Bad reporting: prostitution law, nationalism and the BBC

This week I got wound up for the silliest of reasons: media reporting on prostitution. The prompting event was a two-part series (Selling sex legally in New Zealand and Europe and NZ poles apart on sex trade) from the stodgiest of sources, the BBC, supposedly revealing a huge contrast between New Zealand and European prostitution policy. The second story’s headline isn’t even supported by the report itself: Well, what else is new? The mainstream media regularly deal with sex-industry topics in an ignorant, reductionist way. I got irritated because I was sent this junk eight times: too many! In my opinion, the BBC reports fall into a category we all know well: Delete Upon Reading Subject Line.

The first article describes advantages for sex workers in New Zealand. Those are pretty clear for people who work in the kind of establishments described. But the BBC reporter did little more than interview the usual two or three workers and includes ridiculous, titillating details such as the towel one woman wears. This is traditional, uninformative, anecdotal reporting on prostitution.

The second article attempts to develop the argument that there’s a gigantic contrast between New Zealand and Europe – and has the nerve to reproduce factoids and misrepresentations already outed in the Guardian:

‘Something like 80% of women in prostitution are controlled by their drug dealer, their pimp, or their trafficker,’ MP Fiona Mactaggart told the BBC in November.

No. Fiona doesn’t have evidence to back this up. The figure 80% was given by the Poppy Project, a government-funded abolitionist shelter, to refer to the number of foreign women working in places in London. They came to this conclusion by hiring men to ring telephone numbers found in contact adverts. The callers elicited statements on women workers who might come from other countries. No follow-up research was done, no visits were made to the sites. The research results are suggestive but nothing more; methodogically there are serious questions about them, which were asked publicly last October. However the mistake resurfaced shortly afterwards and the Guardian had to debunk it again, publicly. Foreign does not equal trafficked.

Apart from the BBC’s apparent ignorance about these well-known events, there are other questions to ask about this pair of articles. Is the contrast really so great between New Zealand (decriminalising sex work) and Europe (growing movement towards criminalising punters as a way to preventt trafficking)? Some observers wrote to question the insistence always on national policies, as though each country enjoyed a hermetically sealed set of cultural characteristics that lead them to instate specific – and the implication is original and justified – policies.

The truth is that both policy trends – decriminalisation and abolition/prohibition – exist in all countries. If one trend wins in a particular parliamentary vote, it is because the politicians of the moment swayed one way or the other. It is never a permanent state, and ‘progress’ is pretty hard to find. European countries have wobbled back and forth between loosening and tightening laws, according to the zeitgeist. Moreover, in countries like Germany and the Netherlands, which presently have more tolerant and regulated systems, there are those who fight to clamp down. No society simply is one way or the other, and all could change fairly easily.

At the moment, a few UK politicians are trying to impose a law criminalising buyers of sex (the same law found in Finland), but there is also a movement against this imposition in Britain, and not only from sex workers and their allies. A strong libertarian argument is made that boils down to Government out of our sex lives. Last week an event was held at London’s ICA in which no anti-prostitution people were speakers (which sparked silly protests). At a recent event in Copenhagen a former New Zealand politican praised as progressive the country’s prostitution legislation but nonetheless argued against allowing migrants to work in the country – as a way to prevent trafficking. This came across as both conservative and illogical: If you have faith in decriminalisation, why not allow anyone to do the work? Any meaningful engagement with sex-industry law nowadays really must address the issue of mobile workers, and rights activists argue that decriminalisation could help prevent trafficking.

The insistence on national separateness is particularly ludicrous when dealing with the sex industry, which is characterised by movement: workers, investors, facilitators, businesspeople, all are wont to travel, whether to the next town or another country. Before ‘migrant sex workers’ or ‘trafficking’ were big topics, everyone was moving every which way and selling sex along the way. Neighbouring countries have always seen prostitutes cross borders to distance themselves from home and become more exotic to customers. Travellers stop a while and sell sex in order to keep travelling. This mobility applies not only to conscious sex workers but also to migrants who expected to be able to make money legally and find out that they can’t, or who are supposed to accept very low-paying jobs and instead switch to selling sex.

I also dispute the usual assumption that these laws make reality on-the-ground very very very different. On the contrary, if someone were to come to Earth from Mars, they would look at commercial sex in the USA, which mostly has mean criminalising laws, and look at it in New Zealand or the UK or Germany, and not see much difference at all. The endless debating about legal systems to control prostitution is bizarrely irrelevant, except for its symbolic value. I wrote about this in Sex and the Limits of Enlightenment: The Irrationality of Legal Regimes to Control Prostitution, a dense academic article but with some interesting ideas in it.

I know. Sex-worker rights activism pushes for New Zealand-type legislation. And yes, laws make a difference to individual sex workers’ rights when being harassed or arrested. But the vast majority of activity carries on similarly, if not identically, no matter which law is in place, and that’s because prostitution law is often vague and unenforceable, in the end having less impact than people assume.

The Lautrec picture at the top portrays women in a brothel dining room. It helped me think.


3 thoughts on “Bad reporting: prostitution law, nationalism and the BBC

  1. emely

    I’m an undergraduate criminology student and I am currently writting my final year dissertation on trafficking and women (mostly looking at the role of NGOs and the media as moral crusaders). I was wondering if a summary of the talk at the institute of contemporary art was available. Also this blog is amazing, it’s the best place on internet to find up to date info, and your articles are always very interesting.
    thank you

  2. Laura Agustin

    Hello Emely

    Thanks for finding my blog useful. I’m sorry there’s no transcript of my ICA talk because I spoke from a few notes. I talked about State Feminism and Gender Equality, and will be continuing to do that here, so stay tuned.

    Best, Laura


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