I am delighted and privileged to host a guest post by Dr Belinda Brooks-Gordon, Reader in Psychology and Social Policy at Birkbeck College, the University of London.
Belinda is a leading academic authority on sex work policy and the author of The Price of Sex: Prostitution, Policy and Society. She was a Liberal Democrat candidate at the last General Election, and she is also a Patron of Westminster Skeptics.
Setting the Record is an attempt to work how many trafficked migrant sex workers there are in England and Wales, and where they come from.
Police visited 142 premises meeting 254 sex workers in the process. These comprised 210 migrant women and 44 British Nationals. The data show that 24 sex working women were ‘trafficked migrants’, 113 were ‘vulnerable migrants’ and 73 women were not either the trafficked or vulnerable.
Nobody had been kidnapped or imprisoned and the research identified few individuals subject to violence.
There is therefore a drop since 1998 when 71 trafficked women were known to the police. The hard data shows little has changed despite hysteria over trafficking numbers. The report aims to be ‘more nuanced’ with the new ‘vulnerable’ category and there is laudable recognition of the diverse reasons for choosing sex work and volition of migrants. It states: ‘for some, selling sex is the result of a conscious, rational and independent assessment of the available options, and working in the UK is seen as a relatively safe and profitable place’ (p32).
The rest of the report however has data collection methods and figures so weird and wonderful they could be at the end of the pier.
It is an example of the perils of lack of peer-review, and contains the most nonsensical multipliers and whacky extrapolations I have read since the unintentionally hilarious attempt produced by the Home Office.
There is no critical review of previous research to expose flaws in previous research and avoid making the same mistakes.
Unfortunately flawed assumptions are repeated, for example the discredited assertion that 56% of trafficked women suffer PTSD.
The authors attempt to work out the number of premises and sex workers from newspaper, internet and telephone kiosk adverts, presumably copying flotsam containing the same daft data collection, which has been extensively criticized.
Past research to estimate the sex worker population as a Fermi problem is looked to for ‘corroboration’ only after the worst is done.
From the adverts they tried, unsuccessfully, to remove duplicates. The number of businesses identified was multiplied by the number of beds and multiplied again because of shift patterns. It might have been more logical, given that women may work at two different establishments on different days, to divide rather than multiplying here.
Attempts to get data from ten regions failed, leaving only six so essential data on nearly half the country is missing. There was no data from the North West or North East region. There is distorted data from the South East and Eastern region where duplicates could not be removed. Because of the variety of systems in law enforcement areas across England and Wales different data collection methods occurred in each region and it was wholly unsystematic.
The methods lack reliability, as the police were allowed flexibility to make a judgement on their observations as to the likely presence of vulnerability indicators, this introduces bias and there is no inter-rater reliability on any of the measures.
Representativeness of the sample is claimed but the variables or demographic factors on which the women are claimed to be representative of others in the sex industry are not given.
There are no concrete examples of any of the vague categories or indicators given.
Dangerous unsupported assumptions about the uniformity of coercion levels are made in the absence of any data: ‘there is insufficient volume of data to determine whether regional differences exist in coercion methods. It has therefore been assumed that coercion methods and levels are uniform across the country’ (p25).
The statistical test Pearson’s Product Moment Coefficient was used to correlate the number of premises and police officer numbers and the arbitrary removal of inconvenient outliers and all the London data would ring alarm bells in the editorial office of most academic journals.
Despite claims of objectivity there is bias that: ‘this report examines organised, and thus illegal, forms of prostitution’ (p10). However, recent acquittal shows that organized sex work is not inherently criminal.
The ethics of Setting the Record as a piece of research have to be questioned, as well as the storage and use of sex workers’ personal details, coming as it does just two weeks after the sex workers were ‘named and shamed’ by the Metropolitan Police website publishing sex workers’ personal data.
Recent reports, like the one from the World AIDS Foundation, suggest from a pragmatic harm reduction stance, that violence against women can only be addressed in a fully decriminalized system.
Setting the Record is not as woefully inadequate as previous ACPO-related reports such as Brain et al, critiqued by Helen Self but it falls far short of basic research stardards.
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