The city’s City Sauna was highlighted in a television series called A Very Yorkshire Brothel and continues to operate today but at a different site in Attercliffe now.
But officers who try to police the city’s sex industry say they are now more concerned with the emergence of what they describe as ‘pop-up’ brothels which they fear are more likely to be linked to organised crime, trafficking, and exploitation.
Policing sexual exploitation falls to Det Chief Insp Nikki Leach, South Yorkshire Police’s force lead on modern slavery.
And she feels the new ‘pop-up’ brothels may have replaced traditional ‘red light’ zones in the last decade.
Last year, Barry Calvert who ran Sheffield swingers club La Chambre, warned the city’s sex industry could be driven underground.
But Det Chief Insp Leach says that is exactly what police are trying to avoid – and their work is geared up to avoid exploitation.
But while the city’s massage parlours receive visits from police and other agencies including the NHS and women’s charities, the new ‘pop-up’ brothels fall outside any checks – as they are off the radar in ordinary houses.
DCI Leach believes anyone engaged in the exploitation or trafficking of women, and possibly also trafficking drugs, or firearms, would be more likely to work underground in ‘pop-up’ brothels. They would rent a house, bring girls in, and advertise on underground websites. She said that would be the highest risk, as it was criminal gang related, an unknown and unassessed risk.
She said: “Sheffield historically had a red light area. Over the past five to 10 year the picture has really changed in relation to that. With the emergence of what we in law enforcement refer to as the ‘pop-up’ brothel, it’s become easier to traffic and exploit people.”
The detective said sex work can take place in lots of different locations and environments, and there are groups campaigning around freedom to carry out sexwork. Having sex with somebody for money is not an offence, the crimes are around the management and advertisement of that sort of work.
She said: “There’s quite a wide spread of different facets in dealing with anything to do with sex work. There are lots of different nuances.
“We’ve got to start from a premise of balancing risk. The general public will be aware there are many woman and men that sell sex, be that on the street, or on private premises, and there is no such thing as a legal brothel where someone can legally sell sex.
“However if it was one person in their own home, and they had people coming to that home, and there was nobody managing it, that is not against the law. So really our focus is a balance of risk.”
DCI Leach added: “From a modern slavery perspective, looking at sex exploitation, it is nationally thought much safer for women to be able to be in locations which can be visited and checked by police, than it is for them to be street based sex workers who are more likely to me assaulted and attacked, raped.
“Exploited women can be found in both those locations.
“Brothels, in any guise, are illegal. What we have particularly in Sheffield are overt massage parlours, that we would engage with, where sex may be taking place within that location. What we are trying to balance, is we would not allow premises to run as a brothel, where overt sex work was taking place and it was managed by somebody. However a massage parlour, where anything up to sexual activity is taking place, is legal.
“We try to engage with these places. We are looking for lots of different things and we carry out engagement and safeguarding visits. For example we may visit one and engage with who appears to be the manager of that location, ask how many girls are working today, have they got any clients in currently, can we look round, can we speak to them? What we’re looking for is evidence that sex is taking place. We’re looking for evidence of condoms and things like that.
“There have been occasions where we have prosecuted people running locations for management of brothel offences and controlling prostitution offences.”
City Sauna featured on TV show A Very Yorkshire Brothel
City Sauna is the best known massage parlour, having featured on the television. It was inspected, and nothing illegal found there.
DCI Leach said of the programme it appeared on: “If you watch that very closely and carefully, there is no admission to sex work taking place. It’s all about people’s fantasies that get dealt with under the massage parlour. We would have to prove sex work is taking place to prosecute.”
When deciding if they should prosecute, police try to balance risk.
DCI Leach added: “If we shut down a location, where we suspect that there is no exploitative behaviour going on, women are engaging in sex work there, but we shut that down, we force those woman onto the street or what we would describe as a pop-up brothel.
“That is essentially a private home with absolutely no control over it and you don’t even know where it is, so we can’t carry out a safeguarding visit there, and check on these women and make sure they’re not being exploited.
“We have to be really cognisant about when we would look to prosecute. The threshold for that would be that we think exploitation is taking place and women in those locations are being exploited and are not there of their own freewill or volition.
“We have very openly run operations. We shut one down because we ran an investigation where females were being trafficked into that location to work as sex workers.
“We had people charged with trafficking in relation to that.
"We also shut down another one that didn’t actually result in a prosecution, but they were investigated and arrested for managing a brothel. When we went into that location, it was very clear females were having sex, working for over 16 hours a day. There were drugs present. There were no real safeguards in place.”
Officers risk assess massage parlours by visiting them.
They look at risk to the sex worker, if there is trafficking, and whether underage people are used. They look for exploitation of vulnerable people, or signs of customers being subjected to crime.
They also look at the risk to the general public around the location, in terms of anti-social behaviour or their quality of life.
“The key thing is, it’s not a case of ever ignoring something that’s criminal behaviour. It’s about balancing risk to the people involved in something it’s their right to do, when it's not organised, or managed or advertised. We don’t want to push someone out into street work or ‘pop-up’ brothels where we can’t risk assess,” said DCI Leach.
It is also difficult to prosecute the men who use prostitutes, as there is no offence of using a sex worker. There however are offences around soliciting and kerb crawling, and exploitation of women who have been forced into prostitution.
DCI Leach said she was aware of trafficked women having being forced to have sex with as many as 10 to 15 men every day.
Covid has not helped policing.
“We’ve not had the freedom to go around and about to do the things we needed to do,” the senior detective said.
“A lot of the premises like massage parlours were shut down. Pop-up residential brothels would probably have still been going on but it would take someone dropping onto one and letting us know, for us to find out.
“Our work is framed through modern slavery, exploitative behaviour and trafficking. The best lens to use is protecting and safeguarding vulnerable people and criminality.
“It is not about toleration, it is about risk management.”