Sky News: Hundreds arrested for ‘running brothels’ as sex workers say it’s the laws that are criminal
Police have arrested more than 400 people for allegedly keeping brothels since 2017, according to figures obtained by Sky News.
By Alexa Phillips, news reporter
Hundreds of people have been arrested for alleged brothel-keeping offences in the last four years under laws that sex workers claim put them at risk.
Police forces have detained at least 408 suspects in England, Wales and Northern Ireland since the start of 2017, according to data obtained by Sky News under the Freedom of Information Act.
Although there has been an 11% drop in arrests so far this year compared with 2019, officers have still been targeting brothels during the coronavirus pandemic.
While selling sex is legal in the UK, keeping a brothel – defined as more than one sex worker working from premises – is not.
Those who work with others can be prosecuted.
As the English Collective of Prostitutes tells sex workers on its website: “If you work with someone else in a flat you can be done for running a brothel, even if you are not there at the same time.”
Emily, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, began working in the industry in the 1980s and went back to it after becoming a single mother.
She now works with another sex worker for her own protection.
“How can we keep ourselves safe when we’re on our own?” she told Sky News. “It puts you in danger on a daily basis.”
She called it “draconian” that she could end up with at least seven years in prison for running the flat if caught by police.
“You live in fear of what can go wrong… a knock on the door can mean that you’re criminalised yet what you do is spend all day trying to make people happy,” she said.
“We’re not actually doing anything that’s criminal,” she said. “It’s the laws that are criminal.”
Countries like New Zealand have decriminalised sex work – including brothel-keeping – which Emily supports.
She and other sex workers want decriminalisation in the UK because they believe it would give them the same legal protection and access to workers’ rights as in other industries.
“Mothers will do what they have to do to look after their children,” she said. “Nobody should be criminalised for it.”
“People think it’s a dark side of life a lot of the time where actually it isn’t,” she said. “There are some lovely people in the industry. They’ve all got their own reasons for being there and actually quite enjoy doing what they’re doing a lot of the time.”
Emily has looked for other opportunities for work, but this is currently her best option for making ends meet.
“We need recognising as workers and members of society, council tax payers, mothers, people’s neighbours – not aliens,” she said. “We’re just normal people.”
She is “disappointed” and “saddened” that police are still making arrests for alleged brothel-keeping during the pandemic, and said many sex workers have fallen into hardship while unable to work during strict lockdown measures.
She and others have had to “police themselves”, deciding their own “COVID secure” measures.
If anything were to happen to her at work she wouldn’t be able to call the police for fear of being arrested.
Sky News sent freedom of information requests to 45 police forces asking for the number of arrests for suspected brothel-keeping offences from January 2017 to the end of August 2020.
At least 64 people were arrested between January and August this year.
Kent Police disclosed the highest number of arrests of any force, with 99 since 2017.
Other hotspots included Thames Valley (45 arrests), Bedfordshire (32) and London (27).
Northamptonshire Police, Gloucestershire Constabulary, South Yorkshire Police, and Merseyside Police refused to provide any information.
Many of the arrests do not result in prosecutions, with figures from the Ministry of Justice revealing that only 48 people were put on trial from 2017 to 2019.
Laura Watson, a spokeswoman for the English Collective of Prostitutes, has dealt with many cases where the arrest was “ridiculous” and there was “no public interest” in prosecuting the individuals concerned.
She said sometimes arrests were made where it was “just a landlord-tenant relationship” with “no force and coercion”, in which the person detained for suspected brothel-keeping was a landlord that had “nothing to do with the running of the business”.
Earlier this week, a Labour MP called on the government to “criminalise buying sex”, a proposal Ms Watson described as “outrageous”.
Dame Diana Johnson, who leads a group tackling sexual exploitation, said that men in the UK who paid for sex were “fuelling” a “brutal” sex-trafficking trade that was destroying lives.
“Sex trafficking is already illegal,” Ms Watson told Sky News. “You don’t need to increase the criminalisation of consenting sex in order to implement the criminalisation of violence against women, which is already against the law.”
She said many campaigners “don’t look at the evidence” from other countries where violence against sex workers increased after purchasing sex became illegal.
“What kind of feminism is that?” she asked.
Ms Watson said that criminalising clients would just take away the only option for some women to earn an income.
“If you’re serious about reducing prostitution then you have to deal with women’s poverty,” she added.
She said many migrant sex workers don’t come forward to report violence because it invites police to ask them about their immigration status and deport them if they do not have the right paperwork.
Laura Agustin, an anthropologist who studies undocumented migration, said many women who arrive in Europe find themselves with two alternatives to make money: cleaning houses or selling sex.
“Many say they’d rather die than sell sex and many others say they wouldn’t be caught dead cleaning houses,” she told Sky News. “Lots of women try both jobs.
“The point is sex work pays 10 or more times more than cleaning, allowing women to pay back the debts they have to intermediaries who helped them travel in what’s properly called people-smuggling.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Published National Police Chief’s Council guidance makes clear that the safety of those involved in sex work must be prioritised by police forces above enforcement action.
“We have no plans to change the law around prostitution and are committed to tackling the harm and exploitation associated with sex work.”
The Home Office said they take a “victim-first” approach where a victim or witness of a crime is a suspected immigration offender and that “referrals to Immigration Enforcement do not automatically lead to removal”.