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The dangerous myth of the “pop-up brothel”

The reality behind a buzzword that is hindering the fight for women's safety

Hundreds of pop-up brothels are springing up across the country. Budget holiday homes, Airbnbs, and private lets are being turned into “sex clubs”. Crimestoppers have launched a campaign to try and stem their supposedly indomitable rise.

Only last week the Sunday Times reported that Google and Facebook are profiting from “pop-up brothels sweeping the country”. Local papers are running stories on how to tell if a pop-up brothel has been set up on your street.

The rate at which this latest buzzword has taken over discussions of the sex industry has left little time to dissect what it actually means. In reality, the phrase is useless at best, and dangerous at worst.

A brothel is any premises that is used by more than one person for the purposes of prostitution. These people need not work together – it could be a one-bedroom flat, with two women working on alternate days – it’s still classed as a brothel. While prostitution is legal in England and Wales, some related activities are illegal. Owning or managing a brothel, for example, is a crime.

Pop up, it turns out, is just another word for temporary. Whether that’s a day, a week, or a month, is unspecified.

So pop-up brothels are literally just temporary brothels. And as the National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC) admitted last year, there is desperately little data on the phenomenon, so generalisations about the nature of pop-up brothels and the people who work in them are mere speculation.

What temporary brothels actually look like varies massively. As the English Collective of Prostitutes explains, on one hand, sex workers do rent accommodation outside of their home towns and cities for short periods of time when travelling to different parts of the country as part of a so-called “tour”. On the other, victims of sex trafficking are being moved from house to house by gangs. Both of these scenarios exist, they’re not new, and both could be described as pop-up brothels.

The reasons for the spike in temporary brothels is unclear, but it’s likely to be a result of police activity, for one reason or another. The NPCC says traffickers are increasingly moving women around as a way to evade detection. Meanwhile, there are more and more reports of sex workers being threatening with prosecution unless they leave their premises. Those sex workers are then forced into short-term accommodation, thus creating the pop-up effect.

These vastly different situations call for very different responses when it comes to protecting those involved. But the press and policymakers are failing to note the difference between particular types of pop-up brothels.

On the one hand, new laws being considered by the government are being couched as a response to the pop-up phenomenon, but are in fact only aimed at victims of trafficking. On the other, ministers are considering making internet providers such as Google and Facebook liable when traffickers use their platforms advertise their victims to potential clients. In the US, where similar legislation is being considered, non-trafficked sex workers are arguing it will unecessarily target them. The UK government's plans don't include any new provisions to protect sex workers from being forced to move on by police – and some think it would make things even more dangerous.

The trendy, new, phrase of the “pop-up brothel” is mystifying a trade that desperately needs clearer and less sensationalist language. Vague soundbites allow policymakers and the police to easily conflate sex work and sex trafficking (whether intentionally or not). This lack of clarity makes it much more difficult to take meaningful, targeted action to improve women’s safety.

Until there exist better ways to characterise the nuances of the sex industry, and until people embrace the language used by sex workers to describe their own experiences, sensationalist buzzwords will continue to put women’s lives at risk.

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Michael Carrick is the “Geordie Pirlo” that England misunderstood

The Manchester United legend’s retirement announcement should leave Three Lions fans wondering what if?

That it came in the months leading up to a World Cup arguably added an exclamation point to the announcement of Michael Carrick’s impending retirement. The Manchester United midfielder, who is expected to take up a coaching role with the club afterwards, will hang up his boots at the end of the season. And United boss Jose Mourinho’s keenness to keep Carrick at Old Trafford in some capacity only serves to emphasise how highly he rates the 36-year-old.

But Carrick’s curtain call in May will be caveated by one striking anomaly on an otherwise imperious CV: his international career. Although at club level Carrick has excelled – winning every top tier honour a player based in England possibly can – he looks set to retire with just 34 caps for his country, and just one of those was earned at a major tournament.

This, in part, is down to the quality of competition he has faced. Indeed, much of the conversation around England’s midfield in the early to mid-noughties centred on finding a system that could accommodate both box-to-box dynamos Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard.

As time went on, however, focus shifted towards trequartistas, advanced playmakers and those with more mobile, harrying playing styles. And the likes of Jack Wilshere, Ross Barkley, Jordan Henderson and Dele Alli were brought into the frame more frequently than Carrick, whose deep-lying capabilities were not utilised to their full potential. That nearly 65 per cent of Carrick’s England caps have come in friendlies shows how undervalued he was. 

In fairness, Carrick does not embody similar characteristics to many of his England midfield contemporaries, including a laudable lack of ego. He is not blessed with lung-busting pace, nor is he enough of a ball-winner to shield a back four solo. Yet his passing and distribution satisfy world-class criteria, with a range only matched, as far as England internationals go, by his former United team-mate Paul Scholes, who was also misused when playing for his country.

Rather, the player Carrick resembles most isn’t English at all; it’s Andrea Pirlo, minus the free-kicks. When comparisons between the mild-mannered Geordie and Italian football’s coolest customer first emerged, they were dismissed in some quarters as hyperbole. Yet watching Carrick confirm his retirement plans this week, perfectly bearded and reflecting on a trophy-laden 12-year spell at one of world football’s grandest institutions, the parallels have become harder to deny.

Michael Carrick at a press event ahead of Manchester United's Champions League game this week. Photo: Getty.

Where other players would have been shown the door much sooner, both Pirlo and Carrick’s efficient style of play – built on patience, possession and precision – gifted them twilights as impressive as many others’ peaks. That at 36, Carrick is still playing for a team in the top two of the top division in English football, rather than in lower-league or moneyed foreign obscurity, speaks volumes. At the same age, Pirlo started for Juventus in the Champions League final of 2015.

It is ill health, not a decline in ability, which is finally bringing Carrick’s career to a close. After saying he “felt strange” during the second-half of United’s 4-1 win over Burton Albion earlier this season, he had a cardiac ablation procedure to treat an irregular heart rhythm. He has since been limited to just three more appearances this term, of which United won two. 

And just how key to United’s success Carrick has been since his £18m signing from Tottenham in 2006 cannot be overstated. He was United’s sole signing that summer, yielding only modest excitement, and there were some Red Devils fans displeased with then manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s decision to assign Carrick the number 16 jersey previously worn by departed captain Roy Keane. Less than a year later, though, United won their first league title in four years. The following season, United won the league and Champions League double, with Carrick playing 49 times across all competitions.

Failing to regularly deploy Carrick in his favoured role – one that is nominally defensive in its position at the base of midfield, but also creative in providing through-balls to the players ahead – must be considered one of the most criminal oversights of successive England managers’ tenures. Unfortunately, Carrick’s heart condition means that current boss Gareth Southgate is unlikely to be able to make amends this summer.

By pressing space, rather than players, Carrick compensates for his lack of speed by marking passing channels and intercepting. He is forever watching the game around him and his unwillingness to commit passes prematurely and lose possession is as valuable an asset as when he does spot an opening.

Ultimately, while Carrick can have few regrets about his illustrious career, England fans and management alike can have plenty. Via West Ham, Spurs and United, the Wallsend-born émigré has earned his billing as one of the most gifted midfielders of his generation, but he’d never let on.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.