Local Knowledge Mapping: How to Move Beyond Morality Politics When Designing Prostitution and Sex Industry Policy

This blog is based on an article in Social Policy and Society by Alba Lanau and Andrea Matolcsi. Click here to access the article.

The design of sex industry policy and service provision is often seen as informed by moral considerations as opposed to empirical evidence. Here we argue for local mapping as a tool to overcome data limitations and inform service planning and policy development.

The sex industry is highly diverse: it includes prostitution, escorting as well as the myriad other settings and types such as webcamming, lap dance/striptease and phone sex. It is also varied in terms of experiences, resources and needs, which often translate to diverging priorities and preferences for policy and service provision. Additionally, data on the industry is notably hard to obtain. This is not least due to stigma, negative experiences and in some cases coercion and control resulting in much of the sex industry being hidden. Furthermore, the industry is dynamic, with high levels of geographical and temporal mobility. Much of the industry is online, making data collection ever more complex. 

Data limitations can reinforce reliance on ideological positions: in the absence of reliable evidence any side can claim to represent the majority view. Add in the pervasiveness of moral judgement around the sex industry, and the result is policy that is often designed without significant basis in information on the nature, size and composition of target groups, or the impact of policy on the ground . Yet, data is essential if policy is to get closer to reflecting reality on the ground, and for services to be able to respond to existing, emerging and changing needs. 

On the basis of a systematic review of existing evidence on the prevalence of sex work and prostitution in England and Wales, and interviews with key informants (Hester et al. 2019), we argue that mapping exercises generating aggregated local and/or regional data can help inform both service planning and policy development. Not only does the development and implementation of sex industry policy often occur at the local level, local sex industries also have their own unique characteristics – there is not one homogenous sex industry across a given country. Research has found the sex industry in London to look very different from that in Cardiff, with different profiles of individuals involved, different scales and so forth. In-depth, local evidence has the potential to build a more accurate and comprehensive picture of the sex industry that acknowledges geographical variations, including in terms of individuals, their existing needs and gaps in service provision. Previous mapping exercises, such as this one in Wales or this one in Northumberland and Tyne and Wear (a region in England), have identified previously unknown locations and forms of sex work and prostitution. They have also shown that the nature of the sex industry varies substantially across the territory, as well as over time. Mapping, therefore, has significant potential to provide in-depth information about local sex markets, but it is currently under-utilised for informing service and policy design.

There is no one single way to do mapping. Generally, the process involves defining a geographic scope, contacting a broad range of specialised and non-specialised services and organisations (non-specialised services are important to include as some people selling sex may not be in contact with only commonly associated with the sex industry), and gathering quantitative and qualitative information, e.g. through interviews and written questionnaires. This includes, the locations where the sale or exchange of sex takes place, the individuals involved and their needs, and current gaps in existing services and support. Recognising the range of experiences – including differing levels of independence and coercion, forms of participation, language, migration status etc. – within the sex industry is key for an inclusive and therefore useful mapping exercise. 

As with any research, there are limitations to local mapping. Mapping exercises can rarely provide firm estimates of the prevalence of prostitution and sex work. This is partially associated with the largely hidden and stigmatised nature of the sex industry itself, and accentuated by the difficulty of measuring online engagement. Partial exercises risk over-estimating certain profiles while under-estimating others that are less visible and/or harder to reach. Awareness and acknowledging of these potential limitations can contribute to enhancing the transparency of policy debates. 

Ethical considerations are key when collecting, analysing and disseminating data on sex markets. Mapping should prioritise the needs and safety of people involved in the sex industry. This includes, for example, ensuring that mapping is carried out to inform service provision and policy development (and not e.g. simply out of curiosity), that none of the information published or shared can be used to ‘out’, harass (e.g. by law enforcement) or otherwise harm those selling sex, and that their privacy and confidentiality are respected.  Involving paid peer researchers –with lived experience in the sex industry – in the mapping exercise, from design through to data collection and analysis to writing up and dissemination, is crucial and can help reduce risks and improve trust. Due to the constantly evolving nature of the sex industry – including currently as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic – local mapping exercises should be carried out regularly, particularly for service providers, and whenever policy is being revised or created.

In our article we argue that we can and should move beyond morality politics. Granted, data by itself is unlikely to solve the difficulties of designing sex industry policy. Doing so requires political will and the development of networks of trust. However, the absence of data that reflects the diversity of the sex industry only further hampers the development of appropriate policies. If done in collaboration with local actors and with the involvement of peer researchers, local mapping can reduce uncertainty and provide key data to inform service planning and delivery, and can potentially reduce the reliance on moral judgement for policy planning. The result, ideally, is moving closer to service provision and policy that better reflects the characteristics and needs of those in the sex industry. 

About the authors

Alba Lanau is a Beatriu de Pinós Fellow at the Centre d’Estudis Demogràfics (CED-CERCA), UAB, Bellaterra, Barcelona, Spain.

Andrea Matolcsi is an Honorary Senior Research Associate with the Centre for Gender and Violence Research in the School for Policy Studies at the University of Bristol, UK.


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