Ashton Kutcher Versus the Village Voice: Why Numbers and Language Matter in Social Causes

7 years ago

Last week closed with a violent feud between the New York-based Village Voice and Ashton Kutcher, who has joined the ranks of celebrity philanthropists. The Voice, which has been under attack for continuing to allow users to post ads advertising adult services, pointed out in their cover story last week that the numbers Kutcher uses to rally support for his foundation are grossly exaggerated, leading the star to retaliate by contacting its advertisers on Twitter accusing the publication of being a "Digital Brothel" that profits from the "sale of Human Beings."

Cover of the LA Weekly.

It got ugly, and it did neither the Voice, previously honored by the Society of Professional Journalists for their often incisive coverage, nor the Demi and Ashton Foundation (DNA) any favors.


Celebrities can bring a lot of attention to issues, an important factor in raising awareness. Unfortunately, the eagerness to lend their name to a cause too often results in new organizations that don't understand the problems they're trying to address well enough to help, and which waste millions on hopeless projects that take funding away from established organizations that are better equipped and better informed about the problem.

Such was the case of Raising Malawi, Madonna's effort to secure education for 400 girls in the African country, which in March confirmed that it was abandoning its original vision amid claims that the $18 million raised for the school had been grossly mismanaged.

That's not to say that all celebrity aid is bad, certainly we have examples of stars that have become involved with a cause and managed to make some degree of impact. Sean Penn's efforts in Haiti stand as a rare example of success.

Over a year after the quake that shook its foundations, Haiti remains devastated, with 1.5 million of its displaced inhabitants still living in camps. Much of the international relief effort has been riddled with roadblocks and dysfunction and, according to the New York Times, less than half of the $5.8 billion pledged for recovery has been dispersed and less than half of that has actually gone to help those afflicted.

The difference between Madonna's and Penn's efforts comes down to a few simple things: Penn had no preconceived notions. He didn't rely on some philanthropic authority to navigate his effort (in fact, he parted with philanthropist and entrepreneur Diana Jenkins, who had pledged a million dollars to his cause because he didn't agree with her decisions once he was on the ground). He had no idea what he was doing and he knew it, so he went in and learned the way things were being done as he went along, brainstorming and offering solutions when things didn't seem to work. One such solution is his organization's rubble removal program, which has been so successful that other non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have taken it as a model.

Since he touched down, Penn's aid group J/P Haitian Relief Organization, which upon arrival was comprised largely of foreign medics, now includes 235 local Haitians, 15 international workers and hundreds of volunteers who work on rotation. The group has coordinated sanitation, lighting, water and safety at their camp, which today houses some 50,000 people. They also run two hospitals, a women's health center, a cholera isolation unit, and a 24-hour emergency room, featuring one of the most effective emergency response systems in the country.

The guy's living in a tent. There is no golf club membership here (as the director of Madonna's school was found to have been granted). Penn's in it hands on, learning about what to do from the people who are doing it and working to ensure that the best is made of every available resource given to him. When the New York Times wrote about Madonna's effort, they reported neither she nor her aides had an explanation as to how the mission went sour, suggesting that despite frequent trips and photo-ops, the star was no real involvemen in the project.


The past couple of decades have seen an increase in activism involving our own wallets. In 2008, I joined the Coalition for Immokalee Workers, the Student/Farmworker Alliance, the Campaign for Fair Food and a host of other groups protesting Chipotle for the abuses that occurred on the fields where their tomatoes are picked. In 2009, following marches, rallies and letters, Chipotle agreed to pay that extra penny per pound of tomatoes to its farmworkers.

Even before this incredible example of successful economic pressure, consumers have known that they can effect social change through their purchasing choices. More and more people are buying fair trade products than ever before, paying attention to their choice companies' labor practices at home and abroad.

Unfortunately, this burgeoning concern among consumers has led companies and individuals to jump into causes by aligning themselves with organizations without enough scrutiny as it regards the organizations' management of the funds raised.

This is case of Product (RED), an initiative launched in 2006 by Bono, which involved brands like Apple, Starbucks and Hallmark, among others, and which put away money from every purchase made toward the Global Fund, which helps finance HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria treatments in stricken nations. The $21.7 billion fund, supported by consumers and which received billions more as part of grants, has since December suffered public criticism over the $34 million lost to gross mismanagement and corruption.


While celebrities can bring issues to the fore, lack of scrutiny and know-how when selecting or creating organizations can lead to mismanagement of funds, which takes money away from local efforts often already in place, run by people that are just as passionate, if lacking in media attention due to their lack of celebrity status. What's worse, when celebrities embrace a cause and fail to understand the facts surrounding the problem they're trying to solve, their appeals to governments can lead to bad policies.

In light of the Village Voice's allegations that the numbers that support Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore's crusade to combat child sex trafficking are grossly exaggerated, many have asked if the weekly isn't being petty -- isn't one child forced into commercial sex enough cause to worry?

Before I go on, I want to make a couple of things clear: I used to work for the Village Voice and have written for the L.A.-based Village Voice Media property the LA Weekly. Now, while I have no financial interest in their fate, and despite a few shouting matches over the years over the occasional bias (such as Dennis Romero's woefully one-sided coverage of the Adult Industry Medical Foundation, and senior editor Ward Harkay's terrible treatment of the Lara Logan assault story), I believe that the Voice and its other weeklies nationwide tend to do an incredible job of reporting on issues.

Now -- I concede that while the article did a fine job of clarifying that the reported "100,000 to 300,000 children" represents children at risk of becoming victims and not actual victims of sex trafficking (which their research found is closer to 800 per year), the article itself was needlessly catty and lacked transparency (the Voice stands to lose part of its classified section in the same way that Craigslist did last year, after child trafficking activists and several attorneys general put pressure on the site to close its adult classifieds section where sex workers are known to advertise their services).

That said, the Voice raised a good point: good intentions are not enough in this industry. Publicity is not enough. Raising money is not enough if the money isn't going to be managed properly. Most importantly: bad information is not only not enough, it's dangerous.

Maggie Neilson, wife of Trevor Nielson and business partner in their Santa Monica-based venture Global Philanthropy Group, with which Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore consult on all matters relating to their foundation, told the Voice, "I don't frankly care if the number is 200,000, 500,000, or a million, or 100,000 -- it needs to be addressed."

It does need to be addressed, but a lack of concern for reliable information relating to an issue is not going to help anyone, least of all the victims. Put simply: you can't solve a problem without information about it; you can't make good policy to address a problem without good information about it; and you certainly can't help lead the discussion toward a solution by resorting to sensationalism and emotional appeals. Emotional appeals lead to knee-jerk reactions and knee-jerk reactions have an alarming tendency to lead to human rights violations, however good the intentions.

Child sex trafficking is a very real horror -- that is something we can all agree. We can also agree that finding a solution to this form of exploitation would be benefit all mankind. The problem is that this issue is not isolated: policy created to assist victims of child sex trafficking often affects victims of other forms of trafficking as well as people who engage in sex commerce of their own free will.


The same lack of concern for solid figures exhibited by DNA's consultants and co-founder can be found elsewhere in their message. Not only has Ashton Kutcher repeatedly tweeted about the sale of "Human Beings" (not children) and called the Village Voice a "Digital Brothel," his organization is also supportive of Shared Hope International, an organization that fights child sex trafficking by educating men about "the dangers of engaging in commercial sex markets, especially pornography."

Shared Hope essentially believes pornography and any commercial sex activity turns men into rapists and exploiters, suggesting (as the DNA "Real Men" campaign does) that by educating men, we can somehow rid ourselves of the problem of child sex trafficking.

Whether or not you believe pornography and sex work are a social blight is not relevant here: being unable to make a proper distinction between people coerced into the sex industry and those who choose to form a part of it diverts funding that could be best employed identifying, freeing and helping victims of sex trafficking.

Not only is money wasted, but the very people within the sex industry who could potentially provide more information about suspicious activity, violent crime, and -- as in the case of the Long Island killer -- murders, are unable to come forward with their knowledge out of fear that they will themselves be prosecuted.

This same fear of authority, it bears noting, is a crucial component in coercion in other forms of trafficking: consider, for instance, illegal immigrants forced to work the fields under the constant threat of deportation should they fail to meet their quotas.

As E. Benjamin Skinner, author of the slavery exposé A Crime So Monstuous put it: "Western policies based on the idea that all prostitutes are slaves and all slaves are prostitutes belittles the suffering of all victims."

Unfortunately for many in the sex trafficking abolitionist camp, the difference between coercion and choice is either ignored or aggressively denied, despite the U.S. State Department's annual Trafficking in Persons Report, which clearly distinguishes between the two, saying: "Prostitution by willing adults is not human trafficking regardless of whether it is legalized, decriminalized, or criminalized."

Many such well-meaning groups stray so far from their target that they infringe on personal freedoms. As I reported last year, the organization Citizens Against Trafficking (also supported by the DNA Foundation), launched a full attack against the organizers of sexual education conference, on the grounds that such discussions endanger children and the community at large.

In 2009, the organization's founder Donna M. Hughes (also featured on DNA’s site) attempted to prevent the opening of a sexual education center in Rhode Island by sex educator Megan Andelloux, suggesting such an institution was a haven for traffickers and could endanger citizens.

These are DNA's allies.


Sex trafficking and slavery are complicated issues and, unfortunately, it's not only men who are the problem, nor are they the only ones who have the power to stop it. Many people participate in the coercion of people into slavery, both children and adults, and they can be men, women, and even family members of victims. Neither is sex trafficking limited to girls and women: boys, men, and the transgendered also form a part of it.

The continued oversimplification that characterizes the Real Men campaign, even if we were to overlook all of its short-comings and pat it on the back for bringing the topic to the mainstream, is still lacking in its inability or unwillingness to address that the problem goes beyond "YOUR daughter, YOUR niece, YOUR neighbor."

The thing about taking on things like Craigslist and Backpage is that these goals, while hardly impacting the problem or helping victims, result in "victories" that people can see. In a daunting war where progress is difficult, a safe and fast crusade means more media attention (for celebrities), more voters (for politicians), and more money (for organizations).

I see the censoring of Craigslist and the crusade against Backpage as unfortunate not least of all because it is effectively destroying one of the greatest sources of information that law enforcement has ever had at their disposal. Those who claim that Craigslist and Backpage are benefiting from the crime of prostitution need to remember that the system of charging for posting in this section was established to create a paper trail. In the case of the Craigslist Killer, it was these records that enabled law enforcement to identify and locate Philip Markoff.

As Danah Boyd, writing about the Craigslist incident for the Huffington Post noted how a simple victory over a website doesn't do anything to help the problem:

Taking something that is visible and making it invisible makes a politician look good, even if it does absolutely nothing to help the victims who are harmed. It creates the illusion of safety, while signaling to pimps, traffickers, and other scumbags that their businesses are perfectly safe as long as they stay invisible ... Censorship online is nothing more than whack-a-mole, pushing the issue elsewhere or more underground.


In 2003, George W. Bush passed a $15 billion plan for HIV and AIDS relief worldwide. Unfortunately, in an effort to combat sex trafficking, and not having made a proper distinction between sex trafficking and sex work, the disbursement of funds became contingent on NGOs and foreign governments making an anti-prostitution pledge in order to receive funding. Organizations worldwide protested the pledge, stating that it made it difficult to establish trust within the communities in which they were working, without which they had a much more difficult time reaching groups that needed their services.

Most notably among dissenters was Pedro Chequer, Brazil's AIDS commissioner, who, after Brazil turned down $40 million in anti-HIV and AIDS funding, told the press, "sex workers are a part of implementing our AIDS policy and deciding how to promote it. They are our partners. How can we ask prostitutes to take a position against themselves?" The United Nations considers Brazil's efforts to combat HIV and AIDS alongside sex workers to be one of the most effective in the developing world.

Chris Beyrer, director of the Center for Public Health and Human Rights at John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, in a 2007 piece published in the journal PLoS Medicine, warned that the pledge would only create more problems. Indeed, many programs that had seen a degree of success in HIV prevention closed their doors following raids by U.S.-funded anti-trafficking groups. The conflation of prostitution and sex trafficking further marginalized a vulnerable population, actively preventing them from receiving health and social services that are so necessary and which had previously been available to them.

Beyrer's findings are relevant to the discussion of child sex trafficking (emphasis mine):

One of our key findings was that the merging of the terms "prostitution" and "sex trafficking" in the Global AIDS Act is not accepted as standard language or practice by the scientific literature on HIV/AIDS or by international agencies with HIV prevention programs. Trafficking in persons for any purpose is consistently seen as a criminal and human rights offense, and the subset of human trafficking related specifically to the sex industry is universally seen as among the most grievous of trafficking-related crimes. While the law calls for opposing sex trafficking, we could find no entity that did not already oppose it. The same holds true for any form of prostitution involving children or minors -- this was universally acknowledged as a crime and a human rights violation before the policy.

However, many organizations disagree with the Act's equation of all forms of prostitution with sex trafficking. The term prostitution itself is controversial -- most groups working with persons who sell or trade sex for money use the terms "sex work" and "sex worker," rather than "prostitute," which is widely held to be stigmatizing and pejorative.

The core debate is that for many stakeholders, the category "sex workers" includes consenting adults who sell sex of their own volition, who are not trafficking victims, and who have called for recognition of their rights as workers, in settings that include Bangladesh, India, Thailand, Brazil, and the Dominican Republic. A substantial body of peer-reviewed published studies suggests that the empowerment, organization, and unionization of sex workers can be an effective HIV prevention strategy and can reduce the other harms associated with sex work, including violence, police harassment, unwanted pregnancy, and the number of underage sex workers.

The language employed by Ashton Kutcher in his appeals for help and especially against the Village Voice seem to suggest that the DNA Foundation, like its allies, sees little distinction between sex work and sex trafficking. The "sale of Human Beings" could very well mean one's sale of his- or herself and the allegation that the Voice is a "Digital Brothel" only supports this concern, despite Kutcher’s weak assertions to the contrary that rarely make it to the conversation and that are clearly not supported by the organizations with which DNA has aligned itself.

To summarize, a lack of concern for data, a gross oversimplification of the problem, the identification of goals that are irrelevant (teaching men to be "real") or shallow (closing down adult services boards), their ties with groups that have lost sight of their mission and choose to focus instead on crusades against personal freedoms, their inability to understand that the power they wield can negatively affect global policy, combined with a crucial lack of understanding in the difference between sex trafficking and sex work, and the denial that sex workers may be the biggest allies in this battle makes the DNA Foundation difficult, if not impossible, to support.

Frankly, I am tired about talking about Ashton Kutcher and the Village Voice. For all the talk of the awareness DNA has "raised" about sex trafficking of children, the foundation's effort suffers from one of the most unfortunate aspects of celebrity aid: an overwhelming focus on the advocates to the detriment of the cause they're trying to help.


by Melissa Gira Grant:

Kutcher, Moore, and the organizations they support hustle a public who want to do good into believing that keeping men from buying sex is not only possible, but some kind of solution. The assumption that the “real men don’t buy girls” campaign rests on is that there are good men and bad men, and that any man can become a good man by demonstrating his willingness to not buy sex. Does not buying sex give someone in the sex trade a place to sleep at night, a school to go to the next day, and food on the table? Does not buying sex help keep a family together in the midst of struggling with unemployment and immigration issues?

Kutcher, Moore, and the organizations the DNA Foundation supports don’t give us ways to confront systemic poverty and racism, lack of access to education, or strict immigration policies and community policing practices that make people reluctant to engage with the systems that might support them. Instead, their campaigns focus hype and hustle on one target — the market for commercial sex. They don’t address the fact that this market does not exist in isolation of these other political and economic factors. When they do attempt to address human rights or misogyny, they do so only in rhetoric. They still place men in the paternalistic role of savior, and people in the sex trade as innocents to be protected. Then they ask us to pay them to perform the role of savior — a role they created, and a role people in the sex trade do not benefit from. In this way, the money that Kutcher, Moore, and the DNA Foundation raise will do nothing to address the real harms in the lives of people in the sex trade.

What Causes Badvocacy at Texas in Africa:

Oversimplifying conflicts is probably the most common mistake American advocacy groups make. As George Kennan noted long ago, Americans tend to seek a single external source of evil for all of the world's problems. It makes sense that most of us would instinctively try to narrow complex conflicts down to make them understandable to normal people. After all, it's a lot easier to call the war in Congo a "resource war" than to explain that what's going on there now is actually a series of ongoing local conflicts over land, ethnicity, resources, and governance with local, national, regional, and international dimensions (some of which have to do with the civil and international wars of 1996 and 1998-2003 and others that do not) in which dozens of local defense militias, national armies, and rebel groups fight over various objectives that tend to change and alliances and loyalties that constantly shift. That doesn't really fit on a t-shirt.

No Utopians Here, Man. Only Lawyers at Wronging Rights:

By personalizing the conversation -- "what would you do differently?"-- it shifts it away from policy analysis and towards questions of motivation. The demand to know what the person on the other side would do differently is also a demand that they justify having an opinion at all. Which can seem -- at least to me -- like a move away from "is this a good idea?", towards "if you don't think this is a good idea but you can't come up with something better, perhaps it's because you are a self-interested jerk who only cares about oil and cell phones, and doesn't really want to help people who are DYING."

Oversimplifying Sex Slavery: Demi, Ashton, and Badvocacy at Genders Across Borders:

Sometimes efforts to address one end of the spectrum end up hurting those at the other, and sometimes good intentions can do a lot of harm. In 2008, for instance, Cambodia passed the “Law on Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation” to comply with the US policy on trafficking in persons. This basically set in motion a series of brothel raids that resulted in the abuse and criminalization of sex workers, and the unraveling of many effective health outreach programs which had used brothels as a platform.

Why not just support existing programs doing good work; why leverage your hubris to start your own (ineffective and competing) efforts? The best thing that could happen now is that Demi and Ashton pass the mic to someone who knows what they’re talking about, and some damage control can begin.

When Arrogance Meets Activism: Ashton Kutcher and Sex Trafficking by Charlie Glickman:

Using wildly exaggerated numbers is a great way to get a moral panic going and get funds, but it takes attention away from the real issues here. That’s because it’s arrogant and arrogance tends to foster either/or thinking. When we oversimplify the issue, when we lose sight of the nuances and differences in people’s stories and (ironically) we divest people of their agency by forcing them into a narrative that suits our purposes rather than addressing their needs.

The Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher Sex Trafficking Social Media Circus by Violet Blue:

Ashton Kutcher either does not check his facts or cannot be relied to present them accurately. Knowing what the hell you’re talking about – when you’re talking about people’s lives and you have the money to buy your way into anything and the fame to influence reputable media outlets to run fiction as fact – is really fucking important.

When the State Department’s 2011 Trafficking in Persons Report was released last week, global human trafficking was shown to be more comprised of the people that assembled whatever device you’re Tweeting from than “YOUR daughter, YOUR niece, YOUR neighbor…”

Today’s Hidden Slave Trade by Michelle Goldberg for The Daily Beast:

When Americans think about human trafficking, they tend to think about sexual slavery. The very real stories of girls sold to brothels or tricked into prostitution by gangsters are great fodder for journalists. They attract the kind of celebrity commitment that puts causes on the map—see, for example, last week’s Demi Moore-hosted CNN special about sex slaves in Nepal.

The issue certainly deserves our attention—indeed, its horrors can scarcely be overstated. But as the State Department’s 2011 Trafficking in Persons report makes clear, sexual bondage is only a part of a much larger and more insidious evil. Modern slavery isn’t just about sex. Huge parts of the global economy, from tomatoes to electronics to American military contracting, are tied up with forced labor.

A Sex-Positive Perspective on Sex Work by Charlie Glickman:

Is a legal response the most effective way to support people’s freedom from being forced into sex work? I don’t think I need to explain that there’s a differential impact of the legal system on women, queers, people of color, transgender people, and other oppressed/marginalized groups. I understand that some of the anti-sex work folks will argue that sex work contributes to the systems that perpetuate the economic and legal inequalities that force some people into sex work. But I’m not convinced that attacking those very people is an effective solution. At best, it’s ineffective and at worst, it revictimizes many of the people who need our help the most.

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