Tag Archives: statistics

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

Does legalised prostitution increase trafficking? Who knows, without real data?

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

Child sex trafficking: why statistics should matter to the Rescue Industry

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

Only playing stupid about sex trafficking? Pull the other one, Ashton

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

Trafficking estimates/guesses/fantasies, with and without sex and slavery

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