Paul Macey: How newspapers are fuelling the sex trade

Flick through your local newspaper to the classified section and there is a good chance that you will find under the heading ‘personal or adult services’numerous adverts for massage parlours. Variously described as ‘discreet’and ‘sensual’with pictures of scantily-dressed women, they fail to blend in with those offering plumbing services or cars.

These adverts are more often than not a front for an industry that exploits and abuses women and young girls. From leafy suburbia to the inner cities, one phone call to such establishments reveals that a whole range of ‘sexual services’are on offer. The casual nature of the respondent as he or she reels off the ‘services’the ‘Chinese, Latin American, Eastern European and African girls’will offer is chilling.

The weekly appearance of these ads makes it clear that the newspaper industry plays a key role in connecting supply with demand in a process which leads to the abuse of women.

This is the view of the agencies and organisations that help some of the estimated 4,000 women and children trafficked into the UK each year.


The Croydon Community Against Trafficking (CCAT) group produced research indicating that more than 80 per cent of the women working in the borough’s brothels are likely to have been trafficked and subjected to sexual abuse.

A CCAT spokesperson says: ‘We support the research conducted by the London Metropolitan University which suggests that the majority of men accessing ‘off-street sex establishments’ do so through adverts in local newspapers.

‘In Croydon, we believe that the vast majority of men who visit the 50 or more brothels in the borough contact the establishments through the local papers.

‘It is not acceptable that our community newspapers profit from this practice, and we call for them to be a part of the solution for these women, not complicit in their captivity and abuse.”

This view is echoed by the Poppy Project, which provides support and accommodation for women who have been trafficked.

Project manager Frances Broderick believes that if newspapers strengthened their code of ethics, it would cut off a main avenue of advertising for those who profit from the industry.

‘There is clearly a link between the adverts and the process of trafficking,’she says. ‘It is surprising that the code of ethics does not cover this gap – newspapers are advertising establishments which are linked to prostitution but also quite often involve horrifying abuse and exploitation. Those with responsibility in the press should think about these consequences and their role within it.”

The Newspaper Society provides legal advice and guidance to its members and encourages them to abide by the codes of conduct laid down by the Committee of Advertising Practice, which cover offensive or harmful advertising. Its A-Z of advertising law, Ad Points to Watch, warns publishers to be wary of adverts for massage parlours which may disguise sexual services.


Newspaper Society communications director Lynne Anderson says: ‘The final decision on whether or not to run an advert would have to be taken by individual publishers. It may not always be easy to distinguish between legitimate and non-legitimate advertisements.

‘We are aware of a number of strong editorial campaigns across the regional press highlighting the issue of human trafficking, as well as examples of publishers working alongside the police and other authorities to support efforts to crack down on trafficking, kerb crawling and other forms of sexual exploitation.”

The regional publishers maintain that their advertising does not break the rules. A spokesperson for Trinity Mirror says: ‘All advertising activity across the group complies with Advertising Standards Authority regulations and all relevant laws.”

Johnston Press says in a statement that it ‘has controls in place at a local level, and local managers remain vigilant to ensure unsuitable advertisements are not accepted”.


A discussion with an advertising manager of a large regional newspaper illuminated the approach to the issue adopted by many in the industry. When told of the fact that massage parlours advertising in her papers offered sexual services, she says: ‘We follow the Advertising Standards Authority guidance ensuring that no sexual services are offered. If the police bring this to us, we will act, but otherwise we do not check every advert as we do not do that for other businesses. Why should we do something different for these ads?”

Such an approach undermines the often good campaigning work in the newspapers. A reporter on a regional paper which had launched a high profile and much-lauded campaign to tackle the exploitation of women in its area said: ‘It is strange that we are undertaking this campaign for good reasons yet continue to carry these adverts – it must undermine what we are trying to do.”

Independent columnist Joan Smith says newspapers that contain exposés of women who have been forced into brothels should look at other areas of their coverage. ‘It seems to me that there is enough evidence to have a blanket ban on these adverts as they undoubtedly contribute to enormous suffering and abuse,’she says.

Whether such an approach will be adopted remains to be seen, but newspaper owners can no longer plead ignorance.

Paul Macey is a freelance journalist and managing director of The Creative Collective

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