Flat Earth News


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Tagged: / Posted: 20 November 2008

Won't somebody somewhere check the story about sex workers being trafficked into this country before the government causes complete chaos and misery for the prostitutes it claims to be protecting?

 I haven't checked the story myself, simply because I'm up to my neck in other work, but it carries the clearest possible signals that it may be false.

We're told of women being smuggled into the UK from various countries including many which are members of the EU. Why would you smuggle somebody from, say, Poland, when all you have to do is to get on a coach in Warsaw and sleep all the way to Victoria station and walk legally into the streets of London?

We're told of women being conned and beaten and forced into prostitution by men who earn a fortune from their work.  I don't think I've ever visited a major city where there were not women selling themselves. In this country, I've spent a lot of time working with them. And, although some may find it distasteful and others may find it hard to believe, the reality is that, for better or worse, a great many women do choose to earn money as sex workers. So why would a man who can earn a fortune by running willing prostitutes go through all the hassle and risk and expense of working with unwilling women? (And, on a side point, my experience with prostitutes is that very few of them have pimps and, certainly in London in the mid 1990s, the person who was earning most out of their work, by providing flats and maids and card boys, was not the media cliche of a muscular thug with chunky gold jewellery: it was an elderly woman in carpet slippers with a fag in the corner of her mouth, called Mary Daly.)

 And look at the statistics we are being offered. They're all over the place. Newspapers solemnly report a supposed Scotland Yard estimate that 70% of the prostitutes in London have been trafficked, and yet when they set up their own specialist unit to 'rescue' these women, they found so few that the Yard closed it down. MPs run around claiming there are 18,000 trafficked women. The Home Office say it's 4,000. The English Collective of Prostitutes say the whole thing is a myth - and nobody listens to them.

 The trouble is that, just like the WMD and the millennium bug and the Jersey childrens home and all the numerous other examples of Flat Earth News, the sex trafficking story is one in which a) the journalists have no idea what the truth is, but b) it suits a lot of people to keep telling the story.

 In this case, the story has been pushed by right-wingers, particularly the religious, who think that all prostitution is depraved and even sinful, so all prostitutes need to be 'rescued'; and by left-wingers, particularly the dominant strain of feminists, who think that all prostitution is sexual exploitation, so all prostitutes need to be 'rescued'. I am not quarrelling with those opinions; I'm not interested in them at all. The point is that on the right and the left, there are masses of people who are inclined to believe and to promote the story regardless of the facts. The media pick it up because it's a good tale. The police and the Home Office join in because it's good for them to charge around on white horses rescuing people. And they have found a small number of cases. And maybe they are genuine. Or maybe they have busted massage parlours and confronted sex workers with the prospect of prosecution and/or removal from the country; and maybe some women have thought it sensible to avoid both risks by declaring that they have been working against their will.

Now the government wants new law to protect these supposed thousands of victims. And what effect will it have if they do make it an offence for a man to have sex with a 'controlled' prostitute even if he is genuinely ignorant of the fact that she is being controlled? It will scare a lot of punters away. Good, say the right-wingers and the left-wingers. And where does that leave the sex workers? Short of clients. So, since this is a market like any other, they will try to bring back the clients, by cutting their price and so, in order to keep their income level, they will have to sell themselves more often. Well done, Harriet. For the street prostitutes, who overwhelmingly tend to be addicted to illegal drugs and who will not accept any cut at all in their income, there is a clear risk that they will cover a shortfall with shoplifting and street robberies. Well done, the government, tough on crime and even tougher on the victims.

 Quite what the truth is, I don't know. For journalists, the point is that when you see internal contradictions in a story, you have to deal with them - check them, make sense of them, find out whether there is some explanation or whether they are a signal that the story is untrue. In the world of Flat Earth News, where more and more journalists work without the time or the resources or the motivation to get to the truth, that kind of checking doesn't happen very often. And so we just don't know the truth. Won't somebody go out and find it?





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