Complaint to The Guardian about trafficking misinformation
Siobhain Butterworth, Readers Editor
The Guardian, Kings Place, 90 York Way, London N1 9GU
9 November 2009
Dear Siobhain Butterworth,
We wish to submit a complaint about misinformation reported in the Guardian following Nick Davies’s excellent investigation on figures of women trafficked into the sex industry.
- Denis MacShane MP claims that the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP) “grew out of the Wages for Housework campaign started by the International Marxist Group.” (Sex trafficking: a futile war of statistics, 21 October 2009.) It will be news to the Internationalist Marxist Group that they gave birth to the Wages for Housework Campaign (WFH) and the ECP.
WFH is an independent women’s group, founded by Selma James, widow of CLR James, in 1972. The English Collective of Prostitutes was started in 1975 by two immigrant prostitute women as an autonomous organisation within WFH: “Our sisters in France had gone on strike earlier that year and inspired us to form our own collective.”  Is it not conceivable that we are just a self-help network of sex workers and ex-sex workers? Do we need to have men behind us to be successful? Selma James was our first spokeswoman – she was happy to listen, learn and represent those of us who could not be public at the time. As an anti-racist working class housewife, she felt strongly that women were not to be punished for the ways we find to support our families.
We asked for the right to reply to Mr MacShane’s article and in particular to his false claim that the English Collective of Prostitutes via the Wages for Housework Campaign grew out of the International Marxist Group. We were refused. The fact that this was never corrected has emboldened MacShane to repeat his lie in an exaggerated form: “Newsnight invited a spokeswoman from the so-called English Collective of Prostitutes, a shadowy [our emphasis] outfit set up by the International Marxist Group in the 1970s, to discuss the sex slave trade.” We are seeking legal advice on this.
- MacShane refers to his original claim that there are 25,000 women trafficked each year into Britain, quoting the Daily Mirror and saying that the papers claimed the figures were based on Home Office and Amnesty International statistics. In doing this he implies that he was justified in citing the figures as they have the credibility of the Home Office and Amnesty International. But neither body has ever claimed that there are 25,000 victims of trafficking.
- MacShane claims that “the Guardianfront-paged a report that came to close to arguing trafficking does not exist.” Nick Davies’ investigation did not do that. It dissected the figures on arrests, charges, prosecutions and convictions which were claimed to be related to trafficking. He found that some were fabricated, some related to people charged with offences other than trafficking, and of the tiny percentage of convictions for trafficking most of those were for offences that did not involve force or coercion, so would not be generally understood as trafficking offences.
- MacShane claims that “The ECP spokeswoman said on Newsnight that only two trafficked women had come to her attention. This sounds far-fetched.” Is he implying that I lied? (In fact, I made a mistake, it was three women not two.) What about those who claim high numbers of women trafficked, 25,000 to be precise? Or even the 500 the Poppy Project claims to have helped. So far all we have seen from them is one anonymous statement.
- MacShane claims that “to say that the reports of every international outfit that has highlighted sex slave trafficking do not apply to our blessed isles is silly.” Which reports and what did they conclude? Again he is allowed to get away with sweeping claims but nothing specific.
- MacShane reports advertisements in “Regional newspapers . . . from brothels offering “new girls every week” and that “the web is awash with offers of paid-for sex from young women brought into Britain to service male needs” as if these were evidence of trafficking. He clearly knows little about the sex industry he is so anxious to comment on and about women generally. Clients want “new girls” so “new girls” are advertised. It doesn’t mean that the women are new or even young. It is well known that clients want “young” women and so women claim to be much younger than they usually are. Just like women are known to fake orgasms (in any relationship) so we also fake our age. Any woman can tell him that. These advertisements are certainly not evidence of trafficking.
- Rahila Gupta(Sex trafficking is no illusion, 20 October 2009) draws a parallel between statistics on domestic violence and rape and those on trafficking in order to justify the figures Nick Davies’s article discredited: “The widely accepted statistic that one in four women experience violence, for example, is based largely on anecdotal evidence and extrapolations from local surveys. It could be similarly taken apart by anyone who wanted to assert that the case was overblown, because ultimately the numbers are unknowable.”
Women Against Rape, an organisation with an unblemished track record in this field, commented about this in their briefing to the House of Lords. They say such a parallel is “misleading”:
“Our own survey Ask Any Woman as well as the more recent British Crime Survey and Home Office research (A Gap or a Chasm? Attrition in reported rape cases, Research Study 293, 2005) collected and published statistics from women themselves identifying rape and other violence. This has not been true of trafficking research used by the government. The discredited claim that 80% of prostitute women in Britain are victims of trafficking was based on racist assumptions that women with a foreign accent were likely to have been trafficked. Women were not given a chance to say whether they were coerced into prostitution (i.e. kidnapped and raped) or working to make a living (i.e. sex workers). Claims that the nature of trafficking makes this impossible are untrue. New research based on anonymous interviews gives a more truthful picture, but the government has ignored it.
Why? See its methods and conclusions at: http://www.londonmet.ac.uk/londonmet/library/v25946_3.pdf.”
The problem Nick Davies documents is that trafficking research (like the Iraq dossier on weapons of mass destruction) was “sexed up” to produce the “right” results, i.e. invented.
- Gupta claims that Davies is suggesting in his article that prostitution is generally a voluntary activity and that this is false. She quotes Peter Spindler, the police officer who headed Operation Paladin, a three-month investigation into unaccompanied children entering the country through Heathrow to say that the absence of trafficking convictions is because the offence is “complicated to prove. . . . The problem with trafficking is that you’ve got to prove exploitation.” This is untrue. Offences of trafficking in sections 57, 58, 59 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 do not require exploitation (or force) to be proven:
“A person commits an offence if he intentionally arranges or facilitates the arrival in [or within or out of] the United Kingdom of another person.”
While this is contrary to the Palermo Protocol, the UN definition of trafficking used in most other countries which does require force and coercion to be proved, it remains the definition in the UK.
So there is clearly another reason why traffickers are not being caught. We quote again from Women Against Rape’s briefing:
“The claim that it is not possible to prosecute traffickers for rape is false. Police and Crown Prosecution Service have often tried to excuse the appalling 6% conviction rate for reported rape by saying that rape was uniquely hard to prove. But a number of shocking cases have given the lie to their claim, exposing negligence and prejudice within the police and CPS as major obstacles to successful prosecutions. Worboys and Reid, two serial attackers who were allowed to rape tens of victims, and Southwark where police prioritised motor offences over rape, are recent examples. The private prosecution for rape brought by two sex workers with our help (jointly with the English Collective of Prostitutes and Legal Action for Women) proved that successful prosecutions are possible even in cases previously dismissed by police and CPS. Juries will convict if those gathering and presenting the evidence set their prejudices aside and get on with the work. We have spoken to jurors whose experiences of rape trials confirm this.
…We see no reason why traffickers should not be prosecuted under existing laws on rape and other violent crimes.
We also note that there have been repeated reports of children being trafficked through Heathrow with the help of corrupt Home Office employees. If this is true, why is so little being done to rescue these children, and so much to prosecute prostitute women? ”
- Gupta quotes Minister Alan Campbellwho says that “in June 2009 267 people have been prosecuted under the Sexual Offences Act 2003, which led to 109 convictions, a remarkably high percentage”. Gupta doesn’t say if these were convictions for trafficking. Were they? The 2003 Sexual Offences Act brought in a new offence of “controlling for gain” and made the offence of brothel-keeping an either way offence, raising the maximum sentence from six months to seven years imprisonment. Neither offence requires force, coercion or threats to be proven. Raids and prosecutions against women working consensually and collectively from premises have soared since this date. Will Gupta specify what the 109 convictions were?
- Gupta says of Nick Davies’s article “there is no mention of the report into traffickingby a home affairs committee, published in May, which gave an estimate of 5,000 trafficked women and children in the UK, based on an aggregation of the figures provided by those working in this field.” The implication is that there is a reliable estimate of the numbers of victims of trafficking into the sex industry which Davies ignored. Yet the Committee (The Trade in Human Beings: Human Trafficking in the UK – Home Affairs Committee) acknowledges that reliable figures on victims of trafficking do not exist and describes the loose method it had to employ, to even come up with the 5,000 estimate. On closer examination the figure is shown to be wildly speculative.
Firstly, the Committee addressed the situation of all victims of trafficking not just those trafficked into the sex industry. The estimation of 5,000 is of victims of all trafficking not trafficking into the sex industry. Many people believe that trafficking into the agricultural and domestic industries is much more widespread than trafficking into the sex industry, yet this is never mentioned. Women Against Rape agrees: “… why do we hear so little from the government about women trafficked into the agricultural and domestic industries, the latter being notorious for sexual violence against enslaved workers?”
Secondly, one of the three sources cited is the Poppy Project whose figures have been discredited because they conflate immigrant sex workers with victims of trafficking. The other two sources, Kalayaan’s and ECPAT, work with domestic workers and children respectively. No information is provided on whether victims trafficked into the sex industry were identified.
The reference cited in Ms Gupta’s article for the claim that the Home Affairs Committee found 5,000 victims of trafficking is a Guardian article which says: “The committee said conservative estimates suggest there are at least 5,000 victims in the UK, although some estimates say there are at least 4,000 who work in the sex industry alone.” John McDonnell MP asked for the source of the Home Office estimate of 4,000 victims trafficked into the sex industry and was told by Home Office minister Alan Campbell that: “The latest estimate [our emphasis] is that at any one time in 2003 there were up to 4,000 women in the UK who had been trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation. . . .This estimate was part of an internal Home Office document on the social and economic costs of organised crime.”
When John McDonnell MP asked a question about the 4000 figure he was told that the source document was not available to the public. Nick Davies got hold of the document for his article and was able to dissect the figures. He describes some of the unsubstantiated claims made by the researchers such as: “every single foreign woman in the ‘walk-up’ flats in Soho had been smuggled into the country and forced to work as a prostitute.” This would come as a surprise to the over 60 women who work in walk-up flats in Soho who regularly attend meetings, meet parliamentarians, do interviews with the press, and who describe their situation as mothers supporting families or working to send money back home.
In conclusion, we think it is dishonest and devious for Rahila Gupta to challenge Nick Davies’s article by using figures from a document which Davies has already exposed as unreliable.
- Gupta claims that Davies’s article doesn’t “make a distinction between smuggling and trafficking.” In fact, his article does exactly that by dissecting the trafficking arrests, charges, prosecutions, and convictions and specifying where they are offences of trafficking which involve force, or offences of assisting in the movement of people which do not involve force, and which could be more accurately described as people smuggling. He found that out of over 500 arrests there were only five convictions for trafficking which involved force, 10 others which did not and would count as people smuggling.
- Gupta claims that: “On this basis, prostitutes were regularly criminalised and deported before trafficking legislation was brought in to safeguard women who had been coerced into the work.” UK anti-trafficking legislation doesn’t require force or coercion, and there is no evidence that it has been used to “safeguard women who had been coerced into the work”. Quite the opposite. Of the 19 women arrested during the well publicised raid on the Cuddles massage parlour in Birmingham in October 2005, nearly all were put in detention and the majority deported. They, along with many hundreds of others who have been deported, were not protected by anti-trafficking laws. But this is not publicised.
- Gupta says: “It is self-serving and reckless for the sex workers’ lobby to argue against trafficking legislation simply because recognition of the scale of the problem undermines a central plank of their argument: that prostitution is freely chosen.” Since 1975 we have campaigned for sex workers’ rights and safety, and for resources to enable women to get out of prostitution if we want to, and to prevent anyone being driven into prostitution by poverty or other violence. We work with anti-rape campaigners and organisations which oppose immigration and welfare laws that impoverish women to the point of destitution. We oppose anti-trafficking laws because they have been used primarily to deport immigrant sex workers, and to justify the raids and prosecution of sex workers working consensually. What we stand for is documented in all our literature. For example, Some Mother’s Daughter– The hidden movement of prostitute women against violence 1999.
- Two years before the Poppy Project was even set up, we raised the situation of immigrant women trapped in prostitution and demanded that they be given the right to stay so they could come forward and report their exploiters without fear of arrest or deportation. See “Vulnerable women need protection, not deportation”, our response to the government’s consultation paper “Setting the Boundaries, Reforming the Law on Sex Offences”, March 2001.
- We have worked with others in defence of women who escaped from traffickers and complained that there was no support from them – one was imprisoned because the Home Office questioned her age and was more interested in deporting her than in protecting her; another two went into hiding because no established organisation would shelter them without a passport.
- Gupta says: “Davies quotes only those sex-worker groups who feel that their right to work as prostitutes is under attack from anti-trafficking initiatives. A recently formed group of ex-sex workers, Esso, believe that only 2% of women freely choose prostitution.” What is the source for that statistic and why is Gupta reporting it without a reference? And what does she mean by “freely”? Are we “free” when we lack money to feed children and pay rent?
- Gupta claims that: “There is a snide attempt to discredit Poppy by implying that their Home Office funding gives them a vested interest in inflating the figures.” Yet the Poppy Project is directly responsible for the racist assumption that immigrant sex workers are victims of trafficking. Their research claimed that “of approximately 8,000 women involved in off-street prostitution in the capital, 80% were foreign nationals.” It goes on to say that “The Project believes that a large proportion of foreign national women are likely to have been trafficked.” (2004 POPPY Project memorandum to Home Affairs Committee). The Poppy Project is being put forward as an independent women’s group when it is in fact a Home Office project funded to the tune of £9.5m. This generous funding is based on showing that trafficking into prostitution is huge – if it were shown not to be, then funding on this scale would hardly be justifiable. Is that not a “vested interest”?
- While we were preparing this complaint, yet another article (“Exit strategy“, 28 October 2009) appeared in the Guardian with suspect figures, presented out of context and promoting as the sole solution the criminalisation of clients. Danielle Aumord quotes Beverly Carter who “challenges the notion that any prostitute works without in some way having been forced into it.” Her “evidence” for this is that “through childhood sexual abuse, many prostituted women have become conditioned into thinking that this is their choice.”
Aumord quotes figures that 85% of sex workers reported that they had suffered physical abuse within the family and 45% said that they had suffered sexual abuse – the figures don’t specify if this was as children. But how many nurses, office workers, factory workers, teachers, or women in other jobs have been abused within the family? And what sense does her claim make without this comparison? Considering that two women are killed a week by their partner or ex-partner we can guess that the proportion of women generally who suffer abuse within the family is high. If anyone claimed that women became nurses because they were abused as children they would rightly be ridiculed. Yet prostitution is presented as a job only fit for “damaged” people and a connection of this kind is made without challenge.
If it is connections we are looking at, why not look at the relationship between childhood abuse, prostitution, poverty and institutional care? Or is it too inconvenient to blame State policies for violence and neglect?
Carter also quotes the Home Office figure that 95% of those involved in street prostitution are believed to be users of heroin and crack cocaine. This is a distortion of figures. Women who work on the street and do not use drugs rarely use the Home Office funded projects on which this figure is based. They do not need the services on offer and do not want to compromise their anonymity for the sake of free condoms.
The figure on drug use implies that sex workers have a unique problem with drug addiction. No comparison is made with people in other jobs. Yet addiction to different types of drugs is widespread – it is well-known that a high proportion of artists and journalists, to name but a few, are regular cocaine users.
Carter’s personal experience of abuse and her claim that most sex workers are “coerced” in the sex industry are used to give credibility to her view that “the acceptance of any paid-for sex should be illegal.” Even if most women were coerced (which would contradict the findings of all serious research including the Home Office which found that 74% of off-street sex workers “cited the need to pay household expenses and support their children”) how does this lead to banning men from buying sexual services?
Evidence from the US where clients (as well as sex workers) are criminalised shows high levels of violence against women. Findings from New York (a city similar to London in size) show widespread violence against women in the sex industry, including from law enforcement. 80% of street workers and 46% of indoor workers experienced violence or threats; 27% of street workers and 14% of indoor workers at the hands of police. http://www.urbanjustice.org/pdf/publications/RevolvingDoorExecSum.pdf and http://www.urbanjustice.org/pdf/publications/BehindDoorsExecSum.pdf.
Fear of arrest (and deportation where the women are immigrant) is a significant obstacle to women coming forward to report their attackers and those that coerce and exploit them. Recent research from Vancouver found that: “The persistent relationship between enforcement of prostitution and drug use policies (e.g. confiscation of drug use paraphernalia without arrest, and enforced displacement to outlying areas) suggests that criminalization may enhance the likelihood of violence against street-based female sex workers”, Why therefore was decriminalisation of prostitution not presented in this article as a credible solution to the problems Carter outlines?
In addition, we wish to complain about the structural imbalance in the coverage of issues related to prostitution and trafficking in the Guardian.
Over the last three years the vast majority of Guardian articles on these issues have promoted the view that women are in the sex industry because of trafficking or force rather than through economic need. Here are some examples: Julie Bindel (e.g. Prostitution: sex, lies and exploitation, 25 September 2009), Joan Smith (e.g. Tackling abuse in prostitution, 12 October 2009) and Zoe Williams (e.g. Turned off by tart-lit, 13 November 2008). Academics such as Roger Matthews (‘It’s abuse and a life of hell’, 29 February 2008) are interviewed while other who do not share these views are not. Many articles have openly promoted the criminalisation of clients based on legislation introduced in Sweden, claiming that by reducing “demand” it had reduced trafficking and prostitution. They have not mentioned the US, which criminalises both clients and sex workers – is that because the picture there is demonstrably less rosy? And they have given no serious consideration to decriminalisation of prostitution such as that introduced successfully in New Zealand six years ago.
We see today, 9 November, that there is yet another article in the same vein: Beatrix Campbell welcoming the proposal in the Policing and Crime Bill to criminalise clients (“Prostitution a Crime of Purchasing.”)
The English Collective of Prostitutes is the longest established prostitute women’s organisation in the UK. We co-ordinate the Safety First Coalition which includes distinguished members like the Royal College of Nursing, and have spearheaded the campaign against the Policing and Crime Bill and its predecessor the Criminal Justice Bill. Yet we have never been given an opportunity to write either on the Women’s Page or as a Comment. This is despite years of campaigning for (and winning) protection for sex workers from rape and other violence, and of providing substantial daily support and advice on legal and other matters to thousands of women who faced arrest, raids and deportation. We have asked to write an article on a number of occasions for example: at the time of the Ipswich murders when we initiated the Safety First Coalition; during the passage of the Policing and Crime Bill through the Commons; and recently after the Guardian investigation. We were refused on all occasions.
The fact that MacShane was given an article demonstrates substantial bias. His comment added no valuable contribution to the issue and he used the column to promote himself and make nasty and inaccurate allegations about us. Yet we were denied an opportunity to respond even to the false claims he made about our organisation. One of the reasons we were given by Matt Seaton, Comments Editor, for denying us space to reply is that another article had already been commissioned. When this appeared a couple of days later it was another attack on Davies’s article (“Exit strategy“, 28 October 2009).
On the rare occasions that sex workers have been given a voice in the Guardian (other than on the Letters Page) it is the International Union of Sex Workers which got coverage. Whilst both organisations support the decriminalisation of prostitution and it is right that the IUSW should get coverage, we have a much longer and extensive track record defending sex workers’ rights and hold distinctive and different views in crucial areas. For example, we do not promote prostitution as a “career option” – we see it as a job. It is our experience that most sex workers, like most other workers, do not “love” their jobs, it is something we do to feed our children and pay the rent. Also, our starting point has always been the situation of women on the street who are most vulnerable to arrest and assault – so much so that in 1982 we took sanctuary in a church for 12 days in protest against police illegality and racism against women working in the streets round King’s Cross. We are a women’s organisation and clients, pimps and employers have never been part of it. In fact, in 1982 we exposed the way police and pimps collaborated to keep women working. (See Hookers in the House of the Lord).
We would like a response to this complaint and an opportunity to rectify the lies being told against us and put forward our views, including on the Policing and Crime Bill which is going through Parliament at this moment.
Thanking you for your consideration.
 Some Mothers’ Daughter: The Hidden Movement of Prostitute Women Against Violence, 1999.
 2004 POPPY Project memorandum to Home Affairs Committee: ‘of approximately 8,000 women involved in off-street prostitution in the capital, 80% were foreign nationals. The Project believes that a large proportion of foreign national women are likely to have been trafficked…’ Other misleading ‘evidence’ is based on ads carrying the words ‘exotic’ or ‘foreign’ without corroboration from the women involved.
 “The same few statistical studies in specific areas (the Poppy Project’s analysis of information provided by victims of sexual exploitation who had been referred to it, Kalayaan’s analysis of responses from its migrant domestic worker clients, ECPAT UK’s research on child victims in three UK regions) . . . . The nearest we came to an overall total was when we added up the result of these studies and suggested to Anti-Slavery International that they implied that there were more than 5000 victims in the UK; Anti-Slavery International concurred.”
 Written Questions re: Prostitution Statistics, Q. 242656, A. 18.12.2008.
 “Three years after the Kelly/Regan work was published, in 2003, a second team of researchers was commissioned by the Home Office to tackle the same area. They, too, were forced to make a set of highly speculative assumptions: that every single foreign woman in the “walk-up” flats in Soho had been smuggled into the country and forced to work as a prostitute; that the same was true of 75% of foreign women in other flats around the UK and of 10% of foreign women working for escort agencies. Crunching these percentages into estimates of the number of foreign women in the various forms of sex work, they came up with an estimate of 3,812 women working against their will in the UK sex trade. The researchers ringed this figure with warnings. The data, they said, was “very poor” and quantifying the subject was “extremely difficult”. Their final estimate was “very approximate”, “subject to a very large margin of error” and “should be treated with great caution” and the figure of 3,812 “should be regarded as an upper bound”.” “Prostitution and trafficking – the anatomy of a moral panic”, Guardian, 20 October
 “Prevalence and structural correlates of gender based violence among a prospective cohort of female sex workers” Kate Shannon, assistant professor, T Kerr, assistant professor, S A Strathdee, professor and chair, J Shoveller, professor, J S Montaner, professor and director, M W Tyndall, associate professor, BMJ 2009; 339:b2939, bmj.com