POPPY Project’s comments in response to
‘Academics’ Response to Bindel & Atkins’ “Big Brothel” report
(hereafter known as the response)
The POPPY Project sincerely wishes to see a balanced debate about prostitution and the sex industry, rather than ubiquitous multi-media propaganda which presents the sex industry as a glamorous, fun, easy way to make lots of money. It is rare for a report such as Big Brothel to achieve significant media coverage, and it is essential in the interests of furthering the debate to provide a counter-balance to the disproportionately positive media focus on prostitution enjoyed by those who substantially profit from the sex industry, such as pornographers, brothel owners and lap dance clubs.
Many of the academics listed in the response have conducted research which offers a wide range of evidence underpinning the extremely high levels of risk and harms associated with working in the sex industry, although this is not referenced or acknowledged anywhere in the response.
Big Brothel was not commissioned by central government – it is an independent NGO study, conducted by the POPPY Project Research team, and was funded by independent organisations (including one which commendably funds posts at organisations with opposing views on the subject of prostitution), individual donations, fundraising activities and one post funded by London Councils – a local government body which is not part of central government. The POPPY Project Support team is funded by the Ministry of Justice, which had no dealings whatsoever with this research.
The POPPY Project is not an academic institution, and has never claimed to be, nor does our report claim, or intend to be, an academic piece of work. The suggestion that only academics should be studying this area is nothing short of professional arrogance and insulting to the vast expertise and incomparable knowledge developed by NGOs, both domestically and internationally. Such a suggestion fails to acknowledge the global body of invaluable research conducted by charities, community organisations and service providers – irrespective of viewpoints - which contributes to the evolution of studying and understanding the subject of prostitution in the 21st century.
It is essential that the findings of our survey are accessible to as wide a range of interested individuals and entities as possible, including members of the public, grassroots organisations, community representatives, activists, service providers, NGOs big and small, students, as well as academics and policy-makers. This is a multi-faceted issue which affects us all, and the POPPY Project feels strongly that research and commentary on the subject must not be restricted to (or by) scholastic pieces.
Notwithstanding this, two chapters in the report is dedicated to methodology and research limitations, where we discuss the methodology, raising and acknowledging its flaws with clarity and honesty, and addressing the problems inherent in this type of research.
The information gained from brothels is consistently presented as verbatim, with critical discussion specifically considering the limits of verification. Furthermore, on numerous occasions in the report we return to the problems with this, and encourage the reader to take this into account throughout. We are not responsible for the so-called ‘lurid headlines’ which parts of the media chose to produce. Whilst wefeel it was important that the publication of Big Brothel was picked up, any issue with the interpretation of the report by journalists is something which needs to be directed elsewhere.
RESPONSE TO KEY POINTS (corresponding with each bullet point in order)
- The methodology and its limitations are clearly presented and critically analysed, taking into account the restrictions of the method of data collection, and exactly why this kind of research was employed. The implication that the only research of value in this area should be peer-reviewed academic study is short-sighted and biased, failing to take into account the multi-disciplinary significance of cross-sector work and studyaround the subject of prostitution.
- The issue of respondents’ participation is set out in the research limitations and methodology sections. The researchers asked questions which anybody could call up and ask, and expect to receive answers. There was no overt deception or trickery used in obtaining the information. Any premises which did not feel comfortable answering the questions - the type of queries which they receive repeatedly on a daily basis – chose to discontinue the conversation, and were not contacted again. Again, this is clearly outlined in the report.
- The issue of consent was not disregarded;it was considered and assessed carefully and the conclusion was reached that the information provided after obtaining consent would be severely limited and negatively distorted. Again, this is openly discussed in the report.
- A third of all calls were answered directly by women working in the brothels, a fact clearly misrepresented in the response which erroneously claims the data is simply ‘accounts of receptionists,’ who account for a little over half of all people who answered the calls. This false claim, along with numerous other points raised in the response, suggest that the report has not been read and considered in its entirety – rather particular points which the authors of the response disagree with have been picked up, taken out of context and targeted for politically-motivated criticism. The response implies that information provided over the phone by people working in brothels is irrelevant, butthere is no evidence to back up the claim that women providing prostitution services would automatically lie over the phone to callers seeking information about available services and prices. To do so is obviously not in their own interests and would encourage visitors to attend with false expectations, thereby potentially creating unnecessary conflict face-to-face with buyers.
- The established methods of gaining access to sex workers and others working in sex work venues suffer their own limitations and flaws, as detailed in Big Brothel. There is no ‘perfect’ way to conduct research in this area. The source of ex-workers quotes are clearly attributed on the Acknowledgements page. Nowhere in the report does it say that these quotes are representative of current working conditions across the range of indoor venues.
- An entire page in Big Brothel is dedicated to ‘indicators of racial misrepresentation’ and the response agrees with our assessment of the potentially misleading nature of the nationalities and ethnic identities as given by surveyed brothels. The response also agrees with our assessment of anecdotal evidence relating to trafficking: it is unclear what additional point the response is trying to make by stating, “The anecdotal indicators of trafficking presented by the POPPY Project are just that” other than tacitly commending Big Brothel’s tendency to under claim, instead of inflating the findings. Due to the illegal status of trafficking, and brothels for that matter, there is no indication that more definitive indicators of trafficking would be obtained by directly approaching brothels and asking them whether they housed people who may have been trafficked; on the contrary, such an approach is far less likely to establish any indicators of coercion at all. The POPPY Project’s primary function is a specialist provider of supported housing and complex services for women trafficked into prostitution in the UK. POPPY is the largest and first such service in the UK, with unparalleled raw data and expertise on the subject of trafficking into prostitution, and is recognised as a global model of best practice in the field. 30% of our referrals are received from the police, who identify women through conducting brothel raids, and the majority of the women we assist were located in brothels in London during their trafficking situation.
- There is no such thing as ‘safe sex’ within the commercialsex industry; to repeatedly state otherwise is wholly disingenuous. At no stage does Big Brothel expressly or implicitly suggest that street prostitution is safer than off-street prostitution. Research consistently shows that the most vulnerable and chaotic individuals involved in prostitution – with the exception of victims of trafficking – tend to be involved in street prostitution.
- The ‘menu’ in Big Brothel was designed as an accessible introductory summary of the survey, highlighting the key findings (including some of the more alarming points), in adherence to Eaves’ commitment to accessibility for a wide readership. If journalists focused solely on the menu without reading the full report, then that reflects upon them, not us. The response falls prey to its own attempted criticisms by misrepresenting the findings of the report – there is absolutely no evidence to claim that “the large majority of venues contacted were offering safe sex.” It is simply the case that some premises refused to discuss this over the phone, and asked our researchers to negotiate directly with the women, as clearly stated in the report. Furthermore, the response claims to have looked at our report with ‘close scrutiny’ and yet incorrectly claims only one establishment offered oral or anal sex for £10 extra. By contrast, Big Brothel presents this information objectively. In fact, 19 brothels explicitly offered oral sex without a condom for £10 extra, as shown on page 35. This figure, and the figures referring to full sex or anal sex without a condom, did not include evidence in the open-ended sections of data collection (i.e. points which did not fit into the stringently narrow fields used for quantitative data) of the database, of which significant numbers specify that it is available upon request or through negotiation or with some women in the brothel but not all. Whilst the inclusion of this additional information would have increased the numbers of premises offering unsafe sex, we did not include these records because they did not constitute a definitive ‘yes.’
- The response attempts to accuse the POPPY Project of a pre-existing political view of prostitution. This is hardly a revelation - we are crystal clear about our views on prostitution and the sex industry, which are presented in detail in the Foreword, Setting the Context, and selected Appendices. However, we have been meticulous in presenting exactly what we found, how we obtained it, without any distortion in the data analysis. We would welcome the same level of transparency from the people behind the response, many of whom are vocally active political campaigners on the issue of prostitution. The POPPY Project recognises prostitution as a form of violence against women; it goes without saying that it is many other things as well. The response has no basis to imply that there is no gendered analysis of this subject, and surely make such an implication by mistake. Men and transgender people are involved in the sex industry, but it is irrefutable that most people buying sex are men; and most people selling sex are women. Big Brothel does not state or suggest that all buyers are violent, nor that all workers are exploited. However, the POPPY Project refutes the notion that the sex industry can ever be made safe, and agrees with the wealth of local, national and international research which shows high levels of violence experienced by women selling sex, at the hands of men who buy sex, and feels that attempts to gloss over or deny this are politically motivated and/or professionally negligent.
- The POPPY Project fully agrees with the point that men who buy sex are from a wide range of backgrounds – there is no profile of sex buyer. At no point does Big Brothel claim that buyers are necessarily criminals, as implied in the response. However, the POPPY Project feels strongly that sex buyers are substantively absent from the current debate, and are afforded an unreasonable and inexplicable degree of protection by their supporters, rather than being forced to take responsibility for the relevancy of their role as drivers of demand for prostitution, which influences the scale and nature of supply, as well as contributing to the myriad problems associated with sex trafficking.
Finally, the press were not ‘presented’ with the main headlines, as stated in the response, they were sent a press release (which included a link to the full report only) and were directed to the POPPY press officer or the website for more information. This is one of many examples of the ways in which the response and some of the respondents have distorted the nature of events surrounding the report’s publication and the contents of the report itself, presumably in order to fit in with its collective political views and aims.