‘Pop-Up Brothels’ and Moral Panic
The All Party Parliamentary Group on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade has launched an inquiry into ‘pop-up brothels’. The phrase started to appear in the media last year. Devon and Cornwall police warned property owners to be ‘vigilant’ about their holiday houses being used by prostitutes. Sex workers were renting flats in Newquay and other seaside towns for short periods before moving on to the next place, often using Airbnb or holiday letting companies. To sex workers, this wasn’t news; if you don’t want to work outdoors, you have to be inventive.
A brothel is legally defined as a premises used by more than one woman for purposes of prostitution, regardless of whether there is a manager involved. It isn’t illegal for a woman to sell sex at a brothel, but keeping a brothel is against the law, as is letting premises for use as one. Sex workers are vulnerable to eviction, so they must keep their work secret or work elsewhere. On the street, they are at a much greater risk of violence. Working in a brothel run by someone else is likely to involve a high level of exploitation and a total disregard for basic labour rights.
Women caught up in brothel raids who might well be trafficking victims are often arrested for immigration offences and rarely given appropriate advice or support. The police confiscate any money they find during a raid under the Proceeds of Crime Act, effectively depriving exploited workers of the little money they’ve been able to earn.
The APPG inquiry aims to ‘shine a spotlight on the hidden world of the off-street sex trade’. It will focus on the role of organised crime in ‘setting up temporary brothels around the UK to sexually exploit women for profit’. It isn’t clear why temporary brothels should be of particular concern, unless in response to the recent media interest in them. Is the purpose to help vulnerable women, or the hapless owners of second homes, unwittingly renting out their holiday houses to sex workers?
There doesn’t seem to be much nuance in the discussion of the reasons women end up working for exploitative third parties: no mention of austerity, draconian immigration laws or the impact of criminalisation on sex workers’ ability to work safely. Most members of the APPG support further criminalisation along the lines of the Nordic model. Sex workers have consistently tried to frame the never-ending debate over their lives in a way that prioritises the safety of exploited, marginalised women, but they are all too often ignored. The APPG’s terms of consultation are formal and academic (‘if there are any annexes or appendices, these should be included in the same document’): who does the committee expect to respond to it?
The media frenzy around ‘pop-up brothels’ is a moral panic reminiscent of the days when people were encouraged to report their neighbours to the authorities if they suspected them of being gay. Gay men who called the police to report a break-in could find themselves being done for gross indecency, as happened to Alan Turing. Sex workers are similarly deterred from reporting violence or exploitation, when the most likely result of their coming forward would be the closure of their workplace, and possible deportation. The police say they want to help vulnerable women, but when the options are street work, deportation or a life spent under the radar, trying to avoid immigration authorities, it isn’t hard to see why many sex workers are disappointed with the inquiry and the absence of nuance in the media discussion around it.