Almost all our research on sex work is terrible

Lately, I’ve been reading up on the empirical research on sex work, and the effects of various policy regimes re: sex work. And the thing is… it’s almost all terrible?

I mean, I haven’t done an exhaustive search. But if there’s a huge amount of good research, well-informed people on all sides of the debate over sex work are inexplicably failing to cite the research that would support their views. Not that the researchers are idiots. They know about the methodological flaws in our studies on sex work, but it turns out that research on extremely marginalized populations is hard. Who knew.

When I first realized this, I thought, “wait a minute, shouldn’t something like the General Social Survey or The Social Organization of Sexuality have good data about sex work?” It turns out those studies provide a decent estimate of the percentage of women in the US who have ever sold sex (it’s probably about 1-2%), but they don’t provide much beyond that.

I guess the problem is that while those studies sets have good sampling techniques and are relatively large (a few thousand people), that’s will translate into at most a few dozen sex workers in the sample. So if you try to analyze that subpopulation, your result is probably going to be non-representative in some ways just by random chance.

But the absence of better research is still a little puzzling. My impression (and this is Ozy’s impression to) is that the research on gays and lesbians is better than the research on sex workers, and “people who have been paid for sex” apparently isn’t a much smaller proportion of the population than gays and lesbians. Of course, part of the difference is greater marginalization of sex workers, but part of it may also be gays becoming a major focus of research due to AIDS.

If you want a good overview of the available research on sex work, this article is a good place to start, and matches my independent impressions. The article does claim to find a couple good studies, both of which broadly support decriminalization. (There’s also some data on sex trafficking convictions in Germany, but as the article notes, what that data means is debatable.)

But if you’ve followed the story of replication problems in science, you know that two studies don’t prove a ton. So I’m left with the main reason I support decriminalization being priors. Abuse of domestic workers is a problem (and in fact caused an international incident between the US and India last year), but making it illegal to hire a maid seems unlikely to be the best solution to that problem. I see no reason–aside from moral panic around sex–not to apply the same reasoning to sex work.


2 thoughts on “Almost all our research on sex work is terrible

  1. I’m pretty familiar with the research on asexuals, which is also estimated to be at 1%. It’s a pretty small body of research, but it sounds like it’s in a much better state than sex worker research. A lot of that research is qualitative, either interviewing a small sample of recruits, or taking from the internet discourse. But it sounds like what you want is quantitative research, which is relatively precious.

    There are two main ways to do a quantitative study. Either you recruit people from a community with a lot of sex workers, or you do a large general study which incidentally asks about sex work. The problem with the large general study is it’s very expensive, and may not give much information beyond the total percentage. Even that is questionable, because response rates for these surveys are 90% *at best* (asexuality’s 1% figure comes from a study with 71% response rate), and if you have any reason to believe that the marginalized group is less likely to respond, it would muck up the measurement and you’d never know.

    Targeted recruitment works really well for sexual orientation since you simply put up an ad in some relevant communities. There are definitely concerns that you’re not getting a representative sample, but you can still achieve a somewhat reasonable sample. But if you want to see how many sex workers are coerced, and how many do it as a job? How could you possibly find a group with a representative mixture? It’s a non-starter.

    I see from Vox that the two “good” studies simply look at the public health and crime in areas where sex work was decriminalized. That doesn’t have an analogue in sexual orientation research though so I can’t comment on that.


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