Under the surface of Leamington’s sex trade

Even though rarely acknowledged, the world’s oldest profession seems to be an established feature of Leamington and Warwickshire. Hidden away in private houses and lost in the vast expanse of the internet, prostitution is able to slip beneath the radar of day to day life, in stark contrast to the public outrage at sexual entertainment venues like Shades.
Of course, there is nothing illegal about the exchange of sex for money. A distinction must be made between those operating as private, independent escorts and those who solicit publicly, operate in brothels or are trafficked illegally as prostitutes.

Speaking to one escort, who we will call “Katie”, it was evident that Leamington hosts both sides of this veiled industry. Challenging the stereotype, she was highly educated, intelligent and self-confident, with a standard nine-to-five work schedule. Her view was that the independent escorts in Leamington work because they enjoy money, sex, or both. Ultimately, independent escorting is just another service being provided by those who are willing. However, Katie also stressed the darker side of the industry. According to her, Leamington is home to many women who are trafficked, predominantly from Eastern Europe, to work in brothels by organised criminals. Most worryingly, she warned that these criminals are highly dangerous and would not hesitate to use violence against both the prostitutes and intruders on their ‘business’.

Indeed, police raids in 2008 uncovered brothels across the Midlands, including one in Leamington Spa managed by Zhi Zhou. Mr Zhou, 48, and a network of Chinese nationals were later convicted for a range of offences including managing a brothel, trafficking and sexual exploitation.
The single criminal network was found to have operated in Worcester, Kidderminster, Birmingham and Coventry, controlling vulnerable women in private brothels. In August 2011, another brothel was shut down at 40 Birchmeadow Close, Warwick, by the UK Border Agency. At least two Chinese women had been found to be working as prostitutes at the address. More recently, a school secretary from St Trinity Catholic School, Leamington, was forced to quit her job after being exposed as a part time escort earlier this year. The allegations made by a local paper led to her being disgraced and humiliated in several national papers, despite her activities being entirely within the law.
However, despite the off-the-record evidence being put forward by individuals like Katie, the problem seems to be largely ignored by the local authority. A series of Freedom of Information requests put forward by this investigation have shown that between 2008 and 2012, only two arrests have been made by Warwickshire Police for all prostitution related offences, and none at all for soliciting or procuring (a.k.a. ‘pimping’).

Whilst it may be the case that more severe issues of human trafficking for prostitution are handled by the UK Border Agency, the apparent lack of action at the local level is a cause for concern. According to Rachel Mumford of Warwickshire Police, “there are currently no ongoing initiatives in Warwickshire to counter vice [and] no specific annual budget for counter-prostitution operations. Any counter-prostitution activity would be funded out of local existing general budgets”.

This would suggest that the local police have adopted the traditional ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ approach of containing low-level illegal prostitution. Whilst one might baulk at this, the large cost and difficulty of intelligence gathering attributable to counter-prostitution policing makes it an unattractive option when resources are finite. Considering the funding cuts faced by police forces nationwide and the political pressure to deal with ‘visible’ crime such as theft and vandalism, the lack of a unified initiative to deal with the problem can perhaps be understood, if not condoned. Another concern appears to be the potential rise in student prostitution. With the introduction of £9000 tuition fees, it is expected that the flexible hours and high pay of escorting will be seen by some young women as a viable means to fund their degrees. Although we might sensationalise the life of the fictional Belle de Jour, the reality is that students are seeing it as an option.

The English Collective Of Prostitutes, which represents sex workers in England, released a statement earlier this year saying: “There is definitely a growing number of students contacting us who are involved in or considering sex work. It’s risen dramatically in the past year following the big increase in fees.”

Private conversations with a number of students at Warwick have given evidence for at least one former student selling sexual services whilst studying last year. Interestingly, the anecdotal evidence corroborated to suggest that money was not the primary motive. The individual in question, whose name must again be protected, publicly identified themselves as a “hypersexual”, but had allegedly exchanged sexual services for monetary gain on at least one occasion.
Even if the handful of students that get involved in prostitution do so freely, the occupational hazards cannot be stressed enough. According to Against Violence and Abuse (AVA) and the Home Office, “more than half of women in prostitution have been raped and/or seriously assaulted and at least 75 percent have been physically assaulted at the hands of the pimps and punters”.
As such, it seems crucial that the local authority should take a more engaged approach with the sex trade in Warwickshire. Although it can be practiced entirely legally, its shadowy existence allows for violence and exploitation to occur unchecked by the authorities. Whilst we should not persecute people for legal employment choices, there should undeniably be systems in place to protect those who fall into the hands of dangerous criminals.

However, before this can be implemented there must be raising of awareness at the local level. Unless the local community is vigilant in reporting concerns about the exploitation of women by gangs, the Police will have neither the means nor incentive to react. If attitudes are to change, people will need to look beyond Warwickshire’s quaint public image and confront the unpleasant truth.


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