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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.


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  1. 13 May 12, 11:24am

    […] Data Journalism Blog have exposed some of the misleading truths that lie within the sex trade, particularly in the trafficking of women. […]

  2. 14 May 12, 12:30pm

    […] Sex trafficking: a story of data gone wrong, which is the source of the opening image for this post (by Lauren York, another student of mine) […]

  3. bebopper76 says
    21 May 12, 11:56pm

    There is a lot of controversy over the numbers of adult woman who are forced sex slaves. The real factual answer is that no one knows. There is hard evidence that the sex slavery/sex trafficking issue continues to report false information and is greatly exaggerated by politicians, the media, and aid groups, feminist and religious organizations that receive funds from the government, The estimate of adult women who become new sex slaves ranges anywhere from 40 million a year to 5,000 per year all of which appear to be much too high. 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. In fact if some of these numbers are to believed which have either not changed or have been increased each year for the past twenty years, all woman on earth would currently be sex slaves. Yet, very few real forced against their will sex slaves have been found.

    Sex trafficking is illegal and the pentities are very severe. It is very difficult to force someone to be a sex 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 or police. They would need to hide from the general public yet still manage to see customers from the general public and not have the customers turn the traffickers in to the police. They would need to provide them with medical care, food, shelter, and have all their basic needs met. They would need to have the sex slaves put on a fake front that they enjoyed what they were doing, act flirtatious and do their job well. They would have to deal with the authorities looking for the missing women, and hide any money they may make, since it comes from illegal activity. They must do all of this while constantly trying to prevent the sex slaves from escaping and reporting them to the police. They would need to prevent the general public from reporting them into the police. This is extremely difficult to do, which makes this activity rare. These criminals would be breaking dozens of major laws not just one. Kidnapping itself is a serious crime. There are many laws against sex trafficking, sex slavery, kidnapping, sex abuse, rape, sexual harassment etc. If someone is behind it, they will be breaking many serious laws, be in big trouble, and will go to jail for many long years. And do you actually think that there is a long line of people who want to have a career as a sex slave kidnapping pimp?

    the media will say that millions of people are sex slaves without doing any real research on the topic. Only taking the word of special interest anti-prostitution groups which need to generate money in the form of huge government grants from taxpayers, and charities. These "non profit" group's employees make huge salaries, therefore they need to lobby the government, and inflate and invent victims in order to get more money into their organizations. If you look into how many real kidnapped forced against their will sex slaves there are, and not just take the anti-prostitution groups word for it. You will be very surprised.

    Where are all the forced against their will, kidnapped sex slaves? I would like to meet the millions of slaves and see for myself if they were kidnapped and forced against their will.

    These groups lobby the government in a big way, getting Politicians to truly believe their lies.

    Here are some good websites about sex trafficking:

  4. 22 May 12, 10:31am

    Statistics are not the fundamental problem, however – though I was one of the first to begin deconstructing them in the early 1990s. You cannot count when you have not got definitions agreed on, and the trafficking-smuggled-illegal migrant categories are widely disputed and understood differently. Most important, people crossing borders outside formal channels don't register their presence – that is the whole point! So they cannot be counted; there are no registries to turn to for data. Similarly, people selling sex in businesses not recognised by the state are not registered anywhere, either. Thus everyone is guessing, and the bottom line to the extrapolations is often a random police comment on 'how many girls' they used to see on the street and how many they see now.

    There are many resources on my website: look at the tabs on the top menu, search the tag cloud for posts – there is a statistics tag. But most important is to understand how people migrate and get jobs in the informal economy. My work focuses on these and the Rescue Industry that wants to help people without asking them if they'd like that and how: Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry.

    Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist http://www.lauraagustin.com

  5. 30 October 12, 1:59pm

    […] Here’s why the actual information in infographics must be correct. […]

  6. 06 December 14, 3:50am

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