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Tyra Banks and the Dennis Hof Controversy

WWW- []- Tyra Banks is an idiot. Well, maybe idiot is too strong. After all, she does own a small empire, complete with a production company. Perhaps it would be better to say that Tyra Banks isn’t exactly the brightest bulb in the lighthouse. Tyra was far more tolerable, even entertaining, as the host of America’s Next Top Model. But since her introduction into daytime talk shows, her idiocy has become all the more apparent. Granted, talk shows are not the hot seat of intellectual dialogue, but they do reach into the homes of average Americans, allowing a prime opportunity to present valuable discourse. And we have to admit, Tyra appeals to wide audience: young girls who aspire to beauty; men who wank to Victoria’s Secret catalogs; and those who enjoy watching stupid in action.

She probably means well. She’s highlighted how difficult it is to wear a fat suit in a culture where costumes are not the norm, has visited the rarely discussed and intensely controversial subject of “Do Looks Matter?” and the importance of how to dress so that your booty isn’t too prominent. Tyra tackles tough subjects. Yanno, the deep stuff.

So, I was amazed to discover that Kathryn Xian, the “non-Executive Director” of Girl Fest, was scheduled to debate a well-known pimp on the Tyra Banks Show. Prostitution is a complex, divisive subject rarely discussed in any real fashion in mainstream media. In February, Xian descended upon Tyra’s show to debate Dennis Hoff, a pimp who owns the infamous Bunny Ranch featured on HBO’s Cathouse.

Xian spends her days organizing annual GirlFest conferences in Hawaii and San Francisco (coming soon to Los Angeles as well). Her mission is to “change peer culture in order to prevent increasing violence against women and girls through education, entertainment and positive representation of women.” Hoff spends his days promoting his brothel on various television and radio programs. Xian fundraises. Hoff earns his living from prostitutes taking random cock in whatever orifice their paying customers deem fit. Contrasting life choices, to say the least. The combination of Xian and Hoff would certainly spark an interesting debate, despite the fact that debating Hoff was described by one of Xian’s colleagues as “like having a conversation with a Klan member.”

Unfortunately, Hoff, the supposed proponent of free speech, and Tyra Banks, the idiot extraordinaire, made sure the debate never took place. Xian is convinced that they were taken off guard by the fact that she is not the stereotypical, bible-thumping Christian Right we often associate with the anti-sex industry movement. Instead, Hoff found himself faced with a hot, young, hip chick. Now, that is threatening.

Feminists cannot agree on the issue of prostitution. Post-modern feminists on the liberal Left have coined prostitution as “sex work.” Old school feminists assert that it is a form of violence against women. We all seem to agree that the trafficking of women and children is a horrid thing. But contemporary feminism has asserted that Jenny the Grad Student sucking dick for cash to help pay for school is light years away from Shi-Len being trafficked into the United States, held captive and raped daily. Defenders of prostitution point to self-determination and empowerment. Opponents show the horrors of violence and systemic paradigms that leave women with no real choice. The argument always inevitably turns to sex. If you support prostitution, you’re pro-sex and love a good orgasm. If you oppose it, you’re a prude who hates sex and can’t distinguish the big O from a sneeze. Neither description is accurate and serves only to remove our focus from the global pandemics of misogyny and poverty.

Thankfully, a new trend is emerging. The post-modern feminist tribe is taking a lesson from its predecessor. In a culture where sleaze is king-Paris Hilton’s shaved cooch can be found on a million websites and books teaching young girls how to be porn stars are in high demand-feminists are questioning the validity of empowerment through sexual exploitation, even if that exploitation is chosen.

Xian is a part of that new movement. She was contacted by the producers at the Tyra Banks Show to debate Hoff and his effort to legalize prostitution. Xian says of the event, “Dennis showed up looking like a pimp and the show redressed him to look like a business man. He loaded the show with more girls than he was supposed to have and planted clients in the audience as well to testify on behalf of the Bunny Ranch.

During dressing Dennis and I exchanged looks. Rachel Kann, [a performance poet featured at GirlFest] was sitting in the audience area next to Ron Jeremy, trying not to kill him. A while later, it became clear that we were not going to be on. The whole thing, which was supposed to be a debate, turned into a one hour brothel promo.”

It’s not as if Hoff doesn’t have enough promotion in his corner. In addition to porn stars like Ron Jeremy singing his praises, he’s been featured on Howard Stern and has a series on HBO. However, all that glitters isn’t gold. A leading researcher in the field of prostitution has been to the Bunny Ranch and tells me it’s not the lush compound we’ve been led to believe. Instead, it’s “a double-wide trailer with barbed wire all around it. It stinks inside. It smells like cigarettes and booze and last year’s semen. And the women aren’t making $10,000 a week like Hoff claims. Not even close.”

A quick view of the Bunny Ranch website and Tyra’s brothel promo quietly confirms her description. The women featured look like they have lived long, hard, poverty-ridden, damaging lives. To entice new johns, Hoff is trying to spin the Bunny Ranch as some haven of normally inaccessible beauty and sex by bringing in porn stars as features on his “menu.” Hoff doesn’t have empowered college girls claiming their orgasm. He has pieces of meat from which to choose for a price.

Feminists who support men like Hoff would have us believe that the rights of the individual consumer (thank you, capitalism, for your compassion) are paramount, without questioning the larger global implications. Rebecca Whisnant, co-editor of Not For Sale, explained to Eliza Strickland at SF Weekly, “This is something that you see a lot in the statements of ‘feminist’ porn producers and so on. ‘If this doesn’t harm me, if in fact it’s good for me, then it’s feminist’ – which is about the most piss-poor conception of feminism I’ve ever heard. Feminism is dead at that point, as far as I’m concerned. Feminism is not necessarily about doing what’s good for you – hopefully it will be good for you. But it’s about considering the implications of your choices and everybody’s choices for women in general. That has just disappeared completely from the whole world of so-called sex-positive feminism.”

One of the failures of feminism is that it never questioned the underlying definitions of power. Men had the power; that was clear. But their power was based on global paradigms of subjugation and exploitation. In our efforts to achieve equality, we have simply mimicked men. Treating our bodies and sexuality as if we are drunken frat boys hardly speaks to empowerment. Disregarding the well researched and undeniable links between childhood sexual abuse, violence, drug addiction, disease, sexual slavery and prostitution is insanity. Instead of dealing with the horrors of prostitution-The Council for Prostitution Alternatives’ 1991 annual report estimates that the prevalence of incest among prostitutes ranges from 65% to 90%, and the Canadian Report on Prostitution and Pornography concluded that girls and women in prostitution have a mortality rate 40 times higher than the national average-because we don’t want to seem like prudes and having power means being “one of the guys” is asinine. Empowerment doesn’t come from spreading your legs, either through force or choice. It comes from living in a world where women have ample economic opportunities and institutionalized misogyny no longer flourishes.

In Unequal, Melissa Farley states, “According to sex industry advocates: if you provide prostitutes with condoms and a union, their problems will be solved. Everyone should have unlimited access to condoms. That’s a harm reduction no-brainer. But women in 9 countries want more than condoms and unions. They want to get out of prostitution. In order to do that, they need housing, job training, jobs, and medical care, including substance abuse treatment.”

Tyra and Hoffs would have folks believe that the white girls we see on talk shows, bantering about sexual empowerment are the norm in the sex industry when in reality, they are anomalies. The average age of girls entering prostitution is 13. [1] A common experience among prostitutes is violence. Says one sex worker, “I’ve had three broken arms, nose broken twice, [and] I’m partially deaf in one ear. I have a small fragment of a bone floating in my head that gives me migraines. I’ve had a fractured skull. My legs ain’t worth shit no more; my toes have been broken. My feet, bottom of my feet, have been burned; they’ve been whopped with a hot iron and clothes hanger; the hair on my pussy had been burned off at one time. I have scars. I’ve been cut with a knife, beat with guns, two by fours. There hasn’t been a place on my body that hasn’t been bruised somehow, some way, some big, some small.” [2]

Farley continues in Unequal, “If someone on the Right opposes any form of abuse that feminists oppose, we are “in bed with them.” Object to child pornography? Oops, so does the Christian Right, gotcha. Favor strong laws against prostitution and trafficking? So does George Bush, gotcha. This adolescent logic trumps feminists’ careful analysis rooted in decades of evidence obtained about actual harms.” We all know nothing is more abhorrent to a feminist than being compared to the likes of G.W.

But talk of opposing feminist view points and the violence inherent in prostitution isn’t very sexy. And Tyra’s career, much like the Bunny Ranch prostitutes, is all about the illusion of sexy. So instead of having any real discourse or allowing the new feminist guard to stand up and be heard, Tyra bumped Xian from the show and “gave no excuse. None whatsoever and shoved $200 in our faces. I shoved it back at them and told them to tell Tyra she’s a fucking poser. They did no follow up even though the spineless producer said there would be a follow up show and we’d be on it.”

Despite losing a chance to be heard on national television, Xian carries on in her mission to prevent violence against women and girls. While Hoff and his supporters promote the lie that prostitution is empowerment, Xian is booking sex industry survivor Anne Bissell to speak at Girl Fest with of dozens of scholars and artists. Although a doublewide trailer stuck in the middle of Nowhere, Nevada is surely sweet, we can only hope that more people will visit Girl Fest’s festivals and challenge their assumptions about women and prostitution. All the while, Tyra will continue to pimp the power of stupid into America’s living rooms.


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