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Published: Sun, 20 Aug 2017 00:00:00 -0400

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How the Google Memo Hysteria Punishes Openness and Innovation

Tue, 15 Aug 2017 08:30:00 -0400

The tech press has been on fire with the recent publication of an internal memo on Google's diversity and labor policies by former engineer James Damore. Damore, who was quickly fired for "perpetuating gender stereotypes" in light of the ensuing media conflagration, penned the 10-page memo during a long flight to China after attending a Google diversity training seminar that he found to be ineffective, hostile to his cohorts, and factually incorrect. More fundamentally, in "Google's Ideological Echo Chamber," Damore argues that Google's corporate culture discourages criticism of company policies and leads employees to feel that they can't speak openly. The article, which cited research and concepts from scientific disciplines in a well-reasoned and compassionate manner, was wildly misrepresented in the media and has served to further fan the anxious flames of social tensions in Silicon Valley. Such incidents are unfortunately encouraged by unproductive labor norms which divert companies' drives to create value and innovate towards futile social engineering endeavors that waste money and time while unnecessarily pitting groups against each other. The bulk of the discussion on the so-called "Google Memo" so far has unfortunately been driven by the left-leaning media's sensationalist and downright incorrect characterizations of the document. Gizmodo, which originally published the memo, called it an "anti-diversity screed." NBC News' headline implied that the author blamed "women's 'neuroticism'" for the relative lack of female engineers. Engadget said the memo is evidence of tech's "toxic culture." Other outlets piled on, simply referring to the memo as "sexist" or "misogynist" without delving into the article's contents. Given such alarming headlines, you might expect to find some kind of hateful, invective-filled rant about the innate inferiority of women and perhaps a sandwich joke or two thrown in for good measure. What you will instead find is a thoughtful, helpfully-categorized criticism of Google's alleged "ideological echo chamber" replete with citations and figures. (Curiously, Gizmodo decided to remove the academic citations and graphs from their version of the memo.) It's a thought-provoking and fascinating read, I highly recommend that you check out the unedited document if you haven't already. Damore notes sources of both left- and right-wing bias before exploring potential "non-bias" contributors to gaps in representation among engineers. Like Larry Summers before him, Damore notes that slight differences in the average distribution of men's and women's talents, risk profiles, and preferences result in outcomes that are not exactly 50-50. This is not to say to that any one sex is "better" or "worse" than the other, but that a slight preference on women's part to, say, take time off to raise their young children will have an effect on women's aggregate final career trajectory. Given this, Damore points out that any diversity initiative to "lower the bar" or provide special treatment to favored groups will be not only ineffective, but discriminatory and inefficient to boot. What is most important to note is that Damore's memo was not "anti-diversity" at all. In fact, he directly states that he "value[s] diversity and inclusion, [does not deny] that sexism exists, and [does not] endorse using stereotypes." Rather, he maintains that if we can't have "an honest discussion" about diversity, then "we can never truly solve the problem" and provides several alternative suggestions to close the gaps that he believes would not cause issues like discrimination and lowered expectations. We've got a real monster on our hands here, folks! The disjoint between the quality of Damore's attempted conversation and the downright hysterics of the media reaction is greatly disturbing. Anyone with a passing familiarity with the state of the art in social psychology and neuroscience will know that the Google Memo's chief arguments are largely in line with much of the literature. But the few experts who have attempted to chime in and [...]

Missouri Attorney General Hawley Files Desperate and Deceptive Motion to Dismiss Backpage Lawsuit

Thu, 03 Aug 2017 14:40:00 -0400

Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley claimed he has "new evidence" showing that the classifieds site "Backpage has directly and actively promoted illegal sex trafficking." But the only thing new is Hawley's level of desperation and deceit. Hawley, who was elected attorney general last November and has U.S. Senate ambitions, is the latest in a long line of state law-enforcement authorities to seek attention by scapegoating an online ad platform and subjecting it to unconstitutional demands. Craigslist was the test case, but Backpage has become the enduring target of state prosecutors because it hasn't been hesitant to fight back—and in almost all cases, win. Despite the hysterical antics from elected officials, there has never been any evidence that Backpage leaders knowingly promoted forced or underage prostitution, nor that they've behaved in ways that would exclude them from the immunity provided to open publishing platforms under federal law. Among the "new" evidence that Hawley submitted to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri is a January report from the Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. Despite the senators having access to all of the internal Backpage data and hosting a theatrical in-person inquiry, they found nothing sufficient to spur a criminal investigation or any charges. Hawley also submitted the transcript of an audio recording seized from Philippines company Avion, in which an Avion employee contacts a London sex worker. Hawley also played the call reporters at a press conference. What does not get so much as a mention in Hawley's motion is that this call and all of the adult-ad generation done for Backpage involved only non-U.S. employees of Avion advertising on non-U.S. platforms. None of it has any bearing on his current case. A state attorney general cannot attempt to prosecute foreign contractors for ads created and posted in foreign countries. And it is legal for Backpage contractors to generate adult ads abroad, where the rules governing web-publishing platforms and legal liability for content vary (and prostitution in certain forms may be legal). Hawley's actions here should be seen for what they are: a sneaky attempt to build credibility in his illegal crusade. Not long after he took office in January 2017, Hawley attempted to compel Backpage to surrender a trove of internal files and information. His order was not part of any criminal investigation but rather a civil investigative demand—a kind of subpoena attorneys general use to investigate potential consumer fraud. In a letter to Backpage CEO Carl Ferrer, Hawley wrote "the Attorney General of the State of Missouri believes it to be in the public interest that an investigation be made to ascertain whether [agents of] have engaged in or are engaging in any merchandising practices declared to be unlawful" under the state's merchandising practices law. Backpage lawyers responded with a motion to block Hawley from enforcing the order and "from further pursuing or threatening other action against Backpage. It was "based on Backpage's statutory immunity from state law claims based on its activities as an online publisher and distributor of third-party content, and on Backpage's constitutional rights under the First, Fourth, and Fifth Amendments." Hawley fired back this week with a motion to dismiss Backpage's suit and a public relations offensive. "I have filed a motion against containing explosive new revelations," the attorney general tweeted from his official account on Tuesday. "My message to Backpage is this: The truth is coming for you," stated Hawley in a press release. "We have evidence including audio recordings, photos and various documents. You cannot hide from the truth. And I will not stop until the full truth about Backpage's involvement in trafficking is exposed and those responsible are held to account." The St. Louis Post-Dispatch later that day dutifully reported Hawley had audio of "a woman who works for ... speaking to [...]

Federal Judge Notes Good Done by Gay Escort Site, Sentences Founder to Six Months in Prison

Thu, 03 Aug 2017 12:50:00 -0400

A federal judge Wednesday sentenced Jeffrey Hurant, founder of, to six months in federal prison for promoting prostitution. In a turn both remarkable and infuriating, the judge, Margo Brodie, acknowledged that both Hurant and have done good things for the gay community before sending him off to prison. From The New York Times: In court papers filed in Brooklyn, Mr. Hurant has pointed out that aside from making money — lots of money — Rentboy permitted prostitutes to move their trade from the streets to the safety of the internet and to work independently of pimps. The company ran Rentboy U, he said, which offered escorts classes in financial management and safe-sex practices. And, he added, it made large donations to the fight against AIDS and H.I.V., working at times with government agencies like the New York City Department of Health. On Wednesday, a judge in Federal District Court in Brooklyn gave credence to his arguments, saying that while Mr. Hurant had broken the law, he had also done enormous good for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. Even amid the overwrought panic over human trafficking in the culture of American sex work, the federal bust of in 2015 stood out. The site had existed for nearly 20 years and was well-known as a resource for men to connect with male sex workers. It was operating in the open, not via some dark web resource. When they were busted by the Department of Homeland Security, nobody in the government even tried to claim that anybody had been victimized. The shutdown of the site and the arrest of workers and founder Jeffrey Hurant was based solely because prostitution was illegal and that Rentboy was making millions of dollars facilitating it—which the government then immediately moved to seize. It wasn't until after the site was shut down that the feds began investigating the possibility that any human trafficking or involvement with underage participants might have happened. Following the bust, Reason interviewed a client who had been relying on to find partners for sexual fulfillment. He said he would not be having sex at all if it weren't for the men he had been connecting with through the site. Read the interview here. On Wednesday Brodie affirmed, "The very thing that was illegal, it also did a lot of good," before sentencing Hurant to less than half the time prosecutors asked for. Apparently she feels bad about it! To be clear, it is still very possible to find gay escorts online. The sites are a little less obviously named (and given what happened to Rentboy, I'm obviously not going to link to them), and Rentboy's shutdown has probably fragmented the sex work marketplace. The end result is online male sex work operates in a more shadowy, secretive area with fewer safety protections and less of a community. After all, they wouldn't want the government to take note. Sex work has actually become more dangerous for prostitutes and clients and everybody involved with this case knows it. Enforcing the law as written actually causes American citizens greater harm with the potential to lead to actual human trafficking. (Small update to respond to the comments: Brodie did have the option to not sentence Hurant to any prison time, and in fact, she gave him the opportunity to essentially beg for his freedom. There was not a mandatory minimum sentence binding her decision here. Apologies for not making that more clear.)[...]

Sex Dolls Are Getting Smarter. Don't Be Alarmed.

Tue, 01 Aug 2017 13:51:00 -0400

When it comes to lifelike sex dolls (which currently exist) and sexbots (which do not yet), people are prone to two contradictory and misguided beliefs: that only rapey perverts would use them, and that they pose a major threat to our social and sexual order. Matt McMullen, the man behind the most popular "love doll" on the market, isn't buying either. In a recent interview with Mel magazine, the CEO of Abyss Creations and creator of RealDoll, said his creations are not simply about sex and doubts they will ever capture a huge share of the sexual market. In my Reason sexbot feature a few years ago, I noted that not even the most starry-eyed roboticists, futurists, and philosophers expect sex with robots to become a majority pastime. If the technology gets good enough and the products cheap enough, they might play the same role sex toys and strip clubs do now, without their customers automatically being considered creepy perverts. But for a much smaller group, be they current love-doll keepers or future robot lovers, these silcone companions will be something more—and that's OK too. Far from turning men into monsters who start to see living women as objects, love dolls and sexbots can provide something vital (and healthy) to people whose anxiety, disability, or other issues have made romantic relationships difficult, I suggested. It seems McMullen agrees: Our customers can be shy or socially intimidated by real social situations. A lot of times the doll does something magical for them. It gives them a feeling of not being alone, not being a loner. It's that companionship, more than anything else, that appeals to people and gives them confidence to interact socially. [...] A lot of people develop hobbies they never had, like studying fashion to dress their doll differently, taking up photography to capture their doll on film or painting her on canvas, or even learning how to sculpt while using their doll as a model or a muse. She inspires creativity in people who never had it previously. Sex lasts 5 or 10 minutes, maybe half an hour on a good day. But what about the other 23.5 hours of the day? Abyss Creations is launching its first artificially intelligent add-ons to the love doll line. In April, it released the Harmony AI app, a sort of sexy and customizable version of Siri. The idea is to help work out any programming kinks before releasing the same "Realbotix" software as part of a robotic RealDoll head, Harmony AI, which customers can attach to any existing RealDoll. "Creating a full-body robot as a first step would be foolish," McMullen explained to Endgadget in April. "I don't think that you would necessarily have a realistic idea of how many people would even buy it, and why would they buy it? And what would it do? Would it walk? Would it be able to lift heavy things for you? When you start working your way down from the head, you're treading into some very expensive territory. So, before we step into that, we think doing the head first makes sense." Besides, the technology just isn't there yet. As Guile Lindroth, the engineer behind Harmony AI, told Endgadget, "even the most simple functions that a 2-year-old human can do still elude the most fantastically advanced robot." No matter how clunky, the AI technology additions have spurred accusations that McMullen is objectifying real women. "I've been making these dolls for 20 years and haven't heard a lot of people yelling and screaming that I'm objectifying women," he noted in Mel. "Then I make the dolls that talk, and now, they're upset. Which is funny because I'm stepping away from it being purely an object and giving it some personality." McMullen dismissed the idea that his creations are feminism's enemies. "People have asked me this question a lot over the years, 'You know, are you making these dolls to replace women?' And, that's really never been even on the radar. It's an alternative form of relationship, nothing more." As I concluded for Reason: On the margins, sexbots c[...]

Sexual Consent in Seattle Must Involve Element of 'Leisure,' Claims Top Cop

Mon, 31 Jul 2017 12:42:00 -0400

In Seattle, sex must be a "leisure activity" for both parties or it's nonconsensual, according to one area prosecutor. In a splashy Seattle Times feature in which local law enforcement play hero protagonists, Val Richey—a senior deputy prosecuting attorney for King County, Washington, and one of the driving forces behind the area's anti-prostitution efforts—lays out his tortuous framework for treating all sex workers as victims of rape and, in this case, human trafficking. "What you have is someone paying this person essentially to turn a 'no' into a 'yes,'" Richey told the paper. "Because as several of the buyers...observed, these women, as a leisure activity, are not looking to have sex with 10 guys in a day. They're doing it for the money." By that logic, anyone who wouldn't perform their job without remuneration is a victim of labor trafficking! But Richey is "adamant," as the Times tells it, that what Korean sex workers in the area "were doing could not be called consensual because they were being paid." Alas, this is one of the folks who decide what offenses the county decides to prosecute and how those cases proceed. Richey was integral to the 2016 shutdown of a Seattle sex work forum called The Review Board, and along with it several "brothels" that primarily employed Korean women. The Review Board case started out as an investigation into human trafficking. Finding no evidence of such, it then turned into a witchhunt against people who posted online prostitution reviews. At this point, more than two dozen men have been charged with promoting prostitution—a felony offense generally reserved for pimps, madams, and others intimately involved with the trade—for writing about alleged sexual escapades on a members-only website. I've been following this story for over a year now, I've combed through copious court documents related to the case, and I've talked to many of the principal people involved. (See my feature from last fall for an expansive look at the case.) I can say confidently that the Seattle Times' telling of the story gets at least as much wrong as it gets right. To her credit, writer Lynn Thompson does include perspectives from local sex workers, and she doesn't overdramatize the basic facts of the case. She accurately describes The Review Board as a place where sex workers advertised and their customers—or "hobbyists," as they called themselves—posted reviews and interacted with each other. Much of the initial coverage of the case erroneously identified it as a forum where men knowingly shopped for and evaluated "sex trafficking victims." But numerous independent Seattle sex workers considered it a valuable resource both for marketing and for personal safety. The article also accurately portrays the Korean sex workers involved as women who flew into town independently, worked out of upscale apartments where they were not confined, and were well-paid. Most would stay in town for a few weeks, working as a sort of temp contractor for one of the area's "K Girl" agencies or renting a room from fellow Korean sex workers who had put down roots in the area, before heading to similar setups in other cities or back to where they regularly resided. These women had mostly come to the U.S. on tourist or student visas, police say; they were not smuggled in illegally or brought here against their will. Officers from the King County Sheriff's Office and the Bellevue Police Department made months' worth of undercover visits to them before raiding the K-Girl "brothels" in January. If these were really "true victims of human trafficking" (as King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg described them at a press conference) who were being raped multiple times per day (as Richey asserts), how do police justify just letting it happen for months and months as they continued to build a case against the men who posted to The Review Board? Of the 12 women police discovered during the raid, none elected to testify ag[...]

Lawmakers Demand Sessions Investigate Backpage's 'Criminal Role in Sex Trafficking' in Wake of Misleading Washington Post Article

Tue, 25 Jul 2017 10:00:00 -0400

The Washington Post has been playing right into politicians' hands when it comes to the narrative about Backpage. A series of recent Post articles suggest a sinister plot by Backpage executives to promote human trafficking, when all the paper's "trove of newly discovered documents" seems to show is that the company hired a firm to promote on foreign competitors' sites. "A contractor for the controversial classifieds website has been aggressively soliciting and creating sex-related ads, despite Backpage's repeated insistence that it had no role in the content of ads posted on its site," the Post opens one article—thereby kicking things off in a misleading manner. While it will take the Post writers 21 more paragraphs to mention it, the contractors solicited all sorts of user-generated advertising for, not just sex-related or adult-oriented advertising. The ads the contractors created, meanwhile, were either 1) posted to competitors' sites—not Backpage—in a ploy to lure perusers of those sites to Backpage, or 2) draft ads made from existing copy on competitors' sites. The contracting company, Philippines-based Avion BPO, would offer users of these other sites a free first listing on, along with a link to the draft ad that they could easily activate. Based on this evidence, Post writers suggest that Backpage's years of denials that the site "facilitated prostitution and child sex trafficking" could be a lie. But for all their breathless insinuations, the writers don't actually tie a single Avion-brokered ad to illegal conduct, let alone harm against children. From what the Post reveals, it's also unclear whether Backpage even knew about the tactics Avion workers were using to generate new listings. It's possible the contracting company came up with the bait-and-switch strategy on its own. Regardless, Backpage's claims to Congress and U.S. courts about its ad policies have always referenced U.S. content. Avion's activity was relegated to overseas endeavors (and, since laws vary greatly from country to country when it comes to both internet content and prostitution, was not necessarily illegal at all). To use Avion as a bouncing-off point to open yet another U.S. federal inquiry into Backpage—as Reps. Ann Wagner (R-Missouri) and Carolyn Maloney (D-New York) are now doing—is purely opportunistic, as Avion's creation or not of foreign ads is irrelevant for U.S. legal purposes. Here in the United States, Senators recently spent more than a year pouring through internal Backpage documents related to adult-ad content. Yet nothing in their resulting report negates Backpage's claims that the company does not create the content that appears on its site, nor does it show a company carelessly indifferent to its site's content. Backpage repeatedly tweaked its automated filter and manual-review policies in an attempt to strike a balance between banning all "adult" content and giving free reign to ad posters. This is above and beyond what's required by law in order to benefit from Section 230 protection. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act says that third-party web publishers and platforms are immune from liability if a user-posted ad results in criminal activity (with a few exceptions). It seriously limits the ability of opportunists in government and the general populace to take down any website or app they don't like. Without Section 230 protection, most of the Internet would be vulnerable to frivolous civil lawsuits and severe prosecutorial overreach (such as charging Facebook as an accessory any time someone livestreams himself doing something illegal). And people like this letter writer could get their wish for lowly content screeners at social sites to be tried as collaborators should any illegal activity unwittingly get by. Unsurprisingly, there are a lot of prosecutors, politicians, and other authorities who welcome the weak[...]

Brazilian Waxing Hypothetical on Law Exam Leads to Harassment Charge

Fri, 14 Jul 2017 15:30:00 -0400

Howard University law professor Reginald Robinson is in a sticky situation after the university found him responsible for sexual harassment over an exam question involving a Brazilian wax. Robinson is just the latest professor to find himself accused of harassment on the basis of his germane classroom expression—a disturbing trend that has profound implications for academic freedom and the quality of education at our nation's institutions of higher education. Robinson's exam question centered around an individual who fell asleep during a Brazilian wax and awoke with the sense that he or she had been touched improperly during the procedure. Two students filed a sexual harassment complaint against Robinson based on the hypothetical, and the university's Deputy Title IX investigator found him responsible, for reasons including the question's use of the word genital and also, inexplicably, the fact that "the complainants felt that the hypothetical scenario was crafted in order to prompt them to reveal personal details about themselves." For his word crimes, Robinson was ordered to undergo sensitivity training, to submit to classroom monitoring, to have his academic materials reviewed by a dean "for sexually suggestive and/or offensive material," and to have an official reprimand placed in his file. FIRE, where I work, wrote to Howard in June to demand that the university reverse the sanctions against Robinson, but so far, there has been no response. To the uninitiated, Robinson's exam question may seem unusual. But wacky hypotheticals—which involve convoluted fact patterns designed to tease out students' understanding of a variety of complex, intersecting legal issues—are in fact a fixture of law school exams. One professor's sample torts exam, for example, features a car accident that takes place after "Jimmy missed his ride home, so he walked across the street to HOOTERS to get a drink." Another professor poses a hypothetical based on a scenario in which a bar patron dislocates another customer's shoulder because he is "infuriated that P has spilled a tequila sunrise (a sissy drink that stains) on his best stonewashed authentic cowboy jeans." Yet another professor's criminal law exam asks students to assess the culpability of someone who drunkenly writes "Call Zonker for good oral sex. $10 for ages 15 and up. Half price for under 15" on a mall bathroom wall, and includes his own phone number—but claims to have no memory of the event when he sobers up. And fact patterns like the one Robinson presents—where something happens while someone is asleep, or unconscious, or under anesthesia—are a useful and popular type of hypothetical because of the thorny legal issues they raise. The reality is that if you are an attorney, you are going to encounter uncomfortable, disturbing, and even sexually explicit content in the course of your work. I will never forget having to read a detailed autopsy report in my first job doing pharmaceutical litigation, and as someone who now does a lot of work on issues of campus sexual assault, I routinely read detailed descriptions of sexual encounters that would make even the most seasoned veteran blush. If a law student can't handle an exam hypothetical that includes the word genitals, that person should think seriously about whether or not law is the right profession for them—because as a young associate at a law firm, you don't get to tell a partner that you won't work on a case for a big client because the facts squick you out. If law professors have to worry that every hypothetical scenario they lay out for students could result in formal discipline, legal education will suffer greatly as a result. We already know that because of the tense climate surrounding the discussion of sexual assault on campus, some law professors report being afraid to teach rape law, which is an essential part of any criminal law course. We si[...]

Damning New Report Shows How Oakland Cops Covered Up Their Sexual Exploitation of a Minor

Thu, 13 Jul 2017 11:15:00 -0400

While Kamala Harris was bringing trumped-up child-exploitation charges against a classifieds website, a cadre of California cops was actually paying, pimping, and passing around an underage girl for sex and getting away with it. A damning new report explains the extent that the Oakland Police Department (OPD) was involved with the girl, who goes by the pseudonym Celeste Guap, and also details OPD leadership's myriad attempts to make the scandal disappear. Throughout the investigation of the cops, Guap, now 19, was treated like a suspect. One investigator even called Guap a "whore." Others accused her of lying and later misrepresented her statements to their bosses. On Monday, a federal judge rebuked the City of Oakland and its police for the "severely mishandled" investigation. Since 2003 the OPD has been subject to federal oversight, thanks to racially biased policing, excessive use of force, and a refusal to comply with attempts at reform. The Guap case came along just as the Oakland police were starting to show some signs of improvement—and quickly "scuttled the city's attempt to get out from under 15 years of federal court supervision," notes NBC. 'I Was 17' The probe started after the September 2015 suicide of Officer Brendan O'Brien. In a note, O'Brien described Guap as the catalyst for his decision. He said they had met through Facebook earlier that year and struck up a relationship—a nonsexual one, he claimed, though Guap said differently—that ended when she threatened to expose it. Screenshotted conversations found on O'Brien's phone (he left his passcode in his suicide note) show Guap texting with O'Brien and at least one other officer. In these conversations, Guap—the daughter of an OPD police dispatcher—claims to have "been involved" with many OPD cops, including O'Brien, while she was still legally a child. She would later tell investigators that she first started sleeping with local police officers when she was 14 years old. On her 18th birthday, Guap told O'Brien that another officer—referred to in court documents as Officer B—was now her boyfriend, that he knew she was involved in prostitution, and that he claimed to want to help her but she didn't believe him. A few weeks later, she sent O'Brien screenshots she had sent Officer B's wife, in which Guap had shared her conversations with Officer B and wrote simply, "I was 17." After O'Brien's suicide, OPD's Criminal Investigation Division (CID) began looking into the matter—then quickly dropped it. The only witness CID interviewed was Guap. It "did not follow up on any leads stemming from that interview and did not seek out witnesses or documentary evidence," according to federal investigator's report on the situation, which was released in late June and is known as the Swanson Report. Investigators quickly wrote off Guap as "not credible" and "failed to pursue her allegations vigorously in part because of who [Guap] was and how she responded to being interviewed by OPD." Here's how the Swanson report sums up a recorded video of CID's one and only interview with Guap (emphasis mine): [I]n the course of the interview, [Guap], who the investigators knew had turned 18 only one month before, named Officer C as someone with whom she had had sex. When asked where their encounter took place, [Guap] said, "What if it was in public? Could he go to jail? I don't want him to go to jail....I don't want him to catch a [public indecency] charge." She also referred to Officer B as her "boo." At one point [Guap] cried while describing an incident in which she video-called a former OPD officer because she "needed his help." She said the officer "saw everything that happened to me, and he just watched it, and then he didn't like me [any] more." The investigators pushed [Guap] to describe what the officer saw happen to her, but [Guap] refused to tell the investigators, b[...]

Getting to the Truth of the Link Between Porn and Rape

Mon, 03 Jul 2017 13:45:00 -0400

Does viewing pornography increase a person's propensity for sexual violence? There are a slew of studies saying no, while another body of research says yes. So how do we know which data to believe? Over at Psychology Today, longtime science journalist Michael Castleman explains why the studies showing an ostensible link between porn and rape are full of flaws. Castleman's latest effort comes in response to an earlier post on evidence that sexual assault rates have declined while widespread access to pornography is growing. The post "appalled one reader," writes Castleman, "whose critique included citations of studies she claimed demonstrated a strong connection between exposure to porn and sexual assault." The studies supplied showed, respectively, that 1) a small group of imprisoned Canadian rapists tended to have been avid adult-film consumers, 2) a small group of domestic violence victims in Philadelphia tended to report that their abusers regularly watched porn, and 3) of 62 convicted rapists in Singapore, most had consumed porn within six months before committing their assaults. It doesn't take an advanced degree to see how extrapolating these findings to the general population is in folly. These studies might show that violent men tend to watch porn, but other studies show that most men have watched porn at some point and many watch it regularly. Since most men don't go on to become violent sexual predators, it's hard to argue that the "link" between porn and predation is one of cause and effect. Alas, this is just the kind of junk science that culture warriors regularly cite to confuse general audiences. In the realm of sex-work research, it's common for studies to include only data on incarcerated sex workers, on those with criminal records, on those in court-ordered diversion programs, or on those using certain emergency services, and then extrapolating from them to the entire population of people who sell sex. As with the studies that purport to show the effects of porn on all consumers by studying convicted criminals, this conflation leads to reports showing drastically more dire consequences of sex work than exist in more general populations. While retrospective studies of these sorts are cheaper and lead to faster results, they also "have major—and unavoidable—flaws," notes Castleman. Besides involving only small numbers of participants who are not representative of the whole population in question, "they're prone to recall errors. And in this case, they're plagued by a key researcher error, the assumption that viewing porn is unusual, that most men don't do it, only bad guys." The studies favored by Castelman's critic, who was trying to show a positive link between porn and rape, were all retrospective. Meanwhile, the studies Castelman cited that showed no such link were all prospective studies, in which respondents were tracked and surveyed over time. These studies "used huge natural experiments—rape rates before and after porn became easily available—in several countries with male populations in the hundreds of millions," notes Castleman. "Those enormous numbers add to the studies' credibility. So does their consistency. In every prospective trial, as the availability of porn increased, rates of sexual assault declined." Related: People Who Watch Porn Hold More Feminist Views Watching Porn Predicts Divorce? A Few Reasons To Be Skeptical Yes, Porn Is Kinkier Than It Used to Be. It's Also More Feminist, Varied, and Inclusive [...]

Fifty Shades of Comey

Thu, 15 Jun 2017 10:50:00 -0400

Last week Washington, DC shut down as everyone and their dog fled to sports bars to watch James Comey's congressional testimony. The uncomfortable spectacle raised more questions than merely Russia's involvement in the 2016 election. The former FBI Director's retelling of his private dinner with the then-president elect had the timbre of an overbearing boss sexually harassing a subordinate. In fact, it had enough parallels with "Fifty Shades of Grey" that it's time to ask: if the government is screwing us, should we get to use safe words? What about affirmative consent for creeping regulation? Find out on the latest Mostly Weekly!

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Congress Wants to Let Cops Wiretap Sex Workers, the CDC Study Them, and Homeland Security Screen Them

Fri, 09 Jun 2017 15:30:00 -0400

So far this year, federal lawmakers have introduced more than 30 bills related to "sex trafficking," which many in government now define to mean all prostitution. This week alone brought three new efforts. And following the familiar pattern of the drug war, these measures mostly focus on giving federal law enforcement more "tools" to find, prosecute, and punish people for actions only tangentially, if at all, connected to causing harm. One such measure would expand state and local government authority "to seek wiretap warrants in sexual exploitation and prostitution cases" (emphasis mine) and mandate the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and National Institute of Justice conduct a "study on the long-term physical and psychological effects of the commercial sex trade." It would also give the Department of Homeland Security a mandate to develop protocols "for implementation across federal, state, and local law enforcement" on how to screen people "suspected of engaging in commercial sex acts" for the possibility that they have been trafficked. The screening process would also be applied to people suspected of working in violation of any labor regulations, including occupational licensing rules. Homeland Security would also train crimefighters nationwide on how to investigate prostitution customers for their alleged "roles in severe trafficking in persons." And Attorney General Jeff Sessions would be required to instruct law enforcement across the land that their efforts to fight human trafficking must "include a demand reduction component"—i.e., must target prostitution customers. Sessions would also have to declare "that commercial sexual exploitation is a form of gender-based violence," opening the way for possible hate-crime enhancements for anyone who tries to pay for sex. This bill, known as the Abolish Human Trafficking Act (S. 1311), was introduced by Sen. John Cornyn (R–Texas) on June 7 and already has 12 co-sponsors, including such prominent politicians as Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.). In a statement, Rep. Klobuchar invoked a rise in the number of calls received by the National Human Trafficking Hotline—a government-funded telephone service that fields everything from unfounded anonymous tips about suspected streetwalking to general requests for information, with a vast number of calls coming from government officials—as evidence that the supposed sex trafficking epidemic is growing. A companion bill (H.R. 2803), sponsored by Republican Reps. Ted Poe of Texas and Ann Wagner of Missouri, was introduced in the House on Wednesday. A statement from Rep. Poe said his bill would stop "modern slavery" by giving law enforcement the tools to stop "dastardly criminals from exploiting others, whether they be the buyer or seller." The official soundbites from almost all of these bills' co-sponsors mention the benefits for cops and prosecutors, showcasing our government's lopsided approach to sexual exploitation. While lip service is paid to the "victims," it's law enforcement agencies that get all the consideration and tools—tools that help them conduct ever more intrusive investigations in the service of less and less deserving targets, wring whatever money and assets they can from defendants, and collect laurels as they ship convicts off to fill federal-prison beds. Here are a few more key things that S. 1311 and H.R. 2803 would do: Add sexual abuse, human trafficking, and "transportation for prostitution or any illegal sexual activity" to the crimes which could establish someone as part of a "criminal street gang." Enhance maximum penalties—not for folks who actually force others into sex or other work, mind you, but for those who transport people for "immoral p[...]

'Operation Big Bad John' Used 75 Cops, Six Federal Agencies to Catch 13 Sex Buyers

Wed, 31 May 2017 15:45:00 -0400

(image) Every day I could bring you another example of how "human trafficking operation" and "sex trafficking sting" are simply police code for "prostitution bust." The story never changes: Police arrest sex workers or their clients, slap a catchy title on their efforts, call it a win against "modern slavery," and blast it out to local reporters, who faithfully frame the whole thing exactly how cops want. To the casual reader, it must seem like law enforcement is doing a seriously good job at stopping sexual exploitation. But all they're really doing is wasting tons of time and taxpayers' money to stop consenting adults from having sex.

Here's a stellar new example out of San Diego. "13 Arrested in Human Trafficking Operation," the local NBC headline declares. What the headline fails to make at all clear is that not a single one of the arrests were on human trafficking charges, nor was a single trafficking victim recovered. Police simply posed as adult women selling sex and then arrested men who wanted to pay them.

Just how many police officers did it take to take down these 13 nonviolent offenders? According to the San Diego County Sheriff's Department, more than 75 law enforcement agents participated. The agencies involved included the FBI, Immigration and Customs Enforcement/Immigration Enforcement and Removal Operations, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, the U.S. Marshals Service, Homeland Security Investigations, and the Internal Revenue Service. (There's no word on how many immigrants may have been rounded up in the course of the sting.)

The initiative, dubbed "Operation Big Bad John," also netted some arrests for drug possession. Police seized "more than 17 grams" of crystal meth and a few Ecstasy pills in this "human trafficking operation" as well.

"Human trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery" and "the biggest human rights violation of our time," the sheriff's department stated in a press release about Operation Big Bad John—a standard non sequitur for such faux-social-justice stings. Because really, who wants to quibble over particulars when modern slavery is involved? Cops know they can count on lazy reporters and a public that's been spoonfed human-trafficking hysteria for years to simply nod along with whatever new (or age-old) bullshit they're up to under an "anti-slavery" guise.

Should the Government Limit What Women Can Learn from Non-Invasive Prenatal Testing?

Fri, 26 May 2017 13:15:00 -0400

(image) As they develop, fetuses shed their DNA into the bloodstreams of pregnant women. Several companies now offer a blood test that can provide genetic information about a fetus nine weeks into a pregnancy, when it is the size of a grape. The process is called non-invasive prenatal testing (NIPT) because—unlike earlier tests, such as chorionic villus sampling or amniocentesis—cells are not taken directly from the placenta or the amniotic fluid surrounding the fetus.

NIPT is used to identify genetic abnormalities, such as those involved with Downs Syndrome and Klinefelter Syndrome. The test can also identify the sex of a fetus. Researchers are now working on ways to sequence entire fetal genomes, so in the future NIPT will be able to identify genetic variations, such as those that confer a greater risk for cancers and neurological diseases.

Whenever a new fetal test technology comes along, bioethicists always feel compelled to call for restrictions on women's access to information about their fetuses. Take the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, which in March issued a report called Non-invasive prenatal testing: ethical issues.

To its credit, the report states that women should be able to access testing for "significant" medical conditions or impairments in the fetus. But it also concludes that NIPT "should not be used to reveal information about a fetus relating to less significant medical conditions or impairments, adult onset conditions, carrier status, sex or other non-medical traits, and [that] whole genome or exome sequencing normally should not be offered. Any restrictions on access to information about the fetus would also need to apply to whole genome or exome sequencing, otherwise these restrictions could be by-passed."

Consequently, the council urged the British government to put a moratorium on whole genome NIPT. It also recommended that the government prohibit NIPT providers from telling women the sex of their fetuses. Why? Because it worried that women might then be tempted to have sex-selective abortions.

Unfortunately, attempts to limit what women are allowed to learn from advanced prenatal testing are not confined to Britain. In January, Rep. Trent Franks (R-Arizona) introduced the Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act, which aims to outlaw "discrimination against the unborn on the basis of race or sex." During a congressional hearing last year on an earlier version of the bill, Miriam Yeung of the National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum called that "duplicitous," because it frames itself as an "attempt to address racial and gender discrimination while actually intending to chip away at abortion rights."

For now the U.S. has no legal restrictions on what women can learn about their fetuses from genetic testing. Let's keep it that way.

Sexploitative Feminism: Hot Girls Wanted and How Not to Apologize for Mistreating Porn Stars

Wed, 03 May 2017 18:03:00 -0400

Two weeks ago, the new Hot Girls Wanted documentary series from actress Rashida Jones was released on Netflix. Last week, a host of porn performers came out with complaints about the Hot Girls Wanted producers, whom they accused of lying about the nature of the project in order to obtain their consent and "outing" women as sex workers without their permission. The producers' response: If those women were really so worried about being outed, why were they speaking out in public about producers' exploiting them? "They saw themselves, and then on Twitter, as themselves, using their own handles, tweeted out, 'Oh my God, we're on Netflix. Oh my God nobody told us. Oh my God, we're sex workers and they've just shown us on Netflix,'" Hot Girls Wanted director and producer Ronna Gradus told Variety this week. "So the great irony here is that they identified themselves as sex workers." It was, at best, a totally tone-deaf statement. Hot Girls Wanted isn't just any documentary but one that purports to have feminist ambitions and concern for sex workers' well being. Casually dismissing the privacy concerns of sex workers who appear in the series totally betrays both alleged principles. It's also a horseshit justification. As the women concerned with Hot Girls Wanted outing them have pointed out, the problem isn't that no one knew they were sex workers before the documentary and now they might. It's the fact that these women had chosen to limit their public sex-worker personas to certain audiences of their choosing and Hot Girls Wanted went ahead and, without so much as alerting them, used their images in a production with a much, much wider reach. In other words: yes, these women are already "out" as sex workers on Twitter and Periscope. No, that doesn't make it OK for people to profit off of outing them to the whole world. Legally, the producers are probably fine, of course. But the ethics of the move are another story. And for a production that's explicitly marketing itself as a nuanced, feminist look at the porn industry, how producers treated their sex-worker subjects should be a key part of the equation. Yet only a handful of professional publications have even addressed sex worker complaints about the production, while major media outlets from Rolling Stone magazine to The Daily Show have covered the series glowingly, content to let Jones and the other producers speak for sex workers. No one involved with the film has returned my requests for comment or requests from others asking difficult questions, though they do seem plenty happy to do softball interviews with entertainment media still. Throughout these interviews, Jones, Gradus, and other Hot Girls Wanted spokespeople have refused to even address allegations that they directly lied to documentary subjects in order to secure their participation. At this point, multiple performers claim that producers directly told them this was not a Hot Girls Wanted or Rashida Jones production (a crucial point, as the 2015 Hot Girls Wanted series was considered so biased that performers say they would've refused to work on the project had they known). In explaining to Variety why she thinks sex workers are criticizing the film, Gradus, who also directed and produced the original documentary, accused them of doing so under coercion from nefarious behind-the-scenes porn industry folk. "The industry is very defensive about people coming in and shining a light on the industry and doing stories about it," she said. "The allegations that have come out are probably the result of pressure they are feeling to stand in solidarity with the industry." And it all comes full circle! Step 1: decide women are exploited by the porn industry. Step 2: make d[...]

New College Crime Bill Deputizes Professors as Campus Security, Further Federalizes Campus Rape Investigations, and Adds Huge Fines for Schools That Don't Comply

Mon, 24 Apr 2017 18:45:00 -0400

Under a bipartisan bill introduced in the U.S. Senate, a vast new array of higher-education employees—including all staff and faculty at some schools—would be designated as campus security authorities. The bill would also impose new penalties on colleges and universities for failure to comply with a range of staffing, surveying, training, and outreach demands, which could cost schools millions upon an initial violation. The bill—sponsored by Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut), Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York), Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Dean Heller (R-Nevada), Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri), Marco Rubio (R-Florida), and Mark Warner (D-Virginia)—aims to amend the Higher Education Act of 1965, specifically the section colloquially known as the Clery Act. In a press release announcing their "Campus Accountability and Safety Act" (CASA), the senators invoke the Title IX, the federal rule prohibiting sex-discrimination in education, and a need to place "higher incentives on all universities ... to empower student survivors and hold perpetrators accountable." If CASA passes, expect to see campus crime numbers—of all sorts—skyrocket. One of the more bizarre provisions of the bill stipulates that "each individual at an institution of higher education who is designated as a higher education responsible employee… shall be considered a campus security authority." Under federal code, higher education responsible employees are those required to report sexual misconduct to campus Title IX staff, even if the victim/confessor doesn't want to report the incident. But federal law is vague about who exactly falls into this category, leaving schools to develop their own more specific—and expansive—definitions. At some schools, all faculty and staff have been given responsible-employee status; many have expanded it to include all professors, or all people working with student athletics and extracurriculars. What does it mean if each of these folks is designated as a "campus security authority?" It's unclear how much effect it would have on day-to-day campus policy. But for purposes of an institution's annual security report, this change would be a big deal. Under federal law, colleges and universities receiving any federal funding must report annually on the numbers of sexual violence and misconduct incidents reported to campus security authorities or local police each year, along with numbers on a range of other incidents, from murder to burglary to hate crimes. CASA would expand sex-offense reporting requirements to include non-identifying details about each incident (such as whether the victim reported the incident to a Title IX coordinator, whether they sought disciplinary action against the accused, the number of accused found guilty, and whether force or weapons were involved). But more importantly, campus incidents are currently only included on annual security reports if they were reported to local police or campus security authorities—a category which has traditionally meant the campus police department. By drastically expanding the number of people defined as campus security authorities, we drastically expand the category of incidents included in annual security reports. Now we aren't just talking about incidents in which victims wanted to get authorities involved, or in which the offense was serious enough to warrant police attention regardless; any time a student confides in a professor, coach, drama director, resident adviser, etc., about something that could potentially be an offense—a verbally abusive romantic partner, a dorm-mate who shared an offensive web video, a classmate who made a disparaging remark [...]