Sex trafficking: a story of data gone wrong
One of the coursework pieces we have been set for our Journalism and Society module is about the moral panic surrounding sex trafficking. It struck me that the topic is a model example of what can happen when recycling data goes wrong.
It is also the subject of one of the chapters of a new book ‘The Sex Myth’ by Dr Brooke Magnanti, otherwise known as the high class call girl Belle de Jour.
Dr Magnanti, who is a research scientist as well as a onetime call girl (although her research subject is in children’s health), has set out to dispel some ‘myths’ about the sex trade. Her book, subtitled ‘Why Everything We’re Told is Wrong’, takes a different ‘myth’ in each chapter and attempts to blow them out of the water.
In chapter seven she takes issue with the idea that thousands of girls are trafficked against their will to be sex workers in the UK. She blames women’s magazines like Glamour, who in May 2010 published an article called ‘Sex Slave in Suburbia’ claiming that 500,000 women are trafficked in the EU for sex, without offering any source for the figure.
Magnanti’s book is interesting, pertinent, and passionately argued. However, she lets herself down by including statistical errors, for example she cites a Keele University study, but gets the amount of people participating in the study wrong. When your main gripe is people who use incorrect figures to back up spurious arguments, you have to be extra careful with your data.
She is not the only one to take issue with the numbers, Nick Davies writing for the Guardian has also criticised the overinflated statistics surrounding the ‘moral panic’ of sex trafficking, and Spiked contributor Natalie Rothschild is positively fuming in numerous articles where she points out the dangers of policies based on inflated numbers.
I thought it would be interesting to make my own infographic, taking a look at what happened in this situation, and get a sense of the danger of recycled data. This is a great example of what can happen when people assume other people’s figures are correct and quote them, or an exaggerated version of them as fact. This is a story of data done badly.
This shows what can happen when people use incorrect statistics. The problem is particularly acute when MPs or newspapers contain incorrect statistics, as these then go down as matters of record. The fact is that there are victims of trafficking in the UK, and the first thing we can do to get a handle on the problem is to get our facts right.