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:
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
Newsweek Embraces Melissa Farley’s Unscrupulous Crusade – Charlotte Shane
Men who buy sex: a nasty group whose DNA should be on file – Laura Agustin
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