Rise in Pop-Up Brothels Inspires Ham-fisted Push Against Sex Work in the U.K.

Sex workers protest a human trafficking bill in 2014 in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Sex workers protest a human trafficking bill in 2014 in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Image: Getty

A new report has found that women are increasingly being sexually exploited in the United Kingdom in so-called “pop-up brothels.” The nonpartisan group of UK politicians behind the study is using the alarming findings to call for the criminalization of the purchase of sex and a crackdown on classified-style websites that host adult ads. These recommendations fly in the face of Amnesty International’s recent call for an end to the “Nordic model”—in which the purchase of sex is criminalized, but sex workers themselves are often punished as a result.


The term “pop-up brothels”—a bizarrely cute phraseology for such a purportedly grave phenomenon—describes the way that “organized crime groups” move “women around temporary brothel premises, exhorting a high degree of coercion over them as they do,” according to the report. These short-lived brothels are set up in “residential properties,” sometimes with a “revolving door” of women, who are recruited through “deception, coercion and the exploitation of pre-existing vulnerabilities,” according to the report. Say the authors: “Pop-up brothels are changing migration patterns with huge numbers of women, particularly from Eastern Europe, being brought in by these groups to service British men who have an expectation of an absolute right to buy sex.”

As is typical for conversations around sex trafficking, the report doesn’t explicitly acknowledge the existence of consensual sex work—it’s all seemingly lumped together under the vague and sometimes subjective category of “sexual exploitation.” (In a survey of 100 migrant sex workers in the UK, 6 percent were found to be trafficked.)

Obviously, to whatever degree the “pop-up brothel” phenomenon is real—and the report says it is a significant one, although it struggles to pin down hard numbers—a response is appropriate. But rather than listening to the loudening chorus of human rights activists and sex worker organizations—including the English Collective of Prostitutes—calling for total decriminalization, the report argues for what I’ll call “going halfsies.”

Currently, the sale and purchase of sex is fundamentally, technically, legal in the UK—except that several key related behaviors are criminalized, including running a brothel and soliciting in public. So it’s legal, but not. The authors of the report call for the the decriminalization of selling only, and the criminalization of buying. This might seem like an appealing, humane, and progressive approach—particularly if you’re inclined to uniformly view buyers of sex as bad guys, as the report does—but it’s an increasingly controversial one.

In 2016, Amnesty International updated its policy to call for total decriminalization. The position statement explained that laws criminalizing even just the purchase of sex actually “force sex workers to operate covertly in ways that compromise their safety, prohibit actions that sex workers take to maximize their safety, and serve to deny sex workers support or protection from government officials.” Another way to put this is that banning the purchase of sex pressures sex workers to take risks in the name of protecting their criminalized clients—for example, a sex worker might be pressured to go to an isolated, less safe location with a client who is worried about law enforcement.

Similarly, the report calls for the government to “update the law to hold prostitution procurement websites legally accountable for facilitating and profiting from sexual exploitation,” while ignoring the test case we have going on in the U.S. right now. Last month, President Donald Trump signed the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) into law, which broadly holds online platforms responsible for any content determined to be related to sex trafficking. Already, we’ve seen the law result in mass internet censorship—with Craigslist closing its personals section and Reddit shutting down sex work-related subreddits—and sex workers losing access to online venues for both advertising and vetting clients, thereby putting them at greater risk.


As Cari Mitchell, spokeswoman for the English Collective of Prostitutes, argued in a statement responding to the report, it seems the authors are less interested in the concerns of sex workers than “the sensationalised, sexed-up story of pop-up brothels.” As Mitchell pointedly put it, “Sex workers feel exploited and not by prostitution.”

Senior Staff Writer, Jezebel


Curious Squid

The “Nordic model” (criminalisation of clients) doesn’t help trafficking victims (either international or citizens/residents being exploited and coerced) because criminalisation doesn’t deter clients who don’t give a fuck whether they’re breaking laws or not. Clients who are more inclined to be respectful, not try to browbeat you into providing services you’re not comfortable with, not nag you to not use condoms or try and stealth them off you, not haggle your rates, not rape or assault you, are the ones who are scared off. The dangerous ones aren’t, and the violence escalates because they prey on the fact your client pool is smaller and your need to earn a living doesn’t go away - or meet the quota that the thugs holding you captive have imposed - just because the community thinks how you do it is icky.

This is to say nothing of the other big factor that criminalisation of any kind pushes the industry further underground and both trafficking victims and sex workers further away from help and resources.

This isn’t a perfect analogy but prohibition of alcohol in the US didn’t stop people drinking, the “war on drugs” doesn’t stop people trafficking drugs.

Imagine how a hairdresser could be expected to survive if cutting, styling or colouring someone’s hair for money wasn’t illegal, but paying someone to cut, style or colour your hair was, or renting a premises to someone who cut, styles or coloured hair for money was, or sharing the income of someone who cuts, styles, and colours hair for money, was, or just being on or in the vicinity of a premises where police suspected people got their hair cut, styled and coloured for money, was.

- A sex worker, who talks to other sex workers, and trafficking survivors.