Some Problems I Have with Melissa Farley

One of the interesting aspects of publishing or presenting outside of my sex work community and politically radical bubble is hearing reactions from a wider range of perspectives. However, I’ve noticed a pattern of commenters or audiences citing Melissa Farley, or quoting “facts” produced from her research without knowledge of the source, to support their arguments. This makes it hard for me to carry on the conversation, as her research is so deeply flawed. I want to address her work in a general way here to offer a more comprehensive response than I can within the scope of a larger conversation. While I fundamentally disagree with Farley’s ideology, I am concentrating here on her practices as a researcher and academic. I feel that arguments against her principles are also important, but here I want to present why she is flawed as a credible source of information.

Farley’s language about the sex industries is frequently hyperbolic and inaccurate. In a particularly memorable comparison of prostitution to slavery, she states:

Prostitution has its very own plantation system. While the women in street prostitution work the fields, call girls, escorts and massage parlor workers are the house ni****s of this system.

This is an appalling linguistic move to make in the name of fighting racism and class based oppression. She makes further manipulative and disturbing language decisions in her research of clients of sex workers. Her work concentrates on men who “buy sex” – which she finds to be astoundingly common. This is unsurprising as she defines a non-sex-buyer as “men who have not been to a strip club more than two times in the past year, have not purchased a lap dance, have not used pornography more than one time in the last month, and have not purchased phone sex or the services of a sex worker, escort, erotic masseuse, or prostitute.” Aside from the problem of characterizing clients as “buying sex” in the first place, which is a vast overgeneralization of transactions within the sex industries by any account, this definition of “buying sex” is far too broad to tell us anything conclusive about a population. It conflates many areas of the sex industries without distinction, which precludes any distinctions between different clients. Farley’s sensationalist and generalizing language discredits much of her work.

But the methodology behind her presentation is also flawed. A 2008 report examines Farley’s study on “Men’s Demand for Prostitution” and illustrates how her methods violate “fundamental principles of human research ethics” and concludes “the report is not of an acceptable academic standard.” It cites Farley’s underlying motivations and ideology as part of the problem, as well as a lack of understanding or engagement with other academic work on her subject. Farley does not disclose many details of her methodology as is standard academic practice. She notably does not include the very questions she bases her analysis on or any evidence that there was an ethical review of her methods prior to conducting her study.

Neither is their evidence that Farley understands the complexities of the industries she is researching. She extrapolates her data on specific populations (such as the city of Boston) to apply to much broader populations. This is particularly notable in the way she describes both “sex buyers” (as described above) as a distinct group – an 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 on)

“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.

In fact, concerns over Farley’s methods are so extensive that Dr. Calum Bennachie filed a complaint with the American Psychology Association asking that they rescind Farley’s membership. The full 115 page report can be read here.

These concerns with language and methodology have serious consequences regarding policy and practices. When policies or practices are based on inaccurate information, they have little to no hope of being effective. For example, if we believe that the average age of entry to prostitution is 13, we will enact strategies and social policies that target 13 year olds, and will not address the needs of older teenagers. The same logic applies when we conflate consensual transactional sex with coerced labor, sexual abuse and exploitation, or “sex trafficking.” We do not effectively address any of those issues.

If I have done nothing by now to convince readers to at least question Farley’s credibility, we may not be able to have a productive conversation. It suggests a fundamental difference regarding whose voices should be prioritized and what qualifies as expertise. I do not claim to be an expert on sex work or people with experience in the sex trades, but neither do I make sweeping generalizations about either (or try very hard not to – and will do my best to correct fuck ups I may make in this regard).

I will not dismiss or silence anyone for citing Farley or trusting her research, though it is sorely tempting. But I do insist on keeping her work in conversation with criticism of it, and ask that those quoting her research do the same.

I also reserve the right to cease engaging with people at any point. This should go without saying, but I am not obligated to carry on conversations with anyone who wants me to, especially over the internet. If we are discussing Farley and I stop responding – this and this may be partly informing my silence. Thank you for respecting my wishes to withdraw from our conversation.

Because Farley’s work has repeatedly come up in attempts to refute some of my own work, I have composed a short response for internet use. A form comment may not be the most polite or generous form of engagement, but I am rarely feeling polite or generous in this situation. Feel free to take and edit to suit your own needs!


I noticed that you are citing Melissa Farley’s research to support the point you are making. Consequently, it is hard for me to engage with your argument, as it is based on faulty information. I am interested in your perspective, and would like to discuss it further [this may be deleted when it is not actually the case], but I strongly disagree that Farley is a reliable source of information on the sex industries. I ask that you consider some of the criticisms, particularly regarding her methodology and language. Here is an elaboration of my position:

And here is a list of other works I recommend:

Jessie Nicole”

Works Cited:
Indoor Versus Outdoor Prostitution in Rhode Island – Melissa Farley

Dishonest, Damaging, Disgusting: Newsweek Calls YOU “The John Next Door” – Dr. Marty Klein

The Johns Next Door – Leslie Bennetts

Melissa Farley in Scotland: Trivializing prostitution and trivializing violence against women – Elizabeth Wood

Newsweek Embraces Melissa Farley’s Unscrupulous Crusade – Charlotte Shane

Men who buy sex: a nasty group whose DNA should be on file – Laura Agustin

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

Full Text of Complaint to American Psychology Association – Dr. Calum Bennachie

A Commentary on ‘Challenging Men’s Demand for Prostitution in Scotland’: A Research Report Based on Interviews with 110 Men who Bought Women in Prostitution, (Jan Macleod, Melissa Farley, Lynn Anderson, Jacqueline Golding, 2008) – Multiple authors

Unpacking the myth: “the average age of entry into prostitution is 13″ – Emi Koyama

13 thoughts on “Some Problems I Have with Melissa Farley

  1. Pingback: Critiques of Melissa Farley | Sex Work Activism in Los Angeles

  2. I just finished putting together a spreadsheet with the statistics from the FBI Bureau of Criminal Statistics on arrests of females – by age- from 1981 to 2011, which will be posted (along with the source documents and links) on my website over the weekend (today is 1/18/13). A few highlights are as follows: from 1981 to 2011, there were 34,159 arrests of juvenile females under 18 and 1,851,540 females over 18. Further the data shows that of the 34,159 juvenile females, 3,838 were under 15, 4,907 were 15, 8,796 were 16 and 16,613 were 17. The greatest number of arrests for female prostitutes was in the 25 to 65 plus age range- 770,324 over 30 and 850,932 ages 21 to 29. From the data, it appears that the average age of prostitutes was between 25 and 29, and given the high number of arrests of women over 30, it is simply not possible for the average age of entry to be under 18 at all. Besides, the study that Melissa and her evil cohorts cite was of JUVENILE prostitutes, and NO ONE over 18 was part of this study of JUVENILE prostitutes.
    As I said, I hope to have all the information uploaded to my website at this weekend. We can destroy this myth of the 13 year old girl being the ‘average age of entry’ into prostitution once and for all, using the government’s own data. If a thirty year analysis of the data doesn’t work for these people, what will?

  3. Yes, another source good to cite when challenging the claims made by radical feminists, in particular Farley and Jeffreys, is an article by Ronald Weitzer. Can’t remember the title off top of my head, but he provides a very good critique of both statistics and bold claims that are bandied about as ‘fact’.

  4. Farley has been called out many times in the past for her shoddy methodology and intense bias, yet she still manages to be cited as an “expert” by both the anti-sex trade movement and many in the mainstream media. In spite of the fact that the Canadian high court has made clear that they don’t place much stock in her work:

    In addition to the sources you mention, Ronald Weitzer debated her in a series of back-and-forth articles in the journal Violence Against Women, and calls her out on number of serious methodological flaws and working mainly from an ideological perspective. The articles in question are cited and linked to in the Wikipedia article about her:

    Based on my reading, her most serious flaw is the extreme sampling bias in her studies. I don’t think the sampling bias for one city is so much the issue, as she has a number of case studies involving different locales. Rather, she mainly samples the most severely marginalized sex workers in the places she studies, heavily weighing her samples toward street workers, developing-world brothel workers, etc, and sampling in places like emergency drop-in clinics, then insisting that this sample is relative of the vast majority of sex workers and extrapolating the her claims to apply to strippers, escorts, and porn stars. Her studies also lack any kind of control group, and I think a non-sex worker population of the same marginalized demographic surveyed in such a way as to encourage answers indicating abuse and PTSD, you’d see very similar results.

    I should point out that there was a recent study of LA porn stars finding very high rates of self-esteem and no higher rate of sexual abuse than the general female population. Predictably, the same kind of people who give Farley’s studies a free pass are now claiming the porn star study is somehow suspicious, and claiming that LA porn stars using the AIM Clinic are somehow unrepresentative of porn performers in general. (An odd claim, considering LA has the largest single porn industry in the world, and the AIM Clinic, before it’s closing, was where they all went to be tested.)

  5. I was glad to hear of Calum Bennachie’s complaint, but news on this process since then has been hard to come by. What, if anything, has come of this complaint?

  6. Excellent critique. Jesse. I was randomly curious about how many men in the U.S.A. used prostitutes and stumbled into an article on the daily beast that continually cited Farley. My B.S. detector went haywire. Thank you for your academic and intellectual honesty.

  7. I have to say this as a survivor, we can not go by arrest reports of people in prostitution. I sat in many adult jails as a juvenile, and so did most of the people I worked with. I am wondering how people who have been in this life have not shared this information. I am sorry Norma Jean I am not trying to discredit you, but the research documentation is extremely inaccurate. That was the first thing that was beaten into me. “you better NEVER tell anyone your real name or age, not even the police” You do realize the FIRST time you are fingerprinted you can tell the police ANYTHING you want. That is who you will be to them every time you are arrested after that. I was 16, but told them a different name and said I was 21. Do you see why this research would not be accurate? All underage prostituted people I knew lied about their age they ALL said they were adults so they could get out of jail, and wouldn’t be trapped in the system. The police were crooked, and we had to out think them.

    • Beth Jacobs- sorry I am so late in responding to your comments of last August. I am sure that many people like about their ages- whether or not arrested for prostitution. However, when there are so very many women over 25 up to 65 + who are arrested for prostitution, and surely younger women are not going to LOOK like they are 30 or 40 or 50 or 60, then you have to think that even if you lied about your age and said you were 18, there are still very few of that age group. The FBI stats are the only valid numbers that we can find- all the other guesstimates are simply that- based on absolutely NOTHING.

      Not to mention, that the report which everyone quotes is the 2001 “The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children In the U. S., Canada and Mexico” says outright that this was a study of JUVENILE prostitutes, NOT of all prostitutes, which is something that everyone seems to leave out- for obvious reasons. And the same report says “49% of all sexual assaults against children are committed by per- sons known either to the child or the child’s family—teachers, coaches, physicians, scout leaders, neighbors (DoJ, 2000b)
      Sexual Molestation of both boys and girls by family members
      •47% of all sexual assaults against children are committed by members of the child’s own family—father, step-father, uncles, and older siblings (Araji, 1997; DoJ, 2000b; O’Brien, 1991)

      “Some 105,000 substantiated15 or indicated16 cases of child sexual abuse occur in the U.S. each year. The majority of this abuse is perpetrated against children 12 years of age or younger and nearly all of it occurs in the privacy of the child’s own home (84%). Sadly, 96% of all confirmed child sexual abuse cases are perpetrated by persons known either to the child or to the child’s family (49%)–i.e., by neighbors, teachers, coaches, physicians–or by members of the child’s own family (47%)–i.e., fathers, step-fathers, uncles, grandfathers, older siblings. Contrary to widely held belief, only a small number of substantiated child sexual assaults are committed by strangers (4%).”

      Sorry that you were a victim of trafficking. There are lots of women out there who are or were victims of domestic violence, child sexual exploitation at the hands of their father/ step father/ mother’s boyfriend, preacher, priest, teacher and local cop… rather than attempt to abolish consenting adult commercial sex, we need to focus resources and efforts to stop ALL child sexual exploitation, domestic violence, rape (particularly when a victim asks for help), and stop with the Farley and company lies. Prostitution is NEVER going to be ‘abolished’ nor should it be. There are so many men, women and couples who benefit from the services that sex workers provide, and there are so many sex workers who find that they are good at providing pleasure to others, who do this by choice, and who are NOT victims of anything other than the ignorance and stupidity of a hypocritical society who cannot understand that sex is a good thing. Lack of consent is a bad thing, sexually exploiting children is a bad thing. But sex work- it is a good thing and has made it possible for millions of women throughout time to live better and have more time to do other things they enjoy- taking care of their families, going to school, being an artist/ writer/ film maker/ sculptor etc. etc.

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