“Powerful … constructively controversial.” - Telegraph
“As entertaining as it is erudite.” - Observer
“Ambitious, meticulously researched and passionate.” - Independent
"Impeccably well-researched" - Huffington Post
"I disagree with just about everything she has to say" - Julie Bindel

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

The Sexy Bits: Wednesday Roundup 27/4

  • Commentary on last week's 'men worried about porn use' survey and headlines [blog]
A timely reminder that how you select participants for your survey - and how the questions are worded - can drastically affect outcome. I've contacted the researchers who worked on the survey asking to see their questionnaire, sampling methods and raw data; no reply yet.
  • Free Porn Lowers Rape Rates? [blog]
Data suggest the rate of rape is declining hand-in-hand with the increase of broadband access and porn access in the US. Correlation is not causation, but in all the sexualisation hoo-ha it's an interesting topic to ponder.
  • Russians never had sex in space [news]

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Strange Bedfellows

One of the most interesting books I ever read is The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood. It's a novel about a dystopian future America (called Gilead) in which women are categorised by their value as reproductive objects. The story focuses on Wives, the Handmaids who are their husband's concubines, and the Jezebels and Unwomen who can not be integrated into this new, fundamentalist society.

One thing the book touches on is the overlap of far-right and far-left ideals which results in the oppression of women in Gilead. People in the middle, who had no particular investment or opinion either way, got caught in the resulting military dictatorship. They probably approved of some of the early stages without looking into the motives of the people behind them, and implicitly endorsed a future they probably didn't want to live in.

Reproduction in Gilead is regulated by the idea that sex is inherently degrading to women. The book references a past (our present) where feminists teamed up with conservatives in campaigns against pornography. The consequences of this alliance, however, only empowered feminism's worst enemies. Descriptions of the narrator's feminist mother burning books - then being sent to labour camps as an Unwoman - show feminism allying itself with the religious right, then being discarded by those 'allies'.

(When I read this as a teenager it was powerful food for thought. Also, it was kind of nice to read a sci-fi book told exclusively from a woman's perspective, by an authentic female voice. A lot of sci-fi has too much allegory about it for my taste, and the women all end up as traitors or queens. It was refreshing to read a book that had a point to make, but made it with the voice of someone who did not know what the 'right' or 'correct' thing was, or have a particular moral agenda. Offred, the narrator, is in many ways only a vessel. Anyway.)


 Handmaids in the film of the novel, watched over by blue-suited Wives.

Silly as it seems the book has greatly influenced how I interpret, well, loads of stuff. The irony, for instance, of a parent's recent complaint against The Handmaid's Tale being taught at his son's school, because it is "rife with brutality towards and mistreatment of women" and contravenes the school's policies of respect and tolerance.

Wow. Just wow. That is Not Getting It on so many levels, you hardly know where to begin.

And yet... it is only degrees away from a lot of the arguments against adult entertainment, against sex work. It's hard not to feel defensive about sex work when it seems like just about everyone hates you. The right can't decide if you need to be in prison or saved; the left, whether you need to be in a shelter or an 'exiting' programme. There are few accepted stories for sex workers other than Criminal or Victim.

The more closely you look at the key players behind some of the stories popping up lately - particularly ones about trafficking or sexualisation - the more you notice some odd pairings. A group working closely with the anti-gay, anti-abortion US lobbying group Family Research Council using a female MP as the mouthpiece of their opinions on the internet and porn. The well-known UK feminists lending their names to international groups with questionable agendas.

There are so many ways to use women outside of sexual commerce. What is the more damaging - selling a service, or not realising you're selling out?

There's a saying where I come from: you got to dance with the one who brung you. I wonder when everyone gets to the end of their dance cards, what promises they've made and what obligations they'll have to honour.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Sexual Ability

One of the more common questions I am asked as an ex-sex worker is "what sort of a man uses prostitutes"? The answer, if I'm feeling flippant? "All of them."

The reality is that while sex workers can (and we certainly do) have a laugh among ourselves about certain annoying client 'types', it's really no different from a group of friends laughing about non-paid dates. Sex work literally does take all kinds.

One of the most frustrating stereotypes is that of the faceless, nameless, conscience-less "John" who is somehow both ubiquitous (he'd have to be, to be supporting the fictional 80,000-woman-a-year forced sex trade) and at the same time, not a person anyone will admit to having met. Because we'd hate to think people we know bought sex, wouldn't we? And yet, of course they do!

Anyway. One of the best tools to challenging this assumption is asking those who stereotype clients: what about disabled people?


There are all kinds of disabilities, and these have all kind of effects on the sexual lives of people. Some people experience varying degrees of difficulty; others make use of mating-and-dating resources on the internet. Some blog about the ups and downs with sensitivity and eloquence. There are great how-to guides about the mechanics of wheelchair sex on the web. There's all manner of great stuff at Outsiders. And of course there is the legendary Bob Flanagan.

But the truth is, even with help, guidance, and guides, it's just not always easy. And so disabled clients are a significant part of the client base for sex workers. If you have been a sex worker for any length of time, you have had a disabled client. And they have probably made you see things somewhat differently. Now, disabled people are not the majority of most sex workers' clients, but they're a significant group.

Secret Diary season 2, episode 5: client with spina bifida,
brought to appointment by his father.

It's well-known what the effects of denying human touch are to babies and children, but few people consider the effects on adults. In my opinion, touch is a basic human need... so basic, it  might as well be at the base of Maslow's hierarchy alongside sleep, food, and all the other physiological needs.

The environment in which most of us operate is almost callously unable to provide this need to those who don't easily fit in physically. Added to which, many adults with disabilities live at home with family members, which can make it difficult to be seen as a sexual adult. Even if you're not the most touchy-feely person, you can probably appreciate how even little things like being a different height to everyone else would have a knock-on result to, say, getting hugs. People who like hugs can usually get them. If they're standing face-to-face with others. Or if their limbs are fully mobile. Or if they have all their limbs.

And for people whose mobility is seriously limited, the most intense touch they might get in a day could be a carer or nurse changing their clothes. That is just not on. Restrictive, sense-deprived environments create knock-on effects for physical and psychological well-being. Here's a 1957 article describing early experiment in limiting senses and mobility, and the effects.

Over time, I came to see sex work as a kind of social service; many others do too. Because access to touch, to pleasure and yes - to sex - is something we regard as natural and accessible to everyone. Even to those without money, without jobs, without rights. And yet there are people in our rich, employed, democratic society who struggle to scratch this basic itch. Fulfilling this need as a paid sex worker is not about pity - it's about providing a basic service. Groups like TLC Trust openly acknowledge this reality.

With constant challenges to legal sex work in the UK (especially in Scotland, where I live), I can't help but wonder if the trendy Swedish model of criminalising clients would actually have a knock-on effect of targeting disabled clients. Law enforcement shows a disinclination to pursue difficult criminals in favour of nabbing easy ones. It feels inevitable that someone is going to start "juking the stats"* to make it look like "sex criminals" are being rounded up in unprecedented numbers. Who are those people going to be? The ones who are easiest to find and catch, of course.

A lot of folks point to the Swedish laws that criminalise clients as if they are some sort of panacaea, in spite of criticism of their actual effectiveness. And they defend them using ideology alone: invoking a world in which all who pay for sex are able-bodied, wealthy, and male. A world in which all sex workers are disadvantaged, poor, and female.  

The myths perpetrated by opponents of sex work assume that men always have more power than women, and that only cisgender, heterosexual people are involved. It's not true. 

It's not a realistic view of the diversity of what goes on between sex workers and clients. Passing laws based on the narrowest and most stereotypical of assumptions will surely become just one more example of bad law.


* - Don't get me wrong, I'm a fan of statistics. But I'm also a fan of transparency in statistics... making it clear exactly what collection and analysis methodology has been used to draw which conclusions. Part of the point of the scientific method is to put it all out there so the accuracy of your results can be tested.

This post actually came from a Twitter discussion with another blogger about something else entirely - will get to writing about prostate massage another time!

Friday, 15 April 2011

How the Anti-Sex Lobby Profits

While various areas of sex work have little in common apart from the 'sex' bit, increasingly they are lumped together in the eyes of the public, government, and media as something that is affecting society more than before and needs attention now.

The reasons for this are numerous. One particular influence is the rise of what is known as the Rescue Industry, an umbrella term coined by Laura Agustin to cover people not in the flesh trade, who nevertheless profit from attempting to end sex work of all kinds. Did I say "profit"? Yes, I sure did.

Issues such as trafficking, sex work, and pornography are hot topics for people who claim their main motivation is to help those involved. Help is a great thing. There are loads of people who could all use a little help, in all professions and walks of life. But when does the reasonable goal of helping others cross the line into infantilising others... and helping yourself?

Cynical? Maybe a little. On one hand many of the people concerned about the welfare of sex workers are no doubt motivated by a genuine desire to help others. Particularly those they think of as unable to defend themselves. But the flipside of this concern is that everyone needs money to survive. As other charities have discovered in the past, sometimes the desire to have a high profile and keep the wheels greased overtakes the benefit to the people you were trying to help.

The bun fight currently going on over funding to help trafficking victims is one example.

Charities aside - and, let it be said, there are many worthy and honest ones - there are also the academics, researchers, and writers who earn their living not through hands-on effort, but by writing papers. Papers which allow them to win grants. Grants so that they can write more papers.

This, as a former cancer research academic, is a world I know well. We can't all save lives. But we do all have to earn a crust. Still, sometimes the ratio of money available to size of the problem seems far out of whack. You do start to wonder how much of what is said and written is born from genuine concern, and how much is just chasing another year's salary.

Is there enough money in it to even bother making this criticism? Well, thanks to a little tool that compares the money from funding grants over time, we can make a rough guess of what it's worth. For instance, funding for studying trafficking is enormous - in 2009, it was funded worldwide to the tune of nearly a billion US dollars. This is a total greater than the amount of grant money awarded to study lung cancer, which of course, is also devastating, and affects far more people. And spending on trafficking since 2000 has dwarfed the grant awards on such important international health concerns as malnutrition, malaria, or tuberculosis - conditions that kill millions of people worldwide every year, and affect hundreds of millions more.

Another way in which opposing sex work brings financial benefit is through the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002. Police know, for instance, that if a brothel owner is prosecuted, since running a brothel is illegal, any money and property retrieved from the 'crime scene' becomes theirs. When police resources are limited, does the temptation of profit possibly influence victimless crimes being prosecuted more vigourously than they otherwise would? Hard to know for sure. It's a handy little coincidence, the pre-Olympic crackdown on brothels and the recent cuts in police funding, isn't it? You can read more about the criticisms of such crackdowns in the Grauniad.

Hanna Morris, who ran a brothel, lost her abuse of process case against the police. She rang 999 when masked and armed gunmen threatened her business... only to find herself arrested, and the violent criminals never pursued or apprehended. It's impossible to know for certain, but one can imagine plenty of situations in which police - with restricted time and money - must make choices: unknown violent criminals who may be difficult and expensive to catch, or women technically breaking the law standing right in front of you, with cash assets?

The outcome of the Hanna Morris case certainly sends a message, but I'm not convinced it's the message of 'protecting women' that some people prefer to promote.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

The Sexy Bits: Wednesday Roundup

  • Dr Petra Boynton on why we are not a nation 'addicted' to porn [blog]
Insight on how recent 'porn panic' articles in the media solicit information from experts, then ignore it.
  • Dr Teela Sanders on her ESRC-funded research on lap dancers [video]
Good summary of her group's findings, and touches on some issues of how to collect and curate relevant, representative, and ethical data. More about the project.
  • Gentleman's club in Hexham gets the thumbs-up as site was used as a "bawdy house" since the 19th century [article]

Monday, 11 April 2011

How trafficking is counted


There is an excellent article by investigative journalist Nick Davies, a primer on how the UK trafficking numbers were blown out of all proportion: Anatomy of a moral panic. (For commentary about US-based numbers, here's a blog about the topic.)

To summarise Davies's article, a paper which estimated a very small range - between 142 and 1,420 trafficked sex workers in the UK per year - was misreported and misinterpreted, ending up with people claiming 4,000 (or even as many as 80,000!) trafficked women entering the UK sex trade every year.

Part of the problem with these kinds of numbers is that while they're very, very wrong, they are also difficult to disprove. And the idea, once it enters mainstream media, is difficult to dislodge, even with facts.

In many social research fields, exact numbers can be hard to come by. Even seemingly straightforward calculations are fraught with error. Let's take a simple example. Imagine you were trying to count the number of people living in the world (and that you, like Father Christmas, are able to get to every household in an unfeasibly short amount of time). It would be a hard job. By the time the count was finished, loads of those counted would have died, and even more would have been born. An actual number that represents the real number of living people on earth at any one time? It's impossible. So, the world population is actually an estimate made based on some facts known about the countries of the world, their last population estimate, and their birth and death rates.

Making this kind of an estimate is a “Fermi problem”. Enrico Fermi, one of the physicists who worked on the Manhattan Project, was reputedly able to make accurate guesses based on limited information.

Here’s an example of a Fermi problem in action. I was at pub quiz one week, and our team was tied for the lead. The tiebreaker was the question “How many performances did Yul Brynner have as the King of Siam in The King and I on Broadway?” As the only former drama geek in our team, it came down to me.

I calculated that Brynner probably did 8 performances a week ("once a day and twice on Sundays", as the saying goes). It’s a full-time job, so minus a two-week holiday, Brynner was probably performing 50 weeks a year. I wasn’t sure how many years it ran but knew he had been in at least one revival of the popular musical, so let’s say ten years of being the King total. That makes an estimate of:


8 shows a week x 50 weeks a year x 10 years = 4,000 shows

Sounds pretty high, right? We won the tiebreak (and the quiz) because, as it turned out, the real answer is 4,525. I was off by over 10%, which would be terrible for science, but was good enough for the quiz. The other team guessed 600... way too low. Picking a number out of thin air, as the other team probably did, is fraught with error. It’s hard to make good guesses with no information. Apply a few basic assumptions, however, and your accuracy goes up rapidly.

Fermi problems are great for pub quizzes, less so for evidence-based reporting. Common-or-garden estimates are not the stuff on which good research is built. At the very least, applying a set of assumptions to estimate a number should meet two major criteria:
1. The assumptions must have some foundation in reality. Eight Broadway performances a week is reasonable; 80 wouldn’t be.

2. The method of calculation needs to be explained. If an assumption turns out to be wrong, the calculation can then be adjusted. I don’t think the other person on my team would have bought 4,000 as an answer if he hadn’t seen my reasoning.
What does this have to do with the trafficking estimates?

The people who claim there are thousands, or even tens of thousands, of sex slaves in Britain are claiming an unrealistically high number. So unrealistic in fact that if it were true, that would mean the vast majority of prostitution in Britain was undertaken by trafficked people. That violates the first principle - basis in reality. Some people involved in sex work have encountered people who may have been trafficked; the vast majority have not. So either there's a whole other sex industry going on that no one in the sex industry knows about, or... the calculations are wrong.

Part of the difficulty with fighting such unrealistic claims, however, is getting good estimates to counter them. There is no comprehensive UK mapping of sex workers, much less trafficked ones, but there are some estimates. As part of the European Network for HIV/STD Prevention in Prostitution (EUROPAP), Hilary Kinnell contacted projects providing services for sex workers. [pdf] She had 17 responses. The average number of prostitutes per project was 665. She then multiplied that figure by 120, the total number of projects on her mailing list, to get an estimate of 79,800. This total includes women, men, and transgender women and men sex workers in the UK.

Kinnell notes there are obvious problems with this particular Fermi problem: the centres responding might be larger than most, some sex workers might use more than one centre. She finds it strange that number - ten years old, a huge estimate, and taken out of context - is still quoted. "The figure was picked up by all kinds of people and quoted with great confidence but I was never myself at all confident about it. I felt it could be higher, but it also could have been lower."

Meanwhile data from the UK Network of Sex Work Projects (UKNSWP) records an estimate of 17,081 sex workers in some kind of contact with centres. Of these 4178 - about 24% - work on the street. A larger total for all sex workers was 48,393. More recent, and rather lower, than the 1999 estimate. So if the trafficking hype is correct, that would make anywhere from one in 12 to as high as one in 2 sex workers in the UK the victim of trafficking.

Let's go back to the paper which kicked this all off, the one that estimated a range of 142 to 1,420 trafficked sex workers in the UK. Now, a note about that number: it included not only women who were trafficked against their will, but also women who willingly arrived (perhaps illegally) to the UK for sex work. In other words, Kelly and Regan’s total included both unwilling and willing sex migrants.

Part of the problem is how different groups define “trafficked”. Some assume that if someone is not British and is working in the sex trade, she must be trafficked. That’s quite a leap in logic! Hold on a sec - I was born abroad. And I worked in the sex trade. Does that mean they count me as "trafficked"? WTF?

The Poppy Project reported in 2004 that 80% of prostitutes in London flats were foreign-born. But there is no evidence that those women were trafficked or that this high proportion of foreign sex workers to natives is true of the entire UK. (In fact, evidence puts the UK-wide proportion closer to 37%.)

‘Foreign-born’ also includes citizens of other EU countries, who have the automatic right to live and work in the UK. Eaves, the organisation that includes the Poppy Project, did an interesting nip-and-tuck on reporting the origins of women working in the sex trade in London. In their 2004 report Sex In the City [pdf], they claimed 25% of women working in London were from Eastern Europe. But look closer - they have classified Italy and Greece as “Eastern European” countries.

Why? Well, the reason is given that “because these ethnicities are often used to code women from the Balkan region, advised by pimps and traffickers to lie about their ethnicity to avoid immigration issues.” Hey, my dad is Italian... if I said this to a researcher, does that mean they would assume I'm really Eastern European? That violates the second principle of the realistic estimate: show your work clearly. It’s the kind of sloppy calculation that throws all subsequent conclusions into question. It's bad Fermi.

So if some people who come here voluntarily can be erroneously called “trafficked,” then what is “trafficking”, exactly? The Palermo Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children, part of the 2000 UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime defines ‘trafficking’ as
…the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.
In other words, illegal migration for purposes of economic advantage, if undertaken willingly, is not trafficking. If nothing else, it's worth remembering the excellent analogy offered by Charlie Glickman:

Sex work is to Trafficking as Consensual Sex is to Rape.

Just because rape exists (and is rightly both reviled and illegal), that doesn't mean banning sex would solve any problems. What Glickman's statement encapsulates so brilliantly is that while trafficking occurs within sex work, that in and of itself is no good reason to either equate the two, or to ban sex work. Pumping up the trafficking numbers might be great for getting media attention, but it does nothing to solve the real problems of people who are really trafficked.

Claiming huge numbers of trafficked sex slaves where they do not exist distracts attention and resources from the (far smaller) number of people forced into sex who genuinely need assistance. And I for one think inflating a problem is not only unethical, it's dangerous to real victims. Let's get our terminology right, at the very least. Let's start with realistic research and maybe someday we'll get realistic results.

Friday, 8 April 2011

Preaching to the Coverted

When ancient cultures looked at the night sky they saw groups of stars, just the way we do today. They drew imaginary lines between the stars to make pictures and tell stories. The pictures were constellations.

One of the most easily recognisable constellations is Ursa Major (you probably call it the Big Dipper, or the Plough). From Earth the stars seem inextricably linked and for most of history we have had no way of telling otherwise. But we now know that they’re not close to each other at all. Some of the stars in the Plough are 78 light years away from us; others over 120. It’s the particular angle we see them at that makes them look close to each other. If you were living on a planet orbiting some other star, the Plough wouldn’t look the same because you would see the stars from a different direction. And constellations change over time. The last two stars on the handle of the Plough are moving quickly; in 50,000 years it will look completely different from how we know it today. Even here on Earth.

Making constellations from unrelated information happens a lot. But just because things seem to be connected to each other doesn’t mean they are. Humans are hard-wired to find patterns and seek explanations, but sometimes, this tendency can lead to the wrong pictures being drawn.

When it comes to the subject of sex, the habit of making constellations is so pervasive that we take it for granted. Myths, assumptions, and preconceptions take hold even when there is rational evidence to the contrary.


Recently, inspired by a post by Jane Fae on Freedom in a Puritan Age, I contributed a bookending piece. By and large, I agree with Jane's assessment (and Dr Petra's prediction) that the mainstream discussion of sex is getting narrower and more judgmental. I don't like the way in which people invoke pornography, child sexualisation, trafficking, and other issues in the same breath as if they are the same things. I especially don't like when MPs and government do it. But they're responding to a perceived issue that some poll somewhere tells them is important. The problem, as I see it, is how to reach out to people whose views are being influenced by a heavily biased media, and other sources all to happy to join up a constellation and call it the truth.

The title of my piece on FIPA is slightly misleading... while I do believe the 'anti-sex lobby' is irrational, I also think the majority of people worried about these topics are anything but. I can sympathise.

Plenty of people have opinions about these issues, and why not? After all, sex is virtually a human universal. It’s something most of us can claim, if not expertise, at least an enthusiastic amateur interest.

Which is fine, when it comes to something for which we have (ahem) hands-on experience. But once reality diverges from what we know first hand, all kinds of strange rumours can take hold. And once a rumour starts to spread, it’s often hard to stop.

From the first rumours in the school yard, to the first fumblings in the dark, has there ever been a topic more talked about, thought about, argued about? We begin by learning about sex and sexuality from the things we tell each other, and later, learning from our own experiences.

As we get older and gain more insight, our gaze widens: from When will I have sex? What will it be like? How are other people doing it? to broader questions of sexual orientation, relationships, and gender issues. We’re fascinated with the periphery of sex as well as the nuts and bolts of it – prostitution, porn, and sex crimes, just to name a few. Stories about these topics are guaranteed to get news coverage, magazine features, and column inches in the papers. Memoirs, exposes, and kiss-and-tells fly off the shelves. We get our expertise however we can.

But the less direct experience we have, the more we turn back to gathering information the old-fashioned way. The schoolyard way.

Sex, sexuality, and sex work minutiae - for people outside the loop - can be confusing. It's difficult to get and process information about things most of us are never directly involved with. We've a sense all of this stuff is important, but neither the time nor the energy to peruse the scholarly literature, discuss the issues in depth, and get involved. (See also: the problem with science journalism.)

For example, it was once easy for people to believe secondhand stories and rumours about homosexuality, because most people didn’t know anyone who was out. As homosexuality has become more open and more visible, and therefore more people know that they know gay people, the malicious rumours and hatred have finally begun to wane. According to polls by the Washington Post and ABC News, the percentage of people supporting equal marriage rights for gay couples has risen in direct proportion with the visibility of gay people.

But they and other groups who are not widely accepted deal with the brunt of the rumour mill’s damage. Sex workers are another such group. Because a lot of people don’t think they know anyone in sex work, the assumptions and stereotypes hold a lot of sway over opinions in that area. After all, without firsthand experience, who’s to say otherwise? Especially when there are many reasons why sex workers stay "in the closet". What is clear is that we need some way of telling what is real from what is myth.

Also, it's clear that there is a certain amount of (for lack of a better word) circle-jerking in some corners of the internet. I use the term 'the converted' advisedly - some of the harshest, and most underhanded, critics can be people whose point of view is indistinguishable from yours to outsiders. There's a danger in addressing every niggling internecine concern that alienates the mainstream and diverts energy from getting most of the message to most of the people most of the time.

Take for instance the previous entry, which mentions research by (among others) J Michael Bailey. Certain aspects of his methods have come under intense criticism - though not particularly the studies I mentioned. However, it was as if the word Bailey was a red rag to particular people. Simply by mentioning the relevant findings by a person they hated, I woke up to a Twitter and email storm. That's a pity, because the more I read of Bailey's work in the past year, the more I found that while his critics had a point, there was a lot I agreed with. I could ignore the stuff I agree with. That would probably keep some happy. But it does nothing to advance what this blog is trying to say to a wider audience... those for whom the idea of scientific investigation of human desire may be a new and interesting idea.

Long story short (too late!), I may have lost a few people over daring to mention Bailey, but worrying about breaking a few eggs on the way to an omelette? Never been something that keeps me up at night.

The way I see it, if you're liking and linking to this blog, then you probably are already one of the people who more-or-less sees things the way I do. And if so, I love you for it. Without the research and commentary generated by the sex-positive community, I would have almost nothing to write about. But we spend a lot of time either talking to each other, or arguing with the entrenched opposite. There's a giant group of people in the middle, getting skewed and outdated information because not so many of us are appealing to them. With acceptance such a big issue for so many of us, maybe that's where we should be targeting effort... rather than losing energy on the few whose minds, frankly, will never be changed.

Blogs by sex and relationship educators do a pretty decent job of attempting to bridge this gap. And there are some academics, such as Laura Agustin, who blog about their research and writing. These sorts of things are a vital link between the people who have information, and the many who want it. But there are vastly more people with expertise in these topics who operate entirely within the academic context or only have the time and energy to focus on their jobs. And while informative blogs and sites by current and ex sex workers are popular, there is still the assumption that these people are for some reason the "exception" rather than the "rule". Effective public outreach by the sex-positive (or even just hype-skeptical) community still struggles to get off the ground.

What are ways we can open the discussion, inform and involve the undecided middle? Ideas on the back of a postcard to the usual place, please.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

What Women Want...

The great question that has never been answered, and which I have not yet been able to answer, despite my thirty years of research into the feminine soul, is "What does a woman want?
– Sigmund Freud, 1907
Prepare to enter a fantasy world. A world where clothes get folded just so, delicious dinners await, and flatulence is just not that funny. Give the fairer sex what they really want beautiful PG photos of hunky men cooking, listening, asking for directions, accompanied by steamy captions: "I love a clean house!" or "As long as I have two legs to walk on, you'll never take out the trash." Now this is porn that will leave women begging for more!
– Cambridge Women’s Pornography Cooperative, 2007

Sex is everywhere. Sex sells. Sex is a biological urge, a natural part of life, and the most fun you can have without laughing - though it’s even better if you do. Sex is a beautiful thing between two people... and between five it’s fantastic.

Or is it? For as many times as sex is painted as a natural, enjoyable activity, it’s also portrayed as something women use to get things from men, or put up with in a relationship, or don’t really enjoy. Over and again men are stereotyped as slaves to their desires – and women as scheming pretenders or uninterested partners. Pretty insulting for all concerned.

Of course, women wouldn’t be turned on by something as simplistic as an image of an excited naked man... or would they? We’re used to thinking of men as being the visual ones. Women’s sexual response is a function not of physical lust but of emotional arousal, right?

The majority of pornography consumers, customers of strip clubs and clients of prostitutes are men. There is no equivalent to lad’s magazines like Nuts and FHM marketed for women. Page Seven Fellas, the Sun’s beefcake counterpart to their topless Page Three girls, was distinctly short-lived.

Women’s desire has been ceded as a territory so unknown, it is presumed to exist only in the mind, and only in a state of emotional contentment. So instead of hot scenes of sex, women get domestic chores being served up as a suitable substitute for the naked body. And women who are always “up for it”? As rare as unicorns.

But while the popular assumption is that female desire is something unknowable, alchemical, difficult to pin down… research is showing something rather different.


At Northwestern University in Illinois, J Michael Bailey and his colleagues conduct research into the nuts and bolts of arousal. Once upon a time, the picture of what turned women on was formed exclusively from self-reported questionnaires. But Bailey’s group don’t just rely on Q-and-A's about sexual likes and dislikes - they also measure genital response.

After all what someone says they like can be influenced by many factors: discomfort with admitting to being turned on, or a desire to be seen as ‘normal’. Even in the laboratory setting and even when anonymity is assured.

It’s their results with women that are especially interesting. The difference between what women report is turning them on, and what is actually getting their bodies to respond, is significant.

Previous studies of men and sexual orientation showed that in general, male responses are straightforward. Heterosexual men respond strongly to heterosexual porn, and weakly to homosexual porn. For gay men, it’s the opposite: gay porn turns them on; the hetero stuff, not so much. So for men the psychological and physiological desires are in sync - what turns them on is also what they report enjoying emotionally.

This could be partly to do with the obviousness of the physical response. Men get erections. It’s obvious to other people. But more importantly, it’s obvious to themselves. There is a direct, observable connection for men between stimulus and physical response. Associating the two in his mind? It’s easy.

Until recently, the same kinds of studies were not done on women. The assumption was that for women, too, what they said they enjoyed was exactly the same as what their bodies responded to. But there was no corresponding data on physical arousal. “Women’s sexuality has been far more neglected than men’s in scientific research,” Bailey has said. And when women were examined, the difference was startling.

One of the experiments at Northwestern recruited people who stated strong preferences for a particular sex of partner. [pdf] In other words, the study included heterosexuals and homosexuals, but not bisexuals. The subjects were presented with films depicting male-male, female-female and male-female scenes of oral and penetrative sex. The subjects submitted both to objective measurement of genital arousal*, as well as self-reporting their responses for comparison.

Participants ranked the films in order of how aroused they felt watching them. The heterosexual women in the study ranked male-male films the lowest, followed by female-female in the middle, with finally female-male films rated highest. But when the genital arousal data were compared to these rankings, something interesting emerged.

It turned out that the genital engorgement data told a completely different story from what straight women were putting on paper. They claimed male-male porn interested them the least, but looking at the physical response, male-male and female-female films ranked similarly – and very high. On paper, straight women ranked heterosexual pairings as the most arousing… but their physical response while watching these films was actually lower than with the other types of films. Straight women were getting more physically turned on watching homosexual pairings, even films with no women in it all, than they were by straight scenes.

“The fact that women’s sexual arousal patterns are not all predicted by their sexual orientations suggests that men’s and women’s minds and brains are very different,” said Bailey. That much we already suspected, or at least I did, because airbrushed images of men hoovering? Is certainly nice, but not exactly erotic. But who could have anticipated just how different they would turn out to be?

Challenging preconceptions is a huge task, and results that contradict the prevailing assumptions rarely get media coverage. So while you hear all the time that men and women are turned on by different things, what you rarely hear is how women respond to visual stimuli... just like men do.

While Bailey is one of the most controversial figures in sexuality research for questionable ethics regarding trans subjects, the approach does signal an interesting way of thinking about sexuality: that there is much to be gained from questioning assumptions, and still more to be learned from physiological study. With so much of the debate about women's sexuality dominated by social theorists, human biological research has a lot to add. That it sometimes says things we can not yet put in context, or are difficult to understand or believe, does not make it less valuable.

Frankly, I happen to think that science which does not slot in neatly with what we already think is potentially the most exciting research of all.

And Bailey is not the only person taking this approach. Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis measured brainwave activity of 264 women viewing a series of slides. The pictures contained various scenes from water skiers to snarling dogs to undressed couples in sensual poses. What did they find? That when the women viewed erotic pictures, their brains produced electrical responses that were stronger than when looking at the other pictures. This difference in brainwave response emerged very quickly, suggesting different neural circuits are involved in processing erotic images.

Repeated studies by other research groups support these conclusions, showing that women are consistently physically turned on by gay porn even when they’re not gay. They’re turned on by hetero porn too. Not to mention footage of some of our closest animal relatives, bonobos, mating. Even when they identify as heterosexual, women’s physiological response to images of sex is wide-ranging. It’s not category specific like men’s.

Why are these results so different from popular assumptions about women? “I think that the earlier impression was probably formulated from intuition. You would expect that somebody would show the greatest amount of physical responding to the things that correspond with what they say they like,” said Bailey's colleague Meredith Chivers, who has conducted research with similar results. And since previously only men had been tested, there was no data that challenged the assumption. It certainly throws a spanner into the belief that most women don’t even like or respond to porn and other erotic imagery at all.

What does this mean in terms of sexuality - that all women are, as so fervently hoped by the readers of lad's mags, inherently bisexual after a couple of wine coolers? Uh, no. Does it mean that women are incapable of knowing what they like? Again, no - but it's worth asking ourselves what social structures might be in place that make women's reported arousal so different from what's being measured.

It’s important to remember that sexual arousal and sexual interest are not the same things. If they were, one might conclude from the studies that most heterosexual women are only somewhat attracted to heterosexual men! Clearly, that’s not the case. We can’t assume emotional attachment is irrelevant to attraction, but for too long it has been assumed that in the case of women, emotional attachment is all there is. The research shows that’s not true.

Rather, it probably means that for all people - not only women - sexuality is a complex interplay of exposure and response, reinforced by biological as well as cultural signals. Of which more some other time...

* I'm guessing this is a scale that, for women, starts at "Sahara" and progresses linearly to "wide-on". Fnar fnar. (Actually, they measure changes in blood flow.)

Monday, 4 April 2011

Sex + Sport = Trafficking Hype

There's a lot to be said on the subject of trafficking in general, and in the UK in particular. First off I'd like to link two excellent articles on the topic by investigative journalist Nick Davies as a primer on how the trafficking numbers get blown out of all proportion, and the result: Anatomy of a moral panic, and Inquiry fails to find single trafficker.
For some, the word trafficking evokes scenes of beaten and smuggled women a la The Wire. For others, the image most strongly associated with trafficking is that of the drowned Chinese immigrants of the Morecambe Bay disaster. And for a special few, trafficking invokes the opportunity to attach their agenda to international events... particularly sporting events.

So what's the connection between high-profile sporting events and trafficking - is there even evidence for a connection at all?

One hardly ever sees mention of prostitution anymore where human sex trafficking is not also invoked. It's bizarre, this assumption that the vast majority of men are not only paying for sex, but willing to pay for sex with unwilling partners. Says a lot about what the people making these assumptions think of men, I guess.

“Aids and HIV warning to South Africa World Cup fans” featured prominently on the BBC website in the run-up to the 2010 World Cup. The warnings were widespread, not only in the UK, but all over the world. They implied that with the upcoming football tournament, not only were prostitutes preying on innocent fans of footy, but pimps and smugglers were ramping up the trade in sex slavery as well.

According to reports seeded by social work groups and charities, some 40,000 prostitutes were set to arrive in South Africa, many of them trafficked – coincidentally, the identical number that had been predicted (but never materialised) for Germany’s World Cup in 2006. Expect to see similar, if not identical, numbers "projected" in advance of the 2012 London Olympics.

With the expected number of fans going to the World Cup in South Africa estimated at 450,000, that just doesn’t pass the sniff test. One working girl for every 11 people at the World Cup? Wow. That’s hospitality provision on a level Premier League teams’ Christmas parties would envy! And tying these numbers together with anti-trafficking efforts, well, that's powerful stuff. It's basically saying that out of any coachload of supporters turning up to watch the matches, several would have been paying to have sex with unwilling partners  smuggled in to South Africa.

Now, I've never been a big football fan myself, but implying that a large percentage of them are active endorsers of sex slavery? Stretches the bounds of credibility juuuuust a little bit too far for me.

As it happens, the claim about widespread sex tourism was refuted several months later when a UN Population Fund report showed sex workers’ activity didn’t go up at all. Prostitution was not affected. Neither was trafficking

But the propaganda machine continues apace.

Early 2011 saw reports of the tens of thousands of women who were “expected” to be trafficked into Dallas for the Super Bowl. The projected numbers were identical to those supposed to have been trafficked for the World Cup in South Africa, the Ryder Cup in Wales, the 2006 World Cup in Germany, the 2004 Olympics in Athens, and the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. In every one of these examples, the projections have neither been supported by evidence beforehand nor proven to have happened afterwards. And yet the usual suspects keep trotting them out the same stories and the same numbers anyway. With the London Olympics on their way, conferences and fundraising events are already popping up to ‘raise awareness’ of trafficking issues.

Where does this come from? The consistency points to a well-organised and well-funded campaign to keep bringing the same arguments around again, hogging column inches while the reality goes largely unreported.

Several agendas are involved, without doubt. But one in particular is a strategy devised by Hunt Alternatives Fund to make sure sex for money is presented as badly as possible. And they use celebrities and writers of headlines to do so.

But who exactly are Hunt Alternatives Fund, and what's their agenda? As ever, that's a topic for another time.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

Happy hookers: myth or reality?

The reality of prostitution is rarely the Pretty Woman ending, but it’s also seldom as grim as Band of Gold. It’s incredibly diverse, attracting all kinds of people with all kinds of motivations and ways of working in the business.

Fiction has an outsize influence on perceptions of sex work. Of the many depictions of prostitution in recent UK television dramas, only one* is based directly on a nonfiction memoir of a real sex worker – and it is widely accused of ‘glamourising’ sex work (mainly by people who have not read the books at all) for presenting a protagonist who is neither drug-addicted nor abused in childhood.**

Most other media depictions of the business, however, rely on stereotypes of streetwalkers and other sex workers having chaotic, desperate lives. Even the Home Office supports this distortion. Until recently it had a website which claimed: “Most women involved in street-based prostitution are not there through choice... Nearly all prostitutes are addicted to drugs or alcohol. Many of them have been trafficked into the country by criminals, and are held against their will. Many were abused as children, and many are homeless.” There were no sources given for these statements – for the simple fact that they are wrong.

As sex educator and ex-sex worker Carol Queen notes in Real Live Nude Girls, “a weapon consistently used against the marginalized is… insidious myth-making, leading outsiders to believe things about individuals, based on their group status, that may not be true.”

This reliance on fiction over truth influences how information is obtained and distributed. Lamenting the narrow focus of most research, Laura Agustín notes “[t]he focus is usually on personal motivations, the morality of the buying-and-selling relationship, stigma, violence and disease prevention.” It’s little wonder, then, that data showing the reality of life in sex work are not widely reported because, let's face it, prurient stories about violence and drugs and pimps are like the three-way-scene of social research: hot. People going into sex work to pay the mortgage? Not so much. As a result of this bias, preconceived opinions are seldom challenged.

A 2009 study polling sex workers about their attitudes towards work did more than just challenge the preconceptions. "Beyond Gender: An examination of exploitation in sex work" by Suzanne Jenkins of Keele University revealed the results of detailed interviews with 440 sex workers. Not simply street-based women, either, but women, men, and transgendered sex workers in all areas of the business. Over half were from the UK; the rest were based in western Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand.

The results may just surprise you.

Is paid sex all about clients dominating sex workers? No. Less than 7% of the women interviewed thought that paying for sex gives the client power over the escort. 26.2% thought paying makes clients vulnerable, while 54.5% said that 'commercial sexual transactions are relationships of equality'. (The remainder of repondents were undecided.)

The majority of escorts perceive commercial sex as a relationship of equality; as sex workers, they neither have power over, nor are submissive to, their clients. When asked 'in your escort interactions who normally takes overall control of the encounter?' 78.7% said they always or they usually did. 22.3% said it varies, and only 0.7% said the client decides.

Sex work is often characterised as brutal, with abuse a commonplace and even usual outcome. But when asked if they have ever felt physically threatened, only 25% of women and 18.7% of men said yes. 77% of women said they felt clients treated them respectfully; the same percentage said they respected their clients.

Sex work is also portrayed by its opponents as something most people want to get out of. But when asked "how much longer do you plan to do escort work for?”, "I have no plans to stop escort work" was joint first choice of answer for women along with "one-five more years" (both receiving 35.3%). Only 3.2% said they planned to stop in less than three months.

Sex workers are often stereotyped as very young and naive, unaware of the dangers of the choices they are making. But the age data do not suggest the field is populated with teenage runaways and naive youngsters: Almost 85% of the women were aged 26 or older - and 19% of them were over 40.

Sex work is frequently assumed to be a choice suitable only for the uneducated. But 35.3 % of the men held degrees, whereas for women, this was 32.9%. More than a third of the total were degree-educated, and over 18% held post-graduate qualifications. Only 6.5% had no formal educational qualifications.

I have known more than a few call girls with degrees and postgraduate qualifications. The balance between risk and reward is something people address all the time. Whether one picks a career as a deep-sea fisherman or as a call girl, the potential income and danger are well publicised, and yet people sign up willingly. This is a choice everyone has the right to make for themselves.

When asked what things they like about the work, 2 in 3 respondents in the Keele study reported 'like meeting people'. 75% of women and 50% of men and transgender women reported 'flexibility of working hours' as an aspect they enjoy. 72% of women cited 'independence'. Jenkins noted:

However, it is also important to highlight that an appreciation of flexible working hours and independence were factors that were valuable to women generally, not only mothers. The benefits of greater independence and flexible working hours were not just about the demands of parenting - they were often about time provided for other, non parenting-related pursuits. These included other business interests, studying, and artistic or sporting pastimes. Although some men similarly valued their personal time in this way, it was female participants who mentioned freedom and independence most frequently.
The difference between how fiction imagines prostitutes’ lives and how they really are rarely gets airtime. Why? One reason could be because doing so might challenge a number of groups with criminalisation agendas. Of which more, oh so much more, to come.

* - yes, of course I’m referring to Secret Diary of a Call Girl

** - yes, well spotted, this is my blog, I'm allowed to plug myself

Friday, 1 April 2011

So, why this blog?

First off, I'd like to assure you I won't always be writing about rape. Hopefully I'll also be writing about lighter stuff (that is also interesting).

I've been working on the Camden/rape reanalysis stats for a while, so it seemed fitting to post them here as an opener. You can also see it as a green paper at Scribd, and it has been covered at International Union of Sex Workers, the Camden New Journal, Women's Views on News, the Grauniad, and Hackney Citizen.

Part of what interests me about these topics is how entrenched the debate is in ideological and emotional reactions. Rape is but one example. Even writing about rape in a scientific manner, taking almost an epidemiological viewpoint, is a hot potato. It's a terrible thing, and tough to handle both effectively and sensitively.

But then, so is cancer. We gain little by sugarcoating it - better to tackle the hard stuff head-on. Just like all of you I would like rape to end. I happen to believe the best way to do it is to attack the problem with our methodical hats on. There are a lot of people doing exactly that: unfortunately, their work doesn't get much press.

I sincerely hope you'll keep reading. There's much more to come.

Lap dancing and rape in Camden: part 5

Read all the posts in this
series:
[1] [2] [3] [4] [5]

The causes of rape are not well understood. If they were, it would be easier to fight them, since we would know how to apply resources. The fact that rape is such a difficult, under-reported, under-investigated, and under-prosecuted problem indicates that we really don't know all that much about its causes.

Because the numbers involved are relatively small, the fluctuations in rate could be influenced by any number of things not actually to do with rape per se. After all, the number of reports could change even when the rate of rape stays the same. There could be subtle reasons why. A sympathetic and approachable officer in a particular area, for instance. Availability of crisis support and hotlines.  Changes in, or absence of, these things. It's not only hard to say - it's impossible. Far easier, and what this series of posts has sought to do, is to sieve out what does not cause rape, so as better to focus on the real job at hand.

And of course, being small numbers... sometimes a fluctuation is just a fluctuation.

Better evidence collection and better prosecution might help. But we also need to think hard about preventing rape, not just punishing it. When someone claims a cause that is not a real cause, this can derail the real struggle against violence. If the focus is on lap dancing, in spite of the fact that it has no connection with rape, it is potentially diverting resources from preventing and investigating the real causes of crime.

It’s because rape is such a serious crime that researchers must be at least as rigorous in their analysis as they would with other serious events like cancer. Otherwise, it’s not real analysis. It’s throwing numbers around without context. It’s producing reports that look and feel like real research without the methodology to back them up. It is cargo cult science.


To avoid becoming cargo cult scientists, Richard Feynman said researchers must be willing to question their results, and investigate possible flaws in a theory. Researchers should pursue a level of honesty that is rare in everyday life. "We've learned from experience that the truth will come out,” Feynman said. “Other experimenters will repeat your experiment and find out whether you were wrong or right. Nature's phenomena will agree or they'll disagree with your theory. And, although you may gain some temporary fame and excitement, you will not gain a good reputation as a scientist if you haven't tried to be very careful in this kind of work. And it's this type of integrity, this kind of care not to fool yourself, that is missing to a large extent in much of the research in Cargo Cult Science."

Both cargo cult science and real science look similar on the outside to a layperson, in that they contain numbers and try to come to some sort of conclusion. Even if the Lilith report had managed to get its calculations correct in the first place, there still would have been plenty of clues that while the look and feel of real research was being imitated, the content wasn’t up to scratch.

When looking closely, it’s pretty easy to pick out cargo cult statistics, because usually:
1. It doesn’t calculate a rate. Rates are the bread and butter of incidence statistics, and a written-in-stone requirement of any report dealing with a population group. How do I know? Because I used to write papers reporting children's cancer rates. No rate = no paper. If one year’s incidence is being compared to another, expect to see rates, not raw numbers.

2. It doesn’t show a long-term trend. In the Lilith report, a small number of years were reported. Rapes before the lap dancing clubs weren’t shown, so they couldn’t be compared. Rapes more than two years after weren’t shown, so it was impossible to see if the trend was real.

3. It doesn’t use a control group. Control groups, when it comes to population statistics like these, are hard. I get it. There's no Truman Show bubble world kept somewhere for us to compare everything to. But as we say where I come from, hard cheese. You make do. Mention was made in the report of other boroughs (such as Islington) which have lap dancing, but crimes in areas of London without lap dancing were not even mentioned so no comparison could be made. The rest of the country was not considered.

4. It makes a causal connection without direct evidence for a cause, and doesn’t consider other factors. Statisticians talk about “confounders” – the other factors that can affect your results. On the basis of a short-term miscalculated trend, a cause and effect relationship is claimed between lap dancing and rape. However, this does not take into account the types of rapes reported, any possible correlation with crime hotspots within the borough, or any other possible contributing factors. Again, I know from personal experience this shit is hard. But that's no reason not to make an effort.
The lack of statistical rigour in the report is far from the Lilith paper's only problem, however.

A pervasive feature of poor research is that it often starts from an assumed position, and any data falling outside of that position are ignored. The writers come to the study with a bias and look to find ways for the numbers to fit with their preconceived notions of what the truth should be rather than what it actually is.

We can see this on the very first page of the Lilith report with statements like:

“This ‘fast fantasy’ approach is demeaning and insulting to women…”

“Lap dance… [is] not going away without a fight.”

“[I]f Camden were to change its policy on lap dance and striptease establishments, then this good practice could spread through London.”

It’s clear from the outset that the writers of the report have a particular agenda – prohibiting adult entertainment. Which is fine, since everyone's entitled to a say in what happens in their communities.

I don't object to opinions. Think lap dancing is a sin? Great, that's fine for you. Think it's oppressing women? Great, I look forward to your paper. What gets my goat is invoking a semblance of statistical analysis. I'm a (former) statistician, yo. You're on my turf now. Everyone is entitled to an opinion and also entitled to express it. But if the writer of any scientific research were so openly biased from the beginning, there is no chance the report would be accepted by a reputable journal.

Claiming the methods of science, without buying in to the philosophy of how and why they work, is unethical. If you don’t play by the same rules, you can’t use the same tools.

The tone of the report is so attached to its assumptions that it does not address several other theoretical problems.

The report focuses on the difference in rapes between 1999 and 2002. However, in its first paragraph, the report states that lap dancing ‘arrived in Britain in 1997 with the opening of Secrets in Hammersmith’. So why pick and choose statistics starting two years later? If the opening of lap dancing clubs had an impact, wouldn’t you expect the impact to be evident reasonably soon afterwards?

Actually, you wouldn’t – not because someone has proven that the lag time between opening a strip club and increase in rape is 2 years, but because no one has conclusively proven there is any link between the two at all. So the choice of year can be completely arbitrary and it does not matter. Strip clubs are not correlated with rapes in any credible study.

In fact, the question of what effect adult services have on local crime has been studied so thoroughly that there can now be studies of the studies, or what statisticians call “meta-analysis”. A meta-analysis, or pooled analysis, combines the results of published studies by many different groups in order to arrive at an overall conclusion.

A meta-analysis examined 110 papers that claimed adult businesses increased crime rates. 73% of these were records of political discussions, not actual studies. Removing these and anecdotal reports about only one crime incident, the authors were left with 29 studies. Of the papers that did not contain flaws, there was no correlation between any adult-oriented business and any negative effect. Of the ten most frequently cited papers, not one met the minimum standards for good research – comparable controls, sufficient time, and valid data collection.

So while many people might be tempted to believe dodgy statistics because they sound like something that “should” be true, the analysis shows no demonstrable link between adult entertainment and crime. The idea that adult businesses have negative fallout for communities is a myth that should be put to bed for good.

Lap dancing and rape in Camden: part 4


Read all the posts in this
series:
[1] [2] [3] [4] [5]

Another problem with the original paper is a lack of an appropriate control population, to compare the results with. Having a control population is particularly important in assessing risk. Controls are populations where the thing you want to test – strip clubs, in the case of the Lilith report – doesn’t exist, for comparison purposes.

For instance, in order to suggest a link between smoking and lung cancer, the original epidemiologists had to examine lung cancer rates not only in smokers, but also in non-smokers. You need to show that the factor being examined - smoking, or in our case, lap dance clubs - is the influencing factor.

Lack of a control group means that the numbers of rapes in Camden were not reported against the rape stats in a non-lapdancing area. It’s perfectly possible that the trends happening in Camden were happening everywhere, regardless of whether there was lap dancing or not. It’s impossible to know from the Lilith study if such other parts of London were experiencing similar trends in their crime rates.

The report makes comparisons between Camden, Westminster and Islington, all of which contain lap dancing clubs. As far as control populations go, that’s no good: you need somewhere where it doesn’t happen. Kind of like a placebo group in a medical trial.

So let’s run the statistics using Camden, one of the other areas they pick which does have strip clubs, and choose an additional one that has none at all. Because crime can be influenced by factors such as poverty, it would preferably be of a similar demographic profile. Then an assessment of the occurrence of rape in that area can be made, for comparison’s sake. Without doing this, it’s impossible to say whether any trend was locally concentrated or happening everywhere regardless of strip clubs.
Lambeth has a somewhat larger population than Camden and similar makeup in terms of ethnic origin. It contains no lap dancing clubs at all. Islington has a somewhat smaller population than the other two boroughs and has two venues licensed for fully nude lapdancing. And since these statistics are also available for the entire country, let’s throw that in too. After all the original claim was that Camden's rape stats were three times the national average.

Comprehensive statistics are available for crimes reported to police throughout England and Wales, so these are straightforward to find.

I shan't bore you with another table, though of course, those numbers are available (both from me and from the Metropolitan Police) if you're interested. It pains me to leave one out, because I love tables like a fat kid loves cake. But one woman's cakey feast is another's sugar rush nightmare, so. Let's skip straight to the graph. Again, the years covered by the Lilith paper for Camden are highlighted in red:



The graph shows that adding comparison changes the picture considerably. It no longer appears that lap-dancing clubs lead to an increase in rape, since boroughs with fewer or no clubs had consistently higher rates than Camden’s. The data from the original study is shown to be a small blip in a larger – downward – trend all over London.

If there was a relationship between the number of lap dancing clubs and the occurrence of rape, you would expect Lambeth to be lowest of the three because it has no clubs. Islington would be higher because it has a couple, and Camden highest because it has more than those other boroughs. But Camden turns out to be the lowest of the three. There does not appear to be any relationship between the number of lap dancing clubs in a borough and the risk of rape.

The trend for the three London boroughs shows clearly that Lambeth (with no lap dancing) and Islington (with only 2 clubs) both have rates that are higher than Camden’s. All three have decreased over time, as well, which is why it pays to look at the longer trend rather than cherry-picking a few years in statistics. Apart from the early 2000s peak, Camden’s numbers are close to the overall rate for England and Wales, and are sometimes even below it. This is a far cry from the “three times the national average” claimed by the Lilith report.

All things considered, you might wonder why the Lilith report chose to look at Camden at all. According to the introduction, it was because “Lilith and Eaves believe that Camden’s opinion and acts carry great weight with other London boroughs.” Which from the analytical point of view (especially considering there are no references or other reasons given) doesn't make sense.

If we were to take this graph as our only evidence, we might conclude that the risk of rape goes up not because of the presence of lap dancing clubs, but by living in London, with Camden actually safer in that regard than other boroughs. We might also be tempted to conclude that the presence of lap dancing clubs in fact indicates a safer borough in terms of rape.

Naturally, that would be a very rash conclusion, something a responsible statistician would be reluctant to suggest. It would require far more data from the rest of London and the entire nation before such an idea could be suggested. But that’s the point – in order to make a conclusion about the effects of social phenomena in general, you need a huge amount of information to back it up. One limited study of a crime statistic is not enough and should never be allowed to stand on its own.

Interestingly enough, there are other places where the opening of lap dancing clubs does seem also to correspond with a reduction in rape and assaults. One of these is Newquay, in Cornwall.

In 2010, local paper Newquay Voice obtained Devon and Cornwall Constabulary’s figures of sexual assaults. They found that the total number of recorded sexual assaults (including rapes) in and around Newquay peaked at 71 in 2005, the year before Newquay's first lap dance club opened. In 2006, the year following its opening, the number fell to 51.

In 2007, when the town’s second lap dancing venue opened, the total number of recorded sexual assaults fell again to 41, then dropped to 27 in 2008 when a third lap dancing club opened. In 2009, the number rose slightly, but with a total of 33 offences, it is still less than half the total than before the clubs appeared. Here are the incidence rate calculations (using midyear population levels for the council of Restormel, where Newquay is located):



Again, this is only a single example – to conclusively demonstrate that an increase in lap dancing corresponds with a decrease in rape and sexual assault, there would have to man more such results, over longer time periods, from many places. However it does reinforce the same thing the statistics from Camden show: that lap dancing definitely does not correlate with higher occurrence of rape. And if there is no rise in rape, then it is impossible to claim that lap dancing “causes” rape.

Rape is widely thought to be a vastly under-reported crime. The calculations don’t tell us whether rapes were under-reported for the area in any particular year, nor what might cause that.

What it does tell us is that the original claim made in the Lilith report – that the number of reported rapes is rising – is not true. It was not true in 2003, it continues not to be true, yet the myth that rapes rise 50% after lap dancing clubs opened in Camden is still reported, even as recently as August 2009.

Lap dancing and rape in Camden: part 3

Read all the posts in this
series:
[1] [2] [3] [4] [5]

Even more important than correcting the errors, as outlined in the previous posts, is looking at the longer-term trends. Rapes might go up one year, or two, or three… and they might fall the next. There are natural fluctuations that can mask the overall trend. The more data we have to analyse, the more accurate the results. The more accurate the results, the more informed the reporting.

A problem common to dealing with small numbers is making a hasty generalisation. This is a fallacy that happens when someone makes a large conclusion based on a small sample of evidence, such as an initial result that disappears later, when more data are collected.

Here's an example: Let’s say you’d never been to York before, and went there for a five-minute visit while changing trains. Let’s also say that while getting off the train you saw exactly three people – all of them with red hair. It would be a hasty generalisation to then go around saying that everyone in York is ginger. And yet, given the very small number of observations, saying so (while obviously not true) would not be a contradiction of the evidence you collected.

Small numbers are a problem in statistics, because the less information we have, the less we can reliably say about it. Dealing this problem means having to collect more evidence where available, making pertinent comparisons, and applying more than just simple arithmetic. Reported rapes are relatively rare, so writing about rape statistics requires special attention.

Now, just because a crime is rare doesn’t mean it isn’t serious. Rape is extremely serious. No matter how many people are raped, it’s too many. One rape in the course of a year would be a tragedy; 72 is obviously a big problem. However, regardless of the fact that rape is a horrific crime, it’s also not very commonly documented. By comparison, the rate of breast cancer among women in the UK hovers around 120 per 100,000 per year, or more than three times higher than the rate of reported rapes in Camden in 2000.

It’s important to also find out whether the rate was a one-off, or whether the rise implied in the Lilith report was sustained. So let’s calculate rates, but this time for a longer timespan. We know that between 1999 and 2000 the rate of reported rapes in Camden rose. But did the trend continue? Have a look at the results:



The change in rates fluctuates a lot on a year-to-year basis! Surprised? Actually, that’s another feature of dealing with small numbers. Because the event is uncommon, a few incidents either way have more power to change the trend. Which is why percentage change for a couple of years, even if a lot different from what was originally reported, is not a good indication of what is really happening. (Or as I like to say, more years equals more better!)

But without the trend, the door is left open for people to misinterpret the statistics in a way that could be sensationalist and scary. As an example, let’s say there was 1 death due to vending machines falling over in Glasgow one year, and then 2 the next. Irresponsible reporting might say “Vending machine deaths double in one year!” Technically, that true - but it misses the spirit of what is really going on. It makes people think the risk of being squashed by a vending machine is going through the roof, when in fact there aren’t many at all… and there might be fewer next year.

If we graph the rates, we can see if the trend is rising, falling, or staying the same. The years covered in the Lilith study are highlighted in red:



For the ten years 1999-2008, it appears the trend for rate of reported rapes in Camden is actually falling, not rising.

Lap dancing and rape in Camden: part 2

Read all the posts in this
series:
[1] [2] [3] [4] [5]

Let's look in depth at one year's change in rape statistics in Camden. In 1999, the Metropolitan police recorded 72 reports of rape. In 2000, the number was 88. The Met numbers are available to the public so can’t be disputed. And those numbers went up. This much the Lilith report got right. But is that all there is to the story?

The problem with numbers on their own is they don't say anything about context. The number may rise from year to year, but if the population is going up as well, the rate might not be changing at all.

Imagine, for instance, if a paper claimed London has 1000% more Chinese restaurants than it did 40 years ago, but didn't report the relative populations for those years. You wouldn't think much of the numbers. Of course the raw number would have gone up - the population got a lot bigger from 1970 to 2010. Without context, the numbers don't mean very much.

When the population grows, you have to take that change into account. What you need is not just the raw number of crimes reported, but also the population of the area from one year to the next. This is used to calculate not the number of crimes, but the rate. Rate and number are two different things, but many people (even those who should know better) use them interchangeably, and this creates confusion.

You don't have to be a London native (or even a Daily Mail reader) to know the population is going up. It's on the rise in Camden. But is it going up enough to make the rate of rapes look different from the number? Let's see.

Whenever numbers of incidents are reported, they should be used to calculate the rate of occurrence. This gives you an estimate of how many times the crime occurred per 100,000 population. So let’s look at those rape numbers again. For the year 1999, we have 72 rapes reported in Camden and - according to National Statistics - a population of 195,700 people.

To determine how many rapes occurred per 100,000 residents, we divide the number of rapes by the total population. Then we multiply by 100,000:

72 ÷ 195,700 × 100,000 = 36.8

This tells us that in 1999, there were 36.8 reported rapes for every 100,000 residents of Camden. Performing the same rate calculation for 2000, when the population was 202,800 and the number of rapes 88, gives us a rate of 43.4.

Mathematically calculating the change in rate from one year to the next gives us the percent change, be it a rise or a fall. The change in rate from 1999 to 2000, or the change from 36.8 to 43.4, is 17.9%.

That is considerably different from 50%. So the rate (which is what counts) of rapes in Camden did not go up by 50% after the lap-dancing clubs opened. If you include the even more modest increases in 2001 and 2002, you still come up with a result that is nowhere close to the Lilith report’s original claim. The combined change from 1999 to 2002 is a rate increase of 26.9% - in other words, about half of what was originally reported.

So not only did the media take six years to correct the error in the Lilith report, they didn’t even get it right the second time around. But the story doesn’t end there...

Lap dancing and rape in Camden: part 1

Read all the posts in this
series:
[1] [2] [3] [4] [5]

The borough of Camden in north London is a vibrant and diverse quarter of the city. From the Bloomsbury of feminist hero Virginia Woolf to the leafy expanse of Hampstead Heath, it embraces a colourful past and present. In the modern iconography of London, Camden Lock is as famous for its nightlife as Kentish Town and Chalk Farm are for their music venues. At night the area comes alive, host to almost 2,000 pubs, 130 licensed entertainment venues, and seven lap dancing clubs.

To the uninitiated the Spearmint Rhino may look like any of the handful of similar establishments in the area, but it has been the epicentre of controversy since its opening. Not only was it one of the first clubs granted an all-nude license in the 1990s, it also paved the way for identical clubs in cities around London and the UK.

Spearmint Rhino was notable not only for full nudity but also for its style. It gained a reputation for having a less seedy atmosphere than previous clubs in Soho.

Comfortable leather chairs curl around customers who patronised Britain's first all-nude strip club. The topless dancers at Stringfellows were modest titillation by comparison. Spearmint Rhino’s arrival signalled a new era of adult entertainment in the capital.

Customers responded by making lap dancing the talk of London. 'Table dancing has moved into the mainstream,' wrote Ben Flanagan in the Observer. 'The clubs, previously perceived as sleazy and hostile, are now seen as ideal venues for a corporate night out or a bit of celebrity-spotting.'

So when a 2003 study of the impact of lap dancing clubs in London reported a 50% rise in rapes in surrounding areas, people were aghast. Even worse, the number of rapes was claimed to be three times the national average. As a statistic, it sounded shocking, but it also had the ring of truth to it. Lap dancing was as controversial as it was popular. News outlets all over the UK reported the results as evidence why the UK should not give in to the creeping infestation of ‘high-street’ lap dancing chains. But was this claim actually true?

The "Report on Lap Dancing and Striptease in the Borough of Camden" [pdf] was produced by Lilith R&D, part of the Eaves charity founded to support homeless and vulnerable women. The stated aim of Lilith, according to its website, is “to eliminate all aspects of violence against women”. A very worthy ideal, and an important issue. But the intentions of the authors doesn't make the relationship between their stated concern (violence) and the subject of the paper (lap dancing) any more reliable than anyone else's. And there are a large number of problems with the report simply from the statistical standpoint that disprove any such connection.

The first flaw in the report is the lack of connection between the outcome (rape) and the supposed cause (lap dancing). In well-conducted studies, you expect the researchers to show some connection between the thing being studied and the outcome being measured. Otherwise, what you have is a case of ‘correlation is not the same as causation’. In other words, just because two things happened at the same time doesn’t make them related.

The complete lack of cited research about stripping causing sex crimes is unsurprising, because no such results exist. A lot of reports have claimed the two are related, but repeated studies from many fields have all failed to connect them – I'll discuss this more later.

The next flaw is an evident unfamiliarity with calculating reliable statistics.

According to the Lilith report, rapes in Camden had been on the rise since 1999 and showed no signs of dropping. The number reported in 1999 in the borough was 72 rapes. By 2000 it was 88, 2001 had 91 and for 2002, the number of reported rapes in Camden was 96. As far as the report was concerned, the numbers spoke for themselves.

Only, there's a bit of a problem with their maths. And here’s where the evidence for the paper being more cargo cult than reliable research starts to show through.

If you look at only the numbers themselves, the difference from 1999 to 2002 is the difference from 72 to 96. That’s a difference of 24 rapes, which is only 33% increase – not the 50% originally claimed. A pretty basic error in mathematics, and one that was surprisingly resistant to being corrected. It was only six years later, in early 2009, the Guardian reported this elementary miscalculation. The original claim of 50% is still widely reported without being corrected, however.

But actually, it turns out the increase wasn’t even as high as 33%. In the next part, I'll discuss what it means to calculate rates using the changes in population to make valid comparisons.