Mon, Aug 23, 2004 - Page 6 News List

London study uncovers more than 8,000 sex workers


More than 8,000 women are working as prostitutes in flats, saunas and massage parlors and via escort agencies in London, according to the first comprehensive study of the "off-street" sex trade in the British capital.

Four-fifths of those are from overseas and many have been trafficked into the country from eastern Europe and Southeast Asia by criminal gangs who force them to work in brutal conditions. Some have been kidnapped and beaten, while others are brought into the country under false pretences.

Sex in the City, published Thursday by the Poppy Project, which supports women trying to leave the sex trade, maps prostitution across London.

Superintendent Chris Bradford, head of operations for the London Metropolitan police's clubs and vice unit, warned that the issue was widespread within Britain and across western Europe.

"We have been telling people about this for an awfully long time," he said. "I would suggest every town in the UK has got a problem."

The six-month study found 730 brothels and 164 escort agencies operating in the capital, as well as 66 lap-dancing clubs, some of which appeared to be connected to prostitution.

Many had linked telephone numbers, suggesting that a network of criminals or criminal groups was cooperating, allowing perhaps 1,000 women to be moved around to avoid detection and keep them isolated.

"The numbers of women involved in this and the experiences they go through are shocking," Sandra Dickson, the report's author, said.

"The off-street sex industry is largely ignored in most discussions of prostitution, yet the women working in it are also vulnerable to being exploited by violent and abusive pimps and traffickers.

"Women trafficked into prostitution told us they worked alongside other trafficked women all over London. These places are on our local high streets, and they're not a `bit of fun for the lads' -- they are places women are being held in and hurt."

The study says that more funding is needed to help the police tackle the problem. It calls for greater support for women trafficked to this country, ensuring that they have safe housing and are granted asylum if they cannot return home safely. But it also urges the government to tackle the problem of demand, including information within sex education lessons on the realities of prostitution, to educate men who buy sex about its effects on the women involved.

A similar program in San Francisco claims that only 18 of the 2,000 men it has worked with have been rearrested on prostitution-related offences.

Dickson pointed out that accounts from clients made it clear that many men used prostitutes even if they knew the women were clearly unhappy. Her report shows that while some women are kidnapped and beaten, others are not "stereotypical" trafficking victims and may have been "deceived as well as coerced" into working in the sex industry in the UK.

One interviewee came to Britain to raise money for her sister's cancer treatment. Her recruiter had promised her that she would be able to make "enormous" amounts of money, that clients would be clean and that she could negotiate safer sex. Instead she had to work 12 hours a day, seven days a week. Half of her earnings were taken as "rent" for the flat where she was prostituted; the other half on a ?23,000 "debt" for travel arrangements.

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