Does banning prostitution make women safer? The perils of interviews

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

19 thoughts on “Does banning prostitution make women safer? The perils of interviews

  1. Shane L

    I’m an occasional reader here Laura and I found even that highly edited piece interesting as a broad summary of some of your ideas. I sympathise with the journalist, who may have hoped for more space but had to cut back for editorial reasons.

    As for comments, I’ve noticed (I think) that comments in publications with wider and more general readerships tend to be more aggressive and foolish than comments in more focused publications or blogs. So I wouldn’t worry about it; no doubt more moderate people read the piece with interest but stayed out of the craziness of the comments!

    1. Laura Agustín

      Thank you, Shane, I’m glad the piece wasn’t too dumbed down for all! And yes, certainly the interviewer/writer was very frustrated.

      The psychology is interesting, isn’t it, that people who like don’t comment much and people who don’t like do.

  2. JT

    Interesting piece and blog. I think I might suggest to my daughter to read some of your stuff.

  3. JT


    My pleasure. I was wondering if you have an email I could send a question to you rather than posting on the blog?


  4. Lindy Porter

    I just read the article in the New Scientist, which prompted me to view your page.
    I just felt moved to say how refreshing I found your views expressed in the interview. Thank you.
    Having worked as an escort for a number if years I also feel that anti-prostitution laws, hence criminalisation, are more likely to cause exploitation of sex-workers rather than curb the industry.
    The interviewer also asks if the “happy hooker” is a myth – I believe it is stigmatisation and isolation which causes unhappiness – if there is – rather than the work itself.

    1. Laura Agustín

      Thank you for visiting! The idea that ‘happiness’ can be reduced so easily to having one job or another is quite silly. Some sex workers love their work, some hate it, many feel it’s their job for now and maybe would like to improve its conditions. For sure being stigmatised and dismissed as a normal human being causes everyone unhappiness no matter what job they do.

  5. Kurt

    As bad as the New Scientist article was, it got my attention enough to hunt down your website. Thanks!

  6. Christopher Johnston

    I’m a fairly liberal person and I think people who wish to work in the sex industry should. Just because some people don’t like it and want nothing to do with it shouldn’t mean others who do and enjoy it shouldn’t be allowed to work in the sex industry.

    Yes some people are forced into prostitution and that is wrong, however just because some people are forced into it doesn’t mean all people are.

    I like how refreshing it is to hear from someone argues these points, and it’s great to know that there are people out there who enjoy working in the industry and will defend their right too. I do hope that in future the stigma’s go away and hopefully we will have society where if you want to work or use the services of the sex industry then you are really free to do so.

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  9. Aphrodite

    Hi Laura,
    I’ve known this website for a while, but never took the effort the read it well (shame on me).
    I’m very happy you keep on doing research on sex work and immigration.
    You’re really needed in a world full of hysteria and ignorance on sex work.
    I’ve also read some pieces on the anti-prostitution laws in France.
    I don’t need to tell you that Europe is heading towards anti-sex work, ’cause you know more of it than I, I guess.
    I also live in a small European country with fuzzy laws concerning prostitution, but fortunately, there are some NGO’s directed especially towards sex workers. I’ve been to them several times, to undergo health checks. Nurses, doctors, and social workers are working together there.
    But the attitude towards sex work is not relevant to them. What they do is helping when the sex worker asks for it, not when they are NOT asking for it. Help that comes from the questions by sex workers, is the most ideal model for me. Of course, this model isn’t perfect, but it’s the best model I’ve ever seen for sex workers in Europe.
    But the last period they (the decision-makers) are considering to criminalize prostitution. Fortunately, most NGO’s opposed the idea, even the ones who work with victims of trafficking. But as you can espect, they are barely listened to. People who are sex workers, or are working WITH sex workers don’t have a voice. I only hope that in a future (probably far away still) the situation of sex workers will better, and that the anti-trafficking craze will be halted.

    1. Laura Agustín

      Glad you wrote, thank you. If you go to the home page of this site and scroll down a little you’ll see I write about France, European trends often.

  10. Antony Goddard

    I find it surprising New Scientist sat on your work for so long. People like Danny Dorling (housing) and Kate Pickett (Spirit level) have no trouble in getting their work in print
    in a whole variety of media …. although I don’t know if their work has much impact outside the UK.
    It seems particularly unjust for New Scientist to ask for you to provide vast quantities of
    numerical data. Many UK politicians are obsessed with immigration figures, but whenever
    they are in power they usually cut back on the costs of even just counting arrivals and
    departures in any coherent way.

    It seems that many people who want power have a vested interest in hiding the real

    People expect researchers like yourself to succeed where UKBA (UK Borders Agency) fails. This asks too much.

    I really appreciate your twitter feed.

    1. Laura Agustín

      I’m not familiar with the publication, don’t know how much social science they do or whether they are usually easier about number proofs. That they would be so for my subject does not surprise me – I’m used to it after all these years. Thanks for following on twitter!

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