Feminist researchers challenge UK anti-prostitution Big Brothel project

Elizabeth's picture

We are advocates here for solid research on sex work, especially on working conditions across the many sectors of the sex industry. It is especially galling when bad research, often bad enough to be called "research"-in-quotes, gets passed off to support public policies that make working conditions more dangerous (e.g., driving sectors of sex work further under ground or making it harder to report crimes or workplace dangers). 

Recently the UK has been taken by a storm of anti-prostitution "research" that is being used to support policies that would criminalize the purchase of sex. There was Melissa Farley in Scotland "studying" men who purchase sex (we debunked that here) and now there is the Poppy Project's "Big Brothel" investigation by Julie Bindel and Helen Atkins, purporting to look at the workings of establishments where women sell sex to men. I am glad that a growing number of well-organized feminist researchers are publicly challenging these projects. They clearly highlight the ethical and methodological flaws in the studies and the sensationalistic ways that they overgeneralize from flawed findings. It seems sometimes that the anti-prostitution "researchers" are so disgusted by their topic that they can't take it seriously. Below is a summary provided by the UK researchers who are most actively challenging this kind of work and who need the support of everyone who takes sex workers seriously.

Click here to read more.


This response is a collective reaction authored by a number of leading UK academics and researchers following the publication of the Poppy Project’s (Eaves Housing) ‘Big Brothel: A Survey of the Off‐Street Sex Industry in London’, which was depicted widely in the UK national media as revealing the ‘truth’ of indoor sex working (or brothel‐based prostitution). This collective shares a concern that the ‘Big Brothel’ report has been given undue weight in media and public discussion of sex work in recent days and weeks, given it is one piece of evidence among many – and one that exhibits serious flaws in its mode of data collection and analysis. The authors and supporters of this response wish to see a balanced debate about sex work in this country, with legal reform being evidence‐based and informed by the wealth of research  carried out on indoor and outdoor sex work by established academics and researchers, many sponsored by the government’s own research councils and not informed by sensationalising reportage purporting to be ‘research’ such as evidenced by ‘Big Brothel’.


  • The report builds a damning picture of indoor sex work on the basis of data whose reliabilityand representativeness is extremely doubtful and a methodological approach that would be considered unethical by most professional social researchers. It makes claims about trafficking, exploitation and the current working conditions of women and men employed in the indoor sex industry on the basis of that data. These claims cannot be substantiated in terms of the methodology, the data presented or in terms of wider, ethically approved, peer reviewed academic evidence. In short, the report does not provide any evidence concerning the current working conditions of women and men employed in indoor sex work venues in the UK.
  • The report does not adhere to scientific standards and only represents an anecdotal account based on making hoax calls to telephone numbers obtained from sex venue adverts. The use of such methods of deception does not meet the standard of ethics governing any UK University or reputed research institute practices. The main data collection tool was telephone calls made by male “researchers” pretending to be potential clients‐ a method which did not provide the opportunity for respondents to consent or decline to participate in the ‘research’.
  • Notwithstanding the cavalier disregard of the issue of consent, there are serious problems with the reliability of such data. The method of phoning up numbers taken from sex venue adverts and then treating the information provided by receptionists as ‘fact’ is flawed. Information given by receptionists to callers they think are potential customers does not necessarily reflect anything other than the marketing process used to encourage clients to visit. The ‘data’ reported is therefore accounts of receptionists and not any true picture of sexual behaviour or the type women who work.
  • There has been a wealth of empirical research conducted on indoor sex work, and there are established methods of gaining access to sex workers and others working in sex work venues. The authors make no attempt to use these established methods, or efforts to contact sex workers themselves. Some quotes from ex‐workers are incorporated in the report, but the source of such quotes is unclear. Quotations from selected ex‐workers are not necessarily representative of current working conditions across the range of indoor venues.
  • Information given over the phone from parlours/saunas and private flats is not a reliable method for establishing the actual nationalities and ethnic identities of sex workers working in parlours. However, the report appears correct when it suggests women and men of many nationalities are employed in London’s off‐street sex work venues. This does not necessarily imply these workers have been coerced or trafficked into sex work, and there is no evidence presented (or available) to suggest that the majority of migrant workers in indoor sex work do not do so legally and of their own choice. The anecdotal indicators of trafficking presented by the Poppy Project report are just that, and cannot be considered as evidence of an accurate or reliable nature, being obtained from those who answer phones in venues under misleading circumstances.
  • This research suggests unsafe sexual practices may be available at many venues for additional  payment, yet the evidence for this is not clear. In fact, most studies report high levels of safe sex amongst sex workers indoors, which is partly down to the harm reduction services that work tirelessly to access indoor premises. Indoor work has been found to be safer than street working in most reputable studies, contrary to the impression given in this report.
  • The attention‐grabbing headlines given at the start misrepresent the report’s content. For example, one headline reads “full sex available for 15 quid”, yet it turns out that this was one venue only and the majority of venues were quoting much higher rates, with an average of more than £61. Another states “kissing, oral or anal sex without a condom for an extra tenner”, suggesting that this was readily available at most venues. A close scrutiny of the report finds that only 2% of venues offered oral or anal sex without a condom at any price (with only one offering this for £10 extra), and 13% offered oral sex without a condom. Thus the large majority of venues contacted were offering safe sex.
  • The ‘findings’ of this report are framed by a pre‐existing political view of prostitution. In the  foreword, the Chief Executive of Eaves (CEO) identifies prostitution as something which “helps to construct and maintain gender inequality”. Prostitution is represented as violence against women: this is not always the case. Not all clients are violent and not all workers claim to be, or are, exploited.
  • Extensive quantitative and qualitative research on men who buy sex demonstrates that they are from a wide range of backgrounds, ages, ethnicities, social class, and are usually employed men in conventional relationships. They are no more likely to be criminal than any other cross section of society (and there is Home Office research that bears this out).

The Response was authored by, and enjoys the support of, the following University‐affiliated and independent researchers:

Dr Teela Sanders, University of Leeds
Jane Pitcher, Independent Researcher
Rosie Campbell, Chair, UK Network of Sex Work Projects & Loughborough University
Dr Belinda Brooks‐Gordon, Birkbeck College, University of London
Dr Maggie O’Neill, Loughborough University
Dr Jo Phoenix, Durham University
Professor Phil Hubbard, Loughborough University
Mary Whowell, Loughborough University
Dr Nick Mai, London Metropolitan University
Dr Linda Cusick, University of the West of Scotland
Dr Tracey Sagar, Swansea University
Kate Hardy, Queen Mary, University of London
Dr Ron Roberts, Kingston University
Jane Scoular, Strathclyde University
Professor Graham Scambler, University College London
Hilary Kinnell, Author, “Violence & Sex Work in Britain” (2008)
Dr Petra Boynton, University College London
Justin Gaffney, Clinical Specialist, Sohoboyz
Dr Elizabeth Wood, Nassau Community College
Dr Michael Goodyear, Dalhousie University
Professor Ron Weitzer, George Washington University
Dr Jackie West, Bristol University
Dr Helen Self, Author “Prostitution, Women & Misuse of the Law” (2003)
Dr Hera Cook, University of Birmingham
Dr Sophie Day, Goldsmiths College
Dr Helen Ward, Imperial College London
Tiggey May, Institute for Criminal Policy Research, King's College, London

Press inquiries concerning this response and the evidence on which it is based should be directed to Dr Teela Sanders, t.l.m.sanders AT leeds DOT ac DOT uk

The full response can be obtained by contacting Dr Sanders or by clicking here.

For information, a summary of the main headlines which the POPPY project presented to the press can be found at:


For a copy of the full Poppy report, click here



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