UK: Sex trafficking: a futile war of statistics

The descent of a Newsnight discussion on the sex trade into a shouting match shows how difficult it is to debate the issue
Comments (130)
Denis MacShane, Wednesday 21 October 2009 16.30 BST

Anyone see the ding-dong between Jeremy Paxman and Denis MacShane on Newsnight? I was there. It was an utterly weird experience to be in the dock, under Paxo’s hostile interrogation, because I have spent some time in the House of Commons campaigning against the sex slave trade.

I honestly don’t know how many girls are trafficked into Britain. I once quoted a Daily Mirror report in the Commons. Its headline talked of 25,000 women and was based, so the paper reported, on Home Office and Amnesty International statistics.

This week the Guardian front-paged a report that came to close to arguing trafficking does not exist. The Mirror and the Guardian are both good papers with good journalists. Which is correct?

Rahila Gupta demolished the Guardian report on Comment is free. She also drew attention to an outfit of former prostitutes called Esso, which believes only 2% of women freely chose prostitution. Esso is new to me, and I hope the BBC and other media turn to it instead of always to the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP). I mean no discourtesy to this organisation, which grew out of the Wages for Housework campaign started by the International Marxist Group in the 1970s, but I cannot find on the web any details of its constitution, internal democracy, funding, or membership. The ECP spokeswoman said on Newsnight that only two trafficked women had come to her attention. This sounds far-fetched.

The Newsnight report managed its investigation without talking to a single prostituted woman or a single trafficked victim. Instead we had self-appointed “experts” indulging in a futile war of statistics in which the victims are voiceless. But to say that the reports of every international outfit that has highlighted sex slave trafficking do not apply to our blessed isles is silly.

Regional newspapers publish advertisements from brothels offering “new girls every week”, and the web is awash with offers of paid-for sex from young women brought into Britain to service male needs. The Poppy project, which seeks to help trafficked girls and other prostituted women who try to flee from their pimps and controllers, can house a few dozen at its refuge, but it turns away hundreds more who seek to escape from the slavery of offering themselves to dozens of men a day in massage parlours and brothels. Perhaps Newsnight might go and interview these victims instead of “experts” pooh-poohing the problem.

The real debate turns on what is to be done. Male politicians rarely challenge the conventional wisdom of the Belle de Jour or Happy Hooker books and articles that becoming a prostitute is a voluntary business of pleasure and profit – and just another profession. I pushed the House of Commons and Tony Blair to sign the Council of Europe convention on trafficking, despite opposition from Whitehall and some boy members of the cabinet. Now Labour women like Harriet Harman, Vera Baird, Fiona Mactaggart, Jacqui Smith and others who suffer unspeakable condescension from the media – and, if truth be told, too many patriarchical masculinist Labour MPs and current and former ministers – have edged the debate into new territory.

They are seeking to switch the focus of responsibility from women to men in the debate over how to deal with trafficking and sex slavery. The idea is simple. Instead of penalising women, make men accept that paying for sex with a trafficked woman or under-age girl is a criminal activity. If that means more appearances in front of magistrates and naming and shaming, so be it.

The rough analogy is with kerb-crawling. It was commonplace until police and councils started photographing and publishing the number plates of the kerb-crawling cars. Nothing eliminates the willingness of some men to pay for sex, but there is no need to use this desire as an excuse to turn a blind eye to the tragic exploitation of women, often with murderous consequences, that the sex industry entails.

These amendments are now in the House of Lords. Will they be supported or defeated by these venerable gentlemen? Sadly, in the Commons Tory MPs have indicated that they do not want to support a move to curbing the demand side of the sex slave industry. It is not clear if David Cameron has taken an official position. Of course, all measures to tackle the supply side by interdicting trafficking and punishing pimps and traffickers should be undertaken. As a minister and then serving on the Council of Europe, I have examined such measures but came to conclusion that unless the demand side was also tackled by placing men in front of their responsibility, little progress would be made.

Last night’s Newsnight debate showed how difficult it is to get a serious discussion on this important issue. Perhaps it is time to ask middle-aged male grandees from the Guardian and Newsnight to step aside and allow a different journalism to examine the problem.

That goes for me as well. I pondered hard before accepting an invitation to go on what I knew would be a shouting, point-scoring exchange, not a serious discussion of human evil and individual tragedies that shame our time and our politics. Now attention should turn to those other grandees who sit in the House of Lords. Will they defend men or their victims? We shall see.

see original and all comments on Guardian UK


  1. Sadly too many men still think a woman is no more than a sex object to be used and discarded for men’s pleasure as portrayed in soulless porn films. The woman has to try and keep smiling as she is physically and sexually abused. Sadly many men think this is normal sex and try to treat their wives/ partners /girlfriends in a similar manner.
    But I think the main reason male politicians and the leading authorities (again mostly male led) are probably because they have an attitude that the women deserve who have sex for money deserve what they get, and they are just ‘dirty slags’ (sorry to use that term) but this is the kind of talk about prostitutes you hear in bars and clubs, so there is little sympathy from many ‘macho’ men. To change their preconceptions would need a new education with Panorama type investigations exposing the seedy, sleazy, brutal reality of the life of a young prostitute in Britain today. I would imagine it is anything but glamorous; more brutal and disgustingly sickening.
    On a recent TV documentary on trafficking one young girl was held captive for up to ten hours a day in a room with no windows, just a double mattress on the floor and a toilet and a shower, her pimp forced her to have sex with up to twenty men a day. In her words ‘they could do whatever they liked with her behind the closed doors’, the pimp held her passport as she was powerless to escape. But no the men in power don’t want to hear such stories. They prefer their fantasy world of Belle de Jour. And enjoy their mutual titillation in men’s company. It seems UK feminism has done nothing to change the majority of men’s attitudes towards prostitution; in fact their double standard approach might have made matters worse for prostitutes, in supporting the sex workers, they are seen to condone all prostitution in the UK in all its brutal and depraved forms.
    Perhaps the main reason there is no will amongst male politicians to make changes to protect women coerced or forced into prostitution; whether they are of foreign origin or not, is there is too much money at stake in this multi- billion pound sex industry (including its spin-offs of pornography, illegal drugs and protection rackets) with the major newspaper groups making huge incomes from prostitution adverts; that go under the name of escorts, massage parlors, saunas and the like.
    If the will was there, the main supply could be stopped in a matter of days, but unfortunately the political will isn’t there, as there are too many men who have a vested interest in the continuing success of this sordid industry; a few for sexual reasons but the majority for financial reasons. Who has the guts in the UK today to lay the axe at the foot of the tree of this industry rather than a little tinkering and pretending to care? No one! Just as we are witnessing on many academic forums/ political blogs, there seems to be a prevailing attitude of let’s just shout ridicule at the people stupid enough to defend young women involved in prostitution. These people will soon go away; then we can all get back to the exploitation of young women in the UK and making lots of money.

  2. Thank you for commenting, Simon.

    Have you studied prostitution much? How deeply have you researched? Because in our experience (Sex Workers’ Outreach Project) and extensive research, most people in the industry are not the victims everyone likes to believe they are. Oh, there are definitely victims, as there are in many occupations, but they are by no means the norm. And trying to eliminate the industry is futile. It has been around for as long as the earth has (many animals engage in transactional sexual practices) and many of us quite happily participate in it.

    People have such a hard time imagining that someone would wish to sell sexual services to a stranger, but have no trouble imagining that someone would happily go home with a complete stranger from a bar or nightclub for free.

    As Sadie Lune says, “I want you to stop punishing me because you can’t imagine being me.”

    For folks who are interested in reaching the victims of the sex industry, their best strategy would be to engage in activism aimed at ending poverty and child abuse, increasing affordable housing, increasing economic opportunities for women and lower income folks, increasing funding for more rights-based drug rehabilitation centers, and fostering self esteem in young women and men.

  3. The problems I see with the sex traffic idea is that suppose some of the women were not forced into this type of prostitution, but were willing and wanted to do this type of work, and went out of their way to do this type of work. (It is a lot of fast easy money, they don’t need a degree, or a green card.) All they have to do is lie and say that someone forced them into it. When perhaps, no one did.

    If they lie here are their benefits based on the new anti-traffic laws:

    1. They don’t have to go to jail or be arrested.
    2. They get to stay and live in America for an indefinite amount of time.
    3. The U.S. Government will provide them with housing, food, education and will cater to them since they will be considered victims.

    The way I see it is that this system will encourage people to lie in order to receive all the benefits listed above.

    Everything I heard about this problem was Americans complaining about it, but I never heard from the so-called victims themselves complaining about it. Why is that? Many of the self appointed experts complaining about this have never even met or seen a real victim. They make up a large figure out of thin air that 2 million or more women and children become sex slaves each year. They have been saying this for over 15 years so this means that 15 X 2, 000,000 equals 30,000,000 yet no one can find all these women and children. They have no evidence to back up these numbers, and no one questions them about it. Their sources have no sources, and are made up numbers.

    A key point is that on the sidelines of a debate which has been dominated by ideology, a chorus of alarm from the prostitutes themselves is singing out virtually unheard. They oppose laws against prostitution. But no one wants to listen to the prostitutites themsleves. Only to the self appointed experts that make up numbers and stories.

    It is very difficult to force someone to be a slave, they would have to have 24 hour guards posted and be watched 365 days a year, 24 hours per day. Have the threat of violence if they refused, and have no one notice and complain to the authorities.

    What hard evidence does the police have that these women were forced slaves? Were all the women that the police saw in fact slaves? Did the police prove without a doubt due to hard concrete evidence that the women were victims of being slaves and forced against their will? Did they account for all the benefits they would receive if they lied?
    I find it very hard to believe that most women in this business are forced against their will to do it. It would just be too difficult. There may be some exceptions but, I believe this is an attempt to over inflate an issue in order to get more government money to fight this cause. As a tax payer, voter, and resident I don’t want the government to mislead me.

    The following links will give your more information about this
    Washington post article:

    Human traffic website:

    Guardian newspaper:

  4. Thank you for commenting, Jeff. Thanks also for the great links.

    I also recommend anyone seriously interested in the nuances of this issue to watch a video of a presentation by Dr. Nick Mai, who interviewed 100 migrant sex workers in the UK. CLICK HERE for video. You can read all about his research HERE, and access a pdf of the report.

  5. And for those still in denial about Prostitution & Human Trafficking in the UK

    Here are three more sites for you to check out:

    End Violence Against Women

    The Independent 25-2-07
    5000 childsex slaves in UK

    UK abandons Trafficked Children:

  6. == In the United Kingdom ==
    In October, 2009 – The biggest ever investigation of sex trafficking failed to find a single person who had forced anybody into prostitution in spite of hundreds of raids on sex workers in a six-month campaign by government departments, specialist agencies and every police force in the country. The failure has been disclosed by a Guardian investigation which also suggests that the scale of and nature of sex trafficking into the UK has been exaggerated by politicians and media.
    Nick Davis of the Guardian newspaper writes:
    Current and former ministers have claimed that thousands of women have been imported into the UK and forced to work as sex slaves, but most of these statements were either based on distortions of quoted sources or fabrications without any source at all.

    == World Cup 2006 ==
    Politicians, religious and aid groups, still repeat the media story that 40,000 prostitutes were trafficked into Germany for the 2006 world cup – long after leaked police documents revealed there was no truth at all in the tale. A baseless claim of 25,000 trafficking victims is still being quoted, recently, for example, by the Salvation Army in written evidence to the home affairs select committee, in which they added : “Other studies done by media have suggested much higher numbers.”. Which has been proven by the German police to be completely false. Yet people still talk about these false numbers as if it were fact.

    == In the USA ==
    On August 5, 2008
    U.S. Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine uncovered discrepancies in a program dedicated to cracking down on human trafficking, McClatchy Newspapers report. Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales spent millions of dollars on combating the international trafficking of indentured servants and sex slaves, including by creating task forces across the U.S. that identified and helped victims. Over four years, the department paid $50 million to the task forces and other groups. Conservative groups, who pressured the administration to go after sex trafficking more aggressively, applauded his efforts.
    Critics have questioned whether the problem was being hyped. Fine found in an audit issued that the task forces and other groups set up to help were ‘significantly’ overstating the number of victims they served. By examining a sampling of cases, Fine found the task forces had exaggerated by as much as 165 percent. Making matters worse, the inflated numbers were included in annual reports to Congress.

    == In India and Nepal ==

    “If media reports on sex trafficking are to be believed, there would be no young girls left in Nepal at this time”

    Rajashri Dasgupta and Laxmi Murthy writes in 2009:
    Globalisation, and the phenomenal economic growth in some parts of India, have resulted in complex patterns of migration across borders in the region. According to a 2006 report of the International Labour Organisation, women are increasingly migrating, and now account for half the international migrants. However, media coverage of trafficking of women and children, migration and sex work is confused and inaccurate. The media wrongly uses the terms ‘sex work’ and ‘trafficking’ synonymously, perpetuating stereotypes and stigmatization, and contributing to the violation of women’s right to free movement and livelihood options.

  7. News night BBC video:

    The Sex Trafficking/Slavery idea is a attempt to unlaw all prostitution around the world by saying that all women are victims even if they do it willing.

    This is done by the media, aid groups, feminist, and religious orgainzations that receive funds from the government. There are very strong groups who promote that all adult women who have sex are victims even if they are willing, enjoy it and go out of there way to get it. These groups try to get the public to believe that no adult women would ever go into the sex business unless she was forced to do so, weather she knew it or not. They say that 100% of all sex workers are trafficking victims. They do this in order to label all men as sex offenders and wipe out all consensual prostitution. Which is what their real goal is.

    There is almost no one who challenges or questions them about their false beliefs.
    Therefore, the only voices you hear are of these extreme groups. These groups want to label all men as terrible sex offenders for seeing a willing adult sex worker.
    No one stands up to say this is foolish, the passive public says nothing. These groups even say that all men who marry foreign women are terrible sex predators who take advange of these “helpless foreign women wives” Take a long look at the laws in Sweden, Norway, Finland, and the new laws in the UK about this. The USA is not far behind, and in many cases we are already there, check out all the U.S. federal laws about this.

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