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Guest Post: The Bogus Figures on Trafficking

October 21st, 2009 at 8:20 am

Guest post from Dr Belinda Brooks-Gordon. Julie Bindel in the Comments.

I am privileged to present a guest post by Dr Belinda Brooks Gordon, whom I had the pleasure of sharing a panel with about a month ago. She had done incredible work doing research and studies on the sex industry, and is here exposing the Government’s figures on Trafficking for what they are.

While Harriet Harman was sneering in her Labour Conference speech at women who model topless, some of us were quietly going through the statistics used to back up her more disproportionate and dangerous policies1, and now her latest whim: the termination of Punternet.

Trafficking figures are used by Harriet, the Home Office, and prohibitionist groups like Eaves/POPPY or OBJECT to support the criminalisation of punters:

“In 2003 a Home Office study on organized crime markets estimated that there were 4,000 women in the UK who had been trafficked for the purposes for exploitation” (Equalities Office Press Release)

The same figure of 4,000 trafficked women is now popping up everywhere, being used to support prohibitionist arguments, even in the recent Joint Committee on Home Affairs.

This seemed a suspiciously large figure given the evidence from the majority of academic, medical, health outreach sources. Given the vested interests in ramping up the trafficking figures, by organisations on the government’s trafficking payroll, by the government itself to hide poor immigration housekeeping, and most insidiously for the seizure of sex workers’ hard-earned assets, I was sceptical.

After 9 months and 2 FoI requests the Home Office finally sent this report ‘The impact of organised crime in the UK: revenues and economic and social costs, and criminal assets available for seizure’. It relies on three sources. The first is a 7yr old article in The Times, a report by Eaves/POPPY called ‘Sex in the City’. The third is Punternet’s British cousin McCoys British Massage Parlour Guide.

The Home Office report is based on such flawed methods as to be worse than useless, most of the figures are fabricated. While the authors use an apologetic tone and many caveats to excuse the poor data and high margins of error, Ministers, MPs and prohibitionists have seized upon figures as if they’re based on reality.

It makes me wonder if Harriet can read and write. It is beyond parody. It is like “Carry on Criminology”. If it wasn’t so tragic that women’s lives and savings are raided as a result of it, the poor methods would be funny. Now Nick Davies has taken up the cause, with his excellent piece on Prostitution and trafficking.

Why is it so bad?

1. The Home Office report states The Times article “reported an estimated 70 walk-up establishments” (p16). The article doesn’t mention walk-up establishments at all, let alone 70 of them. Rather, it states that: “Albanian gangs control about 75% of prostitution in Soho”. The Home Office report then takes its fictitious 70 and multiplies it by 6 on some wild assumption that 6 people are working in every walk-up. (The most I have ever seen in 15 years researching the sex industry is 2 – with one working, one maiding).

2. The report makes wild guesses:

“where reliable reporting not available it was necessary to use ‘best judgement’ to form assumptions” (pii).

No mention of how the judgement made.

3. It takes the flawed document Sex in the City, which relies on hoax calls to parlours, to be the most reliable evidence it could find! Yet a similar report by the same organisation had already been discredited by academics and practitioners in an Academic Critique of Big Brothel (one that had Ms Harman’s office telephoning in panic for authors to remove The Equalities Office from the critique).

4. Not only are hoax calls ethically problematic, they do not give brothels a chance to clarify misunderstandings so are likely to yield inaccurate information.

4. Wholly unrepresentative estimates are based on London before being ‘scaled up’ by the Home Office to rest of the UK. London is markedly different to small towns like Worthing. Scaling down would make more sense.

5. The Home Office uses patently untrue statements and then bases figures them. For example, it assumes that everyone foreign working in a walk-up flat is trafficked:

“Assumptions concerning flats, saunas and massage parlours are based with CO14, and researchers assume that all foreign workers in walk-ups are trafficked”.

This is not only racist but, if that were the case, why didn’t the police at Charing Cross (where CO14 is based) remove every foreign worker from every walk-up in Soho like they did in Pentameter operations?

6. Using McCoy’s Sex Guides and the Punternet website is a poor method of counting – it is the equivalent of trying to count the number of books in circulation using publisher’s adverts and literary reviews. But even their methods are more sensible than Eaves or the Home Office. (see also Anthology of English Pros

7. Sex in the City claimed that 25% of women were from Eastern Europe and 31% from the UK and Western Europe yet coded women from Italy and Greece as coming from Eastern Europe. This would artificially boost the Eastern European percentage. Gross errors in data entry meant that some ‘ethnicities’ were coded as ‘mixed race’ or better still ‘exotic’. It admits that: “erroneous nationalities/ethnicities were identified across 33 London boroughs.” (p17). The funniest bits in the Eaves’ study is a graph on ethnicity spikes at ‘International’ as the commonest ethnicity!

As one campaigning sex worker put it when she read the Home Office report:

“Let’s face it, the only hard data in the entire discussion about trafficking EVER are the Pentameter figures of 255 trafficked people (TOTAL including domestic labour) and some cases aren’t through court yet, AND the revenue streams recorded in Eavesonline accounts

Ordinary sex workers are equivocal about punter sites, some think the sites useful so punters know the business is genuine and they are as far from trafficking as things can get. Others are not so keen, one sex worker put it.

“I get a great deal of business from Punternet… and buying into the Harman theory that the provision and exchange of punting information must be intrinsically bad is simplistic and blinkered in the extreme. But I don’t agree that so long as you good business from Punter sites, then telling the world what whores get up to sexually is ok and simply marketing. I don’t like reviews simply because I don’t like men who think it’s ok to brag about how good/bad their shags were for all to know. It’s tacky, degrading,  and  most often a breach  of trust. After all, we whores don’t write ‘reviews’ on clients. What we offer is confidential – so why not expect and demand same confidentiality back?  That’s what we did 10 – 15 years ago. Before PunterNet. And somewhat we survived and did good business then too.”

Rather different reasons from Harman’s.

My own view, in the Price of Sex is that criminalising clients is wrong in principle and dangerous in practice. For all her frothing at the mouth over ordinary punters, Harman will not listen to ordinary (ie active) sex working women and to my knowledge has refused to meet with any of the real sex worker organisations so far, preferring second hand information from those who have received money from her department.

While I respect Harriet Harman in other ways, it is well known by academics and grassroots organisations IUSW and ECP that she is pursuing the criminalisation of punters with a missionary zeal unrivalled by Tony Blair in the rush to invade Iraq, and making ordinary sex working women’s lives a misery.

1Try clauses 13 to 20 of the Policing and Crime Bill, for starters

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