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Months ago I was interviewed by NewScientist, a mainstream UK magazine. I don’t accept all requests for interviews so did a little research, finding the publication reaches an audience probably different from whatever I usually reach. I asked what kind of questions the interviewer wanted to ask and found them well-informed and interesting. The initial interview, by phone, took more than an hour and was fine.

After some delay I was sent a first draft that required a lot of my time to correct and included an editor’s requests for data (How many prostitutes are there in the UK? What proportion work in the street? What is the correct figure for victims of trafficking?) I had explained during the interview why data on undocumented migrants and sex workers where so many aspects of prostitution are illegal cannot exist except in very partial bits, but I took time to explain again. There was then a back-and-forth in which I resisted the number-trap but tried to provide solutions we could all live with. At that time, the piece was 800 words, already drastically less than the interview transcript’s 9070. Months after the interview had taken place, I received a version to be published shortly. At 300 words it bore no resemblance to the original interview. Statements I had made had been culled from all over the article and then cobbled together in a new order that fit questions I had never exactly been asked (including the title question). I corrected a couple of points and let the thing go, at that point only hoping to prevent any egregious errors getting out. That was 8 July, and after the awful events of the 11th I forgot to write about it here.

I do think the title question is a smart way to interest readers new to the whole dense, messy field, and Banning is a much more honest word to use than Abolishing.

Does banning prostitution make women safer?

08 July 2013, by Clare Wilson, NewScientist issue 2924 (also in print)

Most of what we think we know about sex trafficking is wrong, says Laura Agustín, who has spent 20 years investigating the sex industry

There is a proposal in the UK to clamp down on prostitution by criminalising the purchase of sex. Why do you object?
Millions of people around the world make a living selling sex, for many different reasons. What are they expected to do? This would take away their livelihoods. Selling sex may be their preference out of a limited range of options. In the UK, migrants may have paid thousands of pounds to get here. This debt has to be paid off somehow, whether it is by working in the back of a restaurant or selling sex. Migrants who sell sex can pay off the debt much faster.

But prostitution is dangerous, especially for those who work on the street…
Women who work on the street are a small proportion of all the people who sell sex. Many more work through escort agencies, brothels or independently from home. It is disrespectful to treat them all like victims who have been duped into what they are doing. In the UK, there are thousands of articulate sex workers who say, “Leave me alone, I did know what I was getting into and I’m okay doing it.”

Isn’t the “happy hooker” a myth? Doesn’t research show it is a miserable existence?
Given the millions of people selling sex in the world, generalisations are impossible. Much research has been done at medical clinics or shelters for victims. If you go to a trauma centre, you meet traumatised people. When people tell me they have never met anyone who wanted to be selling sex, I ask where they did their research.

Why do you think anti-prostitution laws can make life more dangerous for sex workers?
If you think what sex workers do is dangerous, why insist they do it alone? It is legal in the UK for individuals to sell sex, but they may not work with companions or employ security guards. Brothels are illegal. If you prohibit businesses but people run them anyway – which they do – then workers must please bosses no matter what they ask. That is why this is a labour issue. Also, targeting kerb-crawlers makes things more dangerous since sex workers may have to jump in cars without getting a good sense of the driver.

What about trafficking of unwilling victims?
The numbers of trafficking victims reproduced by the media have no basis in fact. There is no way to count undocumented people working in underground economies. Investigations showed that one big UK police operation failed to find any traffickers who had forced people into prostitution. Most migrants who sell sex know a good deal about what they are getting into.

If there is no proof it is common, why is there widespread belief in sex-slave trafficking?
Why do moral panics take off? Focusing on trafficking gives governments excuses to keep borders closed. Perhaps it is easier to campaign moralistically against prostitution than to deal with the real problems: dysfunctional migration and labour policies that keep large numbers of people in precarious situations.

This article appeared in print under the headline “One minute with… Laura Agustín”

Laura Agustín studies gender, migration and trafficking. She is the author of Sex at the Margins (Zed Books, 2007) and blogs as The Naked Anthropologist.

The initial reactions I saw from NewScientist readers were angry: this was not ‘science’ and should not be in the magazine at all. One commenter said I was an idiot since he knew ‘missonaries in Sri Lanka’ who had rescued thousands of prostitutes. I stopped looking at the comments. The piece was picked up by some other sites, but I did not keep track.

It is hard for me to recognise myself at all in the piece, and it’s a shame the editor decided finally to shorten it so drastically. But many have told me that to get even this much of the non-mainstream story into a mainstream magazine is significant. So if you know anyone who usually cannot begin to think about these topics, send them this brief primer – maybe they will read it.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist


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Long ago I was Managing Editor for the Chief Economist at Merrill Lynch in New York. I know what econometrics are and am not scared to death of mathematical modelling or formulae, and I don’t think everything quantitative is bad – which some might conclude given my consistently harsh critique of the statistics batted around in anti-trafficking campaigns.

Now, I’ve been asked several times to comment on a recently published article, Does Legalized Prostitution Increase Human Trafficking? in the journal World Development. This study belongs to a trend to use econometric concepts and techniques in a (vain) attempt to prove this or that about prostitution. The popular Freakonomics guys have long liked using prostitution to make their counter-intuitive points, for example in What Do Prostitutes and Rice Have in Common?

For those who don’t know, econometrics is the application of mathematical and statistical techniques to economics to study problems and analyse data. Given the conflict about trafficking statistics amongst social-justice activists and mainstream policymakers, it is understandable that more ‘scientific’ types should wish to bring order to chaos. I wouldn’t mind if someone figured out how to use econometrics to lighten the muddy waters of trafficking policy, if there were any reliable data for them to feed into their models, spinning ‘more than two million regressions with all possible combinations of variables for up to 180 countries during the period of 1995-2010′, as one of the authors said about another version of this research. The problem is, fancy modelling and sophisticated analysis cannot help when the data being analysed is next to useless. The summary of this article reads:

This paper investigates the impact of legalized prostitution on human trafficking inflows. According to economic theory, there are two opposing effects of unknown magnitude. The scale effect of legalized prostitution leads to an expansion of the prostitution market, increasing human trafficking, while the substitution effect reduces demand for trafficked women as legal prostitutes are favored over trafficked ones. Our empirical analysis for a cross-section of up to 150 countries shows that the scale effect dominates the substitution effect. On average, countries where prostitution is legal experience larger reported human trafficking inflows.

Any critique of this work has to begin by asking how the authors define human trafficking, inflows, legalised prostitution, the prostitution market, trafficked women and legal prostitutes. None of these terms is self-explaining. After more than 15 years, we do not even have agreement about what the fundamental terms mean, so anyone writing in the field has to tell us which definitions they are using and they have to make sure they compare and contrast categories using the same definitions. It is not sufficient for the authors to say at the beginning that they know the terms are not agreed on and then proceed to do their fancy modelling anyway!

The best way to understand this work is Garbage in, garbage out, the tag I gave to the previous study in this series, which the present authors are trying to trump (for that analysis I got a mathematician to do the debunking). The problem of rubbish statistics goes back a long time: look at this story about supposed expert Kevin Bales, who admitted to using media reports to cook up his data. Media reports.

On top of that, the authors fail to use the statistics for Germany available from the federal police criminal institute BKA in Wiesbaden.

The number of trafficking cases before trial or sentencing

2002 — 811 victims (German prostitution law introduced)
2003 – 1235 victims
2004 — 972 victims
2005 — 642 victims
2006 — 775 victims
2007 — 689 victims
2008 — 676 victims
2009 — 710 victims
2010 — 610 victims
2011 — 640 victims

Source: BKA (the above list was compiled from the separate years’ reports available under Lagebilder Menschenhandel)

By ignoring the correct figures and using strange large estimates instead, the authors conclude that ‘legalised prostitution’ promotes ‘trafficking’. What balderdash. The article has had attention from the media, I suppose because one of the authors works at the LSE. Reporters do not, of course, understand the authors’ methodology (an example) but they might be expected to have something to say about the notorious slipperiness of trafficking data.

As the anti-trafficking movement becomes institutionalised, more people join who do not realise there are serious disagreements about definitions and how to count crimes and victims. Articles like this one just contribute to the mediocrity.

Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist


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After the other day’s question about Ashton Kutcher’s ability to count, I received messages from people who probably had not visited me before. One person lamented that we are all squabbling. The Daily Beast calls it a feud. Both words minimise, or even belittle, the issue at stake – numbers claimed as victims of child sex trafficking in the US. Someone said Can’t we just all work together to rid the world of this scourge? ‘Together’ is the difficult keyword here, since working on a common cause requires a common understanding of just what constitutes the problem.

But a consultant who earns a fee choosing social causes for celebrities to sponsor and then runs their campaigns feels no such scruples, writing emotively There are a few things in life I know in that ‘beyond a shadow of a doubt’ way. One is that children shouldn’t be sold for sex. Dismissing the idea of getting ‘perfect data’, Maggie Neilson asks Who is supposed to monitor, collect, analyze and disseminate it? Cash-strapped governments? Nonprofit organizations that work their hearts out every day and spend every last penny helping people?

Which sounds lovely and smarmy but misses a couple of key points: 1) Since the US government already plows very large sums into denouncing trafficking and attempting to catch traffickers and to rescue victims, some of the money could be spent on well-run research, in order to make the whole operation more efficient; and 2) Organisations may be ‘non-profit’ but those that run and work in them make salaries, receive employee benefits and enjoy social prestige and the possibility of long careers. They cannot be considered self-sacrificing, and the pennies they are spending don’t come out of their own pockets.

Not to mention that they often don’t help people, whether they spend all their pennies on it or not, which is why I entered this field in the first place long ago and wrote Sex at the Margins and keep up this blog questioning the Rescue Industry.  So I left the following comment on Ms Neilson’s piece (misleadingly titled Setting the Record Straight):

Posted: 7/6/11 by Laura Agustín

If facts don’t matter, if we only guess about the extent of a problem, then we have a good chance of attacking that problem the wrong way. What about the frightened guesses from spies for the US government on those non-existent weapons of mass destruction? How many people have died in that pointless cause?

Helping people in danger is not easy. They don’t all want the same things, or to be saved the same way. That is why a lot of children run away from home in the first place and run away from helping projects, too.

The original estimate said 100,000 to 300,000 children in the US ‘could be at risk’. Everything about the statement is so vague as to be meaningles­s. If you want to Do Something about the risk, then you have to get better informatio­n about exactly which people are at risk and how. And you have to be very careful not to undertake actions that smash up the lives of a lot of people that don’t need the help you are offering – collateral damage, if you will.

Referring to critical thinking as ‘inaction’­, as Neilson does, is a cheap shot. Some of us work hard to get closer to the truth and base ‘helping’ projects on that: it is not inaction, it is not a lack of caring, and I object to its being called that by someone making a good living from the ‘actions’ of clueless crusades.

Do you suppose these writers read the comments people bother to make? I doubt it, but I read mine, and was gratified the other day to receive this one from an anti-trafficking activist:

I like your writing. It is interesting and I think you are after the truth, not whatever will support your point of view. I admire that. nikki junker

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist


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December 2010, Luxor

I have found Ashton Kutcher’s behaviour towards the Village Voice tediously adolescent, but I did finally comment on a blog post I doubt Kutcher wrote himself, despite his claim that he only played stupid as an actor. He won’t read the comment himself, either, and, if he did read all the material he boasts about here, why didn’t he run into long-published warnings about the misuse of data on children and trafficking?

Jul 03, 2011
Laura Agustin said…
And in Luxor, did you listen to me on the BBC panel? Or did you pull faces and groan every time I spoke, along with others from Hollywood? Were you interested in any of the issues I brought up, or did you simply ignore them and stand up to repeat the wrong statistic that the average age of entry into prostitution is 13? In order to get big applause? I had been talking about diversity amongst people who travel and sell sex, you changed the topic to bring up the erroneous figure of 13, which, if you have done the research you say you have, you know is simply taken from a single study and being misused horribly. You can’t claim to be knowledgeable about a field if you haven’t read a wide range of research – not emotional stories, not ideological rhetoric. Will you take a look at my book, Sex at the Margins? my blog, which has loads of resources your government agencies will never tell you about?

In the photos, Ashton is playing a role the UN wrote for him and other celebrities: pretending to be an expert. Above, he occupies main stage at an event I’ve described as a revival meeting in Luxor, Egypt, last December. I did not take this picture or witness this particular moment, but I was in Luxor at the same time because the BBC World Service flew me there. Also to play a role, no doubt about that, but is it too much to argue that nearly 20 years of reading, field work, publishing in peer-reviewed journals and successfully defending a phd thesis actually do constitute expertise?

Those are the reasons the BBC invited me to be the lone measured voice on the television debate Can Human Trafficking Be Stopped? which you can view on their website. There you will see the film stars heroically standing up for their cause, but the editors have manipulated the footage, changing the order of events, so you can’t see how Mira Sorvino attacked me personally, or understand that Kutcher stood  to declaim about the average age of entry into prostitution being 13 in response to my remarks about diversity amongst people who sell sex. Sex, lies and videotaping tells more of the story.

Now, because I support the Village Voice in its attempt to put facts in the foreground, I am holding them to the same standard they hold Kutcher to. In their Real Men article, the VV claims The thinly veiled fraud behind the shocking “100,000 to 300,000 child prostitutes” estimate has never been questioned, and that is also not true and a bit arrogant. I exposed the slip about trafficked children versus children at risk almost a year ago in a story about CraigsList, but then I suppose the VV means no Big Players questioned it. Or it means that when the authors googled for sources they didn’t bother to go further than the dozens of repetitive items that come up first simply because they sit on Big Players’ websites: media factories of one sort or another. No amount of seo tweaking can change Google’s inherent bias towards the Big Boys; you won’t find an independent like me at the top.

Kutcher writes

I’ve spent the last 2 years meeting with every expert on the issue of Human Trafficking that I can find, reading countless books, meeting with victims and former traffickers, and studying effective international models to combat trafficking.  We are working with the State Dept, the Department of Homeland security, and multiple NGO’s.

Isn’t it interesting that both Kutcher and Sorvino (the no-goodwill ambassador for the UN drugs and crime people, on the right in the second photo) place so much faith in the Big Boys – government and police? Kutcher has never spoken to anyone I know, and I know a lot of experts. As for his claim about countless books, maybe that’s because he can’t count.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist


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Click and then click again for large image

For at least ten years international organisations have been trying to figure out how many people are trafficked: over specific borders, within particular regions and worldwide. I completely understand everyone’s frustration that someone like myself is not able to provide the real numbers. But no one can, since undocumented migrants who have been smuggled across a border (or forced to cross one against their will) do not register their presence anywhere official, and trafficking victims are a subset of undocumented migrants. (Some try to estimate the latter, see here.)

Nowadays anti-slavery activists are saying that trafficking is not just about migration but people forced to work in very bad conditions. Counting those people is equally difficult, though, since workers in the underground economy also aren’t registered as such officially, which means there are no databases to consult, which means everyone is guessing about how many there might be. One can do a decent count in a limited local area, but how long would it remain true? Mobility characterises informal labour.

Some people call all sex workers victims of trafficking. The problem with counting these is that sex businesses, whether clubs, brothels, bars, escort agencies or massage parlours, are mostly not licensed worldwide – even where they are supposed to do so legally. The result is that sex workers are also not officially registered as such and thus also cannot be counted.

Protocols to the UN Convention on Transnational Organised Crime (Palermo 2000) attempted to distinguish between two types of illegal movement across borders: smuggling and trafficking. The distinction is supposedy that the smuggled person is conscious and willing and the trafficked person is not. The trafficked one is supposed to have been coerced and forced, lied to and duped, totally innocent of any knowledge of wrongdoing, not complicit in any way. Well! It is quite difficult to find undocumented migrants who are not complicit in some way, who did not know or suspect something about what was being done to get them moving and working outside their home countries. Smuggling is also not easy to define and sort out. Organisations trying to count get confused.

The above UNESCO graph from 2004 demonstrates the huge range between estimates of trafficking victims across a range of organisations. Whenever you see a chart in which one estimate is twice the size of another, you know something is fishy. In this case, the first question to ask is: How did each organisation define trafficking? Despite repeated and ongoing efforts to reach consensus on a definition, there is none.

The next questions to ask are: What method did they use to count? Where did they get the data? Whom did they consult and whom did they not consult? The US Trafficking in Persons Report is notorious for never giving this information, for simply saying they rely on informants, who can be embassy personnel, local police, CIA agents and so on.

There may be less flagrant disagreement amongst all these organisations nowadays, though I doubt it. Deconstructions of the numbers have been published in numerous places: in the Guardian, by the US Government Accounting Office and in Salon.com among others. But to make matters worse, many of those doing the counting are now switching terms to talk of slavery: At the BBC World Debate on trafficking in Luxor, one estimate for slaves worldwide was 2.5 million, whilst Free the Slaves gave 27 million – meaning there is as little consensus for that definition as there is for trafficking. Free the Slaves’s Kevin Bales admitted basing figures on media reports a few years ago - well, what can one say? It is all a right muddle.

Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist


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I continue to point out that all statistics for victims of trafficking are not only estimates but often irresponsible guesses. Workers in informal-sector jobs, whether they are migrants or not, and no matter what job they do and whether sex is involved or not, have not officially registered their presence as residents or workers, meaning there are no files or databases, to consult. For more on statistical acrobatics, particularly on sex trafficking, check out these articles.

Methods for estimating undocumented migrants do exist (undocumented migrants being the framework in which trafficking victims should be located). In the following example, the Pew Hispanic Center (in Washington DC) publishes its new figure (11.1 million in March 2009), asserting that their method of calculation, the residual method, is reliable and widely accepted because based on ‘official government data’. They explain that:

Under this methodology, a demographic estimate of the legal foreign-born population—naturalized citizens, legal permanent residents, temporary legal residents and refugees—is subtracted from the total foreign-born population. The remainder, or residual, is the source of population estimates and characteristics of unauthorized immigrants. These Pew Hispanic Center estimates use data mainly from the Current Population Survey (CPS), a monthly survey of about 55,000 households conducted jointly by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Census Bureau. It is best known as the source for monthly unemployment statistics. Each March, the CPS sample size and questionnaire are expanded to produce additional data on the foreign-born population and other topics. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates make adjustments to the government data to compensate for undercounting of some groups, and therefore its population totals differ somewhat from the ones the government uses. Estimates for any given year are based on a March reference date. From U.S. Unauthorized Immigration Flows Are Down Sharply Since Mid-Decade

The Pew says they use the Current Population Survey. That is a census exercise, in which a form is sent to households to fill out. Undocumented migrants have abundant reasons for not filling in census forms correctly (and there are no penalties for filling them in incorrectly). So undercounting is likely. The Pew Center know that and make an adjustment, but the range of adjustment methods is also very wide:

All known users of this methodology correct the foreign born population (about 35–50 million) by 10–40% (3–12 million) to account for this undercount effect. Critics claim this correction is in error no matter which size correction is used. Wikipedia

About the Pew estimate, the Migration Information Center, also in Washington, warns this finding is inconclusive because of the margin of error in the estimates, which are based on data from the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey of 50,000 households each month. From a December 2010 report from the Migration Information Center (US migration).

In 2004, Time magazine claimed more dramatic numbers without feeling it necessary to explain how they were arrived at:

It’s fair to estimate, based on a Time investigation, that the number of illegal aliens flooding into the U.S. this year will total 3 million–enough to fill 22,000 Boeing 737-700 airliners, or 60 flights every day for a year. It will be the largest wave since 2001 and roughly triple the number of immigrants who will come to the U.S. by legal means. (No one knows how many illegals are living in the U.S., but estimates run as high as 15 million.)

I hope it’s clear that everyone’s guessing in one way or another!

Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist


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The issue of how many women are selling sex has been an obsession in Europe since the 19th century. Both social explorers (researchers) and medical men were interested in knowing, in order to carry out projects to control prostitution but also to show that prostitutes were so numerous they should be considered ordinary people – and thus saveable. This idea ignored the lack of decently paid occupations for women as well as the variety to be found among prostitutes.

The following excerpt comes from William Acton’s 1857 book on prostitution. Britain did not have the regulatory system in place in several continental countries, where numbers of ‘overt’ and ‘registered’ women were known. Note his warning about clandestinity even in those countries with regulation  – exactly the one that hampers calculations today – and Acton’s comment on the inconsistency in methods. Note also how the counting slips into talking about loose women. Things are not so different today.

Prostitution in Some 19th-century European Cities

Mr Tait, a writer on prostitution in Edinburgh, whose estimates I receive with every respect, but at the same time with considerable reserve, informs us that in that city they number about 800, or nearly 1 to every 80 of the adult male population. In London he considers they are as 1 to 60; in Paris, as 1 to 15; and in New York, as 1 to 15.

The manner of these calculations is as follows: One-half of the population of each place is supposed to be males, of whom one-third are thrown aside as too young or too old for exercise of the generative functions. The remainder is then divided by the alleged number of public women in each community-namely, in Edinburgh, 800; in London, 8000; in Paris, 18,000; and in New York, 10,000.

It appears that the above estimate for London is not far short of the mark, the number of recognised women being about 8600; but the number of males, of twenty years of age and upwards, being close upon 700,000 (632,545 in 1851), we should arrive at the proportion, for London of one prostitute overt to every 81 (not every 60) adult males.* It will be observed, also, that in attributing 8000 public women to London and 18,000 to Paris, this writer has not allowed for the enormous clandestinity of our own capital, while he has more than quadrupled the French official returns, I presume, on that account.

In Paris, in 1854, among a population numbering 1,500,000 persons, there were 4206 registered “filles publiques,” that is to say, one overt prostitute to 356 inhabitants, over and above the unnumbered clandestine ones, who are variously estimated at 20,000, 40,000, 50,000, and 60,000.

In Hamburg (population within the walls 120,000), there were, in 1846, only 500 registered public women, or 1 to every 240 inhabitants; but I have seen no estimate of the clandestinaires of the place.

The population of Brussels is about 270,000 and the number of females borne upon the books of the Moral and Sanitary Police is 630. That capital would appear pure indeed, were the relation of these numbers to be taken as an index of morality; but it will appear hereafter that this test is fallacious.

In Berlin, we are told by Dr. Holland that, in 1849 “the number of prostitutes in brothels was 225, and of women under superintendence of the police 545; total, 770; and taking the male population above sixteen years of age as 153,802, there would be 201 males to every such female. This gives no clue to the extent of clandestine prostitution; but I find that, in a report of the Berlin police of 1849, the total number of loose women of all classes of society was estimated at 10,000.

William Acton, Prostitution. London, Churchill, 1857, p. 19.

*The single males are but 196,857.

– Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist


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Given the considerable confusion about Julian Assange’s sex with a couple of women in Sweden, perhaps what I wrote last year about Swedish rape law can be clarifying.

As regular readers know, I’m trying to figure out how the lovely utopian goal of Gender Equality landed us in a future I never expected, where ‘progressive’ and ‘feminist’ could be associated with policies that position women as innately passive victims. Activists interested in sex-industry legislation usually cite Swedish prostitution law as the fount of all evil, with its criminalisation of the buying of sexual services. This law is a cornerstone of an overall Swedish policy to foment Gender Equality, and so is rape legislation that has led to bizarre statistics commented on in this story published in Sweden’s English-language daily The Local.

The Local, 11 May 2009

Is rape rampant in gender-equal Sweden?

Laura Agustín

from okejsex.nu

Rape is a complicated crime. A research project funded by the European Commission’s Daphne programme reveals that Sweden leads Europe in reports of rape. At 46.5 per 100,000 members of the population, Sweden far surpasses Iceland, which comes next with 36, and England and Wales after that with 26. At the same time, Sweden’s 10 percent conviction rate of rape suspects is one of Europe’s lowest.

The report’s comparative dimension should probably be ignored. Instead of assuming that there are four times as many rapes in Sweden as in neighbouring Denmark or Finland, as the figures suggest, to understand we would have to compare all the definitional and procedural differences between their legal systems. It is significant that Sweden counts every event between the same two people separately where other countries count them as one. Most of Sweden’s rapes involve people who know each other, in domestic settings (Sweden report here).

The countries reporting highest rates of rape are northern European with histories of social programming to end violence against women. In Sweden, Gender Equality is taught in schools and reinforced in public-service announcements. Should we believe that such education has no effect, or, much worse, an opposite effect? Raging anti-feminist men think so, and raging anti-immigrant Swedes blame foreigners. Amnesty International says patriarchal norms are intransigent in Swedish family life. Everyone faults the criminal justice system.

In contemporary Sweden, women and girls are encouraged to speak up assertively about gender bias and demand their rights. Public discussions have revolved around how to achieve equal sex: Gender Equality in the bedroom. We can consult okejsex.nu, an official campaign whose homepage shows pedestrians obliviously passing buildings full of scenes of violence, suggesting it is ubiquitous behind closed doors. Okejsex defines rape as any situation where sex occurs after someone has said no.

In many countries, and in many people’s minds, rape means penetration, usually by a penis, into a mouth, vagina or anus. In Swedish rape law, the word can be used for acts called assault or bodily harm in other countries.

That may be progressive, but it’s also confusing. You don’t have to be sexist or racist to imagine the misunderstandings that may arise. If younger people (or older, for that matter) have been out drinking and dancing and end up in a flat relaxing late at night, we are not surprised that the possibility of sex is raised. The process of getting turned on – and being seduced – is often vague and strange, involving looks and feelings rather than clear intentions. It is easy to go along and actively enjoy this process until some point when it becomes unenjoyable. We resist, but feebly. Sometimes we give in against our true wishes.

Sweden is also proud of its generous policy towards asylum-seekers and other migrants who may not instantly comprehend what Gender Equality means here, or that not explicitly violent or penetrative sex acts are understood as rape. That doesn’t mean that non-Swedes are rapists but that a large area exists where crossed signals are likely, for instance, amongst people out on the town drinking.

Discussions of rape nowadays use examples of women who are asleep, or have taken drugs or drunk too much alcohol, in order to argue that they cannot properly consent to sex. If they feel taken advantage of the next day, they may call what happened rape. The Daphne project’s Sweden researchers propose that those accused of rape ought to have to ‘prove consent’, but attempts to legislate and document seduction and desire are unlikely to succeed.

What isn’t questioned, in most public discussions, is the idea that the problem must be addressed by more laws, ever more explicit and strict. Contemporary society insists that punishment is the way to stop sexual violence, despite evidence suggesting that criminal law has little impact on sexual behaviour.

We want to think that if laws were perfectly written and police, prosecutors and judges were perfectly fair, then rapes would decrease because a) all rapists would go to jail and b) all potential rapists would be deterred from committing crime. Unfortunately, little evidence corroborates this idea. Debates crystallise in black-and-white simplifications that supposedly pit politically correct arguments against the common sense of regular folk. Subtleties and complications are buried under masses of rhetoric, and commentaries turn cynical: ‘Nothing will change’, ‘the police are pigs’, immigrants are terrorists, girls are liars.

Is it realistic or kind to teach that life in Sweden can always be safe, comfortable and impervious to outside influences? That, in the sexual sphere, everything disagreeable should be called rape and abuse? Although the ‘right’ to Gender Equality exists, we cannot expect daily life to change overnight because it does.

-Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist


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I found myself looking up an old quarrel at Slate, between Jack Shafer and Peter Landesman. Landesman had written a trafficking story for the New York Times Magazine, and Shafer had debunked it at Salon.com. During the back-and-forth about trafficking statistics, Landesman cites Kevin Bales (who founded Free the Slaves) as the source of numbers of ‘sex trafficking victims in the US’. The argument stretched from 2004 to 2005; probably those involved would give different numbers now; what I’m pointing out is the gall of anyone, much less a social scientist, presenting this technique for estimating victims as an algorithm.

a very complex algorithm

Bad enough that Bales begins with an estimate for which no methodology has ever been given, but then the social scientist uses media reports as evidence. Did the scientist check into the sources mentioned by the media reports themselves? Did he distinguish at all between media who just copy and paste each other’s news and those who do any actual research? Did he exercise any scientific judgement at all as to reliability of any given media source? Just how circular can a process get?

… The estimate of 30,000 to 50,000 people being held in forced labor in the United States for purposes of sexual exploitation was arrived at in this way: firstly, we used the State Department’s estimate of 18,000 to 20,000 people being trafficked into the US each year. (Admittedly, the State Department has not explained the methodology by which they arrived at this estimate, so we use it in the hope that they will soon make their research methods clear.) Secondly, we adjusted this estimate according to two surveys we have recently conducted. The first survey was of all media reports of trafficking cases in the US over the past four years. These reports covered 136 separate cases of forced labor, 109 of which noted the number trafficked totaling 5,455 individuals. As with most crimes, the number of known and reported cases is a fraction of the actual number of cases occurring. To the best of our understanding the proportion of known to actual cases for human trafficking is low. In this survey 44.2% of cases involved forced labor in prostitution and 5.4% involved the sexual abuse of children, totaling 49.6%. As this is a rough estimate I rounded this up to 50%. In a second survey of forty-nine service provider agencies in the United States that had worked with trafficked persons, we asked how long each trafficked person they had worked with had been held in forced labor. The minimum reported time was one month, the maximum was 30 years. The majority of cases clustered between three years and five years.

So, if 9,000 to 10,000 of the people trafficked into the US each year will be enslaved for sexual exploitation (50% of 18-20,000), and they are likely to remain in that situation for three to five years, then the number of people enslaved for sexual exploitation at any one time in the US could be between 27,000 and 50,000 people. Since a number of people working in the area of human trafficking have stated that they believe the State Department’s estimate is low, I chose to make our estimate based on the upper end of the State Department figure, thus giving an estimate of 30,000 to 50,000.

Why should Garbage in, garbage out characterise nearly all efforts to estimate the number of trafficking victims? There is no straightforward way to count workers in the informal sector and undocumented migrants, whether they are suffering terribly or not and whether sex is involved or not. Estimating them can be carried out in various ways laced with caveats, but wild guesses are not even estimates. Anyone interested in serious work in this field can check out, for example, a report from the Economic Roundtable, in Los Angeles, entitled Hopeful workers, marginal jobs. No, there are no mentions of sex trafficking victims or, indeed, victims in general. Instead you will find methods not braggingly called algorithms for estimating numbers working in informal jobs in LA. You can also read about this in Harder Times: Undocumented Workers and the U.S. Informal Economy.

The fact that garbage is so prevalent in trafficking rhetoric demonstrates how little actual information proponents have. No one responsible would resist the arguments if there were real substance to back them up! Wake up, oh ye of too much faith!

– Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist


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Teenager said to be vulnerable sitting on a bench

Press Release, 8 November 2010: Over the past 72 hours, the FBI, its local and state law enforcement partners, and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children concluded Operation Cross Country V, a three-day national enforcement action as part of the Innocence Lost National Initiative. The operation included enforcement actions in 40 cities across 34 FBI divisions around the country and led to the recovery of 69 children who were being victimized through prostitution. Additionally, nearly 885 others, including 99 pimps, were arrested on state and local charges.

There is a very long history of alarms about children and their sexual activities, and numerous researchers have had insightful things to say about the contemporary fear of childrenandsex, which is not my area of specialisation. But.

It turns out that the US-government-funded Federal Bureau of Investigation has a human-trafficking programme. Well, they would, of course, and, in fact, given the framework of catching perpetrators of border-crossing crimes they make more sense as criminal-hunters than local or state police.

We’re working hard to stop human trafficking—not only because of the personal and psychological toll it takes on society, but also because it facilitates the illegal movement of immigrants across borders and provides a ready source of income for organized crime groups and even terrorists.

I actually prefer this sort of clarity to the hypocrisy of so many Rescue Industry projects: Here, we know where we are. According to the general description, sex-related trafficking is not the FBI’s only interest. But they have a sub-project on ‘missing children’ called Innocence Lost, where the sex link is overt, their achievements since 2003 described as working

to rescue more than 1,200 children. Investigations have successfully led to the conviction of over 600 pimps, madams, and their associates who exploit children through prostitution. These convictions have resulted in lengthy sentences, including multiple 25-year-to-life sentences and the seizure of real property, vehicles, and monetary assets.

I find that last line disturbing – bragging about how long the sentences are as well as the stuff taken from those involved, but those are the kind of indicators police use to show they are doing something – rescue being, after all, a pretty vague concept (and they know it).

But Innocence Lost turns out to be more than an FBI project; it is a National Initiative (this link takes you to a site on Missing and Exploited Children), composed of no fewer than

37 dedicated task forces and working groups throughout the United States involving federal, state, and local law-enforcement agencies working in tandem with U.S. Attorney’s Offices.

Their fear is the growing problem of domestic child sex slavery in the form of child prostitution in the United States.

I would like to see evidence that the number of children taking money for sex is growing, since research has for a long time addressed young people who leave home and then survive by selling sex. Calling it child sex slavery is exciting, but the issue is the same. Leaving home is not always a bad thing, anyway.

But the question has to be: The 37 dedicated task forces and working groups get $26.1 million to do this work. If they have rescued 1200 children since 2003, each rescued child costs more than $20 000.

IF there is an immense and growing number of enslaved children worth investing huge amounts of money in, then some effort should be made to figure out how to find and save more of them. What is the money being spent on?

NCMEC has trained more than 1,000 members of law enforcement on the issue of child victims of prostitution. These specialized courses, developed and conducted in partnership with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, have trained multi-disciplinary teams, with membership drawn from state, local, and federal law-enforcement agencies and local social-service providers from cities all over the country.

All that training and so few children rescued?

– Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist


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