Lies, damn lies and statistics

03/04/2009 at 16:54 1 comment

One of the main tasks of PLRI is to improve the evidence base on sex work. We spend a lot of time grappling with existing research to try and understand its validity and the ethics of its manufacture. Understanding research and communicating it honestly and appropriately is not always easy. Sometimes research findings can be misunderstood and sometimes they are wilfully misrepresented to support a normative position.

A lively exchange yesterday on the message boards of the Guardian, a UK newspaper, has brought some of these tensions out into the open. The article that attracted all the interest, The truth of trafficking, was featured in the print edition of the newspaper. Articles on this topic appear in the Guardian on an almost weekly basis stimulated, in part, by proposed law reform that would criminalise the clients of sex workers who are ‘controlled for another person’s gain’.

It is not unusual for online media coverage of sex work related issues to set the message boards alight. Often they attract a strange breed of commentator. It is not unusual to find legitimate comment crowded out by remarks that are irrelevant, ill informed and at worst abusive.

What is striking about the interventions made by readers in response to this article – beyond how relevant and well argued their points are – is how they centre on the use/misuse of evidence. Specifically the assertion made by the author that, ‘In Britain, it is estimated that 80% of the 80,000 women in prostitution are foreign nationals, most of whom have been trafficked.’

As commentators like ‘AllyF’ point out these figures have featured in the Guardian before – most recently in a column from the Readers Editor apologising for the using these ‘statistics’ without disclosing the source.

Julie Bindel was the first Guardian journalist to use these figures. As the Readers Editor explains, ‘Bindel told me that one of the sources she had in mind was an International Organisation on Migration conference paper from 2002, which mentioned the Metropolitan police clubs and vice unit (CO14). It said: “According to information from this unit, the number of trafficked women from central and eastern Europe to London has increased considerably over the last five years, but the unit cannot provide exact figures. CO14 state that their intelligence surveys of premises used for prostitution in central London indicate that between 70% and 80% of women working there are foreign, the vast majority from the Balkans, especially from Kosovo and Albania.” Similar information from the Met police appears in Paying the Price, a 2004 Home Office consultation paper on prostitution.’

‘AllyF’ argues that the subjective experience of a small number of police officers cannot be described as ‘evidence’.

‘Taxmanadvisor’ points out that the BBC Radio 4 programme More or Less looked into these figures and were unable to find any research on this subject that supported the claim that 80% of the 80,000 women in prostitution in the UK are foreign nationals, most of whom have been trafficked. On the programme Hilary Kinnell, academic and author of the book Violence and Sex work in Britain, explains that the figure of 80,000 comes from research done 10 years ago and states, ‘I find that quite bizarre really… I was never myself confident of the 80,000 figure.’ More or Less believe that it was the Poppy Project that found 81% of prostitutes working in London in 2004 were foreign nationals. But foreign doesn’t mean trafficked.

On that note – Laura Agustín an academic who manages the blog ‘Border Thinking on Migration, Trafficking and Commercial Sex’, used the Guardian comments function to make the following intervention,

‘Foreign’ workers in the sex industry may not be automatically translated into trafficked victims. The word ‘trafficked’ must be allowed to retain a strong meaning, not diluted to mean every prostitute or sex worker, every foreigner in the sex industry, every undocumented migrant, every non-European unhappy with his or her job, everyone who paid someone money to travel clandestinely or every migrant who understood imperfectly what the future might bring.

There is a tendency for everyone to simplify what’s behind the feminist conflict about trafficking into an either/or debate that misses all the subtleties and fails to elucidate the problems of current migration policy.’

Numbers give a sense of legitimacy and they can be used as something concrete to drive advocacy agendas. It appears that to the readers of the Guardian evidence matters and that they understand the links between sex work and trafficking are less straightforward than the stories told by Guardian journalists. Let’s hope that their Readers Editor is listening.


Entry filed under: human rights and law, migration and mobility, research. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

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