The All-Party Parliamentary Group for prostitution has launched an inquiry into the spread of pop-up brothels and in particular into the role of organised crime in the exploitation of sex workers. In a poorly understood area where there is significant harm, any light which can be shed on the problem is to be welcomed. So, what questions should the inquiry be asking?
The Police Foundation recently completed a study which found 65 brothels had operated in a single city over two years and the majority (n=51) were located in premises that were not visible to anyone passing them on the street[i]. Most ran on a semi-permanent basis in rented properties on residential estates, others were even more transient, setting up for days or weeks in a hotel or short-term apartment let before swiftly moving on to other locations. It is the latter type (the so-called ‘pop-ups’) which local police officers expressed most concern about. This is because the perpetual movement of sex workers from place-to-place and the pervasiveness of foreign nationals in this market were suggestive of modern slavery offences.
Our research found that the police and other services seldom come into contact with these sex workers and that there was therefore very little evidence to substantiate the concerns from local practitioners. There is much that is still unknown. First, we do not know how much of the off-street sex market is comprised of women who are working independently, some of whom may also travel across the UK and work out of temporary accommodation. A recent study found over a thousand advertising sex workers in the south-west alone but only 73 could be linked and inferred to be working as part of a group[ii]. The role of the internet needs to be examined as it has transformed the sex market by allowing individuals to come into contact from anywhere in the UK, and thereby enabled greater movement between towns and cities.
A second unknown, is how many of these mobile brothels operate as collectives, how many are managed by a third party and how many are run by an organised crime group. The Police Foundation produced an estimate on the basis of the brothel characteristics that are indicative of organised crime (for example, the involvement of multiple perpetrators or links to serious crimes such as trafficking) but there are no definitive criteria for deciding what organised crime is. It would be helpful if the inquiry could categorise the different types of group based on the way they operate and the harm they cause.
And finally, we do not know what proportion of the organised crime groups running brothels are involved in modern slavery.
We need to separate out and gain a better understanding of the different elements of this problem, in particular the social and technological drivers, the central issue of sex workers arriving and selling sex in short-term lets (ie pop-ups), the role organised crime is playing and finally, the threat of exploitation and trafficking. There will no doubt be overlaps between these elements but we need to understand the relationships between them before being able to determine what actions are required.
[i] Skidmore, M., Garner, S., Crocker, R., Webb, S., Graham, J. and Gill, M. (2016) The role and impact of organised crime in the local off-street sex market
[ii] Skidmore, M., Garner, S., Desroches, C. and Saggu, N. (2017) The Threat of Exploitation in the Adult Sex Market: A Pilot Study of Online Sex Worker Advertisements