An explosive new report out of the U.K. has estimated that at least one in ten women in prostitution in the country are victims of human trafficking. It also found that at least 15% of migrant women in prostitution are forced or coerced into the trade and up to 40% of them may be exploited just shy of slavery. These findings could help blow the lid off the notion that exploitation and trafficking in commercial sex is rare.
The report called Setting the Record, which was released this week by the Association of Chief Police Officers of England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, used a sampling extrapolation method to estimate the number women in prostitution and the number of human trafficking victims in England and Wales. The results? They found that out of the 30,000 or so women in prostitution in the country, around 2600 are trafficking victims, or just shy of 10%. In addition to those women who are trafficked, researchers found 9600 other women they deemed “vulnerable,” meaning they showed some signs of trafficking and faced cultural or financial factors preventing them from exiting prostitution, but they tended to have day to day control over their activities. Taken together, these estimates indicate that as much as 40% of women in prostitution in the U.K. lack some control of their situation and are at high risk for or in current situations of slavery. You can read the report in full here.
As with any study trying to count human trafficking, this one has some flaws (which the authors readily own). First of all, the study focuses exclusively on organized, off-street prostitution, leaving out any potential trafficking victims in other forms of prostitution, including closed ethnic brothels. Second, the analysis of trafficking appears to have been applied primarily to the 17,000 migrant women in prostitution, leaving out any native trafficking victims. And finally, as with most similar studies of human trafficking, the report only provides estimates based on extrapolated sample data, not actual numbers of victims. Setting the Record has, however, been significantly more transparent about methodology for studying trafficking than many other prominent report-makers. <cough> U.S. Government <cough>.
Despite its flaws, the Setting the Record report has set out to answer one of the most challenging questions in the human trafficking field: of the total people in a given industry, how many are trafficked or exploited? The finding that up to 40% of women in prostitution in the U.K. may either have trouble leaving the industry or be completely unable to leave the industry shatters the misconception that exploitation in prostitution is rare. And the discovery that one out of every ten women in prostitution is a slave should give men who buy sex some serious pause — their odds of getting a willing participant every time are not good. Additionally, estimating the number of potential trafficking victims at just over 12,000 can help U.K. law enforcement and service providers prepare appropriately.
I hope American and other nation’s police chiefs will take notice of the groundwork which has been laid in the U.K. with this study, learn from the experience of the researchers, and continue to improve upon their model. Because until we understand how many women in prostitution are trafficked, we’ll be fighting a shapeless specter. And frankly, because a 10% slavery rate for any occupation is far too high.