According to new ‘official data’, prostitution is contributing around £5bn a year to the British economy. Dr Brooke Magnanti, a former sex worker, doesn’t think the numbers add up
As a former escort, I can say with confidence that nearly everything you know, or think you know, about the money involved in sex work is wrong. And while I don’t know much if anything about the black market for illegal drugs, I’ll take a punt that most of the numbers flying around to do with that are wrong, too.
Which is why it’s a good thing – yes that’s right, I said a good thing – that the Office for National Statistics have released their plans to add calculations for the contributions of sex work and drug sales to the GDP, as is already done in several other countries and will soon be required throughout the EU.
I do have to quibble with their numbers though. Having had a close look at the methods employed to come up with their impressive total of £10 billion per year, I think they are likely to be out by as much as an order of magnitude too high. But it is useful to know, if for no other reason than to put a value on a sector of the economy that is often dismissed and subject to fantasy calculations by media and public alike. And by releasing their information, researchers with actual expertise in the areas involved can help them come up with a better, more plausible, result.
So what did they get wrong? Well, their own documentation shows they estimated the financial contribution of prostitution based on some pretty big extrapolations. For example they got their estimate of the current number of sex workers from Eaves for Women – a charity that works only with women, mainly in London, and has come under fire for its statistical methods in the past. Also what about men who pay for sex with other men, which accounts for the majority of male sex workers? Yet again, gay sex workers are being erased from the story.
I contacted a handful of sex work researchers yesterday, who confirmed they had not been approached by ONS. The ONS then go on to guess at the average earnings based on Punternet, a website for clients of prostitution. It’s also a popular site for female escorts to advertise on. And while it might give a rough estimate of some people’s working life, I have to say that like most parts of the internet it’s subject to inflation. Why not ask escorts themselves? It’s not as if we’re hard to find…
Finally, for their calculation of how many clients sex workers see in a week, they relied on research conducted in the Netherlands. It doesn’t take a genius to spot that the difference between sex work in a country where it is legal and heavily regulated, and one where it is legal but many sex workers criminalised, is simply not going to be equal. Again, why not contact the body of researchers right here in the UK doing this work every day?
As for the drugs figure, well. I only spotted that the ONS assumes cannabis to be the sole drug domestically produced in the UK (even with only a reasonable chemistry education and a few seasons of Breaking Bad, I’m pretty sure both crystal meth and ecstasy could be made here). And they seem to think once drugs are imported from abroad, that dealers don’t cut their product? Now that’s just silly.
The silver lining is that perhaps, when we have better numbers to work with, we can start to have the difficult but necessary conversation about what financial benefit might be obtained by bringing the black and grey markets of drugs and sex into the mainstream. Clearly money is changing hands, can we as a society actually benefit from this?
Given the broad assumptions made in the document the ONS will heed the advice of researchers and revise their methodology appropriately before this £10 billion figure enters public mythology. As a former population statistician, I know the dark art of data extrapolation is not always straightforward. But when it comes to economics and oh yes, sex, let’s at least make an effort to get this one right.
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