BBC reporter Bronagh Munro investigates the online world of sex work and whether the move from the streets to the internet has made things safer for the people involved.
While autumnal dramas may dominate our TV watchlists, a number of informative documentaries deserve an equal sliver of the spotlight. Recently released Rape: Who’s On Trial on Channel 4, as well as ITV’s Britain’s ‘Virginity’ Clinics Uncovered have both tackled the themes of sexual violence and abuse, with eye-opening accounts.
Now, in BBC One’s latest Panorama episode, BBC reporter Bronagh Munro will be diving into the world of online sex work and pimps.
Like many other industries, the sex industry has been transformed with the ease of the internet. With most sex workers now meeting their customers through online sites and platforms, there is also a dark underbelly that disproportionately affects many of the workers involved.
While you may think the usage of the internet would signal more autonomy for the women involved, BBC’s Panorama will look into the unspoken world of online pimps who are taking advantage of sex workers.
The official BBC synopsis reads:
“Their pictures can be seen next to adverts for lawn mowers and patio furniture, but has the move away from the streets made prostitution any safer for the women involved? Reporter Bronagh Munro investigates the online pimps who traffic vulnerable women for sex and the high-profile website that is helping them to cash in.”
In the documentary, presenter Munro initially joins Lancashire police for an early morning brothel raid. She reminds us that “selling sex is legal in the UK but pimping and sex trafficking are against the law.”
In one scene we see a man detained for “controlling prostitution” and his phone is logged as evidence – it contains multiple messages suggesting he is a pimp. An investigating police officer comments that it is “littered” with messages organising sexual services and prices being negotiated. Quite simply, the police believe he is a pimp and has “complete control” over the women in the raided house.
Through his phone, this is the first time we’re given a look into the services offered by online classified advertisement site, Vivastreet. Multiple messages sent to his phone show that he controls the ads for girls on the listing platform and as 50% off discounts and renewal reminders for Vivastreet are regularly sent to him, it’s clear he is a valued user of Vivastreet’s ads listings. Subsequently, the man is accused of trafficking and controlling prostitution for gain.
Munro sits down with Detective Sergeant Stuart Peall who runs the exploitation team of Lancashire police, to talk about the popular website. Viewers learn that ads on Vivastreet cost about £50 a week and is where the site makes most of its money. Peall says that “it is very common knowledge now that if you need sexual services, Vivastreet is the place that you will find it”.
“How big a part do Vivastreet play in that market?” Munro asks.
“Massive. There isn’t a job we haven’t done that isn’t Vivastreet, every single job is Vivastreet,” Peall reports.
As the episode moves forward, we learn that every night, around 12,000 women are listed with “virtually all of them selling sex for cash,” Munro narrates.
Munro highlights one case to show the scale of the online pimping situation, with one convicted sex trafficker, in the north-west of England, spending £25,000 on Vivastreet ads. The site even gave him his own personal account manager. He set up profiles and managed them but as UK Feminista’s director, Kat Banyard states in the episode: “Vivastreet is a magnet for sex traffickers and that’s because Vivastreet makes it so quick and so easy to advertise women to sex buyers. The website has the effect of concentrating and centralising demand from men across the country who are willing to sexually exploit women.”
“Now, that is the customer base for traffickers so of course, sex traffickers are going to go there – it’s an absolute gift to them.”
Although Vivastreet has said they are “committed to eradicating any potential exploitation”, the BBC Panorama investigation shows that the same phone numbers are used for multiple ads, highlighting the fact that suspected pimps are placing ads.
Panorama also investigates a man in Northern Ireland who runs at least three brothels in Belfast and regularly advertises women on Vivastreet. We see him pick women up from Dublin airport and transport them to his brothels. The evidence within the documentary suggests he is trafficking women from Romania and advertising them on the site.
Although the investigation uncovers much, many viewers highlighted that it didn’t entirely explore the question of online versus in-person safety for sex workers:
The lack of first-person sex worker voices within the episode has also been criticised:
This live-tweet thread of the episode is also an important read:
Panorama: Online Pimps Exposed is available to watch on BBC iPlayer.