Risks grow as police closures force sex workers to rent Airbnb and other short-term properties
The growth of “pop-up brothels” in Airbnb and other short-term properties is to be investigated by MPs. The all-party parliamentary group on prostitution will launch an inquiry on Monday after reports of temporary brothels springing up across the country, including in holiday resorts and the Lake District, for periods of one to two days and several weeks.
Sex workers say the rise in temporary brothels is due to police forcing them from long-term accommodation. Police say temporary brothels make it harder to track vulnerable women and could be used for trafficking and exploitation. While prostitution is legal in England and Wales, owning or managing brothels is a crime.
The internet has changed the shape of the off-street sex trade, allowing customers to contact hundreds of workers more easily. Those running temporary brothels also advertise for customers through adult websites.
MPs want to investigate the scale of the trade, the prevalence of trafficking and whether vulnerable people are being exploited. The Labour MP Gavin Shuker, who is chairing the inquiry, said: “A lack of enforcement action and a lack of interest from politicians means we normally only see the tip of the iceberg. What we’re hoping to do is flush out the true scale of what brothel-keeping looks like.”
Laura Watson from the English Collective of Prostitutes, which campaigns for sex workers’ rights and safety, said that the phenomenon of sex workers renting accommodation for a short period was not new. But the ECP was in touch with many workers who were being forced into temporary premises after being asked to leave long-term workplaces.
“Closure orders are being widely used and every closure makes it harder for sex workers to insist on decent working conditions,” she said. “Some have been forced to move multiple times in a few months. They can’t invest in security measures like CCTV, or employ anyone to help keep them safe, and they have less chance to refuse clients – a key marker of exploitation.”
Airbnb has previously said it has “zero tolerance for this type of behaviour” when premises are used as brothels.
In July this year, Romanian couple Alexe Popa and Gabriela Diac admitted operating pop-up brothels in Manchester. According to the Manchester Evening News, police discovered the operation on adult websites Viva Street and Adultwork but found no evidence that the eastern European women working for them had been coerced.
Police also reported finding pop-up brothels in Cambridge, Gloucester, Norwich and Preston.
A recent study by the Police Foundation identified 65 brothels in Bristol over a two-year period. More than three-quarters of these were found to be linked to organised crime groups.
Michael Skidmore, senior researcher at the Police Foundation and one of the authors of the report, said there were growing concerns for the welfare of women working in temporary brothels. He said that the report revealed “difficulties that agencies face in trying to understand the workings of this market, and the role and presence of organised crime, trafficking and exploitation”.
Diane Martin, a former prostitute and campaigner against sexual exploitation, welcomed the inquiry: “Currently the UK remains an attractive place to commodify and exploit vulnerable women. We must disrupt these horrific crimes and support and care for the women on the receiving end of violence, cruelty and exploitation.”