The saying goes that two-thirds of all statistics are made up on the spot and three-quarters of people believe them anyway. This is supposed to be a joke, but in sex work research it often feels more like an understatement. Figures are routinely presented as fact when there is little or no evidential basis for them; estimates of the number of persons involved in one aspect of the sex industry are reported as if they referred to the industry generally (and as if they weren’t only estimates to begin with); and since journalists hardly ever bother verifying the data they repeat, one person’s wild-ass guess about the number of, say, migrant women in Italian brothels becomes an Irish Examiner editorial about how we have to start criminalising sex purchasers so we don’t end up like Naples, to where 80,000 women are trafficked each year. OK, I’m exaggerating, but that actually is the process by which wholly inaccurate sex work “statistics” are spread.[*]
As part of my lonely crusade against the abolitionist misuse of numbers, I’m going to do a regular feature on this blog in which some of the claims they make are traced back to source. I’m not a statistician, and I’m not going to tear apart every figure that actually derives from some sort of scientific study to see if it can withstand a rigorous methodological analysis. Brooke Magnanti is more of an expert on that sort of thing. But most of the time I won’t need to, since the stats alone are usually enough to discredit the person quoting it, once you see where they actually came from.
For today’s instalment, I’ll be looking at the claim made by the Dignity Project that “in Barcelona – which has the same population as Stockholm [1.5 million] – there are 20,000 people engaged in street prostitution”.
Now, you really only need to think about that for a minute to realise it’s totally bonkers. If there were 20,000 Barcelonans in street prostitution it would mean that more than one in every hundred Barcelonans was a street sex worker – a suggestion that defies credibility. A lot of things about the sex industry are counterintuitive, though, so it’s always a good idea not to dismiss things purely on the basis of common sense.
Fortunately, it’s dismissed easily enough after a simple Google search. While I couldn’t find any evidence of actual research which might underlie this statistic, I did find statements by two officials citing the 20,000 figure: a member of the regional government and a police ‘specialist in organised crime’. So are the Dignity Project correct? Hardly. First of all, the officials’ own source for that figure isn’t cited. Maybe some kind of scientific study was done, maybe one or the other of them just pulled it out of their head. The articles don’t say, so we don’t know. And that means we shouldn’t assume.
Secondly, neither official says that there are 20,000 people involved in street sex work in Barcelona. According to both articles, the figure relates to the number of people involved in “prostitution” – all forms, not just street – and in Catalunya, not Barcelona. As a whole, Catalunya has a population around five times that of Barcelona, and it includes a number of tourist destinations (such as the Costa Brava) where you’d expect a thriving sex trade. So it’s really not clear at all how many street sex workers there are in Barcelona, but there is no, absolutely no, basis for the Dignity Project assertion that there are 20,000 of them.
The abolitionist response would probably that it doesn’t really matter, because the reason that statistic was (mis-)cited was to highlight the difference between Barcelona’s numbers and Stockholm’s, and if there are 20,000 sex workers in all of Catalunya the likelihood is that a big chunk of those are in Barcelona (true enough) and whatever amount that “big chunk” is, it’s still more than there are in Stockholm. Of course, that assumes that the figure they’ve cited for Stockholm is accurate – a question I’ll probably address on another day – and that the Catalunyan estimation is correct which, remember, still hasn’t been verified.
But the main point of this post is to show the utter carelessness with which some of those campaigning on this issue (or reporting it on their behalf) approach little matters like facts. And you can bet if they aren’t verifying the statistics they cite, they aren’t verifying lots of other things, either. Bear that in mind the next time you hear their claims about the consequences of banning, or not banning, various elements of commercial sex.
[*] To emphasise the point, I actually feel the need to insert a disclaimer here that 80,000 women are not in fact trafficked into Naples every year.
Hi Wendy, I’ve been enjoying your pieces on Sweden and the abolitionists and their funny numbers. I work on these issues in Vancouver via FIRST, a national coalition of feminists that works as an ally to sex workers in their fight for rights and decriminalization via New Zealand’s model. Abolitionists here also use funny numbers – I think that’s the only kind of numbers they have. Here’s FIRST’s web address in case you want to check us out – http://www.firstadvocates.org. If you can’t connect, just google FIRST sex workers and that will bring you to us.
Sex workers are very organized here in Vancouver, with a great deal of support from various groups and individuals. However, abolitionist opposition to sex work is also really intense here. Right now and amongst all our other collaborative work on the issues, we are awaiting the final outcome of a court case on the issues -there are two cases, but the Ontario case is further advanced. We won the first round with the current laws on sex work struck down (the Himel decision), but the governments have appealed to the next level. Eventually, the case will, we hope, get to our Supreme Court. We expect that if they lose, our federal government – very right wing – will go for the Swedish approach.
Anyway, lots more can be said, but I just wanted to touch base. Very happy to know there are Irish feminists working on these issues.
Hi Esther, thanks for your comment! I’ve followed the Bedford case carefully, and covered it in some detail in my dissertation. Whether it ultimately succeeds or not – and I sure hope it does – it offers a very promising way forward for legal challenges to criminalisation laws. The health-based case against these laws is very strong, as Stephanie and I discussed in our first post to this blog.
Canada seems to have a lot of very good and active groups of sex workers and allies. We aren’t nearly as advanced here, although there are two organisations (Turn off the Blue Light and the Sex Workers’ Alliance of Ireland) fighting the good fight. Unfortunately, the abolitionists are way ahead of us, and also have virtually the entire political and NGO establishment on their side – including, most distressingly, the major trade unions.
Keep in touch!