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Britain must no longer be a soft touch for pimps and traffickers

Highly organised sexual exploitation is taking place on an industrial scale, writes Diana Johnson MP. | PA Images

3 min read

To stop the brutal sex trafficking trade, we have to bust its business model. The government must criminalise paying for sex and make pimping websites a criminal offence.

There is a sexual exploitation scandal playing out in towns and cities across the UK, run by serious organised crime networks and human traffickers. 

It’s happening on the Right Honourable Priti Patel’s watch. To stop the UK being a pimp’s paradise, the Home Secretary must act now.

Vulnerable women are being moved around networks of ‘pop-up’ brothels and hotel rooms for sex. Victims are advertised on highly lucrative pimping websites - which currently operate openly and free from criminal sanction.

The traffickers are recruiting their victims through deception, coercion and the exploitation of pre-existing vulnerabilities. The ‘boyfriend’ model is a common tactic, with traffickers posing as loving boyfriends and then coercing women into sexual exploitation – modern slavery.  

‘Behind Closed Doors’, an inquiry conducted by my All-Party Parliamentary Group on Commercial Sexual Exploitation, found that this highly organised sexual exploitation is taking place on an industrial scale. Our evidence revealed that it is mostly non-UK national women who are being abused in Britain’s brothels - a significant proportion of them from Romania. 

Over two years, Leicestershire police visited 156 brothels, encountering 421 women - 86% of whom were from Romania. Likewise, Northumbria Police visited 81 brothels over two years and of the 259 women they encountered in the brothels, 75% were Romanian. Research by the Police Foundation identified 65 brothels in Bristol over a two-year period. 83% of the women selling sex in the brothels were non-British nationals, and at 43% the most common nationality recorded was Romanian. 

On 26th October, I met with organisations and officials in Romania as part of an international summit organised by UK Feminista. Their message to the UK on how to stop the traffic was clear: end the demand.

Pimping websites are a key enabler of sex trafficking

Without the demand from sex buyers, there would be no supply of vulnerable women from Romania, or anywhere else, to be raped for profit in brothels across Britain. It is money from the small minority of men in this country who pay for sex that lines the pockets of traffickers and pimps. To stop the brutal sex trafficking trade, we have to bust its business model.

To do this, we suggest two measures that the Home Secretary must put in place urgently. Firstly, criminalise paying for sex in order to deter sex buyers. This should be accompanied by decriminalising victims of sexual exploitation and providing them with support to rebuild their lives. France, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Sweden, Norway, Israel and Iceland have all implemented this approach because the evidence on this issue is overwhelming: to end the exploitation, we have to end the demand.

Secondly, the Government must crack down on pimping websites by making it a criminal offence to enable or profit from the prostitution of another person. Pimping websites centralise and concentrate the nationwide demand from sex buyers online, making it quick, easy and relatively cheap for traffickers and pimps to connect with sex buyers across the country. Pimping websites are a key enabler of sex trafficking.

In France, the website Vivastreet is being pursed on charges of aggravated pimping for advertising prostitution; yet here in Britain the company continues to freely profit from these adverts. That cannot be right.

If the Government has a more practical, effective and enforceable means of achieving the same end of ending sex slavery and cracking down on pimps, I would welcome hearing it.

Britain must no longer be a soft touch for pimps and traffickers. 


Diana Johnson is the Labour MP for Kingston upon Hull North and chair of the APPG on Commercial Sexual Exploitation.

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