The Guardian: How ‘pop-up’ brothels transformed Britain’s suburban sex industry
MPs are investigating a surge in flats being used short-term for prostitution – but the women who work in them say they often have no safer option
In the well-kept terraced streets of north London, three sex workers take turns seeing clients in an anonymous-looking flat, sharing a calendar and pencilling in bookings around each other.
The flat looks like any other – colourful mugs in the kitchen, a bowl of food by the door for the resident ginger tomcat. The work room has pastel bedsheets, a fluffy rug, mirrors, bedside lamps: it looks like any feminine but nondescript bedroom. Perhaps the only noticeable feature of the flat is that, even during the day, the curtains are usually closed.
This is a brothel and the women who live and work in the flat are breaking the law. While prostitution is legal in England and Wales, owning or managing a brothel is a crime.
Last month, MPs launched an inquiry into the apparent rise of so-called “pop-up” or temporary brothels. The phenomenon, where sex workers use Airbnb, hotels, or short-term holiday lets as a work base, has caused concern among politicians and the police. But what is the reality for women working in brothels in Britain today, and what is driving them to work in temporary set-ups?
“People think we’re either in five-star hotels or we’re on flea-bitten mattresses with a line of men outside the door,” says Amy, a single mother who works in the north London brothel. “Both of those things are real, both of those things happen, but the vast majority of us are just somewhere in the middle. Demystifying it is really important.”
Amy (not her real name) started working in hotels two years ago, renting out a room for a day, or longer with a friend if her children were away. “The whole reason I started doing this was to work flexibly and within school hours,” she said. But the pressure to make back the cost of the hotel meant she ended up booking clients she would not otherwise have seen. “There’s something – for me anyway – that felt quite bleak about rocking up in a hotel,” she said: “You get a ‘spidey sense’ and you’re like ‘I’m not sure about this one’… you do end up taking more risks.”
After a year, she found her current place with two others. With CCTV and a panic alarm, she says the more permanent setup means she has better security measures: “I honestly can’t imagine working any other way now and it astounds me that what we’re doing is technically illegal.”
Still, she does not want to paint a rose-tinted picture of her new situation. “When [sex workers] are talking to the press, there’s a lot of pressure for us to be like, ‘Oh I love my job, everything’s great’ when it’s not great. It’s like any other job – you have good days and bad days. It’s just like being in any kind of office job, or a call centre, just with more nudity, and dildos everywhere,” she jokes.
Like many sex workers, trust and communication with the police is a huge issue for her and her workmates. “At the moment, I have absolutely no trust in the police whatsoever,” she says. “You can literally go from being the victim, to being the criminal in a matter of minutes.”
Maya (not her real name), who is 23 and from Brazil, works in vastly different circumstances to Amy. She says she was threatened with arrest when she reported a violent robbery at a brothel where she was working in central London. “They come, five or six guys with knives, and they know where the money is,” she says: “The girls, they don’t call the police, because if they call the police they will just appear there and say to [the girls] to leave.”
“I really believe that they go to these houses and they do what they do because they know that the girls will not call the police, because they’re afraid of the police as well,” she says.
Prior to working in the capital, Maya toured the country with a friend, renting Airbnb properties. But after a couple of months, she found it unsustainable: “It’s really stressful and you just need to find every week a new place and move to another town. It’s too much,” she says. “I would prefer to stay in the same place, try to have a normal life as well.”
This situation was reflected in the Channel 4 documentary series, A Very British Brothel, where massage parlour owner Kath is seen shopping around Sheffield for mobile homes to use as a brothel. She says the mobile home would be easier to run and easier to move around, but there would be no way to install a panic button.
For Maya, after finding a brothel near a central London train station, her situation deteriorated as she began being moved around a group of flats all owned by the same man. She worked alongside two or three other women from 11am to 3am every day for short stints and had to see more customers than when she worked with her friend.
Since the robbery, she says she has felt paranoid, which has led her to stop working. “They [the police] have no idea how much is happening just because we can’t call,” she says: “We are there because we need to be. They should support and try to make us safe, rather than making us more unsafe.”
She tells a story about a friend who narrowly escaped another brothel robbery in which men threatened to pour boiling water over the faces of the women . “It’s getting so dangerous,” she says. They did not call the police.
Maya is one of 70,000 sex workers in Britain. Details of the sex industry are hard to come by, and the lack of data about the prevalence of trafficking often leaves sex work groups and the police at loggerheads about how to approach the industry.
Although the National Police Chiefs’ Council coordinates a national response to trafficking and modern slavery, responses to pop-up brothels usually vary from force to force. However, the council’s guidelines advise police to recognise that “simple enforcement does not produce sustainable outcomes and can actually increase the vulnerability of sex workers to violent attack”.
“I think there’s a pretty consistent response [to reports of brothel-keeping] now,” says the council’s lead for modern slavery, Shaun Sawyer. “Some forces are very proactive … some forces will be all over it straight away. Other forces might say their priorities are elsewhere and it would run until it became a problem or they got to it.” He says that police and crime commissioners, resourcing issues and community attitudes all shape a force’s priorities.
Although there is little data, Sawyer also believes that temporary brothels are “very heavily comprised of vulnerable eastern European women. Pop-up brothels by definition are the movement of people in and out of geographic areas, force areas, and that doesn’t usually align itself to your committed home-based prostitutes in a commercial business,” he says.
Clare Gollop, who works on the National Policing Modern Slavery Portfolio, says temporary brothels make it harder to reach out to potential victims of trafficking. “They’re fearful that we’re seeking them for immigration offences, they’re fearful that they’re here illegally, they’ve probably been told that we’ll crack down on them as offenders as opposed to treat them as victims, but that isn’t the case and isn’t the culture within British policing.”
However, deportation is often one of the outcomes of raids on brothels and sex workers are still fearful of interacting with the police. Many suggest that policing tactics increase the likelihood of their choosing to work from temporary accommodation.
Sarah, a Romanian sex worker and student, said she got into the industry after her work in hospitality failed to cover her rising rent. She gave up her old home and rented a small flat with a friend in east London, where she lived and worked. But on an afternoon in August, five months into the tenancy, plainclothes police visited the flat and issued a closure order.
“It was just dreadful,” Sarah said: “We weren’t forced or coerced, we were two friends, equally everything.”
The letter warned: “Any female at this address now, who is found at this same address in the future is VERY LIKELY to be arrested.”
Sarah and her friend left the flat and are now working elsewhere. She says the police made things much more difficult for her. “If I get harmed, I’ll end up being prosecuted. If I get robbed, I’ll end up being prosecuted. If they’re really concerned about safety, what safety? We weren’t trafficked, we weren’t exploited. Why would you want to prosecute me?” she asks. “I pay for my student fees, I pay tax, I am paying my fair share to the country.”
At the flat in north London, Amy says the flat-sharing arrangement is coming to an end. Paranoia has set in about clients knowing the women share the premises and they are all worried about being prosecuted.
“A lot of the unscrupulous clients, they do target working premises because they know that the women there don’t have legal recourse. They know they’re able to just walk out and nothing will be done about it.”
But she says they will move somewhere else and hope for the best. “We’re not nasty women that are out to hurt you and your children, we’re just normal women with children. We’re everywhere, we walk among you.”
Additional reporting by Frankie Mullin
How the law stands
- There are an estimated 72,800 sex workers operating in the UK.
- In a study of 6,000 men, 11% reported paying for sex. More than a half of these said they paid for sex outside the UK.
- The mortality rate for sex workwers is 12 times higher than average.
- Keeping or managing a brothel is illegal under the 1956 Sexual Offences Act.
- The sale and purchase of sexual services is legal in England and Wales, but certain related activities are not.
- In 2015 Northern Ireland made it illegal to pay for sex. The first prosecution was in October 2017.