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The Dark, Lurking Horror of Parenting Girls

The Dark, Lurking Horror of Parenting Girls



Here’s some common rape – prevention tips  “Don’t drink too much”, “Don’t wear anything too revealing”, “Text a friend  to let them know your plans”, “Hold your keys in between your fingers” and of course “Never, ever walk down a darkened alleyway”.  These are the things young women are being told by parents, teachers and society. I understand that the reason people are saying these things to women and girls is because they don’t want anything bad to happen to them. But do they actually prevent women from being sexually assaulted?

In the majority of cases I don’t believe they do.

All these rape-prevention tips are attempts to keep away the monstrous stranger. But as statistics collected by R.A.I.N.N show 3 out of 4 rapes are committed by someone known to the victim.

So, with this in mind what are we teaching girls about that? Are we telling them to watch out for the man who lives next door/the older cousin/the guy you’ve been dating for 6 months/his best friend? Are we teaching them that 1 in 4 relationships are abusive and that you need to know the signs of abuse before embarking on one? Are we teaching them how to spot the signs of an entitled person? How to spot status seekers?  How to rid their lives of anyone who treats them with disrespect? Are these things fundamental to every parenting book/school class room?

I wonder also why most campaigns focus on women, putting the onus on them not to get raped or be assaulted. Violence against women seems to be the one area where the focus is on potential victims to take responsibility for decreasing their chances of being attacked. I’ve never seen a poster giving tips to stop me being potentially run over by a motorist , or a poster  warning me on the dangers of being in the presence of someone smoking. So why in this one area of violence against women, are poster and ad campaigns directed at potential victims? Another issue with these campaigns  is that most of the campaigns I’m aware of seem to promote the idea that sexual assault occurs between strangers. I’m yet to see a campaign that aims to impart the knowledge that 75% of assaults happen between people who know each other. Why are most campaigns ignoring the statistics on this? And where are all the campaigns reaching out to the perpetrators of these crimes?

According  to the UN It is estimated that “35 per cent of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or sexual violence by a non-partner at some point in their lives. However, some national studies show that up to 70 per cent of women have experienced physical and/or sexual violence from an intimate partner in their lifetime”. So, if you’re a woman or a girl you’ve got a 35 – 70% chance of being sexually or physically abused by a man. And these statistics are not taking into account other forms of abuse – verbal, emotional/psychological, financial abuse and cyber abuse (unsolicited dick pic anyone?)

I don’t know ONE WOMAN who has not been subjected to something on this list of awful. Not one. That’s 100% of the women I know who have been abused in some form by a man. I can hear the ‘not all men’ brigade jumping in at this point, and I want to say – Sure, not ALL men, just  enough that 35 – 70% of ALL women will experience abuse or assault.  Plus these statistics are based on reported incidents of crimes against women. And many women do not report.  If I had of reported every assault against me I would have spent most of my 20’s and 30’s in copshops and courtrooms.

I have lost count of the amount of times I have been harassed online or physically/sexually/verbally/emotionally or financially abused by men. At a rough guess I’d say maybe 200 men have combined to abuse, denigrate, assault or intimidate me over the course of my life. 200 DIFFERENT men that is.

I did a rough survey of women’s experiences on a few women-only groups that I’m part of on Facebook, to find out if my experience was unusual. Women shared having experienced varying degrees of abuse and assault with a couple of women saying they also felt it would be up to 200 men who had been abusive to them in their lifetimes. Other women said they had had one bad experience only. It was by no means a scientific study but it gave me a slightly broader view on what was happening outside of my circle.

I can’t help but wonder what the statistics would be if there was an official system in place for reporting crimes against women – one where women could share their experience regardless of if they want to pursue anything legally (if they are fortunate enough to live in a country where the crimes against them are considered to BE crimes that is). Or even something like the Everyday Sexism site, which collects and collates women’s experiences from around the globe.

Every time I read official statistics on rape and sexual assault I feel angry that none of my experiences are counted in those statistics. And it is too late for me to report them now, the first time I was raped was 20 years ago and in another country. Plus being a witness at a rape trial when I was 17 significantly deterred me from reporting any of the crimes committed against me.  I know I am not alone in that most women do not report this kind of crime, especially when they know the person who has committed it, which as we know is in 75% of cases.

The dark, lurking horror for me as a parent of two girls is that I know there is little chance they will escape this. I know in my woman’s heart what most likely waits for them.  It is frighteningly likely that at some point a man is going to try and hurt my daughters.

Given all I know about abuse and assault I feel that it is my job to prepare my daughter’s for the likely possibility of being assaulted or abused. Of course I never tell them that I think they might be assaulted, instead I teach them about consent and boundaries, so they know what is and isn’t ok. I teach them about respecting their own and other’s bodies. I want the lines to be SO clear for my beautiful girls. I want no doubt in their minds when someone crosses a line. I want them to KNOW it is wrong.

I teach them what I was never taught, to be fierce. To be so fierce that they feel comfortable yelling and shouting at anyone who makes them feel uncomfortable or wrong. I want them to know how to scream and what to scream.

I practice scenarios with my teenage daughter, “A guy does this to you, what do you do?”  I say, “You need to scream as loud as you can for help.” I teach them that no matter how well they know the person that they should act like he is a stranger because people are more likely to help a woman who is being accosted by a stranger than get involved with a ‘domestic’.

I teach them emotional intelligence, so they can articulate what happens to them. I teach them resilience so, if they need it, they can heal. So if it happens my girls will be strong within, are less likely to fall to pieces, or to lose weight, friends and jobs because of what has happened to them.  Alongside of all of this I’m trying to teach my daughters that there are also lovely men out there, that they can trust, men who are allies, men who are respectful and that hopefully these will be the majority of the men they encounter. And while I’m doing this a little voice inside me is saying  “it just takes one.” One man to hurt my child.

And while I’m teaching my girls all the things no one ever taught me and I wish they did, I’m thinking “Fuck this awful world, that is making me teach my daughters to prepare for what feels like their inevitable assault. Fuck this.” And I’m getting angry about it, so fucking angry.

Because I know that this could all change in one generation. If we were all teaching our sons to be respectful to women (and each other) this would change. If there were actual consequences for being disrespectful towards women – this would change. If men were speaking out to other men, calling them on their sexist bullshit – this would change. If society actually gave a shit about women – this would change.

Because who wants to live in a world where parents have to prepare their daughters for abuse by men?

Not me.


Taryn Gleeson  red web


Taryn De Vere is an eccentric dresser, a writer, mother of 5, a conscious relationship coach for, performance artist , and a sex positive parenting educator 









Sex trafficking in the Netherlands: should we believe the hype?

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At some point in any debate over the legal status of sex work, supporters of prohibitory laws will invariably claim that sex trafficking has skyrocketed in the Netherlands since prostitution was legalised there, that this is a known fact not even disputed by the Dutch authorities and that this proves that legalisation and decriminalisation lead to an increase in sex trafficking.

It’s an argument that has always annoyed me, first because of its obvious cause-and-effect fallacy and second because the Dutch model is not one that is supported by any sex workers’ right advocate that I know of. It’s not unlike invoking the USSR to argue against socialism – in fact, it’s just another logical fallacy, the straw man.

Nonetheless, it’s something that comes up so often I thought it really couldn’t be ignored, so I had a look at the most recent (2010) Report of the Dutch National Rapporteur on Trafficking in Human Beings. The Rapporteur’s role is described on this page:

The Rapporteur’s main task is to report on the nature and extent of human trafficking in the Netherlands, and on the effects of the anti-trafficking policy pursued…

The Dutch Rapporteur works independently and reports to the Dutch government…

The Bureau of the Dutch Rapporteur of Trafficking in Human Beings keeps in contact with and gathers information from individuals, organisations and authorities involved in the prevention and combating of human trafficking and in giving assistance to trafficking victims.

For their information, the Rapporteur and her staff have access to crimnial [sic] files held by police and judicial authorities. Because human trafficking often occurs across borders, the Bureau also has many contacts abroad and co-operates with international organisations.

This, I think, is as close to an “authoritative” source as we’re going to get. The usual caveats about measuring hidden/illegal economies obviously apply.

So let’s go straight to the statistics, which are maintained by a body called CoMensha. As sex work opponents claim, these do show a significant increase since the law reform of 2000. Here’s the chart on page 92:

So, case closed? Well, hardly. The Rapporteur herself states that:

The likely explanation for the increase is the intensification of investigations by the police and the public prosecution service, as well as the growing attention to human trafficking. It is also possible that there is greater awareness (and in more agencies) of the need to report victims of human trafficking to CoMensha.

[internal references omitted]

In other words, the numbers aren’t actually increasing, we’re just finding more of them. The Rapporteur could of course be entirely wrong about this; perhaps the recorded increase does reflect a real increase as well. I quote her here only to point out that what sex work opponents portray as an undisputed fact actually isn’t.

But even if you take her words with a grain of salt (she may be independent of the government, but she’s still appointed by them), there are a number of problems with these figures. The first becomes apparent after a moment’s glance at the chart: the number of detected victims actually remained fairly steady for a few years after the law reform, and in fact was significantly lower in 2003 than it was in 2000. Bear in mind, these are only detected victims, and the actual number could have varied in either direction. But on the face of it the numbers don’t seem to support the claim that legalisation itself is behind the increase. You might expect there to be some lag in the law’s effects, but a sharp increase after an initial slump strongly suggests there’s something else going on there.

The real spike in the numbers occurred after 2005, and it should be apparent from the shape of the curve that something significant happened at that point. Sure enough: in 2005 the Dutch law on trafficking was amended, to cover non-sexual labour and the trade in organs as well (previously it had only applied to sex trafficking). So, a certain amount of that increase has nothing to do with the sex industry. How much of it? Well, on pages 174-175 the total number of victims specifically linked to the sex sector in the years 2007, 2008 and 2009 is given as 338, 473 and 419 respectively. So here is that chart again, with the number of reported sex trafficking victims for those years noted in red:

In fairness that probably understates the case a bit, since in each of those years there were upwards of 200 reported victims whose sector of exploitation was unknown. I’ll come back to this in a minute, but for the time being we can reasonably assume that some of these were in the sex sector. Even taking that into account, though, it must be clear that the expansion of the trafficking law beyond the sex industry has a lot to do with the impression of a recent trafficking explosion.

Another interesting point is made on page 91. While the usual reaction to statistics like this is to assume that they underrepresent the real numbers – because so many victims go undetected (something I certainly acknowledge) – there is also the possibility that they overstate the case as well. The Rapporteur explains:

it is possible that the persons reported to CoMensha are not all actually victims, so the number of registered victims could also be higher than the actual number of known victims in the Netherlands. This is because there is no formal assessment based on specific criteria by which the registered person’s status as a victim can be verified.

The broad categories of “notifiers” (persons and groups reporting victims to CoMensha) are charted on page 99:

This looks to me as though basically anyone can report a “trafficking victim” to CoMensha, and CoMensha will include that person in its data without ensuring they truly qualify. That must call into question whether the numbers have been inflated through misrepresentation of their actual victim status. A footnote on page 91 says that “very vague reports” will not be registered, but also that CoMensha “has no firm criteria for defining a ‘vague report’”. Also worth pointing out is this bit on page 111:

For almost a third of the victims reported to CoMensha since 2007, it is not known whether they had already been exploited or, if they had been exploited, in which sector.

There are two separate issues here. First, what exactly are the criteria for identifying someone as a trafficking victim if they have not “already been exploited”? I don’t think that identification would be unjustified if, say, they were intercepted en route to a brothel when they thought they were being taken to work in a restaurant, but it’s not at all clear whether that level of certainty is being applied. (I’m reminded of the often-cited statistic of 100,000-300,000 children trafficked in the US every year, which actually refers to children who are simply deemed to be “at risk” of sexual exploitation because of their personal circumstances, such as runaways, and may never actually face exploitation at all.) There’s clearly potential here for erroneous inflation of numbers – and certainly for the statistics to include people who might not be included in the statistics of other countries which only count the “already exploited”.

The second issue is the part about it not being known which sector the victims were exploited in. As mentioned above, these unknowns have accounted for more than 200 trafficking cases per year. What exactly does it mean for a sector to be unknown? That the notifier didn’t know the sector, or that they knew it but didn’t report it? I can certainly accept, given the nature of human trafficking and the trauma its victims can suffer, that it may be possible in some cases to recognise that a person has been trafficked without being able to ascertain the sector. But 200+ per year strikes me as an awfully high number of indeterminate-sector cases, and I would have to question whether some of these reports can really be taken as evidence that trafficking occurred at all. If on the other hand the notifier simply didn’t include the sector in their report to CoMensha, that question doesn’t arise – but you would wonder why CoMensha wouldn’t go back to the notifier and ask for clarification, since it’s a pretty important variable.

Another interesting thing I noticed was in the tables indicating the nationality of victims (pages 160-167). These also include the ranking of the top five nationalities – and the number one nationality of reported victims, since 2004, is Dutch. In fact, Dutch victims have accounted for at least a quarter of all reported victims since 2006, and for nearly two-fifths in 2007-2008. I found that extraordinary. It is true that trafficking can occur within state borders, but it’s fairly unusual for a state to recognise its own nationals as trafficking victims, at least on such a wide scale.

It’s difficult to explain this anomaly without more information, such as a breakdown of the sectors in which the Dutch victims were exploited. The only hint is in the fact that the proportion of these victims who were underage has averaged to 30% since 2006, suggesting that the “loverboy” phenomenon may be implicated. But that doesn’t account for the majority of cases. One possibility could lie in the Dutch definition of trafficking, which to my reading is extraordinarily broad. The UN definition is often said to boil down to “movement, control and exploitation”; however, the Dutch law allows for convictions without any “movement” element at all, within or across state borders. Note Article 1.1.6, which defines a trafficker as anyone who “wilfully profits from the exploitation of another person”. I would suggest that applies to more bosses than it excludes.

If the Dutch authorities are applying this broad a definition of trafficking, is it any wonder the numbers are as high as they are?

In fact, when you take all these qualifications into account it’s quite possible the Dutch figures aren’t excessively high at all (by “excessively high” I mean in comparison with other countries; even one case is too many, of course). Let’s go back to that 2009 figure of 419 sex trafficking victims. Seems a lot higher than Sweden’s 2009 number of 34 (see page 35), doesn’t it?

But first of all, they don’t seem to be comparing like with like. Pages 10-13 of that Swedish report discuss the nationality of the victims and from what I can tell they are all foreign; the report refers specifically to people being trafficked into Sweden. Now this could mean that Dutch people are being trafficked in the Netherlands while Swedish people are not being trafficked in Sweden, but more likely is that Sweden simply uses different terminology for its own nationals who experience “trafficking” within Sweden. So, what we need to compare the Swedish number to is not the total number of reported sex trafficking cases in the Netherlands, but the total number of sex trafficking cases of non-Dutch citizens in the Netherlands. We don’t have that exact number, but the Dutch report states that in 2009, 26% of all trafficking victims were Dutch nationals; if we apply that percentage to the sex trafficking victims we get a rounded figure of 109. Subtract that from 419 and we can estimate now that in 2009, 310 people were reported as sex trafficked into the Netherlands.

Next thing we have to look at is who is doing the reporting. The Dutch figures reflect reports from all sources; the Swedish figures reflect only police reports. In 2009 the Dutch police reported 61% of all Netherlands cases. Applying that figure to the 310, we can estimate that the Dutch police reported 189 cases of sex trafficking into the Netherlands. This is still significantly higher than the 34 cases of sex trafficking into Sweden reported by the Swedish police, but you see how the difference narrows when you take greater care to ensure you’re comparing the same things.

We’re left with figures that suggest a sex trafficking rate in the Netherlands around 5.5 times greater than the rate in Sweden. According to Googled World Bank statistics, the Netherlands’ population is around 1.75 times greater than Sweden’s, making the Dutch rate disproportionate by a factor of 3.75 – you’d expect the Dutch police to report 127.5 cases of sex trafficking rather than 189. So that’s 61.5 cases in 2009 that can’t be accounted for by the population difference alone. I can think of several possible reasons for this extra 61.5 that have nothing to do with the legal status of prostitution (other things that make the Netherlands a more attractive destination country, like its location and climate; or the much broader definition of “trafficker” in Dutch law; or operational differences in Dutch and Swedish police approaches to trafficking), but we really are in the realm of pure speculation at this point.

Of course, we’d need a more detailed set of statistics to really compare the two countries anyway. It’s quite possible that there is actually a wide disparity between sex and non-sex trafficking behind the percentages applying to overall trafficking which I used to arrive at that 189 figure. But that disparity could go either way, so it can’t be assumed that I’m underestimating the real difference between reported cases in Sweden and reported cases in the Netherlands. I could, in fact, be overestimating it and the actual figures could be much closer together. The point of this exercise is not to make any claims about the actual rate of sex trafficking in the Netherlands, but simply to show that there is a wide variety of factors behind the reported rates – and that you can’t simply compare sets of figures from two different countries without considering how all these factors could influence the results.

Another relevant question is how the Dutch numbers after law reform compare to the numbers before it. The most recent Rapporteur report doesn’t give figures from before legalisation, but I was able to find them (in somewhat different format) in the First Report, on page 49:

So clearly the problem was growing in the Netherlands even before legalisation, and perhaps the law change was entirely irrelevant to a trend that was developing anyway. However, even if the law itself had an effect, the report suggests this may be due (at least in part) to a reason that is very different to the one put forward by the anti-sex work movement – and it’s a reason that echoes a point I’ve made over and over again on this blog.

To put it in context: In the latest report, the Rapporteur states (page 26) that the purpose of the 2000 law reform was to

legalise a situation that was already tolerated.

The first report had gone into this in much greater detail, saying on page 11 that prior to 2000

in practice a distinction was made between voluntary and involuntary prostitution and the government in principle limited its concern for prostitution to regulating the exploitation of voluntary prostitution and combating involuntary prostitution. Because the ban on brothels…was still in the Penal Code, this policy in practice meant that the exploitation of voluntary prostitution in the Netherlands was in fact tolerated. This toleration developed in the course of time from a passive tolerance to an active tolerance (Venicz c.s., 2000). Passive tolerance meant permitting the establishment of prostitution businesses, as long as they did not cause any inadmissible nuisance or other articles of the law were not infringed. Active tolerance, on the other hand, meant the government taking controlling action so as to guide developments in a particular direction by various measures. A classic example of this is the system of tolerance orders or licences for brothels and other sex establishments used in many municipalities at the end of the 20th century, by which requirements and stipulations were laid down for their establishment and operation. And so in the 20th century the government did take virtually no action against brothels, except in those cases involving manifest abuses, exploitation of involuntary prostitution or disturbance of public order, peace and safety. In spite of an earlier attempt to amend article 250bis Penal Code in the Eighties, the ban on brothels was finally only abolished from the Penal Code on 1 October 2000.

Now, you might read this thinking that the 2000 law didn’t actually change a thing, and that what we should be talking about here is not what happens when prostitution is legalised but when it is tolerated. But there is an important difference between the two, and it’s one that has been noted in the context of Australian law reform as well:

Police, of course, under a legal system which officially legitimises certain forms of prostitution or certain places, are obliged by the government to enforce laws on other prostitution in order to justify the “legalisation”.

So what are the “other forms of prostitution” which were tolerated in the Netherlands until 2000 and are now enforced against? Well, one of them is prostitution by non-EU migrant workers (or those from EU countries excluded from the Dutch labour market). The legality of sex work notwithstanding, it usually isn’t an option for them unless they have residency on some other ground; it is impossible to get a work permit for the Dutch sex sector and very difficult to get recognition as a self-employed sex worker. And thus, as the sex workers’ rights group De Rode Draad told the Norwegian Ministry of Justice in 2004,

The situation for immigrant women has become much more difficult. Formerly these women’s work was tolerated in the same way as other sex workers’. With the legalisation of one group of women, the work of another group of women now becomes illegal. (page 34)

The Rapporteur’s current report doesn’t really go into this, but it does quote from an earlier report (the third) which addressed it in some detail, noting on page 22 that:

A number of NGOs have repeatedly argued that where aliens cannot work legally in the sex industry in the Netherlands but are still interested in doing so, a ban on or obstacle to doing this legally means a considerable risk of becoming dependent on third parties, with exploitation as a potential and harmful consequence. They therefore regard the ban on issuing work permits for prostitution work in salaried employment and the conditions that are or may be imposed on subjects of Association countries who want to come and work in the Netherlands as self-employed prostitutes as encouraging [trafficking].

So in other words, if it is the case that trafficking has increased as a result of legalisation, it’s because of changes in the government’s approach to migrant sex work, not to sex work generally. It’s an issue of immigration law rather than prostitution law. This, I think, is absolutely critical to a proper understanding of sex trafficking in the Netherlands – whether the actual rate is going up, down or sideways.

What about the claims of exploitation in the legal sector? I’ve seen all sorts of statistics thrown around about this, used to justify the argument that you can’t protect sex workers by legalising the industry. The Rapporteur doesn’t cite any data on this topic, but does accept the existence of these abuses and the failure of Dutch policy to adequately address them. On page 140 she states,

the view that entering the profession was an individual’s free choice that should be respected…may have obscured the sight of forced prostitution, especially since establishing a licensing system for the prostitution sector was expected to make licensed prostitution more manageable, and hence lead to eradication of abuses in the sector. Over the last decade, the emphasis in attitudes towards the prostitution sector seems to have shifted to the vulnerability of the sector to human trafficking. Several notorious cases that have shown that widespread exploitation can also take place in the licensed prostitution sector have undoubtedly been a factor in this.

Well, if Dutch lawmakers assumed that licensing on its own would sort out coercion in the sector then it’s hardly any wonder they’ve had problems. If that was all that was needed, there would be no abuse in any legal and regulated sector, and clearly that is not the case. Here, the report shows the risks not of legal prostitution per se, but of a poorly thought-out scheme which lazily equates “legal” with “non-exploitative”. I suspect that if Dutch lawmakers had taken more input from Dutch sex workers when drawing up their law, this might have been pointed out to them.

Since people frequently seem to have trouble grasping this point, I’ll close by reiterating that these reports cannot be assumed to reflect the actual amount of sex trafficking in the countries they relate to. No really accurate, reliable measure is possible – and the true numbers could be either higher or lower. But if one legal model is going to be advocated over another on the basis of the trafficking rates under those models, those doing the advocating have to find some basis to show that a model has the effect they ascribe to it. This requires showing that, as best as can be determined, not only is there more trafficking under one model than under another but also that there is a causal link between the model and the trafficking rate. The Dutch Rapporteur’s report could support the anti-sex work argument on the first count, but the statistics are not sufficiently disaggregated to say for sure: we don’t know enough about them to pull out all the things that the Swedish authorities aren’t counting and make a like-for-like comparison of the numbers.

The report actually does more to support the claim of a causal link, in the sense that it acknowledges risk factors connected directly or indirectly to legalisation (the laissez-faire approach to the licensed sector and the restrictions on some foreign workers). But the crucial thing here is that these are causal links to the Dutch model of legalisation, not to legal prostitution per se. They could just as easily be used to support arguments for the establishment of a proper inspection scheme, or for allowing non-EU migrants to work in the industry – two things that can only happen in the context of legalisation, decriminalisation or de facto tolerance.

So to answer the question in the title of this post: no, but we shouldn’t discount it entirely either. It may be impossible to say for sure whether the Netherlands actually has more trafficking than other countries, but it definitely has a legal regime which in some ways seems to facilitate it. The reasons it does so may not be the ones put forward by the anti-sex work movement – but that doesn’t make the need for change any less compelling.

Radio-debating the Swedish sex purchase ban

Yesterday I took part in a radio discussion with a representative of the Turn Off The Red Light campaign, which seeks the introduction of the Swedish sex trade law in Ireland. We only had seven minutes between us, and unfortunately the time did not end up being divided evenly: we each got to make a brief introductory statement, but in the second round, I was left with only a very short time to respond to quite a lengthy (and obviously well-rehearsed) defence of the Swedish law. And I was asked by the hosts to spend that short time answering a different question entirely, so I didn’t get a chance to respond at all to the points raised in that defence.

On the chance that anyone who listened to the “debate” is reading this blog wondering how I would have responded, I will briefly summarise the points that were made and what I would have said to them if I had had the opportunity. I’m keeping my answers short as if I was actually saying them on the air, but I’m happy to expand on the points if anyone wants me to (though I won’t have the opportunity until after Christmas).

I know the Swedish law is working because I travelled to Sweden last year and saw it for myself.

The speaker is referring to a trip in which anti-sex work advocates were accompanied by Department of Justice officials. I did a Freedom of Information request on that trip and learned that they did not meet with a single sex worker or representative organisation, and only met with supporters of the law. How can you measure whether a law is working if you don’t talk to anyone affected by it?

The law has been very successful at reducing prostitution and trafficking…

Great claims have been made about the Swedish law but there is little evidence to back them up. The Swedish government admitted in its report to UNAIDS last year that they have no idea how much prostitution there is in the country because it is such a hidden phenomenon. Swedish police reports indicate that the trafficking problem has grown significantly over the period since the law was brought in.

… compared to neighbouring countries where the amount is exploding.

Sweden was estimated to have less prostitution than neighbouring countries before the law was ever introduced. It is not surprising that commercial sex would be more visible now in those countries, where it has not been criminalised, than in Sweden where it has. However, the statistics that are being used for those countries are unreliable. In Denmark they derive from a figure that actually represents an estimate of female tourists. In Finland a figure that was specifically stated to be voluntary migrant sex workers has been misreported as “trafficking victims”.

The Swedish people support the law.

The same poll that showed Swedish people are largely in favour of the law also showed that only around 20% think it is actually working. Furthermore, about half of them think that sex workers should also be criminalised under the law.

Young people’s attitudes are changing.

A study carried out by the Swedish youth board only a couple years ago showed that young people have become more, not less, accepting of commercial sex.

We need this law in Ireland where migrants make up more than 90% of the sex industry.

That figure is derived from an audit of the women posting on one particular day on an escort ads website. It doesn’t take into account other sectors of the sex industry, sex workers not advertising on that day or on that site, the possibility of duplicate ads or the possibility of faked “foreign” nationalities. Many of those “migrants” are from Britain or other Global North countries where their nationality does not carry any implication of trafficking – and even those from less well-off countries cannot be assumed to have been trafficked.

[The final point was stated to be in response to my opening comment that there had been no consultation with the people who earn their living by selling sex:]

We have a coalition of one million people.

That is an extraordinary number for an island of only six million; I would be interested to see the evidence for it. But getting other people to support your cause is no substitute for consulting with those whose lives will be affected by the policies you advocate.


It’s fair to say that even if our time had actually been split evenly, I would have needed more time to respond to her points than she needed to make them. But that’s because the issue is more complicated than the simple soundbites that anti-sex work advocates put forward. The fact that they can boil things down to unsupportable claims and dodgy statistics probably goes some way toward explaining why their position is more widely reflected than mine, so in that respect it’s certainly an effective media strategy. It isn’t one I’d be proud of, though, as someone who prefers to deal in facts.

My thanks to DIT Radio for having me on, anyway.

What is a “representative” sex worker?

This is a cliché that anyone who advocates for sex workers’ rights will be familiar with. Faced with a sex worker who defies the abolitionist stereotype of a person physically or economically coerced into prostitution, who thinks their job is ok and isn’t desperate to leave it (but could if s/he wanted to), and who argues that the solution to the negative aspects of sex work is decriminalisation and enforceable rights, the inevitable response is:

You’re not representative. Why should the law be made for you?

This argument is problematic on a number of levels, and deserves a fuller response than I’ve been able to give it when it’s appeared in my comments. So here are my thoughts about it.

First of all, we need to question the basis of the assumption of non-representativeness. Abolitionists making this argument frequently cite this Melissa Farley study which interviewed sex workers in nine countries, and found an overall rate of 89% who answered the question “What do you need?” with (among other responses) “leave prostitution”. This statistic is often cited to make the claim that almost nine out of ten sex workers want out, and the ones who don’t are, you guessed it, not representative.

So what’s wrong with this claim? Well, the first thing you have to do with any survey is look at who the subjects are and how they were chosen. According to the study itself, the respondents were:

Canada: street workers in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, “one of the most economically destitute regions in North America”.
Mexico: Street, brothel, stripclub and massage workers in Mexico City and Puebla. No breakdown is given as to how many were chosen from each sector.
Germany: Subjects selected “from a drop-in shelter for drug addicted women”, from a “rehabilitation” programme, by reference from “peers” (presumably those found at the shelter and rehab programme) and through a newspaper advertisement, the text of which is not reported. Again, there is no breakdown of how many were found by which method.
San Francisco: Street workers from “four different areas”, not identified.
Thailand: A minority were interviewed “at a beauty parlor that provided a supportive atmosphere”, most at an agency providing job training.
South Africa: Subjects interviewed “in brothels, on the street and at a drop-in center for prostitutes”. No breakdown, again.
Zambia: Current and former sex workers were interviewed at an NGO offering sex workers “food, vocational training and community”.
Turkey: The subjects were women brought by police to hospital for STI “control”.
Colombia: Subjects were interviewed at “agencies that offered services to them”.

What is clear from this detail is that there is a heavy selection bias in the sample. It is not clear that any of the sex workers interviewed came from the less vulnerable sectors (ie independent indoor workers, or brothel workers in countries where they have labour, health and safety rights). The large majority clearly did not. Some of them were selected from agencies that cater to people wishing to leave prostitution, which is a bit like selecting people at a jobs fair to find out if they’re looking for work. Moreover, some of them were children, although the study only reports that this was the case in six of the nine countries and does not break down the adult/child division any further.

In short, this study does not tell us how sex workers feel about their work. At most, it may tell us how sex workers in particularly vulnerable sectors feel about their work. That 89% figure simply cannot be generalised to sex workers as a whole.

So here comes the next argument:

But the ones you call “particularly vulnerable” are the majority. The “less vulnerable ones” are (drum roll) not representative.

My answer: How do you know?

This is one of those assumptions that many people seem to consider self-evident. Not even worth questioning. Well, I’m going to question it. Where is the evidence? Where is the comprehensive research that has actually looked across all sectors of the industry – outdoor and indoor prostitution in all its myriad forms – and has actually come up with a reasonably credible estimate of what percentage of sex workers fall into this category or that one?

It simply doesn’t exist – and we’re certainly not going to get one as long as sex work remains criminalised in some parts of the world, stigmatised in nearly all. There isn’t even a universally-agreed definition; many of those who trade sex for some sort of cash-or-kind benefit don’t consider what they do to be prostitution or sex work. So even if you tried to reach all “eligible” populations for research, you probably wouldn’t be able to.

The most we can say without veering off into pure guesstimation is that street prostitution is a minority of all prostitution. How small a minority, nobody knows. In Ireland I’ve heard estimates from people on both sides of the issue that range from 3% to 20%; I’ve never seen an estimate from any other country that placed street prostitution in the majority. This isn’t proof, of course, but it means it’s not really a matter for debate – so we can work from the position that most sex workers are indoor workers. This right away means that the “unrepresentative” studies are those that focus solely or mainly on street workers. Unfortunately, that accounts for a significant amount of sex work research, for the simple reason that street workers are often the easiest population to get to. The far more hidden nature of indoor prostitution makes it unsafe to draw conclusions about the people involved in it. Most of those who work independently, in particular, will never come to researchers’ attention (an aside to certain Irish NGOs and Swedish government officials: they don’t all advertise on the internet) and we will never know how many of them there are.

Note that I am not asserting that a majority of sex workers fall into what I call the less vulnerable categories. It is quite possible that they don’t. But it cannot be proven that they don’t – and to cite Melissa Farley’s 89% statistic as evidence of anything other than the sample interviewed for Farley’s study, is junk science.

But even if we assume the accuracy of the 89% claim, it doesn’t necessarily mean everything that abolitionists think it means. It cannot be assumed that everyone has the same thing in mind when they answer the question “do you want to leave prostitution”. First, we don’t know how the question was translated into all the different languages of the respondents, so we don’t know if there was any ambiguity in the question they were asked. Second, there is some ambiguity in English too, because it could be taken to mean “right now”, “at some point in the next __ period of time” or “ever”. (Irish readers who think I’m splitting hairs with this should consider the polls that show a large majority who “want” a united Ireland.)

A fascinating insight into this question can be found in Nick Mai’s hugely important recent study on migrant sex workers in Britain (that link is to an abbreviated version of the report; I have the full document but can’t find a link to it). Dr Mai’s team spoke to 100 migrant sex workers, many of them undocumented (and hence really really really vulnerable), some of them having suffered exploitation. He asked them if they wanted to leave the sex industry, and sure enough, around 75% said yes. But what were the reasons they gave? It’s boring. It’s repetitive. It isn’t a viable long-term career option. These are not exactly factors unique to sex work. Furthermore, the research makes clear that “wanting to leave the sex industry” does not necessarily translate to being unhappy with one’s experiences in the sex industry.

Nor does it inevitably lead to the conclusion that abolitionists think it does, namely:

Those who want prostitution to be legal are only speaking for the elite minority (sic).

The assumption here is that those sex workers who would rather be doing something else, but don’t have those options, don’t think that what they are doing should be legal. Again, there’s a Farley statistic which seems to back this up: only 34% in her nine-country study gave “legalize prostitution” as a response to “What do you need?”.

But this statistic seems to be an outlier, because other research on vulnerable populations finds the exact opposite:

  • the Nick Mai study referred to above, in which all participants said that decriminalisation would improve conditions for sex workers
  • this study of San Francisco sex workers, in which street-based and drug-addicted sex workers clearly overwhelmingly supported removal of criminal laws and the introduction of laws protecting sex workers’ rights
  • The Christchurch School of Medicine study of the impact of decriminalisation in New Zealand, in which upwards of 90% of street workers felt they had rights under the law, and 61.9% said the law made it easier for them to refuse clients

And here comes the next objection, that

Those studies aren’t (sigh) representative of all prostitution, only First World prostitution.

The claim that the sex workers’ rights movement is a purely white, western phenomenon is one of abolitionism’s biggest falsehoods. In fact, Global South sex workers could teach their Northern counterparts a thing or two when it comes to organising for sex workers’ rights. Here is a videoclip of sex workers in Sonagachi, Calcutta, marching against criminalisation of their industry. Here is a photo of members of the Asia-Pacific Network of Sex Workers holding a banner with their slogan, “Don’t talk to me about sewing machines. Talk to me about workers’ rights” (a reference to their annoyance at “rescuers” whose only interest in them is trying to take them out of the sex trade). Here is a link to Empower, the Thai sex workers’ rights organisation, and here is the African Sex Worker Alliance. You still want to argue that only privileged white westerners think sex work is work? Take it up with them, not me.

None of this should be really surprising, because as I’ve pointed out before, it is precisely the most vulnerable workers who are most adversely affected by criminalisation. For every Heidi Fleiss who goes to prison, how many “Tabithas” do you think there are? The same is true in Sweden, where native, non-drug using indoor sex workers like Pye Jakobsson are relatively shielded from the negative consequences of the law, while those who don’t have the luxury of working indoors have to fend with the clients that don’t care about being arrested, and those who are migrants are simply deported.

I hesitate to draw conclusions about it since it’s such a small sample, but on the rare occasions that I’ve heard a (current) sex worker speak in favour of criminalisation, it’s been because they like the idea that they’re doing something illegal. To prefer working in a criminalised environment because it’s “edgy”, and to be able to afford being so blasé about the risks you’re taking? Now that is fucking privilege speaking.

I’ll wind this up now because it’s already gone on long enough, but there’s one final point I want to make. This entire argument about “representativeness” rests on an odious position – that the (assumed) majority view is the only one worth listening to. That people who don’t fall into that (assumed) majority don’t deserve to have their needs taken into account. This is a position that feminists in particular should be wary about taking: feminism has already alienated so many “minority” women precisely because of its focus on the needs of dominant categories, its failure to understand that it doesn’t always get it when it comes to what women in more marginalised categories need. I would like to think that nowadays, most half-clued-in hetero white able-bodied feminists at least realise that it is not our place to decide who is The Authentic VoiceTM of Black women, or of LBTQ women, or of women with disabilities, so why would we outside the industry assume the right to decide who can speak for other sex workers?

If the aim is actually to improve the lives of people in the sex trade, that has to start with giving them the space to put forward their own views on how it can be achieved. And it means listening to them all. We don’t have to, and indeed logically couldn’t, agree with them all but we need to listen. After all, even the most privileged white western indoor high-class Happy Hooker type knows more about what sex workers need than non-sex workers do.

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.

Swedish police stats show more, not less, prostitution and trafficking

In the latest edition of “Reports The Swedish Government Hopes You Never See”, I’ve been looking over the wonderfully-titled Slutredovisning, prostitution och människohandel  (Final Report, Prostitution and Trafficking) published by the Swedish police in February of this year. Although Sweden issues many of its reports in English, funnily enough this isn’t one of them.

The background to the report is that in September 2008, the Swedish government asked the National Police to

att förstärka insatserna mot prostitution och människohandel för sexuella ändamål (strengthen efforts against prostitution and sex trafficking)

and a police strategy was developed toward this end. That such a request was made is noteworthy in itself, since by 2008 the Swedes and their supporters were already proselytising about the law’s supposed success. If the government was having to ask the police to step up the battle, that suggests a certain level of dissatisfaction with what the law was actually achieving, despite their grandiose claims for it.

There are a few passages scattered throughout the report that I could make mischief with if I were so inclined. For example, page 20 states that police in Västra Götaland county (which includes Gothenburg, Sweden’s second-largest city) saw, during the 2008-2010 period covered by the report,

en dramatisk ökning av rumänska kvinnor som såldes för sexuella ändamål i Sverige (a dramatic increase in Romanian women sold for sexual purposes in Sweden)

which of course also doesn’t fit entirely with how the Swedes have sold their law to the world. But what I was really interested to find was this chart on page 45,  showing the actual police statistics from the report period:

The table’s title, in English, is “number of reported cases 2008-2010 and percentage change”. The text translates as follows:

Pimping and aggravated procuring
Human trafficking for sexual purposes, total
Human trafficking for sexual purposes with person over 18 years
Human trafficking for sexual purposes with person under 18 years
Human trafficking for other purposes, total
Human trafficking for other purposes with person over 18 years
Human trafficking for other purposes with person under 18 years
Purchase of sexual services
Purchase of sexual acts by children

Now, do you notice anything interesting about those figures? That’s right – they’ve all gone up since 2008.  In some cases, they’ve gone up by an absolutely enormous amount. This is a law that deters prostitution and trafficking?

These are only reported cases, of course.  The statistics can’t prove that there has been an actual increase in the number of cases. It could be simply that they’re now detecting more of them, thanks to this new “strengthened effort”. But that doesn’t really help the Swedes’ argument, either, because what it says is that prior to that effort – while they were going around the world telling anyone who’d listen that they were winning their war with the sex industry – in fact, they were only failing to notice it. In other words, criminalisation did not make sex work go away; it just drove it underground. Which is exactly what sex workers and their advocates have always claimed – and what the law’s supporters have always strenuously denied. These statistics have to be seen as rendering that denial wholly untenable.

And since the stats only measure reported cases, it isn’t outside the realms of possibility that the number actually is decreasing even while the police are detecting more. But the Swedish haven’t been arguing that it’s possible the numbers have decreased. Their claim is an assertion of fact. It would be a difficult claim to substantiate in the best of circumstances, given the clandestine nature of the sex industry and the additional layers of secrecy that criminalisation always brings. But when the only metric available says the exact opposite of what is claimed, the claim becomes more than “unsubstantiated”. It becomes false – and probably wilfully dishonest.

Thanks to Arman Maroufkhani for assistance with translations.

Swedish authorities mislead Irish media about sex trade law

In ‘Sex in the New Europe’, anthropologist Don Kulick notes Sweden’s vision of itself as the role model for all of Europe when it comes to social policies. He writes (internal citations omitted):

By identifying particular issues as morally clear-cut ones, and by ‘taking a stand’ on those issues, Sweden can portray itself as a kind of moral beacon that others will want to follow…That Sweden could use its position in the EU to influence the policies of less enlightened member countries was a frequently marshaled argument during the referendum campaign for why Sweden should join the EU. Indeed, while the political right maintained that Swedes should vote to join the EU because membership would ‘Europeanize Sweden’ after too many years of Social Democratic rule, the Social Democratic counterappeal was the messianic vision to ‘Swedenize Europe’. Although sober voices warned that ‘[w]e should not fool ourselves into thinking that we will be so strong in the EU as to change 300 million other people’, the hope that other member states will follow Sweden’s lead on issues it holds important continues to circulate in the country: ‘Sweden has to be a role model’ (föregångsland ) as one article put it.

While I agree with some of the policies Sweden has tried to export, and disagree with others, I have no problem on principle with the attempt to influence other states. If you really think you’re doing the right thing, of course you should encourage others to follow your lead. But any marketing venture ought to abide by certain codes of conduct, a primary one being truth in advertising. And it’s pretty clear, from reading some Swedish materials that are not part of the propaganda effort for their ban on buying sex, that “truth” is a disposable commodity in this campaign.

This has been brought home again by interviews given in Ireland this week by visiting Swedish police authorities. Jonas Trolle, head of the crime surveillance unit in the Stockholm Police Department, was quoted in the Irish Times as stating that

If we talk of specific figures, the number of girls in street prostitution on a night in Stockholm would be five to 10. If we talk about indoor prostitution – found on the internet, about 80 to 100.

Trolle’s assertion that the police know approximately how many “girls” (ugh!) are involved in indoor prostitution – which he quite mistakenly assumes is only found on the internet – runs entirely counter to what the Swedish government told UNAIDS in its 2010 submission:

Estimates of the number of people involved in commercial sex in Sweden vary widely and are very hard to estimate since it is mostly hidden and initiated primarily through the Internet or telephone.

The Times also reports Trolle as making the extraordinary claim that “Trafficking of women and girls into Sweden has been almost eliminated” (note that this is not a direct quote). Yet in September of last year, a Swedish police report stated:

it is difficult to estimate how many people may have been trafficked into Sweden in 2009. The number of trafficking victims found in Sweden depends largely on the resources that the police put in to detect this type of crime. These activities vary from one police authority to another and from one year to another. Nor is it possible to identify, or even to locate, all the girls and women mentioned in tapped telephone calls or observed during police investigations.

Referring to Stockholm alone, the same report says:

The information received during 2009 relates mainly to girls and women from Estonia, Russia, Nigeria, Albania, Hungary, Thailand and Romania…The foreign women who are for sale on the Internet in Sweden are mainly available for sale in apartments and at hotels in Stockholm. By preference, the women are sent to Sweden by ferry from the Baltic States and Finland, but buses are also used as a means of transport. Some women are sent to Sweden by air….As regards the transportation of Nigerian women, they are commonly first exploited in prostitution in Italy or Spain and are then transported further by air to countries such as Sweden. An increased proportion of exploited foreign women have been noted, principally from Albania, Hungary, Romania and Thailand. Occasionally, women from Africa are also being discovered.

Trolle goes on to tell the Times (and this is a direct quote), “Today it is impossible to run a brothel in Sweden”. This is a statement with a built-in escape clause, since the meaning of “brothel” itself can vary widely – for example, in Canada any place regularly used for commercial sex is an illegal “bawdy house”, while under English common law at least two sex workers must use the premises. (Swedish law, of course, doesn’t need to define it, since commercial sex is illegal wherever it occurs.) But the report refers to women

exploited for sexual purposes by people paying for sex in places such as apartments, hotel rooms or Thai massage parlours.

Now whatever about the apartments and hotel rooms, would any abolitionist stand over a claim that a massage parlour being used for paid sex is not a brothel?

Trolle’s colleague Patric Cederlof, Sweden’s National Coordinator against Prostitution and Human Trafficking, repeated to RTÉ News at One the denial that sex work had simply gone underground, again completely contradicting what the Swedish government admitted to UNAIDS last year. His defence of this position was that “if the customers could find these persons, we could find them”. By that logic there must be no illegal drugs trade, no child pornography, no film piracy… after all, given the obscene amounts of money being spent to combat these industries, obviously the police must be capable of keeping up with the consumers, right?

All governments, of course, have a tendency to spin the facts to make their initiatives look successful. But Sweden has more riding on this one than most. As Kulick writes in another fascinating piece, ‘Four Hundred Thousand Swedish Perverts’, the sex-purchase ban is the ‘jewel in the crown of Swedish sex law’, the culmination of that country’s attempt to establish an ‘official sexuality’ from which all deviance is pathologised; this perfect Swedish sexuality can then join the list of the country’s shining examples for the rest of the world to emulate. In a sense, the curious thing isn’t that their officials are misleading other countries about what the law has actually achieved – it’s that they ever admit the truth at all. But clearly they aren’t expecting things like the annual police reports and UNAIDS submissions to be picked up in other jurisdictions – and with the deplorable willingness of foreign media to simply report their propaganda without examining it, it seems their calculations are correct.

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.

Sweden’s sex trade laws: not the answer

(Article by Stephanie Lord and Wendy Lyon)

There has been much debate recently around the introduction of the Swedish model of legislation to criminalise the purchase of sex. Championed by a group of well-meaning NGOs, and some with questionable origins, considerable column inches have been devoted to discussion of the benefits of criminalising the purchasers of sex workers’ services. For those who believe in women’s equality and oppose trafficking, it appears to be a safe enough endeavour to support. We are told by the “Turn Off the Red Light” campaign that all prostitution, regardless of consent, is a form of violence against women; that if demand for paid sex is eradicated, prostitution will end; that this is the best thing for women; that it has decreased prostitution in Sweden; that it reduces the numbers of women and girls trafficked and so on. It is unsurprising that people support this. Everybody is against trafficking, right?

But does it actually work? In short – no. In this debate, where you stand on the morality of a person commodifying their sexual services is irrelevant. If the goal of the Swedish legislative model is to eradicate prostitution and end the exploitation of women – it doesn’t work. To date, no evidence has been produced that the Swedish model has reduced the amount of prostitution. Not a single independent review has found this to be the case. Yes, the Swedish are correct when they say that street prostitution has decreased – but street prostitution in Sweden, as in every other country, is only a tiny percentage of total prostitution. As the Swedish Government’s 2010 Submission to UNAIDS stated, “Estimates of the number of people involved in commercial sex in Sweden vary widely and are very hard to estimate since it is mostly hidden and initiated primarily through the Internet or telephone. Although street prostitution does occur it is assumed to be only a fraction of total prostitution.”[1]

This is really not surprising, as criminalisation has never been successful in deterring prostitution in any country. Further to this, it hasn’t reduced trafficking to Sweden either. Consistent Swedish annual police reports confirm that sex trafficking is there and is even increasing. The law is seen as hindering traffickers from establishing operations in Sweden – but they are still easily able to operate from outside Sweden’s borders, which the police say makes it more difficult to apprehend traffickers.[2] It has also been reported[3] that clients are now less likely to report suspected trafficking cases since it may result in them being charged.

Proponents of the law believe that this model will work because many of them have looked to the Swedish government’s own evaluation of the law[4] – a bizarre approach, considering that most would never take it for granted that an Irish government evaluation of one of its own initiatives painted an accurate picture of reality. The Swedish government’s evaluation of the law has been widely criticised by many commentators – including Sweden’s Discrimination Ombudsman,[5] the Swedish Federation for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights,[6] and the Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare[7] – for its bias, lack of research, unsupported conclusions, unclear methodology and exclusion of sex workers’ own voices. The evaluation said that police had no evidence of increases in off-street prostitution. However, it acknowledged that police do not normally investigate off-street prostitution unless it is linked to trafficking – so how do they know the extent of it?

We do know that in 2010 the number of prostitution reports increased five-fold over the previous year, but Swedish police say this was not due to an increase in prostitution but merely to greater resources being applied to tackle the issue.[8] This is absolute proof that there is a significant amount of sex work going on below the police radar.

More importantly, Swedish sex workers have reported significant adverse consequences as a result of the law – including that it has deterred some of the “ordinary” clients who only want regular sex, but has not deterred the dangerous ones.[9] In short, criminalising the purchase of sex in Sweden has meant for Swedish sex workers that the odds of any particular client turning out to be dangerous are much higher. According to the sex workers – as opposed to their self-appointed spokespersons – since the clients are more nervous about being caught, the decision about whether to accept them has to be made much more quickly and without adequate time to assess whether they are dangerous.[10] For them, the loss of “ordinary” clients now means they have to accept clients they would not otherwise accept, including those who demand sex without a condom.[11] By making direct contact between buyer and seller more difficult, the law is also said to have increased the power of intermediaries (or in common language, pimps).[12]

It has been widely recognised in the HIV/AIDS sector that sex workers who are not able to control their working conditions, most importantly condom negotiation, are at a higher risk of infection.  This is the reason why virtually the entire global health sector supports the decriminalisation of sex work and granting sex workers occupational health and safety rights. The World Health Organization,[13] UNAIDS,[14] the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights,[15] the UN Secretary General,[16] the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health[17] – all of these have called for the removal of laws criminalising commercial sex between consenting adults, primarily because criminalisation is a recognised risk factor for HIV/AIDS.

It is a mistake to assume that criminalising only the clients removes this risk factor. In Sweden’s UNAIDS Submission, only 18.5% of sex workers reported using a condom with their most recent client.[18] The health and safety complaints raised by Swedish sex workers since implementation of the law are virtually identical to those raised by sex workers in jurisdictions where sex-sellers can also be prosecuted.

The Swedish evaluation acknowledged that sex workers feel stigmatised, hunted and stripped of capacity under the new law – but said this was a good thing since the aim of the law is to combat prostitution. [19] To sell this to the Irish public as something that will stop exploitation of women is a lie. It is, in fact, comparable to saying that drug addicts should have to use dirty needles because it might stop them injecting! Although, while we’re on the subject, this is similar to the approach Sweden takes to drug addiction – it has largely rejected harm reduction[20] in favour of penalisation and abstinence-based treatment – which doesn’t work.

Sex workers have been consistently denied a voice in the Swedish debate. So far, they have also been denied a voice in the Irish debate. Last year, the Irish Department of Justice went to Sweden to learn about its policies and did not meet with a single sex worker or representative organisation.[21] It is a major violation of their human rights to adopt a law that affects their lives without giving them a primary role in shaping the debate.

It is important to understand that the alternative to the Swedish or Irish models is not “legalisation” as found in places like the Netherlands, Nevada, and parts of Australia. Those schemes are aimed at controlling the public order aspects of prostitution, rather than safeguarding sex workers’ rights. A truly rights-based approach would look more like the model in New Zealand, in which most sex work is not “legalised” but decriminalised. New Zealand sex workers made a significant contribution to the scheme’s design, and while the law that was ultimately passed is not perfect, it does give sex workers more rights than any other jurisdiction in the world – including an absolute right to refuse a client or service, protection under occupational health and safety legislation, and the important safety mechanism of being allowed to work together, in pairs or small groups.[22] It is hardly surprising that New Zealand sex workers overwhelmingly respond positively to questions about their rights under the law.[23] The same cannot be said about the Swedish law. Not even the Swedish government makes such a claim.

Everybody wants to see an end to forced prostitution and trafficking. Sex workers themselves are very well placed to assist in this campaign, and their contribution should be welcomed and encouraged. The Swedish law does the opposite: it encourages them to avoid police and social services rather than engage with them. Coercion and abuse can never be addressed by making an industry more hidden and denying labour rights to the people working in it. Just as they would in any other sector, it is the exploiters who benefit when we decide that the sex trade is “different” and so basic standards of labour law should not apply.

[1] Government of Sweden, ‘UNGASS Country Progress Report 2010’ p.63

[2] National Criminal Police of Sweden, ‘Trafficking of Human Beings for Sexual and Other Purposes: Situation Report 9’ (2006) p.18

[3] Ministry of Justice and the Police of Norway, ‘Purchasing Sexual Services in Sweden and the Netherlands: Legal Regulation and Experiences’ (2004) p.19

[6] Federation for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights, ‘Prohibition of the Purchases of Sexual Services: An Evaluation 1999-2008

[8] The Local, ‘Big Increase in Prostitution Reports’ (2010)

[9] Ministry of Justice and the Police of Norway (n3), p.13

[10] Johannes Eriksson (Rose Alliance), ‘What’s Wrong with the Swedish Model’ (2006) p.4

[11] Ibid.

[12] National Board of Health and Welfare of Sweden, ‘Prostitution in Sweden 2007’ pp.47-48

[18] Government of Sweden (n1) p.25

[21] Freedom of Information request obtained from Department of Justice (2011).