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Dodgy Stat Diary, Day 3

I hadn’t intended to do another Dodgy Stats post so soon, but then a friend sent me this document and, well, I just couldn’t help myself.

The document is titled “Prostitution – Fact or Fiction” and it comes from the website of End Prostitution Now, which describes itself as “a campaign led by Glasgow City Council”. At the end, under the heading “Acknowledgments”, it refers to Demand Change, a joint campaign by leading British abolitionist groups Eaves and OBJECT, and to the Women’s Support Project, a Scottish feminist group addressing issues of male violence against women. Similar documents are indeed found on both those group’s websites, but while I haven’t done a detailed comparison between the three it is clear that EPN made some changes and added claims of their own. I’ll therefore confine myself to addressing the EPN document, though I may go back sometime and look at the detail of the other two.

There are a lot of typical abolitionist errors in the document,  such as generalising stats about street workers across the entire industry, repeating the myths I’ve addressed in other posts about the Swedish experience, and taking Melissa Farley’s work seriously. There’s also a totally bizarre claim about what low union membership among German sex workers means, but really I want to focus in on three “facts” that I find particularly revealing, in terms of what they demonstrate about abolitionism’s concern for evidence.

68% meet the criteria for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (Ramsay, Retal, 1993).

Let me start off by saying that I have a bee in my bonnet about Harvard referencing. Used correctly – that is, with a proper bibliography at the end – there is no reason it can’t be a reliable method of showing the origin of an assertion. Unfortunately, it easily lends itself to being used incorrectly and therefore absolutely worthless. I mean I could write here that 85% of Irish escorts hold doctorates from Trinity College and then next week some other blogger on the other side of the world could repeat that claim and cite it as “(Lyon 2011)”, and it would look academic and impressive to readers who didn’t know any better. Alas, it is not the case that 85% of Irish escorts hold doctorates from Trinity College – at least as far as I know.

Since EPN are among those who don’t use the Harvard system correctly, I can’t tell from their document what exactly “Ramsay, Retal, 1993” refers to. Googling it produces nothing except links back to the exact same text, which is always a bad sign. After trying a few fruitless variations I finally discovered this article which is by an “R Ramsay, C Gorst-Unworth and S Turner” = Ramsay R et al 1993? A sloppy mistake, but one I wouldn’t kill them over.

What’s more serious is the article’s subject matter: “the psychological well-being of 100 survivors of torture and other forms of organised state violence”. It’s behind a pay wall, so I can’t tell if prostitution is one of the forms of organised state violence discussed therein, but if so it would be a remarkable exercise in dishonesty to generalise stats from those “survivors” across all sex workers.

In fact, I think what EPN have probably done here is simply cited the wrong document; that figure is usually linked to a Melissa Farley study which purported to show a 68% rate of PTSD criteria among sex workers. And as for the Farley study, I’ll just quote from what Paul Henry de Wet, head of Forensic Psychiatry at the hospital attached to the University of Pretoria, had to say about it in his affidavit in South Africa v Jordan: “In the absence of proper control groups for the research and in the absence of proper diagnostic methodology I find the diagnosis of PTSD as well as the allegations in respect of its alleged causes to be wholly inappropriate.”[1]

If it is just a case of citing the wrong document then, again, that isn’t a particularly grievous error. But it does show a lack of attention to detail which I think is typical of a lot of these campaigners, and demonstrates why their assertions must not be simply taken at face value.

In New Zealand, complete decriminalisation has led to the illegal sector expanding to make up 80% of the industry (Instone and Margersion, 2007)

 This doesn’t even make logical sense. If there is complete decriminalisation there can be no illegal sector, by definition.

In fact, New Zealand does not have complete decriminalisation, although it’s probably about as close as we’ll ever see in our lifetime. Managed brothels are regulated, not decriminalised; commercial sex involving non-residents or under-18s or that takes place without a condom remains illegal. So are Instone and Margersion claiming that these sectors have expanded to make up 80% of the New Zealand industry?

No. In fact, they’re not even referring to New Zealand. What they actually say is: “In other jurisdictions where prostitution has been legalized or decriminalized there has been considerable expansion of the legal industry, but the illegal industry has expanded most and regularly comprises 80% of the industry, as Mary Sullivan’s book on the effects in Australia, Making Sex Work (2007) reveals”.[2]

So Sullivan claims this happened in Australia (I’ll deal with that stat another day), Instone and Margersion get from this that it “regularly” happens when prostitution is made legal, and EPN then states as a matter of fact that it has happened in New Zealand.

Is it becoming obvious why I find abolitionists so frustrating?

Estimated numbers of people in prostitution consequently fell from around 25,000 to a current estimate of 2500.

No citation is given for either of those figures, but the estimate of 25,000 in Sweden would be quite extraordinary; I’ve certainly never seen anything like it in the piles of material I’ve read about the Swedish sex industry.

Googling “25,000 prostitution Sweden” returns a number of pages (themselves of dubious reliability) asserting 25,000 sex workers in the Netherlands; some of them compare this to an alleged 2,500 in Sweden around the time of the law’s enactment – not after it. This seems to be a case of picking up numbers from web trawls and inserting them into a propaganda sheet without even bothering to ensure they were copied correctly – much less than that they ever had any validity to begin with.

Of course, anyone can make up numbers about anything, and plenty of people do. But this is a campaign led by a government body. Just a local authority, granted, with limited law-making powers – but some of those powers can have a direct impact on sex workers’ lives and livelihoods, and it’s a matter of deep concern if they are being exercised by councillors with such little regard to important details like, you know, facts. Moreover, the imprimatur of a major city’s government can sometimes add more weight to a document than it would otherwise have. I couldn’t say for certain whether any other policy-makers have looked at this or factored its contents into their consideration of the issue, but the possibility is always there.

Any Glaswegians who stumble across this post while searching for information on the sex industry in your wonderful city, you might consider contacting your councillors and asking them what the hell they are doing attaching the council’s name to such a poorly-researched and poorly-referenced propaganda piece.



1. The link to the de Wet affidavit on the South African Constitutional Court website isn’t working. Email us at feministire(at)gmail(dot)com if you want a scanned copy.
2. Emphasis added and internal citation omitted.

About Wendy Lyon

Fighting a lonely battle for evidence-based policy and the proper use of apostrophes.

5 responses »

  1. Just started reading your blog, Wendy. Well researched and thought provoking.

    I think National Woman’s Council of Ireland CEO Susan McKay was referring to that 68% stat when she wrote here

    that “Almost 70% of prostitutes have symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in the same range as victims of torture and veterans of war.”.

  2. Pity you wouldn’t look into all the other dodgy stats for rape, domestic violence and pay inequality that feminist seem to manipulate at leisure

  3. Wendy “et al”,

    I think I can clear this one up for you/add some more context. It confused me for a while too; it’s a classic case of Chinese whispers. I came across this a few years ago when I was doing a literature review on a related subject. The original Ramsay, Gorst-Unsworth & Turner 1993 article in the British Journal of Psychiatry is not about prostitution; it does not even mention it. It is, as the title suggests, about the psychological wellbeing of survivors of torture and other forms of organised state violence. The most common forms of psychological disorders found in those observed were PTSD, somatoform disorders and major depression, with PTSD being most prevalent in victims of torture which were assessed in the group study used. When Farley wrote her article on street prostitutes in San Francisco (extrapolating the experience of street prositututes to all sex workers, whether off street or on street), she used the framework of characteristics set out by Ramsey “et al” to argue that most of these street prostitutes suffered classic symptoms of PTSD as defined by Ramsay and therefore prostitutes as a whole did too since street sex workers were taken to be representative of all sex workers.

    This highly-flawed claim was then picked up by a range of sources – including the US State Department – which conflated the two sources giving the impression that Ramsay, Gorst-Unsworth & Turner’s claims were identical or at least provided support for Farley’s claims. As a recent Object factsheet shows, feminist anti-sex work groups, organisations and activists now routinely report Farley’s claims with the words “Ramsey et al: 1993” in brackets. As a part-time academic and full-time researcher myself, there is always the risk of having your work wilfully misrepresented and misunderstood. And, from the point of view, of organisations such as the State Department there is a real cache from using the well-regarded peer-reviewed research of Ramsay et al in the prestigious BJP over the research of Farley which is neither well-regarded, often peer reviewed or published in prestigious journals.

    Incidentally, like most anti-sex work activists who “research” sex work, Farley’s scholarship (using that term very loosely) is widely regarded as a joke. True, she is a psychologist rather than an anthropologist or sociologist, but she hasn’t even mastered the basics of social and operational research such as controlling for confirmation bias and self selection or using control groups. Her research methods are horrible, seeming to consist largely of developing working hypotheses which she supports by cherrypicking selective pieces of data and “evidence” even when that “data” is completely contradictory or unreliable. She doesn’t seem to have even mastered the grade school technique of differentiating between causation and correlation. I read a paper she wrote just today in which she stated that the fact Nevada has a recorded rape rate slightly above the national average and it is highest in two counties bordering other counties where legal brothels exist, this proved that legalising prostitution increased the incidence of rape. One of these counties included the territory of Las Vegas! It is that awful. Irrespective of what you think about the decriminalisation of sex work, this is just laughable research.

    Apologies for the long post: incidentally, I would be very interested in a copy of that testimony from the South African expert if a scanned copy could be sent to me.

    Thank you so much – hope this has been of some help/interest.


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