POLITICS

Psychologist Who Called Sex Workers 'Receptacles' Influenced Florida Prostitution Registry Bill

The bill would require anyone guilty of paying for sex to be added to a public registry.

Florida lawmakers are rapidly advancing a bill they say will tackle human trafficking that would require anyone guilty of soliciting sex from sex workers to be added to a public registry.

But much of the measure, which two key committees approved in February and March without a single ‘nay,’ relies on the work of an anti-pornography and anti-sex work clinical psychologist who has referred to women sex workers as “house n****rs” and ”receptacles” and equates consensual sex with a sex worker with “rape.” 

Melissa Farley, a San Francisco clinical psychologist whose work is now being used by the state Senate, is a deeply controversial figure. Lawmakers and other psychologists have described her work as “questionable,” “unqualified,” “inflammatory” and “demeaning propaganda.” In 2010, Farley appeared as a key witness in a prostitution hearing in Ontario. The judge, Justice Susan Himel, dismissed Farley’s testimony. 

“I found the evidence of Dr. Melissa Farley to be problematic,” Himel said. “Her advocacy appears to have permeated her opinions ... Dr. Farley’s choice of language is at times inflammatory and detracts from her conclusions.” 

Several academics, writers and organizers wrote a scathing commentary on one of Farley’s reports in 2008, citing its biases and ignorance “of even the most basic legal principles.” They said that Farley made “no contribution to our understanding of either the ‘problem’ or the solution.” 

In a 2009 article on her nonprofit’s website, Farley, a white woman, wrote that “Prostitution has its very own plantation system” where “indoor” sex workers were the “house n****rs of the system.” (The racist slur is starred in the article.)

Farley told HuffPost that she stands by referring to women sex workers as “receptacles,” as that is how some women described to her as having felt after engaging in it. She initially denied using the racist slur, but when HuffPost sent her the archived link to the 2009 article, Farley said she was comparing “the structural similarities between prostitution and slavery.”

Lauren Book, the Democratic state senator who introduced the anti-trafficking bill in January, told HuffPost that a Farley study that surveyed 526 men indicated that “a registry would be an effective deterrent” to people who might otherwise pay for sex.

But a handful of broader academic studies on the topic produced inconclusive results, said Jill Levenson, a professor of social work at Barry University in southern Florida.

“There is very little, if any, research to support the idea that public registries and public shaming deter any sort of behavior,” Levenson argued. “The problem of human trafficking requires strategies much more complex than putting someone’s name on a list.” 

The problem of human trafficking requires strategies much more complex than putting someone’s name on a list. Jill Levenson, a professor of social work at Barry University in southern Florida.

Researchers who approach their studies with biases tend to produce research that supports those biases, Susan Dewey, cultural anthropologist and associate professor at the University of Wyoming, told HuffPost after the report’s publication.

“The researchers have no way of knowing how representative these men are of sex workers’ clients,” she said. “These are men willing to self-identify in this way, which does not make them representative of anything but men willing to participate in such a study.”

Farley told HuffPost that she favors offering women choices other than prostitution. “I think that more exit and support services, including housing subsidies, medical care, educational support, psychological counseling, among others, are urgently needed,” she said.

Sex Work Is Not Sex Trafficking

Book’s bill has less controversial parts, including requirements that employees in certain industries ― specifically hospitality and massage ― must be trained in identifying suspected trafficking victims within 30 days of beginning their employment. It would also institute a specific fund for survivors of human trafficking.

But the registry portion of the measure could have dangerous consequences for sex workers. The bill as written does not distinguish between people engaging in consensual sex work and victims of sex trafficking ― anyone convicted of or who pled guilty to “soliciting, inducing, enticing, or procuring another to commit prostitution, lewdness, or assignation” will be added to the registry.

“Regardless of what you think about prostitution, we can all agree that trafficking is much, much worse,” Alexandra Levy, law professor at the University of Notre Dame, told HuffPost. “A law that treats them the same gives clients less incentive to care about whether they’re hiring a consenting sex worker or paying to rape a trafficking victim.”

There are generally two sets of clients for sex workers, Levy said. Many are “generally law-abiding people” looking for consensual sexual interactions with adults, and others are “dangerous clients” who seek out sex workers knowing that that community is unlikely to turn to law enforcement after a sexual or physical assault, robbery or other crime.” Those in the latter group, Levy says, are “indifferent to whether they’re paying for consensual sex or for rape.”  

Lauren Book, the Democratic state senator who introduced the anti-trafficking bill in January.
Lauren Book, the Democratic state senator who introduced the anti-trafficking bill in January.

What a registry such as the one proposed by Book would do is punish those “generally law-abiding” clients, rather than acting as a deterrent to the clients already indifferent to committing a crime and participating in the rape of a trafficked victim, experts said.

“Put succinctly,” Levy said, “we have every reason to believe that registries deter the good guys without having much effect on the bad ones.”

Book acknowledged that not all sex workers are victims of trafficking, but she said “trafficking is able to thrive when there is a demand for prostitution – which is illegal in the state of Florida.”

Experts are split on whether the best approach for ending trafficking is through “ending demand.” But many sex workers, some of whom are survivors of trafficking, as well as their advocates, don’t believe it is.

Members of a Florida chapter of the Sex Workers Outreach Project have spoken out against Book’s bill and would like to see it rewritten with their experiences taken into account.

“This legislation is flawed in many ways,” they wrote. “We are critical of Florida’s failures to support victims and survivors and we advocate for better services and protections … in its current form, we cannot support [this bill] due to the exclusion of people in the sex industry and especially the ‘Soliciting for Prostitution Public Database.’”

“We share the goals of fighting human trafficking and increasing services for victims and survivors,” they continued. “But this legislation currently does not include the populations affected by it.”

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