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Big Brothel – a report that isn’t all it seems to be

October 2nd, 2008

Dr Petra

I’ve an exclusive for you this evening. A story that should interest you if you are a sex worker, politician, punter, journalist, member of the public, academic or healthcare professional. If you have any interest in prostitution please read on.

Over the past few weeks you may have been used to shocking headlines in the UK news about prostitution. Newspapers have screamed about sex being sold for as little as £10, unsafe sex regularly on offer in brothels, and women being trafficked into the sex trade.

All of this hysteria came from a piece of research called ‘Big Brothel’ and journalists accepted it as “the most comprehensive study ever conducted into UK brothels” (The Independent, 24 September 2008). I’ve heard from countless journalists telling me that women are being forced into unsafe sex in brothels across London, that the credit crunch is causing women to have sex for as little as £15 and that brothels across London are abusing women on a daily basis. All of these views have been informed by press coverage of the Big Brothel study (most journalists I’ve spoken to have not read the actual report).

But was the study all it seemed to be? Did it deserve they hype? The research was backed by Minister for Women and Equality Harriet Harman. It was conducted by the Poppy Project and anti-prostitution campaigner and journalist Julie Bindel. So from the outset it is apparent that those conducting the research may have a particular take on prostitution.

That in itself is not a problem, so long as the research itself is robust, the researchers act in respectful and ethically appropriate ways, that they declare any conflicts of interest they may have, and do not allow them to unduly or unfairly influence reporting.

Unfortunately this study was not a good piece of research. It cannot be described as an ethical study. And the findings are
neither accurate or robust. Yet it has still has generated huge amounts of press coverage, plenty of moralising over the evils of prostitution/brothels, countless calls to ban prostitution and punish punters, and a lot of anxiety about women involved in prostitution.

It’s shocking that a politician should have endorsed a study so flawed and unethical. It is worrying that research appears to be commissioned on a regular basis to prove a particular angle – particularly when researchers appear to be cherry picked for their known anti prostitution stance. And it is a tragedy that the media swallows such research wholesale – and even welcomes it as a good piece of work.

Because the people who are most badly affected by studies like this are the very people such studies claim to be defending or protecting – sex workers.

Please take the time to read the original Big Brothel study here. Then read this critique of the research and subsequent coverage that has been put together by a group of highly respected and independent UK academics, health practitioners and researchers. You can read their summary criticism of the Big Brothel study here and a longer critique of the Big Brothel report here.

These two responses to the Big Brothel report have already been sent to the Poppy Project to alert them to the flaws within their study, and to Harriet Harman who supported the research. It has also been sent to the Home Office. I will report back with any responses from these sources as I hear them – or if you want to report on this story perhaps you might speak to those sources yourself.

If you are an academic, healthcare practitioner or researcher you may wish to use the original Big Brothel report and balanced critique as an exercise in critical appraisal and you are welcome to use this for teaching purposes if you wish. If you are a journalist you are very welcome to cover this story – contact details of spokespeople from both reports can be found in the links above.

If you are a journalist there are several stories for you to pick up on – why politicians align themselves with studies that are unreliable? Whose interests are being served by this process? Why practitioners with a particular agenda are selected to complete research that is not fit for purpose? And what is this work being used for? At the very least given the enormous amount of uncritical media coverage the Big Brothel report recieved it would be appropriate for journalists to give additional reportage to exposing the flaws within the research – and the political agendas being served by commissioning or endorsing such studies.

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