“FEAR is an acronym in the English language for ‘False Evidence Appearing Real.’ —Neale Donald Walsch
Having examined how the sex-negative “scare” tactic is perpetuated, let’s look at the pernicious “confuse” tactic. This tactic relies on an audience not to fact-check, as it includes outright lying, omitting important facts (“de-contextualizing”), and even creating false contexts. In this way, the tactic is identical to Andrew Breitbart’s famous example: take the facts, strip them of context, and present them in as emotionally charged a way as possible.
Herein lies the danger of being too complacent, of not being skeptical enough. The people presenting information will take advantage of others’ inaction, exploiting that for all it’s worth using severely biased or baseless claims. For the sake of example, I’ll detail how Donna M. Hughes used obfuscation and decontextualization to discredit documentary filmmaker Tara Hurley. Buckle up. (Or skip to the summary.)
A context for exploring de-contextualization
Donna M. Hughes was an influential figure in the legal and political battle to re-criminalize prostitution in Rhode Island. She views Tara Hurley and her 2009 documentary, Happy Endings?, as opposition because she sees the film as questioning her statements about the facts at hand. After the film was released, Donna M. Hughes was asked for her comments about it and responded via her invite-only email list, DIGNITY.
Below the brief video clip of Happy Endings? are Hughes’ comments (obtained because others republished them on public blogs, although she later uploaded the review to her own website), interspersed with my own re-contextualizations. Note how Hughes starts with emotionally-charged fear-mongering; she manipulates her audience into a reactionary state to discourage them from analyzing her next statements. In other words, she induces cognitive bias.
Donna M. Hughes
Professor, University of Rhode Island
May 25, 2009
Several people have asked me for my opinion about the film “Happy Endings?” On Sunday, I had the opportunity to see the entire film. Here are my comments.
The film should not be viewed by underage children because it includes a sex act filmed in one of the spa-brothels. Some adults may be offended by this.
This is not a film that should be used for education on sex trafficking.
The film isn’t used for education on sex trafficking, nor shown to children, but by adding these statements Donna M. Hughes is insinuating that those are (or could be) the intended uses of the film. Hughes simultaneously removes the scenes from their original context and reframes them in her artificial one (underage children watching on-screen sex, and sex trafficking).
Tara Hurley, the filmmaker, has testified before the RI House Judiciary Committee and said on talk shows that based on observations making the film, there is no sex trafficking in Rhode Island. This is the view that is conveyed by “Happy Endings?”
There are serious omissions of information about the people in the film and political biases that the filmmaker does not acknowledge.
The filmmaker does not identify the three Korean women interviewed in the film as brothel owners or operators.
They are not the women doing the sex acts. By definition, the women interviewed in the film are women pimps and possibly traffickers. The women-pimps have a vested interest is saying that the women are there voluntarily. (Letting the women-pimps speak for the women doing the sex acts is like letting the owners of a sweat shop speak for the people running the sewing machines. Of course, they say the workers are content.)
After the front-loading, Donna M. Hughes makes a barrage of unsupported, unexplained claims, planting seeds of mistrust about Hurley’s work. Like this video of a hypnotist taking advantage of a person’s suggestibility, the succession of claims Hughes makes overloads an emotionally hijacked reader. I’ll address Hughes’ allegations of Hurley’s “serious omissions of information” and unacknowledged “political biases” later, but first let’s tackle the simple thing.
Hughes says the three Korean women interviewed in the film were not identified correctly, but that is a flat-out lie. Of the three Korean women interviewed in the film, two (“Heather” [screenshot] and “Danielle” [screenshot]) are clearly identified as openers of Rhode Island-based spas1 and the third, “Jen”, is identified as an employee. Moreover, “Jen” speaks directly to performing sex acts for money (click through for an example video).
If Hughes had maintained the context of the film, she’d surely have noted these facts. But Hughes isn’t really talking about the sex in the documentary, she’s talking about trafficking, her own imposed context. Alas, Donna M. Hughes has a history of forgetting the obvious when it suits her.
So, if by “women pimps and possibly traffickers” Donna M. Hughes means, “someone who chooses to perform sex acts in exchange for money with a client, or who facilitates such an exchange,” then she’s right. By Hughes’ logic, all prostitutes are women-pimps, and possibly traffickers, as are all female strippers, porn performers, erotica models (and possibly a number of non-erotic models), as are all of those women’s female agents, publicists, photographers, and so on and so on.
Much of the film was made at an Asian spa-brothel called Central Health (76 Derry Street, Providence). This brothel was included in a federal investigation of Asian Organized Crime for sex trafficking and money laundering. It was one of 31 brothels in an organized crime network operating along the east coast from Boston to South Carolina. (U.S. District Court, Eastern District of New York v. Tae Hoon Kim, Sung Chul Il, Fnu Lnu, Tae Jun Park, Kyong Polachek, Byong Il Son, Jin Sook Kim Lee, and Miae Choi-son, August 14, 2006.) During this investigation victims of trafficking were identified. They were controlled with threats to their families in South Korea.
Hughes references the investigation cited in this FBI press release (on which this American Chronicle article, this New York Times article, and this Free Republic post are based). While the investigation lead to convictions, no connection to the spas mentioned in the film were reported by media. Indeed, the only apparent connection is the FBI’s report mentioning the Central Health spa a total of 2 times, both on page 47 of the FBI complaint (itself a 66 page document).
Here is the extent of the references to the “Central” spa:
On March 14, 2006, at approximately 9:13 p.m., while CHOI and KIM were both transporting girls, they discussed how much girls were making at a brothel named “Central” [in Rhode Island]. KIM responded that girls could easily make $18,000 to $20,000 per month. CHOI stated that he would be going to “Central” the following Saturday.
That’s the entire connection. Exactly zero people from Rhode Island were prosecuted for crimes in this case. As she is wont to do, Hughes doesn’t lie, simply imply (or is it “implie”?) by saying that the Central Health spa was “included in a federal investigation,” despite the fact no evidence of its involvement “in an organized crime network” is available. Instead, she lets the lack of context and the fear-primed imagination of her audience do the rest.
Of particular interest in the FBI complaint is this footnote (on page 42) because the discussion of gambling is similar to the stories told by the Korean women in Happy Endings?:
On May 11, 2006, ICE raided several brothels, including “Downtown,” in Providence, Rhode Island. Following the raid, FBI and ICE agents interviewed numerous workers arrested at those locations. […] Among the interviewed workers was a female identified as Kyung Jin Park. During Park’s interview, she claimed that she had arrived at “Downtown” via a bus from a gambling parlor. Although she denied working as a prostitute, she admitted knowing KIM. However, she claimed that KIM was a friend and had never transported her to any brothel or arranged for her to work as a prostitute.
It’s unclear any evidence was uncovered revealing trafficked women in the Rhode Island spas, beyond the dubious association of conversations about traveling to casinos—topics that the Happy Endings? documentary actually covers, too (but you didn’t hear that from Hughes).
After even more digging, I found an article in the Providence Journal that reports on raids at some spas, including the Central Health spa, published in May, 2005, the year before the previously-linked news reports about the federal investigation (which also began in May, 2005, but in Queens, New York City). Also interesting is this apparent reprint of another Providence Journal article mentioning continued police raids at the Central Health spa. (To ensure the forum posting’s reprint was legit, I obtained a PDF version to verify the source, since a search of the Providence Journal’s website turned up nothing.) In part, this third article reads:
The police say the businesses, Central Health and the Midori Spa, are really houses of prostitution. There are close to a dozen such businesses in the city, according to Lt. Thomas A. Verdi. Because indoor prostitution is legal in Rhode Island, the most the police can do is to bust the businesses for giving massages without a license.
“We’re going to do it weekly until these houses of prostitution either close their doors, or we close them legally,” Verdi, who heads the Narcotics & Organized Crime Division, said last night.
The police certainly can’t be faulted for lacking determination. If that weren’t plain enough, in a similar investigation that searched the Asian Fantasies spa (also in the Happy Endings? film) in Warwick, Rhode Island three years later, the Providence Journal reports, and I quote,
the police have found no evidence that three Korean women questioned at the scene of the April 9  raid were victims of human trafficking.
All told, Hughes’ statements are consistently questionable at best and are deeply entangled with factual untruths at worst. Since the challenge of piecing apart what sex-negative activists say carries such significant overhead when decontextualization tactics of this caliber are used, only the deeply committed put in the effort to do it. This means that the tactic can both manipulate one’s base and exhaust resources of opponents.
Back to Hughes’ commentary:
One woman-pimp who is interviewed in the film tried to open a spa-brothel in Fox Point (and was defeated by community organizing against it). She was the operator of Asian Fantasies spa-brothel in Warwick (1550 B Post Road), which was raided last month (April 11, 2009).
The saga of the “Fantasies” spa is actually part of the Happy Endings? documentary but, again, Donna M. Hughes’ context doesn’t say that. Ironically, Hughes’ own omission has the effect of peddling herself as the provider of “the full story” when in fact nothing could be further from reality. Hughes’ claims of “serious omissions of information” from the film are hypocritical.
The third woman says at the end of the film that she is going to open her own spa-brothel.
Recall that earlier Hughes’ own commentary stated the filmmakers did not identify the appropriate women as operators of spas. Hughes is now contradicting herself.
We never hear the voices of the women at the bottom, the ones who are sexually exploited and often abused, and sometimes trafficked. We only hear the voices of the women-pimps and two male pimps.
Here, Donna M. Hughes’ argument betrays confirmation bias, the reciprocal of cognitive bias. Rather than dupe her audience, she dupes herself.
Hughes clearly doesn’t believe that any women capable of speaking in the Happy Endings? documentary are the “women at the bottom,” and therefore she won’t listen to what they say when they contradict her. Only when she hears someone confirm what she already believes does she find them trustworthy. In other words, it’s a loop! (The same faulty logic is used to defend religion.)
I went through the trouble of transcribing this excerpt from “Jen,”2 to show you what some women say that Hughes doesn’t believe counts as being “sexually exploited.”
First, when the undercover cop came in, and I charged him $80 for hour massage…and I take him to the shower room, I wash him down and I covered his private parts with a towel and he takes it off, throws it and says, ‘Don’t cover me with this crap! […] Please, touch me right here.’ Which is his private parts. And he takes my hand and put it ‘there.’ […] He says, ‘Oh, I got to go!’ I said, ‘Wait a minute. I didn’t give you a massage at all! Why you leaving?’ […] Then, 10 minutes later, he comes with 10 or 15 big people. Everybody is police. They’re coming one by one. They say, ‘Okay, you come out.’ [I say,] ‘What did I do?’ [They say,] ‘Shut up!’
While it’s possible the women Tara Hurley interviewed were lying, Hughes portrays her own speculations as fact. That helps her assertions appear real, regardless of whether or not they reflect the truth.
Filmmaker Hurley does not identify close relationship to the sex industry. According to her own blog she has been asked by the Erotic Service Providers Union to be their representative in Rhode Island. A convicted madam from this organization visited her in February. They discussed strategies to decriminalize prostitution.
Hurley has been showing her film in sex industry venues (not human rights film festivals). The film “Happy Endings?” premiered at an erotic film festival (Cinekink) in New York City in January. Next it will be shown as part of a Sex Workers Film Festival in San Francisco in June. (The hostess of the festival is Carol Leigh, also known as “The Scarlet Harlot,” who recently published a book entitled The Unrepentant Whore.)
Here Donna M. Hughes is (cleverly) incorrect on several counts.
First, Hughes references Hurley’s blog post about speaking to Maxine Doogan, founder of the Erotic Service Providers Union (ESPU). This sets up a context connecting Hurley to “the sex industry.” Next, Hughes cites screenings of Happy Endings? to confirm that context in the reader’s mind.
The cited screenings are carefully selective since, according to Nancy Green, one of the people who republished Hughes’ commentary, Hughes herself watched Happy Endings? when it was shown at AS220, a non-profit community arts center. Other venues where Happy Endings? was screened include Brattle Theatre in Boston as part of CineMental, a Boston Underground Film Festival, and the Colombus Theater, both hardly “sex industry” venues.
More damning, however, is the timeline. Pay attention to the dates Hughes mentions as well as the dates she doesn’t mention, along with where she mentions them.
The Happy Endings? screening at Cinekink took place on February 28th, 2009, not in January as Hughes says. Hurley’s referenced blog post is dated February 22, 2009. Not only does Hughes state the Cinekink screening took place in the previous month, she says this after planting the insinuation that Hurley collaborated with “the sex industry.”
Now, I looked, but could find no evidence that Hurley had connections to the sex workers’ rights movement prior to making Happy Endings?, and Hughes offers no evidence to back her claim. Nowhere does Doogan ask Hurley to represent the ESPU in Rhode Island, or anywhere else for that matter. Tara Hurley has further stated she had no clear opinion on prostitution laws before making the documentary, and actually disagrees with Doogan’s support of de-criminalization.
The film has a grotesque quality to it. All the faces are blurred out, the voices are disguised. The camera often focuses only on the mouth or body of the speaker. There is grainy black and white footage from surveillance cameras inside the spa-brothel. For a number of scenes of men coming to the brothel, Hurley filmed from an upstairs window of the brothel.
There’s actually no indication that any of the spas in the film even has “an upstairs” area. The footage of men coming to the spa is stationary, so I’d think it’s another shot taken from surveillance footage. Only the filmmakers can tell us for sure but, again, Hughes seems eager to present herself as a psychic.
If you already know something about sex trafficking in Rhode Island, you can pick-up a few interesting details from the film, but overall, most viewers will leave confused, or worse, they will believe what the women-pimps that say about women choosing to work in the brothels. It is not fair to the exploited and abused women to pretend that this film represents their lives.
At the end of her commentary, Hughes deflects the confusion she introduces by claiming that’s what Happy Endings? does. By doing this, she also implies she knows The Truth about these “brothels” and their “women-pimps,” while injecting her own “sex trafficking” context into the framework of prostitution. While it’s certainly commendable to be fighting against sex trafficking, Donna M. Hughes’ definition of “sex trafficking” is so ostentatiously broad that just about anything related with sex, including adult sex education centers and community-based sex education initiatives like KinkForAll, could fall under her definition of the crime.
How many misdirections did you count?
Obviously, I don’t buy Hughes’ snake oil. In this piece alone, there are at least 7 ways smoke-and-mirrors are coloring reality.
- Donna M. Hughes’ opaque list-serve ensures her audience is composed primarily of the lulled and trusting. While there’s unquestionably value in private communication, the sex-negative and the hateful like Hughes regularly stir the pot using private channels to maintain plausible deniability for having done so. For instance, when the fact that Megan Andelloux’s threatened arrest (originating from another of Hughes’ emails) was added to her Wikipedia bio, a pseudonymous editor using the handle “EconProfessor” adamantly contested the addition, repeatedly calling it a “false speculation” and a biased “theory.” (For her part, “EconProfessor” neither confirms nor denies being Margaret Brooks—an economics professor at Bridgewater State College and one of Hughes’ collaborators—and objects to the suggestion.)
- The words Donna M. Hughes uses are particularly noteworthy, and they become more incendiary as the piece wears on. In her intro, Hughes calls the establishments “spa-brothels,” then drops “spa” and only uses “brothels.” (If you choose to watch Happy Endings?, and as you watch the media and listen to activists generally, pay close attention to the language used in each case.) Progressively loaded, fear-based language is a red-flag that one is attempting to hijack an issue.
- At several points, Donna M. Hughes blatantly lies about the contents of the film, such as when discussing the Korean interviewees.
- The meat of Hughes’ decontextualization is the mention of the FBI investigation, which requires a significant amount of sleuthing to re-contextualize appropriately. And in piecing the timeline and geography together, we discover much wider data like pre-existing political distaste for these Rhode Island spas, and a lack of evidence. Considering her penchant for wanting to stir the pot unnoticed, I’m left wondering about Donna M. Hughes’ own influence over the very events she presents.
- In none of Hughes’ claims is an actual link provided for readers, and the few supplied references are vague at best. I had to do a lot of digging to follow her claims to their sources. While poorly-referenced claims may be intentional obfuscation or mere laziness, it surely isn’t high quality; go examine the rest of Ms. Hughes’ publications and you’ll wonder (as I do) how an academic can be considered reliable when they so often use references so poorly.
- Donna M. Hughes’ ability to manipulate readers with cognitive bias is so expert that even when her own commentary contradicts itself, as the example of identifying spa owners shows, it may usually go unnoticed.
- When Hughes discusses Hurley’s alleged bias, she thoroughly misrepresents the facts (including others’ stated positions) and, notably, convolutes the timeline of events. Understanding timelines is hard enough when they’re presented simply, so it’s no wonder one can overlook the distortion.
The lesson in all this isn’t actually about sex trafficking, prostitution, or documentary films. The lesson is the importance of demanding transparency. Never blindly trust anyone, no matter how well-established they are. Do this to me, and definitely do this to people like Donna M. Hughes who consistently distort reality through decontextualization, obfuscation, and outright lies.
If you don’t demand transparency and accountability, you will not have it. Yes, you—not the media nor anyone else—you have to demand and critique the evidence. Until “We The People” (both individually and collectively) hold authorities and each other to the principled standards of integrity on which America is founded, all we will get is more shaming, fear-mongering, and needless suffering.
Do not let another minute pass where behavior like Donna M. Hughes’ is commonplace. Do the work to connect the dots, ask for help when you need it (because you will), and always remain skeptical. Then publish and share what you know. Because what is unfair, it seems to me, is that some people opportunistically abandon ethics, disregarding others living in obvious hardship whether sex trafficking victim or not—and no one should be sitting idly by while that continues.
For what it’s worth, Tara Hurley offered her own rebuttal. As Hurley says in her comment,
Alec Bourne says it best: ‘It is possible to store the mind with a million facts and still be entirely uneducated.’