by Kate Lister
Monday saw the publication of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade’s report into sexual exploitation in England and Wales - the ominously titled ‘Behind Closed Doors’. If you skip to the endnotes section of this report that details ‘evidence collection’, you will see that APPG requested and received written evidence from numerous groups, including the Sex Work Research Hub - a network of 150 researchers and academics across a range of Universities and disciplines working on sex work, and sexual exploitation. As a board member of the Sex Work Research Hub I can confirm that the hub did indeed provide detailed data on so called ‘popup brothels’ and online sex work to the APPG, and I can also confirm that virtuously all of it was ignored in the final report itself. Data on sex work was also gathered from National Ugly Mugs, the English Collective of Prostitutes, SCOT-PEP, Beyond the Gaze, and Basis Yorkshire. The vast majority of which was ignored, or buried in the reference notes, in favour of a handful of case studies, cherrypicked or anecdotal evidence, and an aggressive anti sex work agenda.
But why would a parliamentary group ignore data that directly contradicts the final findings of their report? Because this inquiry was never about presenting an unbiased inquiry into modern sex work. It has always been about validating pre-existing political agendas. The ‘officers’ of the self-appointed APPG include Conservative MP Fiona Bruce, who is an Evangelical Alliance council member, sits on the All Party Parliamentary Pro-Life Group, and has long campaigned to criminalise the clients of sex workers. Labour MP Thangam Debbonaire who once argued that decriminalisation of sex work would result in women being raped and not being able to do anything about it. Lord McColl of Dulwich, whose anti sex work agenda is well known, and who introduced a private member's bill to prohibit the advertising of prostitution, in 2015. Labour MP Jess Phillips, who attacked Jeremy Corbyn for his views on decriminalising sex work, and called sex work ‘a known violence against women’. Labour MP Sarah Champion, an outspoken abolitionist who had to resign her position as shadow equalities minister after controversially claiming that ‘Britain has a problem with British Pakistani men raping and exploiting white girls’. And Labour MP Gavin Shuker, who is also Vice-Chair of the Christians in Parliament APPG, and has held the chair for the APPG into prostitution since 2014, when he published the group’s last report into sex work in Britain. Now I am sure they are all quite lovely people, but they clearly have an agenda. If this were an academic research group, the demonstrable evidence of prejudice and bias within the ‘group officers’ would make it extremely unlikely to get past an initial ethics committee. Quite why the APPG felt the need to publish this inquiry when the Home Affairs Committee published a comprehensive report into UK sex work back in 2016, and recommended full decriminalisation, is unclear.
It is very disappointing that the APPG inquiry did not engage with or reference the considerable peer reviewed data submitted to them by members of the sex work research. Not to mention annoying when you consider the work involved in responding to each of their questions. But, so that data and time is not wasted, I will share some of that research here instead. There are two main points of concern in the APPG inquiry, that are flagged up as recent developments in the sex trade; ‘popup brothels’ and websites where sex workers advertise. So, the first thing that needs addressing is what is a ‘popup brothel’?
According to the APPG report, it is ‘a term commonly used to describe brothels which are set up for a short period of time in residential properties’. The reality is that there is nothing new about a ‘popup brothel’ apart from a sensationalistic name which has garnered considerable media attention. The APPG inquirymakes the assumption that all popup brothels are inherently exploitative and associated with organised crime. This is simply not true and there is little evidence to suggest otherwise. Independent sex workers regularly travel throughout the country, advertising their services online, and stay at hotels, or hire an apartment at each destination. This is known as going ‘on tour’ and is a well-established practice. To stay safe, many sex workers like to tour together or share rented premises, and under UK law any premises where more than one person is offering a sexual service is legally recognised as a ‘brothel’, albeit on the short-term (popup) basis.
Beyond the Gaze was a three year a project (2015-2018) into internet-based sex work, that was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (their data has been almost entirely ignored by the APPG as well.) Beyond the Gaze found that many independent sex workers, both UK citizens and migrant workers, travelled for work regularly, either for day appointments across their region of residence or to other regions for work opportunities, or staying in hotels or renting a property for work. To make the assumption that anyone selling sex from a short term rented property must be coerced reveals a shocking lack of understanding of the modern sex industry. And it’s not the only assumption the report makes.
The issue of migrant sex work is returned to again and again – specifically, migrants from Romania. The report claims that 86% of women working in brothels in Leicestershire in 2016 were Romanian, and that 75% of women working in brothels in Northumbria between 2016-18 were Romanian. What’s more, in 2018, a ‘representative of the inquiry’ accompanied police to a brothel raid in Cambridge, where they found that the women there were (wait for it) - Romanian. They also found that none of these women actually wanted help from the police or held information about organised crime. But still – they were Romanian.
But being Romanian is not proof of sex trafficking. A 2013 comprehensive study on ‘Migrant Workers in the UK Sex Industry’, carried out by Professor Nicola Mai interviewed 100 migrant sex workers and found that only a minority of migrant women felt that they had been exploited (13%) or trafficked (6%). A 2011 study of Eastern European women selling sex in indoor locations in London showed that only 7% of women interviewed had been coerced into selling sex. We must not ignore the fact that abuse happens, but the data shows the vast majority of migrant sex workers are not trafficked into the uk for sex.
The next area of concern for the APPG inquiry are the websites that sex workers use to advertise their services. The report demands that websites such as Adultwork and Vivastreet must ‘be held legally accountable for the sexual exploitation they enable and profit from’. Quite why the findings of Beyond the Gaze were overlooked here when they have conducted the largest research project into online sex work in the UK to date is beyond me. But, perhaps it is because Beyond the Gaze found that sex workers use websites like Adultwork to stay safe, independent and off the streets. But then, one of the most troubling aspect of the APPG inquiry are the claims that women working away from the street is somehow a bad thing as ‘public visibility of women in street prostitution can increase the likelihood they will come into contact with external agencies’.
Far from enabling abuse, online sites allow sex workers to screen potential clients. Professor Scott Cunningham of Baylor University has been researching online sex work and the correlations with violent crime for years and published his data in 2017. He found that after Craigslist created an ‘erotic services’ section, the rate of female homicides in US fell by 17 percent. The reason was simple. Sex workers could screen their clients and share information.
Predictably, the APPG calls for a criminalisation of clients, the so called ‘Nordic Model’ that has been in effect in Northern Ireland for the last year. But, under the Nordic Model violent crime reported against sex workers in Northern Ireland has risen by 77%, and similar data is now coming out of France, which adopted the Nordic model in 2016. In fact, none of the data that shows end demand tactics make working conditions more dangerous for sex workers has been included in the final report.
In many places, the report is so out of touch its laughable. But, the inquiries’ neglect to bring in the sex worker voice, print and engage with the data provided by the leading sex worker rights organisations is no laughing matter. In the entire report, only one ex-sex worker gets a voice; Mia de Faoite, a core partner in the ‘Turn Off the Red Light’ campaign which resulted in the Nordic model being introduced to Northern Ireland in 2017. No current sex worker voices are included. No voices speaking for decriminalisation are included. No data that supports decriminalisation is included.
It’s not so much what goes on ‘Behind Closed Doors’ that is the issue here, but what goes on inside closed minds.
This piece was originally posted on iNews