I had been in Los Angeles for less than a month when I received the call from a concerned neighbour back home in London. ‘Why are there men queuing up outside your flat at 3 a.m.?’ It was a good question. ‘And are you aware that a locksmith came over the other day to change your locks?’ I had no idea. ‘Oh and by the way, your tenant has put some kind of security camera outside your front door.’ Concern turned to panic. ‘And there’s been rather a lot of … erm, activity, you know … to-ing and fro-ing. That tenant of yours certainly has an appetite for the ladies.’ My neighbour must have been mistaken. I had rented my apartment to Alan and Ada, a respectable young Chinese couple. They agreed to rent my place for three months, which coincided perfectly with my trip to the US.
It soon became clear that Alan and Ada weren’t quite the charming married couple they had made themselves out to be. When I returned, Alan greeted me at the door but refused to let me in. Over his shoulder, I spotted Ada berating a pair of scantily clad Asian girls. A couple of ropey-looking men sat patiently in my hallway, which appeared to be doubling as a waiting room.
Like a growing number of part-time landlords, I had been well and truly screwed over by a worrying new part of the underworld. ‘Pop-up’ brothels are a growing menace and not just around tatty inner London. The problem is spreading from urban areas to some of Britain’s most unlikely rural enclaves. The bishop of Derby, the Rt Revd Alastair Redfern, has been speaking out against the exploitation of vulnerable young women, mostly from eastern Europe, who are being sex-trafficked to remote parts of the Peak District, where holiday homes are plentiful and cheap. Something similar is happening in parts of Cornwall and the Lake District.
The trafficking of young girls into the UK has become so widespread that on 21 May, the All Party Parliamentary Group on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade published the results of an inquiry into Organised Sexual Exploitation in England and Wales. Speakers included Gavin Shuker MP, Jess Phillips MP and the leader of the Women’s Equality Party. The ‘Behind Closed Doors’ report details the growing harm and sheer scale of the problem. There are currently at least 212 active UK police operations into modern slavery involving sexual exploitation. And the steady influx isn’t just from eastern Europe. Girls are being trafficked from as far away as China, Vietnam and Nigeria. The report claims the government is determined to end modern slavery and human trafficking by 2030, but with the growing popularity of short-term rental sites such as Airbnb they will have their work cut out. Pop-up brothel managers such as Alan and Ada evade capture by moving on before anyone realises what they’re up to.
In an attempt to cut demand, the group has called for the UK to follow other European countries by criminalising people who pay for sex. Half of those who buy sex said they would definitely, probably or possibly change their behaviour if it became a criminal offence. Meanwhile, gangsters continue to run amok, filling cheap rental homes with vulnerable girls they have lured over to the UK with the promise of a better life.
The problem becomes particularly acute during major sporting events, when there is often a spike in the number of illicit sex dens set up to cater for inebriated fans. During the 2006 World Cup in Germany, many cities saw a surge in business at so-called ‘mega-brothels’. And throughout the 2012 Olympics, boroughs close to the action such as Newham and Tower Hamlets saw an increase in temporary knocking-shops.
Criminal gangs are often behind these elusive set-ups, so there is often an undercurrent of violence. I experienced this first-hand when confronting Alan. He threatened to kneecap me if I dared report him. I later discovered he belonged to an ultra-violent Triad gang working out of Soho. Shortly after our run-in, Alan and Ada and their coterie of girls vanished, leaving behind a trail of carnage. When I finally gained access to my flat, a pair of eastern European crack dealers accosted me at the front door. They behaved as though I were the intruder, insisting that Alan, the real owner, had sub-let them my spare bedroom.
The flat itself had been pimped out beyond all recognition. Flimsy partition walls divided the sitting room into three separate units, allowing more than one girl to ‘work’ there at a time. Grubby handprints covered the wall above my bed and there were used condoms everywhere. There was an unspeakable stain on my expensive mattress that resembled a yellowing map of communist China. The wardrobes overflowed with dodgy sexual apparatus and there were boxes of calling cards every-where, filled with garish photos of ‘busty Asian babes’. My home had become a hotbed of vice and squalor. More worrying still, I had been the unwitting recipient of immoral earnings.
Pest controllers took two days to gut and fumigate my desecrated living space. For weeks afterwards, though, my flat remained a target for lonely wastrels and frustrated businessmen. Night after night they came, hanging around outside my apartment block, ringing the doorbell into the early hours, desperate to know if Crystal or Candy were available.
Six months later, I was on my roof terrace enjoying the sunshine when a young girl in the building opposite poked her head out of the window and started chatting to me. She looked about 17 and had a distinctive Russian twang. ‘Would you like to come over?’ she asked coyly. ‘I have vodka.’ I assumed she must have been lonely and declined her offer. A few minutes later, I heard her calling up at me from the street below. ‘Psst, mister, please come. I really need to speak to someone.’ She seemed genuinely upset so I hurried down to see if there was anything I could do to help. From my window, she had looked healthy and attractive. Up close her skin was pitted and bruised, her haggard face plastered with poorly applied makeup. She had rotten teeth, thinning hair. Her eyes were hollow and blank. ‘Please, you need to help me. I am being treated badly by my boss. I think he wants to kill me.’
I called the police, suspecting that a new pop-up brothel had arrived on my street. The weary officer explained that unless they caught punters in flagrante it was impossible to make an arrest. I insisted they at least visit the property to check on the girl. They did, but by the time they arrived, she and her violent pimp had already vanished.