Has Chicago Sun-Times published the worst article about sexual violence ever written?


On Satuday, Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell published an article that on first reading made me feel physically, viscerally sick. By the next morning my shock had drifted into anger and outrage. Only today, another 24 hours on, could I consider it with enough of a calm head to try to figure out what the hell the author is talking about and to unpick her logic. When I did, I found that if anything her argument gets worse.

If you are new to this story, Mitchell wrote about the arrest and charge of Roy Akins. He had contacted a sex worker through an internet advertisement and arranged for her to come to his apartment. However he never had money to pay her for the visit. Instead, when she arrived, he put a gun to her head and raped her. He is currently awaiting trials, but reports say he has admitted the crime to police.

I’d imagine most people’s reactions at this point would be a combination of revulsion at the attack and sympathy for the victim, perhaps peppered with some admiration for her courage in calling the police and reporting the offence. Not Mary Mitchell. The columnist (a member of the distinguished, multiple-Pulitzer-winning newspaper’s editorial board, no less) wrote that arresting and charging this man as a rapist sends ‘mixed messages.’

At this point you should, if you have the stomach, read the full piece. It is only about 800 words or so, but pretty much every one of them is poisonous, ignorant, offensive and cruel. Among the many lowpoints are the following phrases and sentences:

I imagine most prostitutes in this situation would have run straight to a pimp.

I don’t have one iota of sympathy for Akins’ plight. But I’m grateful he isn’t being accused of snatching an innocent woman off the street

the way this case is being handled makes it look like sex trafficking is a legitimate business.

I’m not one of those women who believe rape victims are at fault because they dressed too provocatively or misled some randy guy into thinking it was his lucky night. But when you agree to meet a strange man in a strange place for the purpose of having strange sex for money, you are putting yourself at risk for harm.

It’s tough to see this unidentified prostitute as a victim. And because this incident is being charged as a criminal sexual assault — when it’s actually more like theft of services — it minimizes the act of rape.

Mitchell concludes by comparing this rape with another recent attack, in which an Indiana woman, Melissa Schuster, was stabbed 17 times and suffered a fractured nose, broken bones and eye injuries when she was raped by a man who broke into her home after demanding cash. As a parting shot, Mitchell suggests:

For law enforcement to put what happened to a Backpage.com prostitute on a par with rape victims like Schuster is an insult.

Now, I trust most readers of this blog will be able to see why Mitchell’s piece is so hideous. From the victim-blaming to the fallacy of the perfect victim, the failure to see that Akins (allegedly) committed a violent, terrorising act of sadistic cruelty rather than reneging on a bill, to the implication that it is only ‘real’ rape if the victim is all but beaten to death. Honestly, someone could write a book about everything wrong with her article.

However underpinning all that, I think, is a set of beliefs about sex work and sex workers which makes all her other logical leaps possible. Opponents of the sex industry, whether social conservatives or feminists, typically show disdain for the notion that sex workers have agency, free will or choice. Note Mitchell’s assumption that a sex worker would have a pimp (and a violently retributive one at that, I presume she imagines him wearing a floppy velvet hat and a leopardskin coat) and the ease with which she slips in the phrase ‘sex trafficking’ as a synonym for sex work.

Once you discount the possibility that sex workers can properly consent to a sexual transaction, once you dehumanise her (or indeed him) to the extent that consent becomes incidental, then yes, maybe it does become pretty much irrelevant whether you are forced to have sex by poverty and desperation or by the barrel of a gun.

A little while ago the sex worker and blogger Jemima101 wrote a powerful piece about the conflation of sex work with rape, and specifically the adoption of the slogan ‘women are not for sale’ by Rape Crisis Scotland. As she noted, “by equating the sexual services a woman provides with her being they are demeaning and objectifying her in a way clients rarely do.” Perhaps the most insidious trope that is thrown into debates around the criminalisation / decriminalisation of sex work is the slogan “all prostitution is rape.” There are many problems with this, but perhaps the most pressing is that if this were true, it would mean there is no moral difference between paying someone for sex and raping her/him. If you think there is any truth to that, I’d suggest you listen to a sex worker who has experienced both and tragically, there are far too many of those.

If there is one thing upon which sex worker rights activists and abolitionists agree, it is that sex work can be horribly dangerous and that those in the trade can be highly vulnerable to all types of violence, but particularly sexual assaults. I would hope that both sides could also agree that shaming and mocking a sex worker who reports a rape is utterly despicable. if you can, please let your feelings known to the Chicago Sun-Times and their editor and let’s see if we can at least get that horrible article scrubbed from their site.

 

PS
When writing about these issues, I’m always conscious of the extent to which gobby pundits like me talk about and over sex workers themselves and the extent to which those voices tend to be ignored. Let me first acknowledge that all my opinions on these issues are taken from and informed by reading and hearing the experiences of current and past sex workers and urge you to pay attention to what they say.
Some good places to start

Laura Lee
Sometimes It’s Just A Cigar
Glasgow Sex Worker
Melissa Gira Grant
Maggie McNeill

Comments

  1. says

    If the piece by Mitchell had appeared on one of the more florid radfem blogs it would have fitted right in, for it to be published by a newspaper, with no one on the editorial board spiking it is exceptionally worrying. A ot of time, and energy, is spent by feminists tackling subjects like victim blaming and real rape, but then as soon as sex work is mentioned they sound like the worst MRA frothing at the mouth about whores and sluts.

    I am a sex worker, and I have been raped. I would like a world where those two things were not seen to affect the other. Even if you dont care about sex workers, think we deserve what we get, a world where I was treated with respect would be a world where all victims could report without fear, where your age, gender, dress, attitude, colour, religion, alcohol consumption, were not used to move blame from the rapist to the victim. Surely we can all agree that would be a better world?

  2. Ally Fogg says

    thanks for this, Jem.

    As far as i can work out, Mitchell is coming from the social conservative side rather than the radfem side. So while one lot says ‘sex workers cannot consent because poverty, desperation, trafficking, pimps’ the other side says ‘sex workers cannot consent because of their own moral depravity’ but they both end up in the same place.

  3. karmacat says

    That article is horrible. Rape is a violent crime no matter who the victim is. I do object to the idea that all feminists are against sex work. Greta Christina’s blog is a good example. Sex work is also not a black and white issue. I agree that some women have free agency when it comes to sex work. And there a women who don’t have much choice. But rather than opposing sex workers, we should keep working on providing all women with more choices.

  4. Ally Fogg says

    hi karmacat – thanks. I didn’t for a moment mean to imply that all feminists are against sex work or that there is any kind of consensus on the issue within feminism, there clearly isn’t.

    I was noting that some of those who describe themselves as ‘abolitionists’ are feminists, as they clearly are!

  5. PDX_Greg says

    ” But I’m grateful he isn’t being accused of snatching an innocent woman off the street ”

    She is actually grateful? Does she secretly take pleasure in the prospect of him getting lesser punishment because she doesn’t approve of the trade of the victim?

    Yes, the victim is at higher risk of this kind of crime. But somehow she confuses that for making the criminal more entitled to commit it? What a horrible person the author is.

  6. says

    @Ally

    I actually have a pet theory that radfems are social conservatives, there is nothing radical about them except their name. All Mitchell has done is say what they say in private, publically.

  7. Marduk says

    “So while one lot says ‘sex workers cannot consent because poverty, desperation, trafficking, pimps’ the other side says ‘sex workers cannot consent because of their own moral depravity’ but they both end up in the same place.”

    Although more of a meme than a real theory, ‘horseshoe’ theory is remarkably accurate in its predictions.

    See also the level of agreement about the apparent mental fragility of women when facing the adult world put out by both the SJWs and the religious/conservative right. Their only disagreement is whether the required ‘safe space’ features a kitchen sink or not. The SJW fringe are also moving into “separate but equal” positions on race lately as well (e.g., cultural appropriation is now learning a foreign language, having friends who are different from you or even just being in the wrong part of town) and don’t seem to understand what the history of that kind of thought actually is. See also ‘social justice or stormfront?’ (I think on Reddit) you genuinely can’t tell the difference.

    The real poles of discourse are between authoritarian and liberal these days, not left and right who you can barely get a fag paper between on social issues at least. Most people are authoritarian and politics is mostly the battle over who controls the controllers these days. I thought it was interesting that Corbyn specifically mentioned people were tired of the politics of control in his speech on Saturday but we will see what this actually means to him.

    Without wishing to rehash a previous comment too much, we desperately need a socially liberal voice from the left and we absolutely don’t have one at all. Like all real crises, nobody will notice this until its too late. At this rate I may have to hold my nose and side with the ‘libertarians’ (liberal right) as the only game in town. I just don’t know if I can bring myself to do it.

  8. says

    @Marduk

    I dont know what you think SJW stands for, but it isnt anti sex work, The people who get accused of being social justice warriors, as if thats a bad thing, are all consistently pro decrim and stand with sex workers.

  9. johngreg says

    Jem said:

    I dont know what you think SJW stands for, but it isnt anti sex work, The people who get accused of being social justice warriors, as if thats a bad thing, are all consistently pro decrim and stand with sex workers.

    The acronym SJW stands for social justice warriors. It is indeed a pejorative, and was created as such, and is primarily used as such. It is true that some people who identify as being SJWs, or at least on the side of SJWs, have tried to take back the term (through rather weak argument, and baseless though inventive historical revision), and to make it a term of positive strength, but they are a small minority.

    The socio-political sway of people described as SJWs covers a range of ideologies and causes. Generally speaking, it is not the ideologies and/or causes that SJWs claim to support that defines them, it is the way they go about it, i.e., the general lack of real-world feet-on-the-ground activism (vs. keyboard activism), and the general lack of honesty, consistent commitment, and integrity.

    Some SJWs are “pro decrim and stand with sex workers”; however, others are deeply anti-sex work and/or anti-sex workers. So, bottom line, No, not all SJWs are consistently pro decrim nor stand with sex workers. Some are and do; some are not and do not.

  10. says

    Johngreg – Yes, “Social Justice Warrior” was coined as a pejorative but as someone who as no problem calling herself an SJW, I don’t know of anyone outside of those who do use it as a pejorative who see the term as anything other than silly. It’s the most toothless attempt at insulting people I may ever have seen.

  11. Marduk says

    Sorry for the accidental derail. I’m using it in the pejorative sense as per #9. I think more to the point they are bullies and authoritarians who use identity politics in a divisive rather than inclusive way and have abused otherwise good ideas like intersectionality and appropriation to further exclude and divide. It isn’t an insult as much as a label, the truth is that they are mostly kids who are competing with each other performatively and don’t really know what they are doing. Unfortunately though there are increasingly adults who like to use them or simply never grew out of it themselves. There is about as much difference between social justice campaigners as we’d normally recognise them and SJWs as there is between social democrats and national socialism.

    Examples here, draw your own conclusions: https://www.reddit.com/r/TumblrInAction

  12. Marduk says

    #6 As to the topic at hand, sex work is a thing that exists on two levels.

    First, its a real thing that real people do. Second, it is a political act that has political implications.

    Many radical feminists are mostly concerned with the second rather than the first, they want to stop it because of the ‘cultural’ or ‘political’ implications it has for them (as they see it), not for the benefit of the actual sex workers. I’ve long suspected that not only do they not care what happens to sex workers and are happy to sacrifice them, they may even actually hate them as traitors and want to see them hurt. Conservatives probably see it the same way, again, the only disagreement they have is what the crime being committed actually is.

  13. julian says

    For those of you who may not know Mary Mitchell has a fairly established history demanding laws destructive to vulnerable communities. She’s actually stated more than once she doesn’t think stop and frisk laws give police enough power and that drug charges should carry much longer sentences. Overall there’s a very socially conservative edge to many of her positions. While I understand some black feminists once found her very insightful, I think everyone now agrees her stances are more harmful than they are anything else.

    As an aside, I can’t believe someone in all seriousness linked to TumblrInAction XD

  14. drken says

    The feminist arguments both for and against legalized prostitution are quite interesting and the recent UN proposal on legalized sex work brought out some very good points on both sides. But, that’s neither here nor there. The idea that putting a gun to the head of a prostitute and demanding sex is the same as skipping out on the bill is ludicrous. But, there’s another story about this column up on Salon, so it looks like this story has legs. That’s definitely good as this will illustrate the falsity of the “good” rape victim, vs the one that deserved it. Also, it’s a good example of rape not being about sex as she was obviously there to have sex with him, but he decided he wanted to force her at gunpoint instead.

  15. Thil says

    even if this mythical pim bodyguard existed it’s not like that would have saved her in the moment, she was already trapped with the guy in his house. it’s not like sex workers all have some psychic link to each other so they can all for help

  16. Carnation says

    @ Ally (& others)

    Bit of a thought experiment, but switch the venue of this horrible attack and article from the US to the UK, would the article have been published? Would attitudes have been different?

    In the land of your birth, Ally, sex workers are murdered far more frequently in Glasgow than in Edinburgh. Edinburgh has/had quasi legal “saunas”, Glasgow didn’t, and therefore more street sex workers. I’m going from memory but an article I read some time ago attributed this to the religious persuasion of some Glasgow councillors some time ago.

    I think once people aren’t being violated, hurt and murdered in the course of their occupation, then academic arguments about the wider effects of sex work on society should begin. Until then, if a “business model” of safe(r) sex work exists, then leave it alone ffs.

  17. Ally Fogg says

    Carnation –

    Yes, i wholeheartedly agree, and you are right about the stats in Scotland. How much of that is down to religion is obviously hard to say, but it’s a pretty compelling argument.

    One consequence of the creation of the unified police force in Scotland was that the political / policing culture of the west of Scotland migrated to Edinburgh, resulting in raids on saunas and all the rest of it. I wrote a Guardian piece about it a year or two back if you search.

  18. Carnation says

    @ Ally

    Ah, yes. I think I read it before I became aware of HetPat.

    The saunas threatened to publish their client list, peppered with cops and councillors, if they continued being raided.

    There is a heartbreaking Nick Broomfield documentary on Netflix just now about saunas in London. Worth watch, but not if you require a cheerful demeanour or faith on humanity for a while.

  19. sonofrojblake says

    So I commission Ms. Mitchell to write me a column about a subject of my choice. We agree a fee, and I invite her to my office to discuss the content and tone of the article. On her arrival, I put a loaded handgun to her head and sit her down at a computer and force her to write an article recanting what she’s written above.

    I wonder if she’d regard that as merely “theft of services”? I mean – she’d consented to write me a column when she thought I was going to pay her. All I’ve done is persuade her to do it for nothing, right? Or am I missing something?

  20. Holms says

    The entire article is worthy of scorn, but I rolled my eyes especially hard that the ‘I’m not victim blaming’ boilerplate, immediately followed by (of course) victim blaming.

  21. TMK says

    Wow. That is so vile that if it had appeared on the more causal places in the net like some blog or forum, i would call Poe Law…

  22. julian says

    Don’t know if anyone cares but judging from the letters sent in most everyone was appalled by Mitchell’s piece. There’s some iffy language used throughout most of the responses but no one is disagreeing that it was abhorrent to describe this rape as theft.

    Here’s the link

  23. Lucy says

    How about you stop conflating sex work with prostitution? Sex work covers a multitude of trades from chat lines to stripping.

  24. johngreg says

    Lucy, most prostitutes these days call their profession sex work, and refer to themselves as sex workers.

    The term sex work is almost exclusively used to refer to prostitution (and sometimes, but infrequently, sex therapy is also called sex work).

    However, strippers, and some other professions, are sometimes referred to as part of the sex industry. They are rarely, if ever, called sex work.

  25. proudmra says

    Mitchell’s piece is readily and easily dismissed once she makes this statement:

    “the way this case is being handled makes it look like sex trafficking is a legitimate business.”

    Yes, Mitchell. That’s because it is. Your personal revulsion toward it matters not at all.

  26. johngreg says

    I said:

    Lucy, most prostitutes these days call their profession sex work, and refer to themselves as sex workers.

    Or, sex providers. That one is also fairly common amongst the actual folks who do the actual work in the actual world.

  27. says

    Hope this isnt too much of a derail, but about the term sex worker which someone was objecting to;

    The term sex worker was coined by Carol leigh in the late 1970s, it serves a number of uses.Firstly emphasizing that sex work is work. Secondly it allows a sex worker in a criminalized enviroment such as the US to speak out. Precisely because sex worker covers legal (eg cam work) and non legal (eg prostitution) it means activists can be open about being a sex worker without openly admitting they have broken the law. Derailing the derail, this is still a huge issue as people attack Melissa Gira Grant as “privileged” when cam work is the only legal work she can admit to doing (which is not to say I have any knowledge of the other forms of sex work she may or may not have done)
    The strength in collectivising the experience of a workers rights movement is obvious. Not only does it provide a legal safety but it builds connections between all who face whorephobia. Also because the stigma of different jobs within the sex industry varies hugely it can be really helpful to have a term that is wide in its meaning.Sex work is usually used to describe those who do full service, (prostitution) cam work, phone sex, porn, pro domme and sub, stripping, lap dancing. It is a gender and sexuality neutral term.(worth pointing out that some may not use the term, whilst others do, its a personal choice of course)
    Over the years the use of sex worker has become highly politicised with those who oppose sex workers rights refusing to use it and instead using demeaning and dehumanizing terms like prosituted women and woman in prostitution, as if prostitution were some demonic entity which has captured us.
    The term prostitute has itself a history as a derogatory term,, and is one that most avoid, although Charlotte Shane wrote an excellent piece on self identifying as one, of course those oppressed by a slur are always able to self identify, and it is very different to having the word thrown at you.
    Lastly there are terms which you may see but are dependent on the space in which they are being used. I have never seen the term sex provider, which is not to say it does not exist, however a common term is service provider (sp) this began on review sites as a neutral way of refering to sex workers, and especially in the US is quite common, but it is a term used in public marketing spaces far more than between ourselves. In the same way for words like escort, we might use them among muggles or in advertising but not in private. Of course there is again an element of how politicised you are here, and a few quite huge generalizations 🙂

  28. johngreg says

    Jem said:

    Sex work is usually used to describe those who do … stripping, lap dancing.

    Are you sure of that? I have never heard stripping referred to as sex work, or strippers referred to as sex workers (or sex/service providers). And I was a strip club DeeJay for 6 years in the late 80s and early 90s. Mind you, that is a long time ago, and I imagine lots has changed since then.

    I have never seen the term sex provider, which is not to say it does not exist, however a common term is service provider (sp) this began on review sites as a neutral way of refering to sex workers, and especially in the US is quite common, but it is a term used in public marketing spaces far more than between ourselves.

    Yes, that’s right (service provider). I erred in memory.

  29. Dark Jaguar says

    This attitude that prostitutes are “disposable” or subhuman has made even the word an insult, hence the term “sex worker”, which unfortunately fails to even accomplish it’s own goal because before the ink even dried on that new term, it was already being tossed out as an insult by itself.

    Now, I don’t think most people working in the sex trade would be there if they felt they had any other choice. That is, it’s also certainly an income disparity issue. In a world that moves past money and everyone’s basic survival needs are met, I don’t think that prostitution would survive, and I don’t think any reasonable person who believes in a person’s self autonomy would weep over the loss. However, how someone can see someone’s non-violent choice on how to deal with the threat of poverty as a license to basically treat them as lower than homeless people are treated… Never really got the logic there. Even Game of Thrones is doing very little to dispel the notion, and even the most “progressive” portrayals of prostitutes on TV tend to have a LOT of really negative implications in how the writers try to give them dignity. (Namely, every time a writer tries to give a prostitute dignity by making them say “I just like sex and making people happy… with the sex”, I get a nasty case of the jibblies.)

    This was all stream of consciousness that didn’t really lead anywhere. Suffice it to say “Yes I too think it’s a big problem”.

  30. Jon says

    Making a late comment on this story: I notice the CST has removed the article now:

    Page Not Found

    We’re sorry, but we seem to have lost this page

    Good to see!

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