Broadcast on:BBC Radio- trafficking estimates in england debunked

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Broadcast on:BBC Radio- trafficking estimates in england debunked



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Broadcast on:BBC Radio 4, 1:30pm Friday 9th January



Hello,... Tim Harford*


This week we'll be talking about sex, money and very big numbers. 


'The idea that you can just write very big numbers as big or as small as you like is a very powerful idea.  And that's an essentially a Babylonian one.'


Yes, if you're worried about hundreds of trillion drift markets, blame Babylon.  ... come back to Babylonian mathematics.. and separately the mathematics of the credit crunch later..


First, money and sex, and I have to warn you that this item includes some explicit descriptions of sex work.  It isn't illegal to pay for sex in England and Wales, but the government has been planning to create a new offence.  A man who pays for sex with a woman who has been trafficked, or is under the control of a pimp or drug dealer, could soon be prosecuted.  And it's a strict liability offence, meaning it's no defence to say that you didn't know or couldn't reasonably have known that the woman wasn't acting of her own free will.  Opponents of this proposed new law have asked how are the punters meant to know. 


Fiona Mactaggart, a supporter of the bill and a former Home Office minister has an answer:  'Well, I think they can guess.  Something like 80% of women in prostitution are controlled by their drug dealer or their pimp or their trafficker.' 


If that's true, it's easy to see the importance of a change in the law.  There have been some horrific stories in the past few years of girls duped into coming to the UK for a job as a waitress or a nanny only to be forced into what's effectively sexual slavery.  The fact that some prostitutes are forced to have sex with punters is one of the key justifications for a change in the law. But that figure of  80% of prostitutes being trafficked or otherwise controlled by others is shockingly high. Where does it come from?  


[telephone rings several times] 

Good afternoon.  How can I help you?

Ah, I was just wondering what sort of girls you have .. where they're from?

 Yes.  .. Some stunning ladies.  Natasia, a Spanish lady, she's twenty years old...  [conversation fades out - talk over by presenter]


Believe it or not, this is how some research in the area, funded by the Home Office no less, was carried out.  Researchers posing as potential customers flicked through adverts for massage parlours and escort agencies, phone up and ask whether they offer sexual services, and what the nationalities of the women are who work there. 


[more telephone responses -5ft 7 tall with green eyes and long honey-blond hair and all services are available today .


From that information they hope to gain some idea how many women are trafficked.  But how?


That's the question. 


Julia O'Connell Davidson, professor of Sociology at Nottingham University, and an expert on trafficking and the global sex trade.


J O D: Their research found that 80% of sex workers were described by receptionists as foreign.  And they elided trafficked and migrant women working in prostitution, so that the finding that around 80%  of women working in indoor  prostitution establishments were described as migrants was treated as evidence that sex trafficking is a huge and growing problem.


Professor O'Connell Davidson and her colleagues thought that this research didn't tell us much either way about the problem of sex trafficking.  They did their own research replicating the technique of getting researchers to ring and ask about nationalities, but also asking additional questions about exactly what was available from kissing to a great deal more.


[recorded telephone inquiry]: Do you do full service. Do they kiss?


We've spared you the full details, but let's just say that I eventually stumbled on the discovery that these particular women would do an awful lot more than just kiss. I was quoted prices for a series of sexual services from the mundane to the more extreme. But it would be wrong to assume you could buy any sexual service simply by calling a massage parlour. When Professor O'Connell Davidson's team tried to get prices for more extreme services they were frequently told they were not available, despite the price premium they would have commanded.  [5.07]


J O D: We found that quite a high percentage of establishments reported that their workers would be willing to kiss, but less than a third of establishments said their workers would provide particular forms of prostitution. 


What conclusion did you draw from that?


J O D: Well, information on services and prices that are gathered in this way comes with a big methodological health warning, I'd like to say.  But nonetheless I do think that those findings challenge the idea that 80% of female prostitutes in London are held in what is stereotypically represented as sex slavery because when women and girls are locked into buildings and forced to provide secual services to clients by a violent third party they are not normally given a choice as to which sexual service they provide, it suggests to me that more sex workersin indoor prostitution  in London exercise more control over the details of their working practices  than a lot of commentators believe.


Now another possible source of data is to see what happened when the police raid an establishment with the aim of freeing sex workers who have been forced to perform sexual services.What's happened when the police have done that?


J O D: In 2006 the police conducted the first operation Pentameter and Pentameter 1 involved 515 raids on indoor prostitution establishments in the UK and Ireland over a four month period and it led to 232 arrests and what's described as the rescue of 84 women and girls who are believed to have been trafficked. And that was followed by Pentameter 2 in 2007 and again the results don't match the hype,  822 premises were visited and 167 victims were identified.


So that's over 1300 premises raided in total. These were the ones specifically targeted by police as likely to be abusive and around 250 women resuced. That suggests that the proportion of women in forced trafficking situations while disturbing is very much lower than 80%. If there were four women per massage parlour then less than 5% were rescued by police raids. It's all rather murky for obvious reasons. In fact we don't even know for sure how many prostitutes there are working in the UK. The consensus is there are about 80,000, that figure comes from research done ten yeas ago by Hilary Kinnel. When she was working for an organisation providing health services to sex workers.


HK: The figure was picked up by all kinds of people and quoted with great confidence but I was never, myslef, at all confident about it,I felt that it could be higher but it also could be lower.


Hilary Kinnel had contacted the projects who provided services for sex workers to ask how many prostitutes they were working with. She got in touch with 120 projects.


HK:  I had 17 responses and the average per project was 665. I then multiplied that figure by the number of agencies that I was then in touch with that were offering a service of some kind to sex workers in all parts of the UK. That multiplier was 120 and that brought the total up to very close on 80,000 which is still being quoted and I find that quite bizarre really.


Hilary was the first to point out the possible problems with this method. The centres responding might be larger than most. Some sex workers might use more than one centre and some might not be on the radar at all. Yet over time these caveats have been forgotten and only the number remains. Here is another number. There are over 25,000 sex slaves in the UK. That statistic was cited with great confidence last year by Dennis MacShane,  a Labour MP. It is a figure that Julia O'Connel Davidson has heard repeated on a regualar basis by journalists and others since, even though in her opinion the numbers don't make sense.


J O D: MacShane said that it came from an article in the Daily Mirror in 2005 and he said I was once a Daily Mirror reporter so I trust the report. The same Daily Mirror report said that many of these women were being forced to have sex with up to 30 men a day so if you do the maths then we are talking about 750,000 men every single day managing to go out and find a sex slave to exploit. And that is a lot of people and you have to wonder also I think, if politicians really believe figures like that then what do they think the police are playing at. How is it that three quarters of a million men can find a sex slave every day but when highly trained police officers  run a special nationwide operation lasting months they can only find at best a couple of hundred women that they think might be victims of trafficking.


I wanted to put all of this to Fiona MacTaggart, the former Home Office Minister, who is a champion of the planned legislation. I began by reminding her that she had claimed that something like 80% of women in prostitution are controlled by their drug dealer, or their pimp or their trafficker, and asking her where that number came from.


FM: Inevitably  it is very difficult to get exact numbers here but it is a combination of studies many conducted by universities and so on which are quoted in the Paying the Price Home Office document where for example they demonstrate that between 60% and 93% of women in studies are drug addicted which demonstrates that a very high proportion of women become prostituted before they are 17, more than half in most of the studies, as well as the information of the UN rapporteur on trafficking who suggests  that there is a very large extent of trafficking that most of it is women and children and that the experience of most women in prostitution is akin to that of being trafficked. So I think it is very difficult to get accurate figures in something that is an  illegal activity in many of its forms but neverthless I think that all the studies that have been done point to the same direction.


But what did she make of Julia O'Connell Davidson's telephone research showing that

certain sexual services were not available at certain establishments.


FM: I am not an academic but one of the things that I have noticed is that academics I this field start with a stance and tend to collect evidence that supports that stance. Now I am sure that if you telephone massage parlours people will say they are not prepared to provide those sort of services,  that doesn't necessarily mean that some of the people in that massage parlour aren't controlled. You can't be sure of that.


Agreed. You have suggested that academics pick and choose their data but I do wonder whether politicians also pick and choose their data. Your researcher has sent us a source that says that 80% to 95% of all prostitution is pimp-controlled. We have checked it out and that refers to a study of street prostitutes in San Francisco in 1982, so possibly not directly relevant to the UK experience.


FM: Absolutely, probably not. I'm sorry I didn't ask her to send that information to you. The studies that I have quoted to you are all studies that were cited in the Home Office's Paying The Price evidence.


They have tended to elide the distinction between foreign women, there is pretty good evidence that about 80% of prostitues are foreign and there is some evidence to elide the difference between foreign women and trafficked women.


FM: If you look at the report of Sigma Huda who is the UN rapporteur on trafficking. One of the things she says is the experience of being prostituted is akin to the experience of trafficking because of the lack of control that most prostituted women have over their lives. It is quite true that many of the women in prostitution are not trafficked in the rather graphic sense that might be described in the red top newspapers, ie, they might have perhaps travlled unlawfully to Britain then effectively been  economically trapped into selling their bodies which is not something they intended to do when they came here. Their lives are pretty controlled. The drug addicted women that I am particularly concerned about which are the common experience of street prostitutes in Britain are controlled by their addiction and their dealers and their pimps and we know that largely because of the extent of violence against those women. The BMA's figures and I think they are pretty compelling suggest that they're 40 times as likely to die a violent death as other women.


Street prostitution is not representative of all prostitution.


FM: I never said it is.


True.I am interested in, again you have been citing these very high figures, 80% of women controlled for the gain of others.


FM: No that is not what I said. I said controlled by their pimps, their traffickers or their drug dealers and is a drug dealers control over a woman's life for the gain of others? I'm not sure about that, but he certainly controls her life.


(Thanks to) Fiona MacTaggart. Now we went back to the Home Office report Paying The Price to which she referred and we couldn't find the figure that 80% of prostitutes are controlled by pimps, drug dealers or traffickers. We did find a statement that trafficking takes place on a much smaller scale than people smuggling and we also find a statement that the Metropolitan Police believe 70% of London's off-street prostitutes are foreign nationals. The Home Office have told us they do not endorse or use the figure that 80% of prostitutes are controlled by others.



susan davis susan davis's picture

another example of skewed evidence.......