When Dr. Astroturf Comes Calling

The person pictured above, who bears a striking resemblance to a morality crusader in a TV detective show who’s eventually revealed as the killer, is Michael Shively, PhD.

Shively is a researcher on sex trafficking for the benignly-named National Center on Sexual Exploitation. In the past two weeks, he has appeared before the Montpelier and Burlington City Councils to speak against proposals to decriminalize prostitution. Proposals that, in his words, “would allow any home, any apartment, any nail salon to become a brothel.”

His appearances and affiliation have been duly parroted in media accounts of his “testimony,” which in each case amounted to two minutes during public comment time.

Well, let me fill you in. But first, in case you thought I was unfair in my description of Shively, here’s Levi Beecher, morality crusader slash murderer from an episode of the CBC series “Murdoch Mysteries.”

Yes, that’s him, officer. Now, about the NCOSE…

This organization began its life as “Morality in Media,” a nonprofit set on purifying our society from all manner of sexual ills including prostitution, pornography, sex toys, sex shops, and sex education. MIM gained a bit of fame during the Bush administration by getting $150,000 in Justice Department grants to look into citizen-generated obscenity complaints filed on its own website. It referred a stunning total of 67,000 complaints to Justice, which resulted in…

…wait for it…

… precisely zero prosecutions.

Your tax dollars at work.

Since those halcyon days, NCOSE has rebranded itself with a benign-sounding name that evokes actual academic research institutions. But it’s still the same old same old, and it’s largely funded by The Usual Suspects among right-wing oligarchs. NCOSE describes itself as dedicated to “pushing back against the sinister forces of sexual exploitation that have shrouded our country in darkness.” Oooooh, scary.

NCOSE touts Shively as a leader in — oh, you’re gonna like this one — “efforts to prevent sex trafficking and exploitation by attacking their root cause: consumer demand for commercial sex.”

That’s right, he’s gonna persuade every last man to keep it in his pants. Good luck with that. There’s a reason they call it the Oldest Profession, you know.

On October 13, Shively traveled to Montpelier to spend precisely two minutes testifying against a recommendation from the city’s Police Review Commission to decriminalize prostitution. That’s when he made the “brothel” comment. He was uncritically labeled as an expert in the Times Argus’ account of the meeting, which also failed to check on or report NCOSE’s bona fides and was unhelpfully entitled “Concerns raised over repealing sex work ordinance.”

Yeah, “concerns were raised’ by a professional scold.

Even worse was a brutally unbalanced report by WCAX in advance of Shively’s Burlington appearance on Monday, October 25. It cited Shively and two other anti-sexperts on the evils of the sex trade. The only pro-decrim voice was Councilor Perri Freeman.

At the Council meeting, Shively barely got started on what appeared to be a lengthy statement before he was cut off after two minutes, the customary time limit for public comments. He did manage to throw out a conspiracy theory:

What looks like a very narrow little ordinance cleanup, a modernization, is just a step in a much bigger plan. And there’s a national plan, and there’s a Vermont plan, and part of this is the state Legislature, there’s a similar thing to the ordinance effort in Montpelier going on, and what you did last week and what is embedded in some of the things for this week and the future path on this is all pointing in one direction.

That direction is a wide-open, unrestricted sex industry that, per Shively, will enable sex traffickers to prey upon women and girls without fear of prosecution. The “Vermont plan” is a reference to H.268, a bill that went nowhere in the 2021 session. It would NOT decriminalize anything. It would give limited immunity to sex workers who report crimes against them, which seems like a good way to protect those workers. It would also, in its words, “create a sex work study committee for the purpose of modernizing Vermont’s prostitution laws.”

This is all it takes to raise the Shively hackles: A bill to make one positive change in the law and set up a study committee to look at the rest of the issue. And a bill, as noted above, that went absolutely nowhere. It was referred to House Judiciary, and there it sat until adjournment. Given the crowded agenda facing the 2022 Legislature, I expect that this “Vermont plan” is fated to die a quick and painless death.

As for the Montpelier recommendation, it would wipe an outdated law from the books — a law that specifically targets female prostitutes and male clients. (Because in the Good Old Days, gay sex didn’t exist, right?) It would do nothing about state law, which continues to forbid sex work. For all the good that does.

So put a marker next to Michael Shively’s name. Should the Montpelier or Burlington proposals advance further or H.268 somehow come back to life, I’m sure he’ll return to deliver his anti-sex spiel. If he’s again quoted in uncritical media accounts as an “expert,” please remember what he really is.

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