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Media, politicians and scaremongering – the truth about trafficking and prostitution in the UK

October 20th, 2009

Dr Petra

For some time now academics and health practitioners in the UK have been expressing concern about the current government’s approach to prostitution. In particular they have been worried about the misuse of statistics relating to prostitution, overinflating the prevalence of trafficking, representing prostitution only in the context of violence against women, and the cherry picking of evidence by politicians to support particular agendas.

While these academics and practitioners have taken a critical stance on prostitution, at no point have they stated trafficking doesn’t exist. Instead they have questioned whether it happens as much as some politicians and charities claim, and have consistently argued that the health and welfare needs of prostitutes are being overlooked as a result. They’ve also expressed concern that politicians are pushing for changes to the way we approach prostitution that place greater emphasis on legal reforms and criminalising prostitutes, and less of a focus on health and social care issues.

Unfortunately many politicians have not been willing to listen to wider balanced evidence on prostitution. And nor, sadly, has the media, who have generally reinforced the idea that trafficking is widespread. This has particularly been the case over the past five years while the government has been seeking to change the law relating to prostitution.

Today, however, there has been something of a breakthrough. Investigative reporter Nick Davies has discovered “the UK’s biggest ever investigation of sex trafficking failed to find a single person who had forced anybody into prostitution in spite of hundreds of raids on sex workers in a six-month campaign by government departments, specialist agencies and every police force in the country. The failure has been disclosed by a Guardian investigation which also suggests that the scale of and nature of sex trafficking into the UK has been exaggerated by politicians and media”.

This is a worrying finding. While Davies is quick to point out this doesn’t mean trafficking isn’t happening, it does support what academics and practitioners have been arguing. That the focus on trafficking as a major social problem is misplaced, and there are other issues affecting prostitutes that we ought to be concentrating on.

Davies’ report can be found here, along with an additional commentary (also by Davies) entitled Prostitution and trafficking – the anatomy of a moral panic. This is a clearly set out piece that highlights some of the problems around how pressure groups and politicians have created a portrait of prostitution that is not truly representative of prostitutes lived experiences.

Of particular concern to academics is the overreliance of certain government ministers on research that has been methodologically and ethically flawed. Most worrying was the recent Big Brothel research that was backed by Harriet Harman, but was not robust enough to draw reliable conclusions from. That didn’t stop hysterical media coverage of the research claiming trafficking was widespread and punters were routinely paying as little as £10 for sex. Journalists failed to ask questions about who undertook the research, their funding, or possible conflicts of interest around the research.

This has led to politicians, pressure groups and the media have consistently reporting misleading data about trafficking. So many people now accept that 80% of prostitutes are drug addicts who’ve been trafficked or controlled by a pimp. A figure that’s not accurate, but has not been questioned (with the exception of BBC Radio Four’s More or Less programme that did investigate this statistic and found it unreliable).

Davies’ report in the Guardian has been received positively by academics and healthcare practitioners, although many I’ve spoken with today have wryly noted that the Guardian has in the past also been prone to supporting misleading information on prostitution and trafficking. (Although they’re glad to see a balanced news report on prostitution appearing at last).

Responses from anti prostitution organisations have not really been heard as yet, but it is likely the reaction to Davies’ findings will be to either misrepresent him and claim he’s denying trafficking happens (he’s not said this), or to suggest that trafficking is so complex and traffickers so wily and dangerous that it’s impossible to find them as an explanation of the current state of arrest and prosecution of traffickers in the UK.

We must be careful that this debate doesn’t degenerate into discussions over whether trafficking exists. It does, but not the the extent as has been claimed. We should focus instead on the needs of prostitutes in terms of health, housing and other relevant support. Most importantly we should encourage what the majority of anti prostitution research has failed to do – to allow prostitutes to speak for themselves. Even if what they have to say differs from our opinions.

Journalists should use this report as a wake up call. Davies mentions that academic research was ignored or exaggerated. But there’s more to this story than that. Politicians have systematically disregarded academic research, holding in higher regard studies without ethical approval and full of methodological flaws. It’s not that politicians such as Harriet Harman and others were not aware of the wider evidence that discusses the real health and social needs of prostitutes. It isn’t that academics have not been trying very hard to explain to journalists and ministers that there is reliable evidence that could underpin policy. It’s that a number of politicians have deliberately disregarded the advice from academics specialising in prostitution research, opting instead for cherry picked studies and unreliable statistics to suit their agenda.

And that agenda is to change how prostitution is managed in the UK. From the outset the government has made it clear they want to reform our laws relating to prostitution, but have not taken a fair and balanced view on this. Initial consultations on this issue involved surveys that were run without ethics approval and contained biased and leading questions. Submissions to the government consultation on prostitution that outlined a balanced view on prostitution or supported prostitutes rights were overlooked in favour of more flawed studies with prohibitionist messages.

It is scandalous that this government have been allowed to act in this way.

Fortunately there is still a chance to make a difference. The government’s plans for prostitution are under review as part of the Policing and Crime Bill, which will be reported on in the Lords in November. One area of the bill is to make a new offense for “paying for sex with someone who is controlled for gain and introduces new powers to close brothels”. We now know that the prevalence of ‘controlled for gain’ (particularly trafficking) is questionable (although we accept trafficking does happen and is immoral). You can petition your MP and show them Nick Davies reports to get them to challenge this proposed legal change. You should also ask them to ask questions in the house about why the government consistently ignored reliable evidence and the advice of academics relating to prostitution.

Do this if you are concerned about prostitution. Because prostitutes are not going to be supported or made safer by legal changes based on spurious statistics.

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