MPs urge Prime Minister to tackle “industrial scale” sexual exploitation in ‘pop-up’ brothels

  • Inquiry by cross-party group of MPs finds sexual exploitation of women by organised crime groups is widespread across England and Wales.
  • MPs call on Government to tackle the demand driving trafficking by criminalising paying for sex and preventing websites from advertising prostitution.

> Read the report

An inquiry into ‘pop-up’ brothels by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade (1) has concluded that the Government’s strategy to end sex trafficking is failing, with the UK currently a low risk destination for traffickers. The cross-party group launched its investigation following growing reports of organised crime groups establishing so-called ‘pop-up’ brothels – premises rented for short periods of time to sexually exploit women in. The inquiry, which took evidence from half of all police forces in England and Wales, found the practice to be widespread, enabled by ‘prostitution procurement websites’ such as Adultwork, and driven by a minority of UK men who pay for sex.

Evidence obtained by the APPG on Prostitution, published in the report ‘Behind closed doors: organised sexual exploitation in England and Wales’, reveals there are at least 212 active, ongoing police operations in the UK into modern slavery cases involving sexual exploitation. It is also overwhelmingly foreign national women who are being exploited in British brothels:

  • Leicestershire police visited 156 brothels, encountering 421 women, between 1st January 2016 and 31st December 2017. 86% of the women in the brothels were Romanian.
  • Northumbria Police visited 81 brothels between March 2016 and April 2018. Of the 259 women they encountered in the brothels, 75% were from Romania. Over half of the brothels were recorded as being connected to other brothels, agencies or non- UK Organised Crime Groups.
  • Greater Manchester Police (GMP) have identified 324 potential new brothel addresses since March 2015. GMP report that “the majority of those identified reflect the hotspot areas for modern slavery in Greater Manchester.”

The inquiry’s key recommendations to Government include:

1) Follow the U.S.’ lead (2) by preventing websites advertising and profiting from prostitution:

  • Organised crime groups typically advertise women to sex buyers on commercial websites such as Vivastreet or Adultwork.
  • The Joint Slavery and Trafficking Analysis Centre, a multi-agency intelligence unit established by policing, HMG and the National Crime Agency in 2017, told the inquiry that “adult services websites represent the most significant enabler of sexual exploitation in the UK.”
  • A police force reported to the inquiry that a man being investigated for sex trafficking had spent so much money placing adverts of women on one commercial website, over £20,000, that the website gave the man his own account manager.

2) Criminalise paying for sex and decriminalise selling sex in order to tackle the demand from sex buyers that drives sex trafficking:

  • A study of 6000 UK men found 3.6% of men report having paid for sex in the past five years (3).
  • Detective Constable Julie Currie, from the Met Police’s Modern Slavery and Kidnap Unit, told the inquiry: “In the vast majority of cases males paying for sex will give no thought to where the woman has come from or what circumstances have lead her into prostitution.”
  • France, Sweden, Iceland, Norway, the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland have all criminalised paying for sex and decriminalised selling sex in order to tackle demand from sex buyers. The most recent study on sex buying in Sweden, the first country to adopt this ‘end demand’ approach, found 0.8% of men in Sweden had paid for sex in the previous 12 months – the smallest proportion recorded in two decades and the lowest level in Europe (4).

Additional recommendations in the inquiry report on how to combat organised sexual exploitation are:

  • Establish a national register of landlords and issue guidance for the short-term letting sector on preventing sexual exploitation.
  • Remove the criminal offence of soliciting in a street or public space for the purpose of ‘selling’ sex – to support women being sexually exploited to seek help and rebuild their lives.
  • All police forces, supported by national law enforcement agencies, should prioritise the development of a robust, strategic response to organised sexual exploitation.

Gavin Shuker MP, chair of the APPG on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade, said:
“The sexual exploitation of women in ‘pop-up’ brothels by organised crime groups is taking place on an industrial scale across England and Wales. A revolving door of vulnerable women, predominantly from Eastern Europe, are being supplied by trafficking gangs into residential properties and hotels in order to be sexually exploited by UK men.

“Commercial websites that advertise prostitution enable this trade, making sizeable profits and directly benefitting from the exploitation of others. But it is the minority of men in the UK who pay to sexually access women’s bodies who are funding sex trafficking and driving this form of modern day slavery.

“Right now the traffickers are winning. The UK is currently a low risk destination for organised crime groups seeking to sexually exploit vulnerable women. The Government must act now to combat demand for sexual exploitation by criminalising paying for sex. It is money from sex buyers that lines the pockets of traffickers. Without their demand there would be no ‘supply’ of women into this ruthless trade. Organised crime groups should also be disrupted by cracking down on the prostitution websites they use to advertise women to sex buyers. The scale on which organised sexual exploitation is taking place in this country is a national scandal. But it can – and must – be stopped.”

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Notes to editors
1) The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade is a cross-party group working to end commercial sexual exploitation. The officers of the group are: Gavin Shuker MP (Chair), Jess Phillips MP, Fiona Bruce MP, Thangam Debbonaire MP, Sarah Champion MP, and Lord McColl.
2) Since the U.S. federal government adopted the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA), websites including Adultwork and Craigslist have stopped hosting prostitution adverts in the U.S. Further details:
3) See:
4) ‘Study on the gender dimension of trafficking in human beings’, European Commission, European Union, 2016. Accessed at: