Being Careful with the Facts

Check my social media footprint, and you’ll find a plethora of articles about sex work, from news items to academic research. One group of studies, however, is conspicuously absent. The reason? I’m not convinced of the conclusion they share.

That may seem contradictory for two reasons. The first is that I’m willing to articulate just about any argument for decriminalizing sex work. That’s because I understand that different arguments appeal to different audiences. Hence, I’ll make certain arguments to free-market libertarians, other arguments to feminists and progressives. However, being “all things to all people” for the sake of winning over a broad base does not mean I’m willing to put forward an argument which I think is weak.

This leads to the second question. If three studies make the same conclusion, doesn’t that satisfy the “reproducible results” requirements for scientific evidence? Not if these studies also repeat the same flaws, which seems to be the case here.

The studies in question – one focused on Rhode Island, one on the Netherlands, and the third on New York City – claim that legal or tolerated indoor prostitution means reduced incidents of rape in those areas. At their most basic level, these studies make one of the most common mistakes in social science research: equating correlation with causation. For all we know, the two factors being studied could very well be cause by a third factor, such as changes in attitudes towards sexuality and a better understanding of consent. They could also be connected to different factors, or combinations of factors. Also, the researchers looked at reported rapes and sexual assaults, without discussing in depth how various social and cultural factors may affect the proportion of actual crimes which are reported.

This is not the first time I’ve been skeptical of some research which seemed to support some political or ethical stance. Many LGBTQ rights advocates, for example, have opined that homophobes are really raging closet cases, mostly based on sensational anecdotes, but often citing a University of Georgia study “proving” that. Except there are a number of flaws with that study, the three biggest being the small sample size, the lack of heterogeneity in that sample, and the means of measuring arousal or interest in its subjects. And with no other real evidence to back it up, I’m not ready to jump on that bandwagon.

One of the most powerful arguments against prohibitionism is the lack of evidence that it works or produces the results its adherents keep saying will happen. All the more reason for supporters of decrim and sex workers’ rights to be careful with our facts. Let the other side do their sloppy studies, and parrot their collective claims with fanatical faith.

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