MPs should speak to sex workers about the realities of the off-street trade before they rush to judgment. The pro-criminalisation Nordic model is flawed
An investigation into “pop-up brothels” – short-term lets in which people sell sex – was launched by the all-party parliamentary group on prostitution on Monday. Its chair, the Labour MP Gavin Shuker, wants to “flush out the true scale of what brothel-keeping looks like”.
But brothels are not toilets and those who work in them are not debris. From its outset the inquiry has distanced itself from the living, breathing people who sell sex. The UK’s estimated 80,000 sex workers are reduced to “prostituted women”, their work seen solely as “commercial sexual exploitation”. There seems little room for nuance.
The inquiry’s purported aim is to “shine a spotlight on the hidden world of the off-street sex trade”. In 2017 most prostitution happens off-street and an inquiry into this would be welcome. On AdultWork.com, the UK’s main advertising platform for escorts, 52,403 women were booked last month, 42,122 of them for “incalls”, many of which will be in brothels. The off-street industry is huge.
In fact, the inquiry’s terms of reference indicate that it is interested only in “pop-up brothels”, in particular those run by criminal gangs. By narrowing the goalposts of who will be deemed representative of the industry, the parliamentary group has ensured the vast majority of workers are silenced.
The UK desperately needs further inquiries into the sex industry. We need to know the extent to which austerity is driving women into prostitution, we need to look honestly at whether immigration policies create the conditions for trafficking. There is a still a huge gap in knowledge around the basic makeup of the industry; we need statistics on who works, where they work, and how.
What we don’t need is an expensive inquiry based on a media-driven moral panic. “Pop-up brothels”, god help us. Somewhere, someone in a police PR department patted themselves on the back for that; headlines were spawned, news outlets talk about “sex den epidemics” and Airbnb owners are panicking. If it’s coverage the parliamentary group is after, good move. Next up, perhaps, an investigation into the hidden menace of sex robots.
The term “pop-up brothel” originated in the media. In Newquay, a police officer shared concerns about sex workers being trafficked from eastern Europe. It later emerged that in Devon and Cornwall no eastern European women were found to have been trafficked into prostitution at the time the officer gave the quote.
Sex workers don’t use the cringeworthy, hipster term “pop-up brothel”, but working from short-term lets is common. Either independently or for managers, sex workers travel for work. “Pop-up brothels”, in as much as they exist, are so demonstrably an effect of criminalisation, this inquiry has already shot itself in the foot. The English Collective of Prostitutes has highlighted the growing use of closure orders against established working flats. Working with another person is illegal in the UK and so, by extension, is every brothel. No one wants to keep moving, but being arrested isn’t tempting either.
That exploitation happens in sex work is disputed by no one, least of all sex workers. And danger only increases when people are unable to work from a stable base. The National Police Chiefs’ Council has already produced guidelines warning that enforcement against sex workers is counterproductive and increases danger, yet this is ignored.
Worryingly, the parliamentary group has not made links with any sex-worker-led organisations, and no current sex workers have been included in framing the initial terms of reference. While the inquiry calls out for information from the most vulnerable in the industry, the guidelines on submitting evidence are not easily accessible, and the language borders on the academic. Who exactly are they hoping to hear from?
Shuker, who abstained from voting against equal marriage, will work alongside Labour colleagues Thangam Debbonaire, Jess Phillips and Sarah Champion, and the Conservatives Fiona Bruce, and Lord McColl.
Each member is strongly in favour of criminalisation in the form of the Nordic model – in which anyone paying for sex is a criminal, and sex workers bodies’ become, by definition, scenes of a crime. This despite sex-worker-led organisations around the world criticising the approach. The Nordic model adds another layer of criminalisation to the transaction – so anyone who supports it supports criminalisation.
It is dismaying and frightening to see such a one-sided coalition launch an “inquiry” that is disingenuous from its start. We need balance not bigotry. Not one member of the parliamentary group will be affected by the results of this inquiry, but thousands of sex workers will. Why, yet again, are so many being excluded?
• Frankie Mullin is a freelance journalist and part of the English Collective of Prostitutes