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Choice on offer in brothels not consistent with sex trafficking

Claims that most off-street prostitutes have been “trafficked” are overegged. Corn colonel

Cases in which women or children have been forced into prostitution under the violent control of a third party are often described as the tip of a very large iceberg. One of the principal statistical claims often presented in support of this view is that around 80% of female sex workers in Britain are foreigners, most of whom have been “trafficked”.

This claim derives from “Sex in the City”, a 2004 study by the Poppy Project, an NGO that provides accommodation and support services for “victims of trafficking” in the UK. This study comprises a telephone survey of indoor prostitution establishments and escort agencies in London, which enquired about “the location of each place, the numbers of women available, and their nationalities/ethnicities”.

The survey found that out of 8,000 sex workers in London, 80% were described as “foreign”. This finding, which has gone so far as to be submitted in memos to parliamentary committees, was set among anecdotal evidence from sexual health outreach projects and examples of individual cases of forced prostitution. The study concluded that: “Inevitably, many of these women will have been trafficked into the United Kingdom”.

At the time this report was published, Bridget Anderson and I were working on ESRC funded research on the markets for migrant domestic and sex workers in the UK and Spain. When the Poppy Project’s study emerged, we identified various methodological problems with its research design. Given its overlap with our own research, we decided to replicate Poppy’s mapping exercise for our project; however, we also asked some additional questions to see what light we might shed on its claims about trafficking.

What’s on offer and what it means

Our added questions included asking about the services offered in each establishment (whether workers were willing to provide anal sex, oral sex without a condom and whether they were willing to kiss clients) and the prices charged for both vaginal and anal sex.

Using the methods the original authors described, we were only able to contact 148 establishments in London, whereas they reported contacting 730. Still, our findings were very similar as regards workers’ nationalities: only 20% were described as British. With regard to the services on offer, we found a high percentage of establishments reported their workers to be willing to kiss (73%). More disturbingly given the associated health risks, 60% reported that workers would be willing to provide oral sex without a condom.

However, less than a third of establishments reported that workers would provide anal sex; in only a quarter of cases was our researcher told that anal sex and oral sex without a condom and kissing would be available to him. There was also a significant difference between prices quoted for vaginal and anal sex. The mean price for a “full personal service” (vaginal sex) across all establishments contacted was £64, whereas the mean for anal sex was £97.

Any information on workers’ nationalities, services and prices gathered in this way comes with a strong methodological health warning. Still, these findings nonetheless pose a strong challenge to the idea that most of London’s indoor female sex workers are held in what is stereotypically represented as “sex slavery”. As evidenced in documented cases of forced prostitution, some of which are cited in the Poppy Report, women and girls who are locked into buildings and violently coerced into sex with clients are not normally given a choice as to which sexual services they provide.

Why, after all, would a “trafficker” who exercised total and direct control over a woman’s prostitution force her to kiss clients and provide oral sex without a condom, but allow her to refuse to provide anal sex when a client requested it? Why would such an individual instruct receptionists to tell prospective clients that anal sex is available, but not oral sex without a condom, or that workers are willing to provide oral sex without a condom but not to kiss?

The fact is that in 69% of cases our researcher, posing as a prospective client and asking “Does she do anal?” was told “No”, even though anal sex is a significantly more lucrative service. This suggests that more sex workers in indoor prostitution in London exercise rather more control over the details of their working practices than many commentators believe.

Meanwhile, receptionists in three-quarters of the establishments surveyed told our researcher that he would be refused at least one of the three services he named. This further undermines the assumption that overwhelming physical force or its threat is being used to subordinate most of London’s female prostitutes to the will of a “trafficker” or “pimp”. Nor does this constitute evidence that the remaining 25% must all be working under duress, since some independent sex workers are willing to provide all three services. All in all, our telephone survey (alongside other research) suggests that only a minority of sex workers are subject to the violent control of a third party.

As I have written before, this should by no means be taken to imply that there is no such thing as coerced prostitution, or that those in the sex trade who are not subject to it are making a positive choice to sell sex. Indeed, that the groups apparently over-represented in prostitution (poor women, especially lone parents, and migrants) are particularly pressurised by our current welfare and immigration regimes suggests that prostitution is very likely a least-worst option for many people involved in it.

Instead, what this and similar insights do demand is that we ask whose interests are served by indiscriminate raids on indoor prostitution establishments, currently represented as efforts to “rescue” women held in “sex slavery”. Like the Poppy Project’s research, such raids conflate migrants in the sex trade with “victims of trafficking” – at least, until they have been taken into custody, at which point they are most likely to find themselves re-categorised as “immigration offenders”.

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