prostitute dies at age 34. Potterat et al. are simply reporting that among the active prostitutes who died in the studied period, the average age at which they died was 34. If that is not clear, consider this analogy: average age at death for those who die while enrolling in college is probably somewhere near 20, but nobody would claim that the average college student dies at 20.

8b) The article also cites the same Potterat et al. study to say that “prostitutes suffer a ‘workplace homicide rate’ 51 times higher than that of the next most dangerous occupation, working in a liquor store.” But working in a liquor store is not “the next most dangerous occupation.” Potterat et al. state that taxicab drivers are much more likely to be murdered than liquor store clerks: the “workplace homicide rate” for prostitutes is seven times higher when compared to taxicab drivers. That is still pretty high, but why does Bennetts feel the need to exaggerate the already horrible figure?

8c) Further, “the overwhelming majority” of the “prostitutes” in this study were streetwalkers, and almost two-thirds were recruited at sexually transmitted infection clinic. Other participants were found at HIV testing sites or addiction treatment facilities, or identified by the police. Thus, the study systematically excludes prostitutes who are less visible to public health and law enforcement officers (e.g. escorts), who are likely to be much less prone to violence.

Anyway, it’s hard to say anything about the new Farley “study” until the actual report is made public and the research methodology is made transparent (and hopefully Farley would submit the paper for publication in peer-reviewed journal this time).

Also read: Melissa Farley in Scotland: Trivializing prostitution and trivializing violence against women by Elizabeth Wood


  1. […] that there are “plenty of red flags early on.” That’s sort of her calling card.) Emi Koyama also made some excellent points. Both articles are worth reading, but here are some of my own […]

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  2. […] Eminism: The article cites the 2004 study in American Journal of Epidemiology by Potterat et al. to […]

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  3. For what its worth, Farley finally did issue the 2008 Scottish study in the form of a peer-reviewed paper: . Its worth having a look at, though just because it manages to be accepted by a peer-reviewed journal does not mean the study is without flaws. There are, after all, a lot of journals out there and its actually not hard to get *somebody* to publish you if you shop around enough. This is particularly true in psychology, which has a high tolerance for pseudoscience and poor methodology. I will note that although Farley does occasionally publish in academic journals (though she seems to prefer unreviewed organizational reports), they are almost always either women’s studies journals or small journals specializing in the area of psychological trauma and abuse. There seems to be an inverse proportion between her being tauted as an “expert” in the popular media and her actual achievements in her field.

    Comment by Iamcuriousblue — July 19, 2011 @ 12:13 pm

  4. Thanks Iamcuriousblue for pointing me to Farley’s “first posting” publication in Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy. I had tried to locate a refereed publication in EBSCOhost Academic Premier edition but was unable to find this, probably because the article has only been published online. I will update the article with the info.

    Comment by emigrl — July 19, 2011 @ 7:01 pm

  5. I found it using Google Scholar, which is what I use to find academic work most of the time, even though I have access to more specialized academic databases.

    Comment by Iamcuriousblue — July 19, 2011 @ 8:21 pm

  6. […] Iamcuriousblue informed me that Melissa Farley’s 2008 “study” on men who purchase sex from prostitutes in […]

    Pingback by » Additional comments on Farley’s Scottish research, 2008 vs. 2011 versions — July 19, 2011 @ 9:52 pm

  7. As a person with an education on scientific research, I’m really worried that Farley still gets taken seriously by anybody. Primarily because she conducts unethical, unscientific research that may harm sex workers, but also because it shows how uncritical people are of self-described “experts”. It seems that a Phd gives a person the possibility to publish whatever crap they want to and people will still believe them.

    Comment by Sina — July 20, 2011 @ 8:28 pm

  8. The paper in question is available at

    Comment by David — July 20, 2011 @ 11:51 pm

  9. Oh wow, thanks David. I don’t know why Newsweek said that the report was given to them exclusively.

    Comment by emigrl — July 21, 2011 @ 12:11 am

  10. Sorry, I couldn’t help but comment again.

    Basically this study is a huge pile of dung. The method and presentation is completely flawed. When written up in Newsweek they pick and choose simple results without explanation or background leading to ridiculous statements. For example, Newsweek states “all the crimes associated with violence against women were committed by the johns”. What it fails to state is that that result is from the following list (each of which was reported one time for “buyers” and zero for “non-buyers”:

    Violence Against Women
    – impersonating a police officer
    – violating a restraining order
    – public urinating
    – intimidating witnesses
    – lewd and lascivious behavior
    – destruction of property

    The definition of “sex-buyer” is also a bit skewed, to say the least. The only ones who do not qualify are priests and children (and I’m not so sure about priests).

    Comment by David — July 21, 2011 @ 12:16 am

  11. “it shows how uncritical people are of self-described “experts”. It seems that a Phd gives a person the possibility to publish whatever crap they want to and people will still believe them.”


    Comment by Iamcuriousblue — July 21, 2011 @ 3:27 pm

  12. I’m a sex worker with experience in the legal Nevada brothel system, webcam, and exotic dancing. The claim in this article that men who don’t pay for sex are more respectful toward women than men who do is inconsistent with my experiences. When men continue to hit on me for free when I make it clear that I just want to be alone and am not interested in being hit on, that’s degrading. I don’t find it degarading when my clients compensate me for my time, skills, and talents; respect my boundaries; and don’t try to make our relationship into more than what it is.
    Though I can’t speak for every sex worker, the vast majority of my clients have been very respectful, sometimes more respectful toward me than people I meet outside of sex work. I realize that there are abusive and disrespectful clients. Yet, I also realize there are also abusive and disrespectful spouses and intimate partners outside of sex work. Thus, villifying all clients of sex workers makes as little sense as villifying all spouses and intimate partners outside of sex work.

    Comment by Vegan Vixen — August 28, 2011 @ 6:21 pm

  13. One more thing to add… I found the language in the article implying that our clients “buy” us to be extremely offensive. I’m not a commodity for sale, but a human being making a living. My clients don’t “buy” me. Rather, they pay me for work. My body still belongs to me and when I leave my sessions with clients, I still have it attached to me. Thus, I’m not “selling my body”.
    It’s interesting how some of the same people who complain about how prostitution is so degrading are promoting degrading attitudes against us themselves.
    To Emi and all who posted on this thread: Thank you for the very insightful comments, and I look forward to continue reading this blog.

    Comment by Vegan Vixen — August 30, 2011 @ 7:52 pm

  14. […] the same people who pay prostitutes read porn. And here is Agustin’s <a href="“>series of objections to the […]

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  15. […] in childhood. There are better staticians and writers than I on why Farley is a dangerous and discredited source, although if you type “prostitutes abused in childhood” into Google as I have just […]

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  16. […] inaccurate generalization she repeats when describing people with experience in the sex trades. As Emi Koyama points out regarding Farley’s 2011 study “xx” (which the Newsweek article was based […]

    Pingback by Some Problems I Have with Melissa Farley | Sex Work Activism in Los Angeles — January 16, 2013 @ 6:13 pm

  17. […] Some Thoug[h]ts on the Newsweek story on the new Farley “research” – Emi Koyama […]

    Pingback by Critiques of Melissa Farley | Sex Work Activism in Los Angeles — January 16, 2013 @ 6:13 pm

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