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Fact Wrestling: Ashton Kutcher v. Village voice

Ashton and Demi raise awareness of an issue—but how big an issue?

ARTICLE SUMMARY:

When we count on celebrities to provide us with guidance on politics and news, we can easily be led astray. Here, we review a battle between Ashton Kutcher and a newspaper, and find Kutcher coming up short.

By Russ Baker and Spencer Mandel

Apparently, we are among the few people who dislike almost all things about celebrity. Still, a recent story with a star angle caught our eye:

Actor Ashton Kutcher was in a big dust-up with the publication The Village Voice.

Kutcher, who has more influence than almost anyone on account of—um, his spectacular Twitter following (7th most followed on the site, just behind Kim Kardashian)— has sought to use his fame and reach to good ends.

He, with his wife Demi Moore, launched the Demi & Ashton Foundation earlier this year to fight child sex trafficking, and since then they’ve worked to raise public awareness. Sex, of course, gets instant attention, and children the same. Put it together and you have instant headlines. Add Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore, and you’ve practically got an entire issue of Vanity Fair.

Claiming the underage sex trade to be an invisible crisis of appalling proportions—with between 100,000-300,000 child sex slaves in the U.S. today—the Kutchers have made a number of appearances, and produced  a humorous series of star-studded “Real Men Don’t Buy Girls”-themed ads, to shed light on this apparently burgeoning epidemic.

The problem, according to The Voice, is that Kutcher, Moore and Company have no idea what they’re talking about. The Voice claims that the numbers KMC cite to whip up public outrage are exaggerated by a factor of about 100. Kutcher, furious with The Voice, is attacking the paper’s motives, and has launched a boycott of the paper. By tweeting to American Airlines (@AmericanAir), that, among other things, the Voice’s adult personals section is itself a platform for sex slavery, he’s actually gotten the airline to pull all advertising from the paper. He has made similar appeals to Disney, Domino’s, and Columbia University to follow suit.

We’re no experts on this issue, and don’t have a particular position. However, out of curiosity, we did read the Voice piece, and came away persuaded that Kutcher has this one way, way wrong.

First and foremost, the origin of the 100,000-300,000 figure that Kutcher refers to is from a single, ambiguous study by University of Pennsylvania professors Richard Estes and Neil Weiner. According to social scientists like David Finkelhor, director of Crimes Against Children Research Center, the Penn study has no scientific credibility to it, as it was never peer-reviewed nor published in a scientific journal of any kind (Finkelhor’s charge is bolstered by the fact that Estes and Weiner cite Finkelhor’s own work as a source).

Still, regardless if the Penn study was authoritative or not, Kutcher wasn’t even reading it correctly. The 100,000-300,000 figure is an estimate of the number of children at risk for being prostituted, not the actual count of cases themselves, which is anyone’s guess (“at risk” includes all runaway youth—many of whom are gone for less than a week and staying with relatives—as well as transgender youth and female gang members. Needless to say, it’s a pretty broad category). The number of kids actually involved in sex slavery, without a doubt, is an exceptionally smaller number. According to Estes himself:

Kids who are kidnapped and sold into slavery—that number would be very small. We’re talking about a few hundred people.

Wow.

If law enforcement figures are any indication, Estes is probably correct on this count, at least. After a 2-month investigation into law enforcement records, the Voice determined that only 827 arrests are made in the U.S. for child prostitution every year. The DOJ’s Office of Juvenile Justice figures are slightly larger, placing the arrest average closer to 1,500 per year, but even so, the Voice’s point is well-taken that a crisis of the scale the Kutchers contend is certainly not underway in the United States.

What’s the moral of this story? We’re not sure. Kutcher’s intentions are surely good, and sure, the feisty Voice not surprisingly enjoys a little celebrity piñata. However, we do see some kind of warning about the flip side of fostering celebrity power for good.

And about the need for due diligence by real journalists, not just those who play them on TV. This is a classic example of how easy it is (and increasingly common)— for those with the megaphone but perhaps not the necessary toolkit—to whip up the population with overhyped alarmist warnings.

Meanwhile, we wonder whether it might not be more useful to focus on real, documented crises—like how hard it is to provide millions of children with basic services, such as food, education, medical care, supervision, and so on. That has a lot to do with the politics of tax reduction and minimization. Maybe that’s a drier issue, but it is a very real one.

 

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  • Anonymous

    Your typical dumb celebrity,Open mouth insert foot! 

  • Anonymous

     Let us all not forget first and foremost that the Village Voice was sued by a minor for ads in their back pages that tried to sell her.  Let us all not forget that there have also been cases of adults forced into trafficking sold in back pages (owned by the Village Voice).  Anyone defending the Voice now is suspect.   It’s speaks to sad excuses for journalism or investigation to repeat manipulative stories from a rag that got busted with ads selling people who never wanted to be sold.  They have an agenda.   Sorry, but by jumping on the hype bandwagon you are not proving yourself at all the “investigative journalist.”
    Arrest reports are not a proper indication of victims in a crime that is incredibly subversive.  And anyone regurgitating such a false excuse for journalism is hurting victims of this crime.   Arrest reports are not indicative of a lot of crimes period, and especially not crimes of this nature.  It speaks to an amazing ignorance of the issue and someone who has done little to no actual foot stepping themselves to see someone re-iterate the sad nonsense that the Voice put out.  But take in to account how many children are victims of abuse who are no where near arrest ages.  Search Oprah and Internet Predators and you’ll find too many stories of creeps molesting kids barely out of their diapers.  I know people who work in busting up these criminal groups.  So if the toddlers were not “arrested” does that make them “not victims?”  Reality is, most of the people abused in these crimes never see anyone arrested.  And the Voice decided NOT to include victims in small towns.  Which is kind of like saying domestic violence does not occur in small towns.  This was sick and agenda driven because they got busted with ads in back pages selling minors and forced adults.  This was not investigative journalism that endorsed this article.  It was laziness.

    • Ricksts

      I think you might have missed the point of this article, Kushton.

    • Ricksts

      I think you might have missed the point of this article, Kushton.

    • cypriot

      Arrest reports are not a proper indication of victims?  Then what is?  Are you saying that Ashton Kutcher is able to find vast numbers of victims that the law enforcement authorities cannot find?  And apparently very large numbers of customers can find these prostitute slaves that the police cannot find.  There is no point in owning a slave prostitute if you cannot use them to earn money.  How many customers would it take to make 300,000 child sex slaves profitable?  A majority of American men would have to have visited a child sex slave in the past year.  All of these customers have no trouble finding child sex slaves that the police cannot find.  But none of them tell the police where to find these child slaves?  Actually, Voiceislying, why don’t YOU tell the police where to find all these child sex slaves you are so sure exist in America?

      • MAX GRANDE

        Thank you, cypriot,  for this reply to “Voiceislying”.  You answered balderdash with reason. 

        The question that arises is just what kind of troll is “Voiceislying”?  Exactly what is his hidden agenda?  He writes, “I know people who work in busting up these criminal groups.”  Hmmm.  Is “Voiceislying” a law “enforcement” shill.  A “vice” squaddie himself?

        He writes, “Anyone defending the Voice now is suspect.”  Hmmm, perhaps a Homeland Securitization rent-a-cop?  Perhaps an FBI dungeonmaster?  [Read this one for a taste of that kind of mentality:  http://original.antiwar.com/justin/2011/08/21/antiwar-com-vs-the-fbi/  ]

        Or perhaps Ricksts has it right.  Perhaps “Voicesislying” is just Ashton Kutchner in drag.

        A final note, feel good celebrity puffery is great for the ego and even better for the bottom line.  Ashton and Demi would agree, any publicity is good publicity and free publicity is best of all.  When is their next movie coming out?

  • Thomas
  • A_swamp_rat_03

     While I don’t doubt that the figure Kutcher is using is wrong, mainly due to the odd fact that neither the Government nor Law Enforcement keep any record of children taken into the sex trade or used for prostitution/child pornography, there have been some pretty gruesome rings of child exploiters discovered in Europe as well as horrid accounts that have surfaced as a result of the Larry King/Franklin- Boys Town scandal as well as tales by such people as Cathy O`Brien as you are no doubt aware.

     A site which is no longer live that tells the sad disgusting tale of the Dutroux Affair can be found here – http://classic-web.archive.org/web/20080731164037/www.isgp.eu/dutroux/Belgian_X_dossiers_of_the_Dutroux_affair.htm  

     

  • Missy_cc3

    Great article, but I disagree that this is unique to celebrities.  Media in major Western nations, for example, picked up on Serbian “rape camp” and published Roy Gutman et al.’s numbers (20,000, 40,000, 60,000, and even 100,000) when in fact the UN Comission’s Final Report, published in Dec 1994, concluded that mass rape “remained to be proven.”  The damage was done, however, and despite a lack of hard evidence, Vagina Monologues tells young college students every year that Serbs raped tens of thousands of Muslim women in Bosnia.

    Hardly a celeb phenomenon….

  • Sandra Reiger

    Remember when Marx said that religion was the opiate of the masses. Now we can substitute celebrity for religion.

  • Anonymous

    Oops. “Meanwhile, we wonder whether it might not be more useful to focus on
    real, documented crises—like how hard it is to provide millions of
    children with basic services, such as food, education, medical care,
    supervision, and so on. That has a lot to do with the politics of tax
    reduction and minimization. Maybe that’s a drier issue, but it is a very
    real one.”

    Hey, I like some of the things I’ve been reading on the site today, but I’m getting a leftist vibe from paragraphs like the above. It is not my job as a citizen to ‘provide’ for ‘medical care food and supervision’ for the children of others unless the parents are disabled or as a Temporary – keyword TEMPORARY measure.    It’s enough I pay for their education. People need to pay for their own breedings.

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