Melissa Farley (born 1942) is an American clinical psychologist and researcher and feminist anti-pornography and anti-prostitution activist. Farley is best known for her studies of the effects of prostitution, trafficking, and sexual violence.
In a 2003 paper summarizing prostitution research carried out in locales in nine countries (Canada, Colombia, Germany, Mexico, South Africa, Thailand, Turkey, United States, and Zambia), Farley and others interviewed 854 people (782 women and girls, 44 transgendered individuals, and 28 men) currently active in prostitution or having recently exited. The prostitutes interviewed came from a variety of subsets of prostitution and other sex work – street prostitutes, legal and illegal brothel workers, and prostitutes working in strip clubs were interviewed, though the prostitute populations interviewed varied between each country. Based on interviews with and questionnaires filled out by the subjects, the authors reported high rates of violence and post-traumatic stress: 71% of respondents had been physically assaulted while in prostitution, 63% had been raped, and 68% were said to meet the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder. They also report that 89% of the respondents wished to leave prostitution, but lacked the means to do so.
Farley and the coauthors of this paper state that their findings contradict what they refer to as "myths" about prostitution: that street prostitution is worse for prostitutes than other forms of prostitution, that male prostitution is different from female prostitution, that individuals who are in prostitution have freely consented to it, that most prostitutes are in prostitution as a result of drug addiction, that there is a qualitative difference between prostitution and human trafficking, and that legalizing or decriminalizing prostitution would reduce its harm.
In a 1998 paper on San Francisco street prostitutes (one of the populations also included in the above-mentioned "Prostitution in Nine Countries" study), Farley and co-author Howard Barkan report notable lifetime histories of violence in the lives of those surveyed. In childhood, 57% of the respondents report sexual abuse and 49% report other physical abuse. Later in life, while in prostitution, 68% reported being raped, 82% reported being physically assaulted, and 83% reported being threatened with a weapon. Incidence and severity of post-traumatic stress disorder were reported to positively correlate with the amount of violence the individual had been subjected to. Also, 84% of the respondents reported a history of homelessness.
In September 2007, Farley published a book on prostitution and sex trafficking in the state of Nevada. In the book, Farley claims that, though Nevada has legal brothels, 90% of prostitution taking place in the state is conducted in Las Vegas and Reno, both in counties where prostitution is illegal, or otherwise outside legally designated brothels. She also claims that Las Vegas in particular is a major destination for sex traffickers. She also claims that 81% of the 45 legal brothel workers she interviewed would like to leave prostitution, but in many cases are physically prevented from doing so. Farley additionally states that she had been threatened at gunpoint by one of the brothel owners during the course of the interviews.
Her prostitution studies have been criticized by sociologist Ronald Weitzer, for alleged problems with their methodology. In particular, Weitzer was critical of what he viewed as the lack of transparency in how the interviews were conducted and how the responses were translated into statistical data, as well as the sampling bias toward highly marginalized groups of prostitutes (such as street prostitutes) and for the way the findings of Farley's studies have been more generally applied to demonstrate the harm of sex work of all kinds. Farley's critics also claim that her findings largely reflect her radical feminist ideology.
Recently, Farley has been heavily criticized for accepting significant funding from anti-prostitution organizations. Although she denies that such funding has in any way swayed her research, in particular its methods or conclusions. For example, Farley admitted that 30% of funding for a prominent research project into prostitution was provided by the US Anti Trafficking Office, an organization with an outspoken policy which conflates prostitution with trafficking.
In response to the Scottish study, a paper authored by some 15 academics and sexual health experts was submitted to the Scottish Parliament, strongly rebuking the methods and conclusions of the study. Amongst other things, the report states - "This research violates fundamental principles of human research ethics in that there is no evidence of any benefit to the population studied. Rather the purpose of the research appears to have been to vilify the population of men who were chosen to be interviewed. " In addition they criticize the work as biased, ill informed and unhelpful.
Farley is also an anti-pornography activist. In 1985, she led a National Rampage Against Penthouse alongside Nikki Craft. The "Rampage" was a civil disobedience campaign of public destruction of bookstore-owned copies of Penthouse and Hustler (which they denounced as violent pornography). Farley was arrested 13 different times in 9 different states for these actions. In March 2007, she testified in hearings about Kink.com's purchase of the San Francisco Armory, comparing the images produced by Kink.com to images of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib.
As of 2008, she is currently director of Prostitution Research and Education, a San Francisco nonprofit organization.
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