Women in prostitution wait for customers in Sonagachi, the notorious red-light district of Kolkata, India. (Bikas Das / AP Photo)
On May 5, Emily Bazelon, staff writer for The New York Times, published an article— “Should Prostitution be a Crime”—that had been months in the making. I know this because Bazelon interviewed me for it during an hour-long phone call and an exchange of more than 30 emails.
What strikes me now is her reaction when I mentioned that the women in my movement often have to deal with journalists who come to the issue of prostitution with their biases intact and their objectivity fragmented.
“I am not biased,” she snapped.
“I am not suggesting you are,” I replied. It occurred to me, however, that she probably had a reason for being defensive, and, sure as night follows day, it turned out she did.
Bazelon’s mischaracterization of the issue of prostitution, in my opinion, was confirmed and reaffirmed in her article in ways too numerous to document here. Her piece has had to be corrected three times (including her contention that Dutch prostitution is confined to Amsterdam, when it is, as any European could tell you, countrywide.) U.S. psychologist and academic Melissa Farley, who was quoted in Bazelon’s article, has filed a demand for correction of Bazelon’s misquote of Farley; as of this writing (June 1, 2016), the New York Times has refused to correct it.
Bazelon also stated that there had been no reported cases of trafficking in New Zealand, somehow managing to miss that on April 14, 2015, Naengnoi Sriphet was sentenced to 27 months in prison by Auckland District Court for recruiting women from Thailand to work in a “massage parlour” in Auckland.
Bazelon’s fact-checker contacted me to ask whether it would be fair to say that I believed Amnesty International had taken its pro-decriminalization stance from pimps and sex-traffickers. I responded that it would not be fair to say so without qualifying that statement, and I reminded her of what I’d told Bazelon several times already: that Amnesty International had taken their cues from the Global Network of Sex Work Projects, then co-chaired by Alejandra Gil, who has since been convicted and is serving a 15-year sentence in a Mexican prison for sex trafficking.
Bazelon ignored my conversation with her fact-checker and attributed to me a one-line fragment of what I’d said, making no mention of the Global Network of Sex Work Projects, Gil or her sex-trafficking conviction.
Bazelon then invited Amnesty to respond to me without ever fully disclosing what it was in fact responding to.
Bazelon also drew from an anonymous letter to repeat unfounded allegations that the organization Apne Aap, a front-line service provider in India, was responsible for the physical assault of Indian women and girls. Of all the misrepresented pieces of information in her article, this was surely among the most egregious. What responsible reporter repeats allegations from a letter that’s signed by nobody? Apne Aap has sought a correction related to these erroneous comments in The New York Times.
Another issue is Bazelon’s characterization of Sonagachi, the Indian city of Kolkata’s notorious red-light zone, as housing “high-end” brothels.” I have walked the streets of Sonagachi and interviewed women in the brothels there. The area is the biggest red-light zone in all Asia, comprising dozens of interconnecting streets and lanes. It is home to thousands of prostituted women and girls who are forced to exist in frankly despicable conditions. Heavily painted children, all of them female, stand in clusters on the corners, waiting to be bought and used by grown men.
I will never forget how they watched me with a disturbing mix of wariness and vacancy in their big, dark, kohl-rimmed eyes, or the psychological wound I felt knowing that I had often looked back at people in just that same way. My own eyes had been the blue, Irish version of theirs in my early adolescence when I was waiting to be bought in the red-light zones of Dublin. I felt pain and shame, knowing what my gaze caused these girls to feel. As they were feeling that hurt that is very particular to public degradation, I was reliving its memory.
There is a reason I refuse to visit zoos. I know what it’s like to be the exhibit. That is what Sonagachi is: an open-air human zoo where the exhibits are female and the patrons are male, and the “entertainment” goes way beyond looking. It is a cesspit and a hellhole, and to refer to any aspect of it as “high-end” is risible and contemptible.
One of the most striking things about Bazelon’s account, however, was not what she reported. It was what she did not report. I had put her in touch with Sabrinna Valisce, a former New Zealand pro-decriminalisation lobbyist. Valisce spent over 20 years, on and off, in New Zealand prostitution and as a volunteer with the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective, where she advocated for the decriminalization model before it passed into law. She then learned, in the most intimate and brutal way, the folly of Amnesty’s call to decriminalize “all aspects” of the sex trade. Valisce now campaigns for the Nordic Model of criminalizing pimps and johns, decriminalizing prostituted persons and offering real, viable exit services so that women can start exercising some of the “choice” liberal feminism keeps telling us about.Download document (7 pages)