A Police Foundation and Perpetuity Research study has revealed that organised crime plays a major role in local off street sex markets. The study, based in Bristol, found not only a large number of brothels, but that very many of them were being managed by groups of offenders.
So if organised criminality is so widespread within the adult sex market, why is it not being treated as a matter of priority by local police teams?
First, the point at which management of a brothel constitutes organised crime remains ambiguous to many practitioners. At a policy-level the serious and organised crime basket has been increasingly stretched to accommodate a high number of diverse crime types, but there is a legacy of focusing attention and resources towards the drug trade which to some degree still persists at the local level. Illegal control and management of the off-street sex market has received much less attention than many other categories of crime (organised or otherwise) from the police or other agencies working locally. This has left some practitioners unable to recognise the presence of organised crime in the sex market when they see it.
Second, it is not always apparent that this is a problem that requires a swift or indeed any response from local police teams. In current times police forces increasingly manage their resources on the basis of how much risk, harm or vulnerability is associated with the crimes that come to their attention and organised crime is no exception. To undertake such an assessment requires good quality intelligence and of all the types of organised crime captured in our research, this was an area for which recorded information was very hard to come by. The off-street sex market as a whole is one which tends to operate out of plain sight, and criminality and exploitation within it are more hidden still. Much of day-to-day policing is reactive, responding to reports of crime or other incidents as they come in, however complaints from victims or the public relating to the off-street sex trade are scarce. The police are the only local agency that collects and records information linked to the off-street sex market but much of it is partial and entered on to their systems as intelligence rather than crime reports. All of this leaves assessments in this area rather stagnant or worse still, a non-starter.
Besides being hidden, criminal groups managing and profiting from the sale of sex in brothels are not all the same and so are most likely not equally ‘harmful’, but the stage at which action should be triggered is unclear. While selling and purchasing sex is not illegal certain linked activities such as managing or controlling those working in the sex market are. The police have a considerable amount of freedom to decide which legislation related to the sex market is to be proactively enforced or not. This latitude was criticised in a recent report by the Home Affairs Select committee: ‘the police have to choose which laws to enforce and which to overlook’. In effect, while many who manage and profit from the sale of sex in brothels do satisfy an objective criteria for organised crime, policy and legislation fails to provide a single definitive framework to guide local actors. The presence of modern slavery or violence in the adult sex market offers the only clear direction but this seldom rises to the surface.
A final point is that tackling and/or successfully prosecuting criminals operating in the sex market is difficult and the police need to make careful decisions for example, does the problem merit the resources and is a given intervention likely to culminatein success? As with many aspects of organised crime, much of the offending crosses police force boundaries, not least when related to human trafficking within the UK, and the perpetrators are often far-removed from the brothels they own or manage. This places constraints on local police teams, particularly at the neighbourhood level, and their ability to have an effect on these perpetrators who impact on the city from a safe distance.
So what do we want our neighbourhood and city-wide police teams to be doing about this?
The laws in their current form (or at least how they are interpreted) have rendered unclear what the police should be aiming to achieve from tackling organised crime in the sex market. There are people making a lot of money by flouting laws that notionally prohibit managing or profiting from others in the sex market, withindications that they engage in various degrees of exploitative practice ranging from poor working conditions or low pay, to violence and imprisonment of workers. There needs to be a clearer notion of where the role and responsibility of local police teams should begin and end, and where they do end, who else has a role to play in minimising the ‘harms’ to those working in managed brothels. Underpinning all of this is the need to be clear on the nature of harms that the authorities should be looking to address. One thing that remains clear is that in the absence of more proactive monitoring of the off-street sex market, it seems inevitable that harms such as violence and exploitation will continue to go unnoticed.
Read moreabout the research into organised crime conducted by the Police Foundation and Perpetuity Research.