Facts about sex work

This page provides crucial information including about who sex workers are, their situation and entry into prostitution, levels of violence, health, impact of policing and the success of decriminalisation as introduced in New Zealand.

There are approximately 72,800 sex workers in the UK — 88% are women, 6% men and 4% transgender.[1] (No research we have found distinguishes between trans women, trans men and non-binary sex workers or asked those who identified themselves as female or male whether they identified as the gender they were assigned at birth.)

Most sex workers are mothers working to support families.[2] 74% of off-street sex workers “cited the need to pay household expenses and support their children”.

More than 70% of UK sex workers have previously worked in healthcare, education or the voluntary sector.[3]

Prostitution is increasing because of austerity. A 60% increase in street prostitution recorded in Doncaster is primarily attributed to destitution caused by benefit sanctions.[4] A quarter of young homeless women have engaged in sex work to fund accommodation or in the hope of getting a bed for the night.[5] 86% of austerity cuts have targeted women.[6]

The majority of sex workers are not trafficked or on drugs. A study of migrant sex workers found less than 6% had been trafficked, many said they prefer working in the sex industry rather than the “unrewarding and sometimes exploitative conditions they

meet in non-sexual jobs”.[7] For more information on trafficking see Trafficking Briefing. Claims that over 95% of women in street prostitution are problematic drug users comes from a 2004 study of 71 women, contacted through an outreach project in Bristol, who were particularly vulnerable (2/3 were homeless).[8] Sex workers who don’t use drugs have little contact with such projects and are unlikely to be surveyed. There is no evidence that drug use among sex workers is higher than other jobs.[9]

Sex workers face a lot of violence. A global systemic review of violence against sex workers reported that 45-75% of sex workers experienced workplace violence over a lifetime.[10] It is much safer to work indoors with others[11] but this is illegal. A survey of online workers found that 49% were unconfident that police would take reports of violence seriously.[12]

There is evidence to indicate that violence from the police is a significant problem. A New York study found that 30% of sex workers had been threatened with violence by police officers, while 27% actually experienced violence at the hands of police.[13] In a 2015 US study, nearly nine out of 10 (86%) of trans sex workers who interacted with the police reported being harassed, attacked, sexually assaulted, or mistreated in some other way by police.[14]

But criminalisation increases violence. Attacks on sex workers doubled in Scotland after kerb-crawling laws were introduced which criminalised clients.[15] A 2014 survey found that where arrests of sex workers and clients were high, only 5% of sex workers who were victims of a crime reported it. This compared to 46% of victims in areas where police adopted a harm reduction approach.[16] 63% of sex workers in Sweden said a law which criminalised clients created more prejudice.[17]

Decriminalisation works. New Zealand decriminalised sex work in 2003 with verifiable success.[18] Over 90% of sex workers said they had additional employment, legal, health and safety rights. 64.8% found it easier to refuse clients and 70% said they were more likely to report incidents of violence to the police.[19]

The average age of entry into prostitution is 19 for outdoor workers and 23 for indoor workers.[20] The claim that 75% of sex workers became involved in prostitution as children is false. It comes from small surveys (e.g. 30)[21] of street-based women and is not representative of the sex industry as a whole. In one often cited study, the participants were chosen because they were allunder 18 when they entered prostitution.[22]

Prosecutions of sex workers on the street and in premises are increasing. For example, brothel-keeping convictions (the charge used against women working together collectively) rose from 55 in 2014 to 96 in 2015.[23]

The police profit from raids, arrests and convictions for prostitution. The police get half of all assets and cash seized under Proceeds of Crime law.[24]

Research has found high levels of condom use among sex workers.[25]

Using possession of condoms as evidence of prostitution makes it harder for sex workers to practice safer sex.[26] Since police raids in Edinburgh in 2013 condom use among sex workers had fallen and the prevalence of STIs had increased.[27]

The stigma associated with prostitution prevents sex workers getting appropriate health care. A 2007 study found that 62% of street sex workers and 90% of parlour workers had not disclosed their work to their GP.[28]

Decriminalisation could reduce new HIV transmissions by up to 46% globally over a decade.[29]

The prostitution laws are implemented in a racist and discriminatory way with people of colour, migrant and trans people being targeted for arrest. Statistics from the US show that Black people are 13.2% of the population but make up 42% of all prostitution arrests.[30] Trans women, particularly women of colour, are targeted for arrest under the prostitution laws whether or not they are actually working. In a survey of Latina trans women in Los Angeles, 60% said they were profiled by officers.[31] Qualitative evidence from the UK indicates a similar story of discrimination, but this has not yet been quantified.

Public opinion polls show that the majority of people are in favour of decriminalisation.[32] Other polls found that the public do not support the criminalisation of clients.[33]

Decriminalisation is supported by prestigious organisations such as: Royal College of Nursing, Women Against Rape and internationally by Amnesty International, World Health Organisation, UNAIDS, Human Rights Watch, Global Alliance against Trafficking in Women among others.

NB Decriminalisation is different from legalisationDecriminalisation involves the removal of all prostitution-specific laws; sex workers and sex work businesses operate within the laws of the land as other businesses. Under legalisation the sex industry is controlled by the government and sex work is legal only under certain state-specified conditions, creating a two-tier system where the most vulnerable sex workers remain illegal and outside of the protection of the law.[34] 

DOWNLOAD: Facts About Sex Work

More information on prostitution:

Decriminalisation of Prostitution: the Evidence

Fact and Fiction – Debunking Common Myths on Prostitution


[1] Brooks-Gordon, B., Mai, N., Perry, G., Sanders, T. (2015). Calculating the Number of Sex Workers and Contribution to Non-Observed Economy in the UK for the Office for National Statistics.

[2] Home Office. (2004). Paying the Price: A Consultation Paper on Prostitution.

[3] The Guardian, 27 February 2015. Available here.

[4] The Star, 19 March 2014. Available here.

[5] Crisis. (2012).

[6] The Guardian, 9 March 2017. Available here.

[7] Mai, N. (2009). Migrant Workers in the UK Sex Industry: ESRC Full Research Report. Available here.

[8] Jeal, N & Salisbury, C. (2004). A Health Needs Assessment of Street-based Prostitutes: Cross-sectional Survey. Available here.

[9] The Express, 19 April 2015. Available here.

[10] Deering K, N., Amin, A., Shoveller, J., Nesbitt, A., Garcia-Moreno, C., Duff, P., Argento. E., Shannon, K. (2014). A Systemic Review of the Correlates of Violence Against Sex Workers. Available here.

[11] 77% of violent incidents were experienced by street-based sex workers, 11% by inside solo sex workers and 6% by sex workers in brothels, parlours or saunas. Connelly, L. (2014) Violence against sex workers. Analysis of National Ugly Mugs.

[12] Sanders, T, Connelly, L & L, Jarvis-King. 2016. On our own terms: the working conditions of internet-based sex workers in the UK.

[13] Thukral, J. & Ditmore, M. Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center. (2003). Revolving Door: An Analysis of Street-based Prostitution in New York City. Available here.

[14] James, S. E., Herman, J. L., Rankin, S., Keisling, M., Mottet, L., & Anafi, M. (2016). The Report of the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey. Washington, DC: National Center for Transgender Equality. Available here.

[15] The Scotsman, 16 April 2008. Available here.

[16] Data provided by National Ugly Mugs (UKNSWP). (2012-2015).

[17] Jakobsson, P. & Edlund, C. (2014). Another Horizon; Sex Work and HIV Prevention in Sweden. Available here.

[18] Ministry of Justice. (2008). Report of the Prostitution Law Review Committee on the Prostitution Reform Act 2003. Available here.

[19] Abel, G., Fitzgerald, L. & Brunton, C. (2007). The Impact of the. Prostitution Reform Act on the Health and Safety Practices of Sex Workers. Available here.

[20] Mean (SD) age first paid for sex: 19.6 for outdoor workers, 22.7 for indoor workers. Church et al. (2001). Violence by Clients Towards Female Prostitutes in Different Work Settings: Questionnaire Survey. Available here.

[21] Benson, C., & Matthews, R. (1995). Street prostitution: Ten facts in search of a policy. International Journal of the Sociology of Law.

[22] Melrose, M. (2002). Ties That Bind – Young People and the Prostitution Labour Market in Britain. Also quoted is Silbert, M.H. & Pines, A.M. (1982). Entrance into Prostitution. where sex workers were asked when they first had sex not when they started sex work.

[23] Hansard (Citation: HC Deb, 13 October 2015, c61WH). Available here.

[24] Broadly. 6 April 2016. Available here.

[25] Ward, H., Day, S. & Weber, J. (1999). Risky Business: Health and Safety in the Sex Industry Over a Nine-year Period. Available here.

[26] The Lancet. (2015). Human Rights Violations Against Sex Workers: Burden and Effect on HIV. Available here.

[27] Health, Social Care and Housing Committee. (2015). Sex Work in Edinburgh – A Harm Reduction Framework – Year One Progress Report. Available here.

[28] Jeal, N. & Salisbury, C. (2007). Health Needs and Service use of Parlour-based Prostitutes Compared with Street-based Prostitutes: a cross-sectional survey. Available here.

[29] The Lancet. (2015). Keeping Sex Workers Safe. Available here.

[30] U.S Department of Justice, FBI, Criminal Justice Information Services Division. Crime in the U.S, 2013. Available here.

[31] Galavan, F. & Bazargran, M. (2012). Interactions of Latina Transgender Women with Law Enforcement. Available here.

[32] YouGov poll (2015). Majority Support Decriminalising Prostitution. Available here.

[33] GfK Poll. (2014). For Professor Colin Francome, Director of the Campaign for Radical Sociology.

[34] New Statesman, 19 October 2015. The Difference Between Decriminalisation and Legalisation of Sex Work. Available here.