Friday 27 April 2012

The Numbers on the Game

Perhaps one of the biggest "sex myths" making the rounds these days is to what extent experiences like mine are (or are not, as it is claimed) representative of sex workers in general.

(Of course, I personally make no claim to be an "average" sex worker and certainly not to speak for prostitution as a whole. I would love to see more and more voices claim the title of sex worker publically so we can demonstrate once and for all what a diverse group it is.)

But when it comes to studies and statistics, this is an issue that comes up a lot. Addressing the question of how representative a sample of people is of a population in general is one of the cornerstones of good study design. It's one of those things that, if wrong at the start of a research project, is a devil to try to correct in retrospect. In many cases it's impossible.

The Sex Myth discusses at length how this affects virtually all studies relating to prostitution. A large number of researchers assume street-based sex workers to be the majority of sex workers, which has the tendency to skew (and sometimes fully invalidate) their results. Because they often recruit research subjects via outreach or addiction programs, their sample is necessarily biased towards sex workers whose lives are chaotic.

Streetwalkers may often be the most visible face of sex work but it's far from the whole story.

So how representative is the cliche of the drug-addicted streetwalker leaning into a punter's car anyway? This is in some ways difficult to answer. But I highly suggest if you are interested in the topic to check out Maggie McNeill's excellent summary of what we do know. She makes the case far more succinctly that I ever could here, here and here. Go on and read those then come back when you're done.

In general, the data seem to agree that in most Western countries the percentage of sex workers who are streetwalkers is about 15%.

That's an aggregate estimate from a number of studies in a number of countries, most of which put the streetwalker population at between 5% and 20% of prostitutes. Of the remaining percentage, the splits of incall/managed vs outcall/escort vary by location and factors unique to those places. To see an example of what this looks like, you can check out the New Zealand sex worker breakdown here (scroll down for tables).

What this tells us is that studies recruiting their subjects only from street-based sex workers, and in addition doing so through crisis centre referrals, can never claim to represent sex workers at large. That would be about as ridiculous as reading my previous books and using that "data" to conclude all sex workers love pies and pints. They can at best be said to be a study of those people at that time which makes the results non-generalisable.

Promising studies do exist which try to address the problem of imbalance of numbers in counting sex workers. While it's hard to generalise 'sex work' from what is necessarily a very diverse group, I found this study from Suzanne Jenkins at Keele [pdf] to be a useful example of how we can begin to build a better sex worker survey. Note for example that it includes male and trans sex workers: a lot of studies ignore these groups altogether. While the mainstream heterosexual female sex worker is still in the majority, writing gender and sex diversity out of the story only serves to promote a narrow ideological viewpoint that paints all sex work as abuse of women by men. A viewpoint which is not true.

As you may know a bugbear of mine is the tendency to present scare stats about sex workers in isolation and not to involve a control group. I go on about lack of controls in all kinds of studies, not just sex worker ones, in detail in The Sex Myth if you would like to read more. So say, to take a non-prostitution example, you heard a statistic that claimed the majority of strippers got unwanted attention from clients. Presented without context it sounds impressive, but it is meaningless.

What would be a control group here? People with similar working hours in licensed establishments might be one - barmaids at non-strip clubs for example. Or people of a similar age in service industry professions involving tipping - like waitresses. Have a think: do you know any front-of-house people in food service who haven't had difficult and at times physically aggressive customers? I don't. Any study that doesn't even address the possibility that their results come from the service industry and alcohol rather than sex work per se has not fully examined the evidence in a way that should be taken seriously.

When it comes to population statistics like these getting control groups are hard. I get it. But that is, as we say where I come from, hard cheese. So there's no perfect control like a group of homeless, drug-addicted nuns somewhere we can use to see whether it's the sex that drives people to despair or not. But you still have to make an effort. And you recruit and match your controls up front, not after the fact.

Finally there is the matter of where data originates. As a scientist I know that it is damned difficult, if not impossible, to do work that is totally free of any external conflict of interest or internal hope for a particular outcome. But there are ways we can help sieve the believable from the unbelievable: if a study comes from a source with a strong ideology and a financial interest in promoting this stance it is right to question whether that affects both study design and interpretation of results. These generally fall into the category Laura Agustin has dubbed "the Rescue Industry".

There are a large number of other common problems with these studies flagged up in The Sex Myth. Bad estimation methods, lack of controls, lack of trends, avoiding peer review... and many more.

This is not to say that academic publishing is always right and self-publishing or internal reports always wrong. But there is a significant grain of salt we should take when the people who present themselves as experts on the topic of sex workers are from the same stable of folks better at generating press coverage than at reporting their mistakes.

Do I expect saying these things will please everyone? No, not at all. There are a lot of people with a big investment in keeping the myths about what sex work is supposedly "really" like alive. As well, there are people whose opposition to sex work isn't affected by the many well-adjusted people who do it anyway. It's also fair to say my particular bias is to prefer the quantitative over the qualitative: for as "Uncle Joe" Stalin so elegantly put it, quantity has a quality all its own.

But if you are the sort of person to whom the evidence is more important than the anecdote - and if you're a reader of this blog, I assume you are - then take the numbers seriously. The next time someone tries to sell you the poor-addicted-hooker myth, call it for the nonsense it so clearly is.

Saturday 14 April 2012

On Scars

It was slightly surprising - but not altogether unexpected - that on the weekend when my book The Sex Myth has its first excerpt and interview in the Telegraph that "feminists" would immediately take objection. Interestingly though the shape this appears to have followed, rather than an actual criticism of work I have done or books I have written, is a number of nasty "terrible skin" remarks about me from lady columnists who really ought to know better.

It speaks volumes about the preoccupations of critics that when faced with a woman whose attitudes, thought processes, and life experience are almost orthogonal to their own their first response is to criticise her looks. I am not conventionally attractive, but to paraphrase Steve Martin: when presented with all this, that's the best you can come up with?

Last year I wrote a commentary on the ubiquitous blogging that was going on surrounding the bullying of feminist bloggers. As I pointed out then, bullying does not only happen to feminists, and some of the people who were getting group hugs out of being the victims of trolling have themselves trolled other people. (Top tip: just because you write above the line doesn't make you not a troll. @'ing someone in to your insults of them on Twitter? Does.)

So to make explicit in case it was not clear: I will never ridicule someone I disagree with because of their looks. If you can't craft a sensible argument against someone's thoughts and actions and have to go for the low-hanging fruit instead, you have failed at rational discourse. And arguably also failed at feminism.

I wrote previously about the experience of having facial scars on my original blog but have since taken that content down. However Emily Hornaday archived it and so I reprint it here. If you are someone who is going through a rough time confidence-wise, please know that while haters never, ever change, how you feel about yourself will. It really does get better. (Update: I have also written about this theme for Guardian Weekend magazine.)

mercredi, janvier 13

Let me tell you about the best gift I ever received. And it's not a bit of sparkly jewellery, or a shiny car, or even a thoughtful trinket of affection.

I'm talking about my scars.

I had terrible acne as a teenager. By the age of 16 it was so bad a dermatologist said it was the worst she'd ever seen, which, ya know, is not super encouraging. At the hospital where I volunteered mothers pulled their children away from me, convinced I was plagued with something contagious. Strangers avoided making eye contact.

It was so bad I could not wash my face without bleeding. Many mornings I woke up stuck to the pillowcase. And oh yeah, it was only on my face. Not one blemish anywhere else on my body. To this day, I still never have seen a photo of anything like it - apart from some daguerrotypes of smallpox patients.

It was a very long, and very expensive, journey to improving my skin - remember, this all went down in America where having a disfiguring condition you have no control over is not covered by health insurance, and duh, there's no NHS.

Long story short a lot of Roaccutane and Dianette did for the acne. And more importantly here's what I learned:

1. Beauty is fleeting. Thank fuck for that.

I had a narrow escape from being just another boring blonde - not to mention an early release from the cycle of self-hatred and frantic desperation that plagues many women as they age. Corollary 1a: The larger part of how people perceive you is how you present yourself.

2. People can be hurtful to strangers. That's their problem.

My best childhood mate had spina bifida. She walked on sticks and refused to use a wheelchair for reasons I only started to appreciate years later. Looking like a medical oddity gave me, for a very brief time, a very small taste of what she encounters every day of her life. It made me pity people who equate someone's appearance with their value as a person. This generalises magnificently to strangers judging you for, in fact, anything at all. Corollary 2a: The most vocal critics are often the most insecure.

3. Other people have things you don't. Big deal.

There is no such thing as the Most Beautiful Woman in the World (sorry Buttercup). Who cares? What is considered desirable is not especially worth getting hung up on. You may not be a six-foot Amazon so will never have legs up to your neck - but for all you know, that same supermodel would give her left arm to have your hair. This concept generalises to wealth, success, talent, and intelligence as well. Corollary 3a: Envy of other women's looks is a zero-sum game, and uses far too much time and energy to be bothered with.

4. Quality of love is not a function of attractiveness.

Elizabeth Taylor, for instance, has been married eight times. Beautiful people have dry spells and get their hearts broken like everyone else. The most worthwhile and loving relationships in my life all happened after my skin problems. And for what it's worth, I've been fortunate to date some pretty nice, smart (and attractive) men in my time. See Corollary 1a above.

5. Confidence doesn't come overnight.

It also doesn't happen in a vacuum; it requires nurturing. As with anything else worth having it's work. But let me tell you, it is so worth the work. A mate recently told me about a magazine 'happiness quiz' in which one of the questions was, "are you comfortable with your body, and do you exercise regularly?" If you can see why this should not have been a single question, you're on the way. Corollary 5a: Confidence happens when you let it happen. No one gives it to you, which is great, because it also means they can't take it from you.

6. When someone says I am beautiful, they really, really mean it.

There is something about knowing someone sees you, quirks and all, and likes what they see... something rare and kind of overwhelming (in a good way). 'Beautiful' is one of those words (a bit like 'awesome') that has lost meaning in being overused as a generic affirmative. We call all sorts of people beautiful in one sentence and tear them down in the next. I'm happy to be different enough that anyone who uses it to describe me sees more than just hair and makeup.

Friday 13 April 2012

The Sex Myth: extract and first interview

The Telegraph have now printed an extract and the first interview about The Sex Myth. Positively chuffed to see "be an ally" in print. (Especially on Friday the 13th, which is fast becoming the date when sex work allies are urged to speak out.)

If you'd like to find out more about the book, and would like your copy of The Sex Myth signed, why not join me in London or Nottingham next week?