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Category Archives: Dodgy stats

No, new research does NOT show that violence decreases under the Nordic model

[Update: in response to communication from Feminist Current’s Meghan Murphy, I am happy to clarify that the article critiqued below is not a “Feminist Current piece” but a Sam Berg piece which Feminist Current merely hosted.]

There’s been a bit of a social media buzz over this article on a radical feminist website, which claims that a recent Pro Sentret report from Norway – which you can read in English here – shows that “violence decreases under the Nordic model”. The author backs up her claims with an impressive array of graphs (and a fair smattering of ad hominems), and unsurprisingly receives glowing praise in her comments from people who were clearly predisposed to believe anything she said on the subject anyway.

I hate to burst their bubble. Well, actually I don’t.

The author kindly linked to one of my own posts on the report, though she seems not to have read it. If she had, she would have noticed that very near the start I referred to “methodological limitations” that made it unsafe to draw cause-and-effect conclusions from the study. At the time I didn’t feel it important to get into those limitations, but I will now. Apart from the health warning that always applies in studying a hidden population, there are two really massively important issues here:

1. Lifetime vs recent experience. The 2007-2008 study asked sex workers if they had ever experienced violence, throughout their “entire career in prostitution (which could be anything from one day to 50 years)”. The newer study asked about violence in the past three years alone. These are two very different questions, which can’t possibly give rise to comparable answers – at least without a detailed examination of the raw data, which we don’t have. We don’t know how long the respondents had been selling sex, in either survey; we don’t know how many in the first study had sold for more than three years nor how many in the second study had sold for less (though 16% of the latter group said they were not selling at the time the survey was carried out). You would expect, of course, that the more actual sex work-years covered by the survey, the more violence would be reported; and if we assume that the first study covered more actual sex work-years then we would expect to see higher rates of violence in it. I’m not even comfortable making that assumption on such flimsy data (which is why I didn’t make it in my initial post). But we certainly cannot make the implicit assumption that the Feminist Current post depends on, ie, that the two studies cover the same number of actual sex work-years.

2. Norwegian vs. foreign experience. Both surveys recorded sex workers’ experience of violence in prostitution wherever it occurred. For the 2012 study, we have a breakdown: 70% of respondents said it only happened in Norway; 12% said Norway and elsewhere; 10% said only elsewhere; 8% didn’t answer. There is also a breakdown of the venues within each country, but that is all. We don’t know, for example, which types of violence occurred in which country, or how many of the specific incidents occurred in which country. This makes it impossible to know how much of the reported violence even took place under the Nordic model. And we don’t have any of this data from the 2007-2008 study, so there’s really nothing for us to compare here at all.

Now, really, that ought to be enough to make it clear that Feminist Current’s claim is totally unsubstantiated. But just for the sake of argument, let’s say we really were comparing like with like. Would that justify their conclusions?

I’ll just address their headline statistic, namely, the claim that rape is down by half in the new study. That comes from here:


And indeed, the drop from 29% to 15% looks impressive. But wait a minute – look over in the left-hand column, halfway down. See that category of “threatened/forced into sex that was not agreed to”? Last I checked, that’s rape. And the number who said it had happened to them in the past three years was not 15%, but 27%.

The Feminist Current author didn’t miss that category of violence – in fact, she commented on it, but totally missed its significance. She also missed what the report’s authors had to say about it, which is as follows:

We have looked at how many checked both answers which could mean that they define both these categories the same way. Only 6 people have done this, which confirms our suspicion that many of the women would not characterize actual rape as rape. This also means that the actual frequency of rape is considerably higher than what is shown in table 10. If we combine the amount that checked these options and then subtract those that checked both we see that as many as 34%(25 people) of those that have experienced violence in the last three years have been raped/threatened into sex that was not agreed to.

So how does the 34% de facto rape rate compare with its 2007-2008 counterpart? To find that out, we’d need the same accounting exercise to be carried out on the earlier data. It could be that in 2007-2008 there was zero overlap between the persons who said they’d experienced rape, and the persons who said they’d been threatened or forced into having sex; this would give us a de facto rape rate of 64%, from which 2012’s 34% would still be an impressive drop. On the other hand, it could be that every person who said in the first study that they’d experienced “rape” also ticked the box for “threatened/forced etc”, which would mean the de facto rate in 2007/2008 was only 35%. In that case, the subsequent drop to 34% would be considerably less impressive, and probably statistically insignificant. The fact is, we simply don’t know.

Finally, since the Feminist Current argument rests entirely on the claim that “serious” violence is down in the 2012 study, I think there’s one other stat in that image worth highlighting:


This of course is subject to the same flaws as everything else in this study, and I’m not pointing it out to suggest that the number of sex workers threatened with a weapon actually has increased under the Nordic model, by 50%, from less than a quarter to approximately a third. I just think it’s kind of…curious that someone who takes the stats at face value, and accuses others of ignoring inconvenient data, doesn’t see any room for this in her analysis of how “serious” violence has changed under the law. But maybe she doesn’t consider “threatened with a weapon” to be serious enough.

There’s a lot more to criticise in that piece if I had more time, not least its contradictions with the radical feminist conception of sex work as inherently violent, inherently rape – and the way it almost mockingly dismisses certain forms of reported violence as not serious enough to be counted as violence for the purpose of this study, while then going on to insist that “any violence inflicted on them matters”. But I’ll let someone else unpack that one. As I said in my first post, we can’t safely draw any conclusion from the stats. The study’s significance lies in its qualitative findings – which are totally inconsistent with the idea of the law as a “success” and which are, unsurprisingly, totally ignored by Feminist Current.

I didn’t have to dig particularly deep into the study to find why the Feminist Current piece is wrong. Pro Sentret are careful to emphasise the lifetime/three years difference. They also highlight the fact that the number of sex workers who report being raped is much higher than the number who call it rape. There’s no reason why anyone who actually read the study wouldn’t be aware of these issues. If they choose not to share them with their audience, that’s a matter for them to explain.

(ETA: More on this subject here.)

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.

Dodgy Stat Diary, Day 2

The independent Senators have a motion for debate next week to criminalise the purchase of sex, and it’s a Dodgy Stat-lover’s dream. Let’s take it one (loaded) bullet point at a time:

That Seanad Éireann:
• Recognises that the trafficking of women and girls for sexual exploitation is a modern form of slavery and a form of human rights abuse.

Hard to argue with that – though it’s not really that modern, nor are only women and girls affected.

• Notes that the Irish sex industry – which is worth €250 million a year (CAB, January 2011) – is very damaging for the girls and women involved in prostitution.

I can’t trace the source of this statistic. The most recent CAB document available seems to be its 2009 annual report, which says nothing about the value of the Irish sex industry. I note, however, that €250 million seems to be a popular estimate:  Googling “Criminal Assets Bureau” “€250 million” I find that precise figure linked to the the private security industry, the Moriarty Tribunal, the IRA and even to CAB itself. Amazing, isn’t it, that such a wide diversity of matters can give rise to the exact same nine-figure estimate?

Just sayin’.

• Notes that internet audits consistently show that more than 1000 women are made available for paid sex on a daily basis all over Ireland and up to 97% of them are migrant women. (Kelleher 2009)

The cite here is to a report I have in front of me titled Globalisation, Sex Trafficking and Prostitution which was published by the Immigrant Council of Ireland and Ruhama, the two organisations leading the Turn Off the Red Light campaign (aimed at criminalising sex-purchase in Ireland). It’s a confusing mishmash of the actual statistics in that report, though those statistics are questionable enough anyway. The report alleges a “minimum of 800 women advertised on the internet in indoor prostitution in Ireland at any one time” (page 109), revealed by “internet searches of websites” (page 84) – but on the only website discussed in the report, Escort Ireland, they found between 387-468 women advertising at any one time (page 85). What other websites did they use? How do they know it wasn’t the same women advertising (for that matter, how do they know the same women weren’t placing multiple ads on Escort Ireland?). There is simply no explanation given for how “387-468” becomes “800” – and there is certainly no justification for the Seanad motion’s reference to consistent internet audits.

The 1,000 figure cited in the motion does appear in the report, on page 33, although it relates to “women in indoor prostitution” (not all women in the sex industry, and not only those who advertise online). Nothing in the report explains how they arrived at this figure. Page 15 cites its sources of information on indoor prostitution as the internet audit, “interviews with specialist frontline service providers” and “interviews with 12 women in prostitution”, so perhaps the extra 200 came out of these discussions, but without proper citing of that figure it’s impossible for the reader to know.

Finally, the claim that “up to 97% of them are migrant women” also comes from the chapter on indoor prostitution. It is not, as the Seanad motion claims, the figure for the sex industry generally. (Street-based sex workers are believed by both sides of this debate to be primarily Irish, as reflected on page 13 of the report.) And where did the 97% figure come from? According to page 86, that’s the percentage of women who advertised on Escort Ireland as non-Irish. On page 23 they allow that the percentage of Irish women over all forms of indoor prostitution could be up to 13%; presumably this is also derived from those non-EI internet searches and conversations with sex workers and service providers, but I can’t find any other explanation for that figure in the report.

Incidentally, I’m not disputing that there are at least 1,000 women selling sex in Ireland at any one time. In fact I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it was higher. But that’s just my own guesswork – I’m not trying to pass it off as research data. If I was going to do proper research into the numbers involved in the sex industry (all grant offers considered!), you can bet I would be a bit more careful about my evidence than the drafters of this motion were.

I also don’t take issue with the claim that most sex workers in Ireland are migrants. Turn Off the Blue Light accepts this to be the case, and they’re better placed to know than I am. But it is nonsense to cite specific figures, even within a ten-point range. The sex trade is simply far too complex and hidden to throw out numbers based on data from one internet site and conversations with a few people associated with the industry.

On a final point about this report, I note that page 86 urges caution with the fact that 41.9% of Escort Ireland advertisers are listed as “EU 15 states” (and therefore, presumably, very unlikely to have been trafficked). It notes the possibility that they may actually be from further afield but think “women from Europe have more appeal to men who buy sex”. Meanwhile, on page 23, it refers to the “growing demand for migrant women” in the industry. Nowhere does it put two and two together and consider the possibility that some of those advertising as foreign nationals on Escort Ireland may really be Irish women hoping to profit from a desire for the exotic.

• There is clear evidence of children who have been trafficked in Ireland specifically for the purpose of prostitution. (Kelleher 2009; AHTU annual report 2010)

The cites here are from police and NGO projects in which children have been specifically identified as victims of trafficking for prostitution. The criteria for identification may sometimes be questionable, but this statement is expressed in general enough terms that I don’t think there’s really any reason to dispute it. But buying sex from children is already illegal; I don’t know why it’s deemed relevant in a motion calling for criminalisation of those who buy sex from adults.

• Notes evidence from Sweden and Norway which shows that criminal sanctions for the purchase of sex are a proven a deterrent to prostitution and consequently to trafficking and also to organised crime. (Mc Leod et al. 2008) (Claude 2010).

The only thing I can find that looks like it might be “Mc Leod 2008” is this piece which is titled “Challenging Men’s Demand for Prostitution in Scotland”. Great referencing, there. That report cites from such reliable data as a police officer asserting that Sweden has less prostitution than its neighbouring countries (something that was claimed to be the case long before the sex-purchase ban was brought in), and another report which cites data from the first two years after the law was brought in. As I’ve pointed out elsewhere on this blog, however, more recent data make those claims impossible to substantiate.

“Claude 2010” is this document, and the sole statistic it cites (page 11) in support of the claims made in the motion is a decrease in the number of Swedish men who admit to buying sex, in polls taken in 1996 and 2008 – that is, before and after it was criminalised. Does anybody really believe this is a reliable way to measure it?

Interestingly, the same report also admits (page 14) that “the problems related to prostitution and human trafficking still remain significant” in Sweden, and quotes a policeman to the effect that street sex workers are regularly raped and do not report it (page 15). On the latter page another Swedish policeman states that “Sometimes the work seems hopeless, as there is a constant stream of new women ending up as prostitutes in deplorable situations…I also believe that, sooner or later, what we do for the girls on the street will produce results.” (emphasis added). Isn’t that a tacit admission that what they’re doing isn’t producing results now? I’m actually rather stunned that this report is cited as if it supports the motion.

Finally, contrary to the motion’s implication, neither the MacLeod nor the Clarke report say anything about how the law has worked – or not – in Norway.

• Further notes that International Conventions repeatedly call for efficient measures to deter demand for prostitution, which is recognised as an efficient approach to reduce sex trafficking (Article 6, Council of Europe’s Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings 2005; Article 9(5), UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish the Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children 2000)

The actual terminology used in these treaties is that states shall “discourage the demand that fosters all forms of exploitation of persons, especially women and children, that leads to trafficking”. On the face of it, that may indeed look like it’s requiring states to deter demand for prostitution.

But this is why it’s important to read laws in their full context. Neither the CoE convention nor the Palermo Protocol is about sex trafficking specifically – both refer to the full range of human trafficking, including labour trafficking and organ removal. Articles 6 and 9.5 respectively do not single out sex trafficking from the other types, and thus must also be interpreted as referring to the full range of human trafficking. To read them as requiring states to “deter demand for prostitution” is as logical as reading them to require states to “deter demand for domestic work” or “deter demand for transplantable kidneys”. Exploitation and abuse are the targets of international law, not the exchange of sex for money between two freely consenting adults.

• Proposes that the Government develops effective and appropriate responses to deal with prostitution and trafficking for sexual exploitation. Therefore we call on the Government to introduce legislation criminalising the purchase of sex in Ireland in order to curb prostitution and trafficking for sexual exploitation.


Senators Katherine Zappone, Fiach MacConghail, Jillian van Turnhout, Martin McAleese, Marie Louise O’Donnell, Eamonn Coghlan

In case anyone is curious what bright sparks came up with this text. On your dime.

Dodgy Stat Diary, Day 1

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.