This is the text of our submission to the UK All-Party Parliamentary Group on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade’s inquiry into ‘pop-up’ brothels.
This submission is from Nordic Model Now! a grassroots group campaigning for the Nordic Model – the equality and human rights-based approach to prostitution. The group includes women who have been in the sex trade, including in so-called pop-up brothels.
We are unclear why this inquiry is looking at pop-up brothels only and not more permanent ones and the sex trade more generally. Temporary brothels are not a new phenomenon and there are large numbers of permanent brothels throughout the country that are run by pimps and profiteers and operate in plain sight of the police and local authorities, who most of the time turn a blind eye. We have set out our thinking, along with examples and recommendations, under separate headings below.
The existence of brothels, and the entire prostitution system, is driven by:
- Men’s demand for prostitution. This is not a natural phenomenon, but rather, along with men’s virtual impunity to use and abuse women, is a way that men are bought off in order to ensure their compliance within the capitalist patriarchal system; and as a way of dividing men against women so ordinary people can more easily be controlled and exploited.
- Ruthless people who exploit the prostitution of others, particularly vulnerable girls and young women, in order to make easy money.
- The systematic and structural inequality that disadvantages females relative to males, and excludes many women from other means of generating an adequate income.
We are seeing the acceleration of conditions that are leading to increasing numbers of women and girls being drawn into prostitution:
- The burden of increasing poverty caused by tax, benefit and employment law changes and cuts under the government’s ideological austerity agenda (2010-2020) is hitting women hardest, with 86% of savings coming from women’s pockets. There is evidence this is driving many women into prostitution and making their exit even more difficult.
- The saturation of the online environment with gonzo porn and the pornification of mainstream culture grooms boys into prostitution-using, and girls into accepting a life of objectification and service to men’s needs rather than their own, thus making prostitution seem like a natural option.
- The increasing frequency of child sexual abuse, a well-documented precursor to many women’s entry into prostitution.
- The promotion of the dangerous idea that prostitution is normal work. This gives girls and young women a false idea of the reality of prostitution and its likely long-term effects.
Prostitution is harmful
A study conducted by UCL found that violence is a prominent feature in the lives of prostitutes regardless of setting; a single year of engagement is likely to have the same impact on mental health as an entire life of experiences prior to involvement; and social exclusion is the leading cause of entrance and is often deepened as a result of engaging in it. This is borne out by survivor testimony.
One study in the US found that prostituted individuals face a murder rate 18 times higher than non-prostituted persons and a study in Canada estimated their mortality rate was 40 times higher than average.
Research has shown that male prostitution-buyers are more likely to commit rape and other aggressive sexual acts. This was confirmed by a UN multi-country study that found that men perpetrating rape of non-partners and violence against intimate partners are associated with prostitution-buying. Moreover the contempt prostitution buyers have for women is borne out by research on punter forums.
There is evidence that sexual crimes and male violence against women and girls are at an all-time high and this is deepening inequality between the sexes. This is connected with the proliferation and acceptance of prostitution and the wider sex industry.
The UK has ratified international treaties (CEDAW and the Palermo Protocol) that impose binding obligations that the UK is abjectly failing to honour. In order to change this, all consideration of prostitution must be viewed through the lens of these treaties.
Article 6 of CEDAW puts an obligation on ratifying states to:
“take all appropriate measures, including legislation, to suppress all forms of traffic in women and exploitation of prostitution of women.”
We have noticed confusion over the meaning of the term “traffic” in this context. The Oxford English Dictionary is clear that “traffic” has only one meaning when used as a verb: “deal or trade in something illegal.”
When we talk about “human trafficking” the term is used as a verb – and therefore refers to dealing or trading in human beings.
As a noun, ‘traffic” has several meanings, one of which is “the action of dealing or trading in something illegal.” This is the meaning that applies here and not any of the other possible meanings, such as “transportation.”
Confusion over the meaning of the term trafficking has extended to Westminster lawmakers who redefined trafficking to mean transportation in the Modern Slavery Act. This urgently needs to be corrected.
There is also confusion about the meaning of the word “exploitation.” Here is the definition in the Oxford English Dictionary:
CEDAW obliges ratifying countries to suppress the “exploitation of prostitution of” This is the second meaning of the term: “The action of making use of and benefiting from resources” – the resources being the “prostitution of women.”
This means the UK has a binding obligation to prohibit (a) trade in females, and (b) third parties from profiting from the prostitution of females – in other words brothel keeping and pimping. This applies regardless whether the woman consented or whether force, coercion or “unfair treatment” is used.
The Palermo Protocol
The Palermo Protocol includes the internationally agreed definition of human trafficking. This:
- Uses “trafficking” as a verb – i.e. dealing or trading in human beings. The definition does not require the movement of the trafficked person.
- Includes the notion of abuse of power or a position of vulnerability. This implicitly recognises trafficking as an issue of structural inequality based on age, sex, race, caste, nationality, migration status, and economic class, and covers situations where the person has no realistic alternative but to submit to the abuse involved.
- Defines four types of exploitation to which the person may be subjected: (a) “exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation,” (we call this “sex trafficking”) (b) forced labour or services, (c) slavery or practices similar to slavery or servitude, and (d) removal of organs. Thus the definition clearly separates sex trafficking from forced labour, which implies prostitution cannot be considered a form of labour and that the harms are of a different nature.
- Makes clear consent is not relevant.
- Defines 18 as the age of consent for prostitution.
Thus the essential feature of sex trafficking is third-party involvement in the prostitution of another regardless whether the person has consented. This means most pimping meets the international definition of sex trafficking.
The Palermo Protocol therefore places an obligation on the UK (as a ratifying state) to take measures to crack down on the exploitation of the prostitution of women and children – i.e. pimping and running of brothels.
In addition Article 9 places obligations on ratifying states to address:
- The poverty, inequality and lack of equal opportunities that drive women and children into prostitution.
- The demand for prostitution that drives sex trafficking.
The UK is meeting none of these binding obligations and is in fact moving rapidly in the opposite direction.
Bristol case study
A Police Foundation study into organised crime in indoor prostitution identified 65 brothels in Bristol. Of these, 14 operated from commercial properties under the guise of massage parlours.
We have found no evidence that there has been any systematic attempt to crack down on the identified brothels since the report was published in September 2016, even though 77 per cent “displayed links to organised crime groups” and tackling this type of crime is a priority under the government’s Serious and Organised Crime Strategy.
We conducted a brief search on Google and identified 14 brothels in commercial properties in Bristol, most of which claim to be “massage parlours” and appear to be well-established, some apparently having operated freely for years, and presumably were included in the Police Foundation study.
In a telephone conversation with Bristol City Council’s licensing department on 24 November 2017, a senior official said that massage parlours in Bristol do not need a licence unless they serve alcohol, or provide certain other forms of entertainment, which would require a license as a “sexual entertainment venue” (SEV). He said no massage parlours in Bristol have an alcohol or SEV licence. He insisted that brothels are illegal and appeared surprised to hear many permanent business premises are clearly operating as such.
Several of the brothels we identified have websites that leave no ambiguity about their nature.
According to one woman we spoke to who has been in prostitution in some of these Bristol brothels, they are typically run by male profiteers who seldom, if ever, enter the premises but leave the day-to-day management in the hands of women, often those who were previously prostituted themselves.
These brothels commonly take upwards of 50% of the fees paid by the punters.
However, there are often additional hidden fees the women must pay, reducing their share to significantly less than 50%. This means that women have little or no room to refuse a punter and may need to accept more dangerous practices (such as no condoms, or anal penetration) to make enough money to survive.
These establishments typically use humiliating “line-ups,” where the women appear together in scanty clothing for punters to choose from – as if they are commodities to be bought.
For all these reasons, many women prefer to operate independently and so it is usually the most vulnerable women with the fewest choices who are in this type of brothel.
The lucrativeness of running brothels is clear from an article in the Bristol Post about Phillip Stubbs, who was found guilty of two counts of brothel keeping at Bristol Crown Court in March 2015:
“During a raid at his farm in March 2012, officers discovered more than 100 cars – including Mercedes, Bentleys and Lamborghinis – in a temperature controlled basement, as well as an indoor swimming pool.” [Emphasis added]
In spite of this, he got only a two-year suspended sentence and 250 hours of community service.
A report from 2005 claims that Andrew Kyte, who was convicted of brothel-keeping was sentenced to 200 hours of community punishment and fined £1,600.
These sentences hardly send out the message that running a brothel and profiting from the prostitution of others is an abhorrent crime that is prohibited under international human rights treaties.
The English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP) claims that ‘pop-up brothels are the direct result of police crackdowns, forcing women to move on all the time.’ While we agree that the police should not target women involved in prostitution, we do not see evidence of widespread police crackdowns in most areas of England and Wales.
Women involved in prostitution, who are independent and actually have a degree of choice often choose to work in small groups with other similarly situated women, often renting property on short-term lets, not least because of the well-documented desire of punters for new and different women.
A significant proportion of temporary brothels are of this nature. Obviously these types of brothels would make easier targets for the police than those controlled by profiteers and we know that police who are under pressure to meet targets are more likely to pursue easy targets.
In addition there have been reports of police arresting women involved in prostitution for immigration offences during or after brothel raids or when they report crimes against their person. That women who have been subject to appalling crimes against their person by UK men are then treated as criminals is reprehensible and tilts the balance even further towards men’s impunity.
This is unethical and must stop. The police should pursue the pimps and profiteers who are actually breaking the law and not small groups of genuinely independent women.
Effects on community
Brothel in residential property, South East London
We spoke to a woman (“A”) who lives in a terraced property in South East London. In 2016, it became clear that the neighbouring house was being used as a brothel. At all hours of the day and night, she would see an almost endless stream of men entering the property and leaving again approximately 30 minutes later. Through the walls she could hear “sex noises” and sounds that she thought were someone slapping another person.
Men would frequently knock on her door, mistaking it for the brothel.
The brothel had a high turnover of women. She often witnessed women leaving the brothel in great distress after their belongings had been thrown out of the front door. These women seemed to be quickly replaced by others, some of whom looked considerably younger than 16 years of age.
All of her neighbours were aware of what was happening, and were upset and distressed that women and girls were being abused and exploited within yards of where they lived, and what this said about the status of women generally and the impunity granted to men to abuse them.
They were all afraid of the criminals running the brothel and they all assumed that the reason the police took no action was because they had been bought off in some way.
A did phone the police and ask them to shut the brothel down. About a week later, the police raided the brothel, but not before all the punters had left the premises. She believes that they had been tipped off. She does not think anyone was arrested and she saw the police talking to the couple (one man, one woman) who ran the brothel, as if they were ordinary law-abiding citizens.
The brothel continued in operation for a while but it has now closed and the property is empty. However, A is still upset about the episode and her powerlessness in the face of the indifference from the police and public authorities to the plight and abuse of the women.
Last year we were contacted by young women in Leyton in East London who reported that the harassment of young women in that area had reached alarming proportions, with many of them being regularly propositioned, even on busy streets in broad daylight, by men who wanted to buy them for sex.
They said the increase in the harassment had coincided with a proliferation of prostitution and its advertising in the area. This suggests normalisation of prostitution strengthens men’s view of women and girls as objects of consumption and men’s sense of entitlement to harass and buy them.
We visited the area and saw for ourselves that nearly every lamp post was plastered with stickers advertising prostitution. Although local council workers periodically removed the stickers, those responsible (almost certainly profiteers) clearly felt they had impunity, because within a day or two the stickers were back.
This illustrates how the proliferation of prostitution affects the entire community.
Our recommendations are:
- An immediate end to the police targeting prostituted persons for immigration offences.
- Laws that target prostituted persons to be repealed.
- Criminal records for soliciting to sell prostitution to be wiped or sealed.
- Ring-fenced funding for a national network of high-quality refuges and support and exiting services for prostituted persons. Those aimed at women and girls should be female-only and led by women on feminist principles.
- An immediate end to benefit cuts and sanctions and the targeting of austerity measures at women and children (whether deliberately or inadvertently).
- All language used to refer to the sex trade, prostitution, and human trafficking should conform to that defined in international law. We dislike the use of the term “sexual exploitation” as a synonym for prostitution, because it is not clearly defined and it therefore obscures rather than clarifies the reality. Similarly we dislike the term “modern slavery.”
- The laws in England and Wales on pimping, brothel keeping, child sexual exploitation, and sex trafficking should be brought into line with our obligations under international treaties such as CEDAW and the Palermo Protocol, with penalties that reflect the appalling damage these crimes do and that act as a real deterrent.
- Similarly the NRM system should be brought into line with these obligations and should be completely disconnected from the immigration authorities.
- The policing of pimping, brothel keeping, child sexual exploitation and sex trafficking should be prioritised nationally and locally, well-resourced, and proactive rather than simply reactive, and should be informed by the European Commission’s Study on the gender dimension of trafficking in human beings.
- All those involved in the policing and prosecution of these crimes should be trained in our obligations under human rights treaties and in a gender mainstreaming approach.
- There shouldn’t be undue emphasis on prioritising policing of “organised crime” because the harms to women and children can be devastating regardless whether the pimp acts singly or as part of a gang.
- Buying sex should be made a criminal offence as part of a wide ranging upgrade of the laws addressing male violence against women and children.
- A high-quality UK-wide public information campaign about the harms of prostitution and the unacceptability of prostitution-buying, along with a similar education programme in schools.
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