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Facts about sex work

Of the approximately 72,800 sex workers in the UK — 88% are women.[1]

Most sex workers are mothers working to support families.

A 2004 government report[2] found that 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 poverty is increasing.

86% of austerity cuts have targeted women.[4] A 60% increase in street prostitution recorded in Doncaster is primarily attributed to destitution caused by benefit sanctions.[5] 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.[6]

Most sex workers are not trafficked or on drugs.

A study of migrant sex workers[7] 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”. Claims that over 95% of women in street prostitution are problematic drug users comes from a 2004 study of street-based sex workers who were particularly vulnerable (2/3 were homeless).[8] There is no evidence that drug use among sex workers is higher than other jobs.[9]

The average age of entry into prostitution is 19 for outdoor workers and 23 for indoor workers.[10]

The claim that 75% of sex workers became involved in prostitution as children is false. It comes from small samples (e.g. 30)[11] of street-based women. In one often cited study, the participants were chosen because they were all under 18 when they entered prostitution.[12]

Women face criminal charges and civil orders.

Government statistics[13] show that between 2013 and 2017 1,695 people (approx. 98% women) were arrested for loitering and soliciting; 842 for brothel-keeping and controlling — charges most often used against women working together collectively. A decrease in soliciting arrests hides that civil orders are now commonly used to criminalise street workers.

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.[14]

Sex workers face a lot of violence, but criminalisation increases the risk of attack.

UK sex workers have the highest murder rate compared to women in other occupations.[15] It is much safer to work indoors with others[16] but this is illegal. Sex workers are three times more likely to experience rape and other violence in countries where sex work is criminalised.[17] Research shows that where arrests of sex workers and clients were high, less women report violence.[18] In Ireland, reported violent crime against sex workers rose by almost 50% after clients were criminalised.[19]

Violence from the police is a significant problem.

Figures from the US show that 27% of street-based sex workers in New York have experienced violence at the hands of police.[20] Trans, Black, immigrant and other women of colour are particularly targeted. 86% of trans sex workers reported being harassed, attacked, sexually assaulted, or mistreated by police.[21] 49% (of online workers) in the UK were unconfident that police would take reports of violence seriously.[22]

The prostitution laws are implemented in a racist and discriminatory way.

People of colour, migrant and trans sex workers are targeted for arrest.[23] Evidence from the UK is anecdotal but statistics from the US show that Black people make up 42% of all prostitution arrests[24] (and are 13.2% of the population).

Criminalisation undermines health – 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.[25] Decriminalisation could reduce new HIV transmissions by up to 46% globally over a decade.[26]

Decriminalisation works.

New Zealand decriminalised sex work in 2003 with verifiable success.[27] 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.[28] Pressure from politicians meant that migrant sex workers were excluded from these protections.

The majority of people support prostitution law reform and oppose the criminalisation of clients.[29]

Decriminalisation is supported by prestigious organisations.

This includes the Royal College of Nursing and Women Against Rape in the UK and internationally Amnesty International, the World Health Organization, Human Rights Watch, UNAIDS, Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women.

Decriminalisation is different from legalisation.[30]

Decriminalisation 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 sex work is legal only under certain state-specified conditions, creating a two-tier system where the sex workers with the least social power remain illegal and outside of the protection of the law.



[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. Note: 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.)

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

[3] The Guardian, 27 February 2015.

[4] The Guardian, 9 March 2017.

[5] The Star, 19 March 2014.

[6] Crisis. (2012).

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

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

[9] The Express, 19 April 2015.

[10] 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.

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

[12] 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.

[13] Prosecution Service data available online.

[14] Broadly. 6 April 2016.

[15] Cunningham, S; Sanders, T; Platt, L; Grenfell, P; Macioti, PG; (2018) Sex Work and Occupational Homicide.;

[16] 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.

[17] Platt L, Grenfell P, Meiksin R, Elmes J, Sherman SG, Sanders T, Mwangi P, Crago AL. (2016). Associations between sex work laws and sex workers’ health: a systematic review and meta-analysis of quantitative and qualitative studies.

[18] A 2014 survey found that where arrests 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. Data provided by National Ugly Mugs (UKNSWP). (2012-2015).

[19] The Irish Times, 4 September 2017.

[20] 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.

[21] 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.

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

[23] Trans women, particularly women of colour, are targeted for arrest whether or not they are working as sex workers — 60% of Latina trans women in Los Angeles said they were profiled by officers. Galavan, F. & Bazargran, M. (2012). Interactions of Latina Transgender Women with Law Enforcement.

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

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

[26] The Lancet. (2015). Keeping Sex Workers Safe.

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

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

[29] Each Other, 26 August 2019.

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