Thursday, 6 March 2014


Good news, feminism! Remember the whole Feminist Sex Wars thing? When Dworkin, MacKinnon et al were all, "under the patriarchy, women are defined as the Sex Class, and therefore cannot give meaningful consent to intercourse; porn depicts and actually is violence against women; BDSM fetishizes power differentials and sex work is collusion with the patriarchy"? (Paraphrasing.)

And then other feminists were like, "Okay, porn is often sexist, because lots of media produced in a sexist society is sexist, and putting all the responsibility for patriarchy on porn seems to miss the point a bit; BDSM actually features a hell of a lot more negotiation and work around consent than vanilla sex; queer and feminist porn can and does exist; finding a feminist and non-oppressive way to inhabit our sexualities seems a valid way of resisting the patriarchy; sex work is only degrading in that all work under capitalism is degrading, and is demonising sex workers - you know, who include some of the most vulnerable women in society - really the best way to achieve a lovely feminist utopia?"

Again, paraphrasing. Turns out summarising one of the most contentious and complex debates over the last forty years of feminism and attempting to do justice to both 'sides' in two short paragraphs is actually pretty difficult!

Anyway: whatever your take on the matter, don't worry about it, because some random dude in The Times has SOLVED THE FEMINIST SEX WARS. Forever.

In response to a Leeds University study showing that nearly a third of all UK strippers are middle-class students, Kevin Maher has some opinions to share.

You may be wondering why Kevin Maher, who is neither a stripper or a student, feels that the world will not be able to rest easy until his very important opinions on the question of the place of sex work in society are known, but hold your horses: he has read some SCIENCE. Which proves, incontrovertibly, that stripping is

"bad for women. It's that simple."

Wowza. Thanks, Kevin! All this hoo-ha, and you had the answer all along! Thanks for bringing us to the light.

How does he know this? He knows this because
I simply look to the data in the groundbreaking 2003 Lilith report, which found that the number of rapes near lap-dancing clubs were three times the national average, or that in the years after the opening of a lap-dancing club in Tottenham Court Road, London, reports of female rape in the borough increased by 50 per cent.

Oh, Kevin. Kevin, Kevin, Kevin. Here I was, thinking that you had some amazing new data for me; a beautifully designed, value-neutral, empirically robust study which could settle this whole kerfuffle once and for all. But instead you just have... really bad science. Which you clearly read a press release on, rather than parsing the reports themselves. Which you clearly did not google before including them in your world-shakingly revelatory column, because, had you done so, you would have discovered this study does not show what you think it does.

So, the Lilith Report claimed that Camden, which had seven licensed strip clubs at the time, recorded three times the national average number of rapes between 1999 and 2002. It also claimed that the number of rapes increased by 50% between 1999 and 2002.

Which would be fairly solid proof that stripping IS BAD FOR WOMEN, except that

1. Correlation does not equal causation: just because a number of strip clubs opened in a particular area, and that area saw an increase in the number of rapes, does not mean that strip clubs cause rape.
2. The numbers literally do not add up. There were 72 rapes in Camden in 1999, and 96 in 2002. Do you have a calculator? Then you can work out that there was a 33% increase in thenumber of rapes in Camden between 1999 and 2002. Not 50%.
3. Raw numbers are an incredibly misleading way of presenting change in crime stats. (Man, I feel like I'm in The Wire right now, being leaned on by Mayor Carcetti, who in my mind is still Stuart in Queer as Folk doing his funny walk down Canal Street.) For this reasons, crime figures are presented as incidents per 100,000. Chasmal explains this really well in her takedown of the Lilith Report on Stripping the Illusion. This means that presenting a percentage change in raw numbers tells you basically nothing: what you need to know is the change in the rate of incidence - the number of rapes which occurred in Camden per 100,000 residents. In 1999, this was 36.8; in 2002, 43.4: a 17.9% increase.
4. When you're dealing with such (thankfully) small numbers, it's really easy to perceive a trend where there is in fact just random fluctuation. The rate of incidence actually went down from 2002 to 2003, and again in 2004, before going up again in 2005, down again in 2006... you see what I'm saying? A very small number of incidents produces a seemingly dramatic change if you present it as a percentage.
5. The overall trend over the last ten years actually shows a decrease in the incidence of rape in Camden. Funnily enough, no one is suggesting this is because Camden issued an all-nude license to the Spearmint Rhino in the late 90s.
6. You know what a study needs in order to demonstrate causality? A control group: in this case, an area with no strip clubs, which presumably would have no rape whatsoever. Unfortunately, this study's control groups were Islington and Westminster. Both boroughs also contained strip clubs and were therefore useless as comparisons. A better choice might have been Lambeth, which had no strip clubs during this period - and, um, had a higher incidence of rape.

I COULD GO ON. But this has been covered, a lot, by smarter people than I - Brooke Magnanti's chapter on it in The Sex Myth is brilliant. You can also check out her paper on the topic. What you will find is that the Lilith report tells us absolutely nothing about the effect of strip clubs on the incidence of rape - and all too much about its author's opinions on sex work.

See, on one level this is a story about men barging into feminist conversations, totally ignorant of the history and theory and debate that has gone before, and announcing that they have fixed feminism for us - and being surprised that we're not falling over ourselves in gratitude.

But on another level this is a story about how journalists in national newspapers need to check their fucking sources before making such claims as fact.


  1. Yes! I read that Times article and it made me grumpy. Thanks for writing this!