Organised crime and off-street sex markets

Sex workers in brothels and massage parlours are often exploited and abused by organised crime groups but these sex markets are rarely targeted by police.

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Sex workers in brothels very vulnerable to exploitation and abuse

A new (September 2016)  report  from the Police Foundation looks at the under-researched area of off-street sex markets, despite the heightened risk to those working in brothels of exploitation and abuse at the hands of perpetrators seeking to control and profit from the sex market.

Entitled “The role and impact of organised crime in the local off-street sex market”, the report summarises the findings of a study which took a “ground-floor” view of the off-street sex market in Bristol with the aim of assessing:

  • How much of the off-street sex market is controlled by OCGs and what this looks like.
  • The impact it has in local communities.
  • The response (including key challenges) from the police and other local agencies.

The approach

Data linked to the sex market for the period 2013 and 2014 were extracted from the Avon and Somerset police force crime and intelligence database. This information was used to profile all known brothels operating during this period in Bristol, including the sex workers and offenders linked to each, and characteristics that indicated either organised crime or exploitation of sex workers. In addition, over 100 interviews were completed with local and national practitioners from enforcement and support agencies.

A total of 65 brothels were identified linked to 142 sex workers and 74 offenders who owned or helped to manage them. This reflects only the information recorded in the crime and intelligence databases and it is known much of the adult sex market goes unregistered by the police, so the actual number will inevitably be much higher.

Links to organised crime

The business-like structures required to manage brothels so they are profitable and avoid police attention are strong grounds to presume a link to organised crime. This assumption was tested through the use of the indicators listed in the graphic below. As you can see, nearly half of brothels were managed by more than one offender (49%). A third (32%) were run by offenders who also managed other brothels and a similar  proportion (29%) had links to other types of organised criminality, predominantly drug supply.


The research also looked at indicators of human trafficking in these brothels, using the three indicators shown in the graphic below:


What does it look like in communities?

The 65 brothels took one of three distinct forms:

Residential brothels
38 brothels were known to the police and located in addresses indistinguishable from all others, often in deprived residential estates. A third (34%) of known sex workers and nearly two-thirds (64%) of offenders were linked to these establishments. Nearly two-thirds (63%) displayed at least one indicator of organised crime.
Commercial parlours
14 brothels advertised as legitimate businesses offering massage services, but with a clear indication they were brothels operating in plain sight. They were well known to police due to their relatively stable and overt presence on high streets. Nearly half of the known off-street sex workers (47%) and approaching a third (30%t) of offenders were linked to commercial parlours, and all displayed at least one indicator of organised crime.
Pop-up brothels
13 were temporary brothels which established themselves for short periods of time (sometimes days) in hotels or short-term apartment lets in the city. Nearly all displayed at least one indicator of organised crime, most commonly the movement of sex workers between brothels.

The response

There was a tacit understanding within the police service that their efforts should be targeted at the harm caused (for example, by ensuring children were not employed and sex workers were not subjected to violence or exploitation) rather than on enforcement action against prostitution or associated organised crime. However, information for identifying harm was largely unavailable since most of the harm was experienced out of public view, often by victims who rarely made a complaint.

Occasional welfare checks were completed at brothels by a local police team and partners, but sex workers rarely came forward for help and information on those managing the brothels was unforthcoming. These visits were sporadic and not core business for any local agency. Arguably, support agencies (rather than police) were better placed to meaningfully engage and identify safeguarding issues for this vulnerable group, but it was unclear which agency could take this on.

Although local policing efforts were directed against organised crime groups, they rarely targeted those operating in these sex markets.


The report concludes that organised crime has a significant presence in the highly lucrative off-street sex market, where the operating model varies, as does the nature and degree of harm it causes. Practitioners were unanimous that exploitation in the off-street adult sex market was much more prevalent than was recorded on police systems (or indeed that of any agency).

However, as long as the off-street sex market is not a priority for proactive intelligence gathering to address the information gaps, the true extent of the harms that result will continue to remain largely hidden, hindering harm-based prioritisation of enforcement and safeguarding activities. The relative impunity with which pimps and traffickers operate within the adult sex market, combined with the almost total exclusion of many off-street sex workers – particularly foreign nationals – from mainstream society, requires a radical reconsideration of what the police and other relevant agencies should and could be doing.


The Police Foundation makes four recommendations:

  • The Home Office, together with the National Crime Agency, should develop guidance on tackling the off-street sex market, including how best to target pimps and traffickers and support sex workers in brothels.
  • Local authorities should develop a multiagency strategy to tackle trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation (or review any that already exist).
  • Police forces, together with local authorities and representatives of the voluntary sector should jointly produce locally-tailored strategies for assessing and targeting the off-street sex market.
  • The police and other local agencies need to do more to identify the hidden victims exploited in the off-street sex market and facilitate investigations for which no victim comes forward.

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