It is said that prostitution is the “oldest profession” and there is little doubt that aspects of the sex trade have been around for hundreds of years. Today the sex trade is inextricably linked up with gangs, people trafficking and human misery. Because the sex trade is effectively covert, no one is really sure how many people are involved in it and how much it exactly makes. The police believe that as many as 18,000 women are involved in the sex trade, the vast bulk against their will. But to the people involved in at, the ‘trade’ is said to be worth up to £5 billion a year.


Up to 18,000 females, including girls as young as 14, are working in brothels across Britain after being smuggled into the country, a new police survey reveals. Nearly five times more women than previously thought are working in massage parlours and suburban homes.

Operation Pentameter 2, a six-month campaign by police forces across the country, has exposed the horrifying extent of the sex trade industry in the UK. Because of the booming demand for prostitutes in the UK, prostitution and people trafficking is now the third most lucrative black-market trade after gun running and drug dealing. Organised crime gangs increasingly use the internet to communicate and maximise their earnings.

Most of the victims are young and foreign, coming from countries including Brazil, China, Lithuania and Thailand. Often, women are lured away from their homes with promises of work in bars or nightclubs, before being sold for up to £5,000 to pimps and brothel-keepers. The women are then forced to work for little or no income under threat of violence against their families.

As a result of Operation Pentameter 2, 528 suspected traffickers were arrested and 822 brothels closed. 154 women and 13 girls were released.


Globally the sex trade is thought to be worth $31.6 billion with Europe and America making up 50% of this huge sum. The money that can be made from the sex trade has attracted well-organised but violent crime gangs and many of them see the sex trade as having a smaller risk of being caught than the drugs trade.


The United Nations defines human trafficking as the recruitment, transportation and harbouring of people by means of threat, force or other forms of coercion for the purposes of exploitation.


The Home Office says the most trafficked prostitutes in the UK come from Lithuania, Thailand, Russia, Albania and Romania.


The NCIS (National Crime Intelligence Service) says there are indications that criminal gangs, especially ethnic Albanians, are seeking to gain control of the trade in the UK. They are taking over established brothels and are “prepared to use violence to achieve this”.


Support groups say women are often tricked into thinking they are coming to the UK to do legitimate jobs and then forced into prostitution. Gangs involved in trafficking prostitutes are often involved in other serious criminal activities including drugs, counterfeiting, bank and benefit fraud.


Women in the sex trade are often forced into it – either by socio-economic circumstances or by boyfriends or other males with power over them (e.g. traffickers). As well as the bare facts about women being forced into the sex industry against their wills, although women are increasingly able to be independent of men both socially and economically, inequalities remain and these are seen at their most extreme in areas of the economy such as the sex trade.


Human trafficking associated with the sex trade can also be related to World Sociology and issues of power relations between the “developed” and “developing” world. Many of the foreign women involved in the sex trade in Britain are here because they were lured here with promises of ordinary jobs – waitressing, cleaning, kitchen work – where they would earn more than they could earn in their home countries and which would allow them to send money home to their families. International wealth inequalities can of course be linked to issues around international debt.


Young women tricked into coming to England, often by boyfriends, are being sold off in auctions at airport coffee shops as soon as they arrive. The trade was one of the findings of a BBC News website investigation into slavery in 21st Century England. As the UK marks 200 years since the Parliamentary Act to abolish the slave trade, slavery goes on in another form. The slave trade, outlawed by legislation introduced in March 1807, saw people from Africa transported en masse to the Americas with the involvement of people from the UK and other European countries. The Home Office estimated in 2003 that 4,000 women were trafficked into the UK for sexual exploitation. It is thought the figure may have grown since.


In England and Wales, the gangs are subject to a range of legislation relating to both specific criminal offences and immigration laws. The Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 made trafficking for the purposes of prostitution a specific offence for the first time, providing a maximum sentence of 14 years imprisonment and an unlimited fine. The Sexual Offences Act 2003 included a wider range offences relating to trafficking for sexual exploitation which also carry a maximum sentence of 14 years imprisonment. According to the latest NCIS assessment, the identification of trafficked prostitutes in the UK is continuing to rise. The NCIS says it is not clear whether the rise represents a new trend or better intelligence and it is unsafe to assume that all foreign women working in brothels are trafficking victims. There have been some high profile prosecutions but police chiefs are said to be concerned that the gangs seem to be able to replace deported or arrested prostitutes within days.


The latest piece of legislation now states that a male ‘customer’ will be charged with rape if he pays for sex with a woman in a brothel when it is obvious that she is there against her will. Ignorance will not be considered an adequate defence.  


The London-based Poppy Project was set up as a Home Office pilot in March 2003 to combat the trafficking and sexual abuse of women brought into the UK. According to the project, which provides support to victims, about 2,800 women working in the UK sex trade are likely to have been trafficked. The project says a “lack of opportunities in countries of origin” often leads to women being trafficked.


An evaluation of the Poppy Project has been carried out to help the government decide on the future of the scheme. The Research, Development and Statistics Directorate of the Office for Criminal Justice Reform found in its first 15 months there were 43 placements from 169 referrals but no arrests or prosecutions brought against suspected traffickers. The Home Office said criminal trials related to Poppy Project victims were currently pending.


The evaluation cited “tension” between the Metropolitan Police and the Immigration Service over their sometimes conflicting roles in combating trafficking crimes. Amnesty International has called on the government to do more to protect victims of trafficking. A spokeswoman said there was no protection in law for victims of trafficking who were often classed as illegal immigrants and deported. Amnesty is also urging the government to sign up to the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings, which gives victims the right to temporary residence permits and other assistance.


Home Office records show that the age range of women trafficked is:


Aged 14 to 17 – 8.5%

Aged 18 to 25 – 45%

Aged 26 to 34 – 17%

Aged 35 and over – 5.5%

Unknown age – 24%


A new report commissioned by the British government says as many as 1,400 women are trapped into sexual slavery each year in Britain. The report says many of those involved come from Eastern Europe; they are brought to Britain under false pretences then forced into prostitution. One of the authors of the report Linda Regan told the BBC that the women are charged an enormous amount of money by the traffickers which they are unable to pay off. The report calls for new laws against sexual exploitation with tough penalties. Last month the European parliament was told that as many as half a million women a year were being brought to the West from Eastern Europe, Russia and Turkey.


Kingsley Davis proposed a functional theory which saw prostitution as a safety-valve, helping maintain the respectability of marriage. Prostitution certainly flourished during the Victorian period of rigid sexual morality. But feminists have pointed out that prostitution provides no safety-valve for women, and indeed controls them by labelling those who are not chaste as whores. Victorian prostitution was connected with a double standard of morality, which was much more permissive for men than for women. Sociological studies of prostitutes show that their motivation is mainly economic and it seems likely that the number of prostitutes increases when there are fewer other job opportunities for women. International movements of prostitutes are nearly always from poor countries to richer ones. In Britain prostitution itself is legal, but soliciting in public, ‘kerb-crawling’, brothel-keeping, procuring, and living on the ‘immoral earnings’ of a prostitute are all illegal. Here, the commonest ways of working are as a street-walker, as an individual call-girl who advertises her telephone number, or in association with apparently legal work as a club hostess, escort, or masseuse. In some countries prostitution is regulated by the state, with prostitutes being required to register (and often to have regular medical tests), or with prostitution confined to designated red light districts or registered brothels.



Courtesy of Lee Bryant, Director of Sixth Form, Anglo-European School, Ingatestone, Essex