A court in Lancashire last month jailed six men and one woman for their part in a sex trafficking ring. The group had been bringing women from Romania, and sexually exploiting them in a network of brothels around the UK. The court heard the key to this gang’s operation was the use of a classified ads website – Vivastreet – on which they advertised women to sex buyers.
The group didn’t have to worry about disguising the prostitution adverts they were placing; Vivastreet openly hosts and charges for “escorts” listings. During the investigation, one of the suspects was found to have spent more than £25,000 on advertising victims on the site. Yet Detective Sergeant Stuart Peall, who led the investigation, discovered that, astonishingly, when one man placed what amounted to more than £25,000-worth of prostitution adverts – for multiple women – the web company did not respond by calling the police, or even by refusing his requests. Instead, Peall says, they gave the suspect “his own account manager”.
Vivastreet is one of the “prostitution procurement websites” identified in a recent inquiry by the all-party parliamentary group on prostitution as enabling industrial-scale sexual exploitation. Along with its competitor, Adultwork, the site allows users to shop for sexual access to women’s bodies. It is free to use for the sex buyer, who can search profiles according to his location and contact the person being advertised (or the person selling them) via a mobile number listed in the profile. The profits come from fees charged to those placing the adverts.
Vivastreet’s French business was interrupted on 4 June when the Paris prosecutor opened an investigation into Vivastreet France for aggravated pimping. Last week, Vivastreet France shut down its prostitution adverts. This comes in the wake of Adultwork and similar sites dropping prostitution adverts in the US after a new law holding web companies criminally and civilly liable for knowingly facilitating sex trafficking came into force in April. In Britain, prostitution advertising websites continue to operate, the UK’s patchy and inadequate laws against commercial sexual exploitation leaving sufficient leeway for them to profiteer openly.
France has led the way by taking action on prostitution websites under comprehensive anti-pimping laws and, crucially, tackling the demand underpinning them – by criminalising paying for sex, and decriminalising selling sex. It is time the British government did the same and finally woke up to the sexual abuse scandal playing out in brothels across the country.