The dangerous myth of the “pop-up brothel”

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

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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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