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Revealed: the truth about brothels
When Frank rang a brothel in Enfield, he could hear a baby crying in the background. When Alan called one in Southwark, he could make out the sound of a child asking for his tea. And when Mick called another to inquire about their services, he was told that he could have a "dirty Oriental bitch who will do stag nights, anal, and the rest."
The men were undertaking research for Big Brothel: a Survey of the Off-Street Sex Industry in London, the most comprehensive study ever conducted into brothels in the UK. The project, which gathered information from 921 brothels in the capital, was commissioned by the Poppy Project, the only British organisation that offers support for women trafficked into prostitution.
My co-author Helen Atkins and I recruited male friends and colleagues to help with the research, and warned them that the work might be upsetting. They were to telephone brothels, posing as potential punters, with a list of questions including "What nationalities are on offer tonight?", "Do the girls do anal?", "How about oral without a condom?", and "What age are they?" We wanted to look at what really goes on in brothels - how much control the women really have; whether there is evidence of trafficking; if local councils are giving licences for saunas and massage parlours when it is clear that they are brothels; and how the sex industry is growing and evolving.
During 120 hours of telephone calls, we established the following: at least 1,933 women are currently at work in London's brothels; ages range from 18 to 55 (with a number of premises offering "very, very young girls"); prices for full sex start at £15, and go up to £250; and more than a third of the brothels offer unprotected sex - including, in some cases, anal penetration. The lowest price quoted for anal sex was £15. "Come along and bring your mates," said one brothel owner. "We have a Greek girl who is very, very young." While kissing used to be off-limits for women selling sex, it can now be bought for an extra tenner.
Of the brothels researched, 85% operate in residential areas. Almost two-thirds are located in flats and more than one-fifth are in a house. Wherever you are in the city, the likelihood is that buying and selling women is going on under your nose.
Our researchers contacted only brothels that advertised in local newspapers - not those that advertise on websites or on cards in telephone boxes. Because of this we only uncovered the tiniest corner of the trade. But we still encountered brothels in every London borough, with Enfield (a typical residential area of north London) having a minimum of 54, and Westminster at least 71. We estimated that the brothels we surveyed made anything from £86m to £209.5m in total per year through newspaper advertisements alone.
Although it is a criminal offence to advertise prostitution services, the law is not enforced, and this "blind eye" approach serves the pimps and punters well.
Researchers also interviewed women who have worked in London brothels, and all reported having felt degraded and violated while selling sex. This tallies with previous research: one large US study on prostitution and violence found that 82% of women had been physically assaulted since entering the trade, with many having been raped. More than 80% were homeless, and a majority, on and off-street, were addicted to illegal drugs and/or alcohol. UK research published in 2000 found that prostitutes routinely face sexual and physical violence from pimps and punters, but have little or no "workplace" protection.
One of the women we spoke to was Naomi, who, like many prostitutes, has a history of childhood sexual abuse. When she ran away from home, she met a man who pimped her - first into hostess clubs, then from a private flat. "It's an unsettling, unhealthy experience seeing 20 guys a day," she says, "and you don't know what the next person will be like".
A common assumption is that brothels are safer than the street, and while it seems that women are more likely to be murdered if they are working on the streets, the prevalence of rape and other attacks from pimps and punters is also high in brothels. "The men have up to an hour to do what they like to you," says Janet, who was pimped into a Leeds brothel when she was 15, "whereas at least on the street you can always try to run away."
Rachel told us about the reality of how much money the women make, as well as the inherent danger in the off-street trade. "Flats are set up to be a rip-off, to be truthful with you, because you're not going to make money for yourself." Rachel made about £200 a day, but after paying card boys, rent, the maid, and her "protector" (pimp), she came out with next to nothing. "And you're not guaranteed security at the end of the day."
Alice brought it home to us just how accepted and normalised prostitution has become. "You sit in a basque, in a window with your red light on. When you get a client you close your curtains and turn your red light off. That starts from eight in the morning."
The minister for women, Harriet Harman, is determined to curb the massive trade in women's bodies. Last week she released findings from a Mori poll of more than 1,000 British adults on attitudes to paying for sex. It found that the vast majority of both men and women polled would think it "unacceptable" if a partner paid for sex; the majority would support a law that criminalised paying for sex; and around half would back a law that decreased the number of women being trafficked into the UK.
As our researchers discovered, brothels market women merely as merchandise. Frank was offered "two for the price of one" if he visited during "happy hour" (any time before 5pm). One brothel owner offered to send two women to the punter's home for a £50 delivery charge; another offered free oral sex without a condom if more than £50 was spent; and at one suburban sauna, first-time buyers were offered a voucher which entitled them to 50% off the next visit.
We primed the telephone researchers to look for evidence of trafficking. There was plenty. Brothels offered women of 77 different nationalities and ethnicities, including many from known-source countries for trafficking. One researcher was told by a brothel owner, "For no condom and anal, call tomorrow. Eastern Europeans promised later in the week."
One punter I interviewed for another research project told me that in choosing a woman, "I made a list in my mind. I told myself that I'll be with different races eg Japanese, Indian, Chinese. Once I have been with them I tick them off the list."
Many people are unhappy that this research has been done at all. The pro-legalisation lobby do not seem to want the horrors of what goes on in brothels exposed, preferring to present such places as being similar to an office environment; simple, clean, consensual workplaces. Punters are also unhappy about public exposure of brothels. One frequent customer at a Soho brothel told me, "I don't know why people have to research prostitution - the army shoots innocent people, fast food poisons people; no one wants to research them. It's the only job that has no downside. It only brings pleasure to the customer."
Some of the male researchers had previously been liberal about prostitution. Frank had thought that legalisation would be beneficial to the women, and Mick believed that some would be happy earning good money. By the end of the project, all the men considered prostitution to be a violent and abusive industry, and perceived the punters as harmful misogynists. Nigel said that after weeks of talking about sex to third parties in a cold, clinical way he realised that the women were being used as nothing more than a product. "The idea of sex started to be devalued and demeaned, its sanctity lost," he says. Tony was shocked at the number of brothels. "They're on high streets, down alleyways and in suburban two-up two-downs."
Unless we think about sustainable and substantive solutions that will eventually eradicate prostitution, it will continue to grow at an alarming rate - research published last year found that in just 10 years, the number of men paying for sex in the UK almost doubled.
What Big Brothel shows is that commercial sex is becoming as normalised as stopping off for a McDonald's. There are two key ways that the UK can respond. We can legalise the trade, make the women pay taxes, and declare the pimps to be legitimate businessmen. Where brothels have been legalised- in Amsterdam, for instance - the illegal sector continues to flourish. Since brothels were legalised in Melbourne, Australia, more than 20 years ago, the number of unlicensed brothels has trebled. Few prostitutes will pay tax, as the act of registering their trade is too stigmatised, and their lives are often too chaotic. There is no evidence that legalisation keeps women safe, but there is plenty that shows it results in an increase in demand for the sex trade. In Australia, $11.3bn was spent on prostitutes and strippers last year, and the trade is growing at approximately 8% a year.
The other option is to bring in a law that makes paying for sex illegal, while helping to educate the public that prostitution is not a victimless crime. This has worked in Sweden, where such a law was introduced nine years ago, and 80% of Swedes now support it. Trafficking into the country is now lower than in any other EU nation. This is the approach that government ministers Harriet Harman and Vera Baird support.
Most men do not pay for sex. Those who do need educating about the harm that prostitution causes to women and society in general. Some will only stop if they are frightened of the consequences, such as one charmer who told me, "If she isn't crying but says no, I keep on. I only stop if she is really crying."
Others are able to justify to themselves what they do, simply
because it is not against the law. When I asked why he pays for sex,
one regular punter told me: "It's like going for a drink. You are not
doing anything illegal." At the moment, he is right. Let's hope the
government has the courage to change that.