Statement: Bill banning advertising will undermine sex workers’ safety

Briefing against the Advertising of Prostitution (Prohibition) Bill [HL], a private member’s bill introduced by Lord McColl of Dulwich
We strongly oppose the bill which aims to “make it an offence to publish, or distribute, an advertisement of a brothel or the services of a prostitute”. We urge peers to do the same.

Preventing sex workers from advertising would undermine their ability to work independently and safely. Increasing numbers of sex workers advertise their services on the internet through social media or designated sites. Advertising is a safety strategy, providing greater control in screening potential clients and negotiating services, rates and condom use.

Cybil, from Luton, wrote to the ECP to explain the impact of the bill on her:

“Two years ago, I built my own website which meant I could be my own boss and leave the parlour where I worked and where they took a large slice of my income. Now I can work with complete anonymity, from the safety and convenience of my own home. I keep every penny I earn, all without the interference of an agency or other ubiquitous “middle man.” 

Sex workers are already prevented by the law from working safely together. Brothel-keeping law makes it illegal for more than one sex worker to work from premises. Relentless police crackdowns on sex workers on the street, often in the name of targeting clients, break up safety networks and force women into isolated areas where they are at greater risk of attack.[i]

Banning advertising will force sex workers out of premises and many will end up on the street where it is 10 times more dangerous to work.[ii] It could push sex workers into the hands of exploitative bosses leaving them at higher risk of violence, coercion, isolation and criminalisation.

The motivation for this bill appears to be on moralistic grounds. The “cash-rich” charity CARE is its only public supporter. CARE campaigned ferociously against gay marriage.  It campaigned against the repeal of Section 28, which banned the “promotion” of homosexuality in schools and opposes abortion.

False claims that “many adverts for sexual services in newspapers and online are a front for exploitation and coercion” are being used to justify the bill. But where is the evidence of that? Peers are urged to attend an “evidence-gathering symposium on decriminalisation” on 3 November in the House of Commons, where many of the myths on prostitution will be dispelled by sex workers, academics and other experts.

The other claim for the bill that it encourages “a consumerist approach to sex in society where people are mere commodities” is best answered by Virginia Woolf who argued that:

“. . . to sell a brain is worse than to sell a body for when the body seller has sold her momentary pleasure she takes good care that the matter shall end there.  But when a brain seller has sold her brain, its anaemic, vicious and diseased progeny are let loose upon the world to infect and corrupt and sow the seeds of disease in others.” (Three Guineas, 1938)

Rising unemployment, benefit cuts and sanctions, low wages, increased homelessness and debt are forcing more women, particularly mothers into prostitution. Home Office research found that 74% of off-street sex workers “cited the need to pay household expenses and support their children.” People of colour, immigrant and LGBTQ people are disproportionally represented in sex work because of discrimination and stigma. Students speak of being forced into the sex industry to avoid being saddled with massive debts.

These are the people who will be targeted by this new law with additional police powers likely to be used to hound rather than protect sex workers. Police time and resources should go into investigating violence against sex workers rather than policing consenting sex.

Record numbers of sex workers are already facing raids, arrests, prosecution and even prison. Criminal records are a major obstacle to anyone getting out of prostitution.

This proposal comes just weeks after one of the world’s foremost human rights organizations, Amnesty International, voted in support of decriminalisation, and called on governments to review their prostitution laws and provide resources in the form of “state benefits, education and training and/or alternative employment” to help sex workers leave prostitution if they want.

New Zealand’s Prostitution Reform Act decriminalised sex work in 2003 with verifiable improvements in sex workers health and safety. A comprehensive five-year review found: no increase in prostitution, and that sex workers were more able to report violence and leave prostitution if they choose. We want a similar law here.

An evidence-gathering symposium: Decriminalisation of sex work – the evidence, hosted by the English collective of Prostitutes is being held in the House of Commons on 3 November, 11am-6pm. 

This symposium comes at the request of MPs for well-referenced, easily accessible information on prostitution. This is an opportunity for parliamentarians to hear first-hand the evidence from academics and other experts including sex workers, the experts on the ground, on key issues such as safety, health, policing, the perceived connection between prostitution and trafficking, and the impact of austerity on prostitution levels. We invite you to join us.

The English Collective of Prostitutes is a network of women who work or have worked in different areas of the sex industry – both on the streets and indoors. Since 1975, we have been campaigning for decriminalisation and safety of sex workers. 020 7482 2496


[i] “Two of Britain’s most senior police chiefs” said: “operations to tackle the trade are ‘counterproductive’” and likely to “put the lives of women at risk”.

[ii] Kinnell 1993