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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 found that 74% of off-street sex workers “cited the need to pay household expenses and support their children”.[2]

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] Women of colour, in particular, have been disproportionately impacted.[5] Reductions in Universal Credit are pushing women into sex work to survive.[6] In some areas, an increase in street prostitution is primarily attributed to destitution caused by benefit sanctions[7] and the bedroom tax.[8] A fifth of young homeless women have engaged in sex work to fund accommodation or in the hope of getting a bed for the night.[9]

Most sex workers are not trafficked.

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.”[10] Studies in Nordic countries (where trafficking has been used to justify the introduction of laws criminalising the purchase of sex) found only 6% of sex workers were trafficked or forced by someone to sell sex.[11]

There is no reliable evidence that drug use among sex workers is higher than among other workers.

Claims that over 95% of women in street prostitution are problematic drug users come from a 2004 study of street-based sex workers who were particularly vulnerable (2/3 were homeless).[12]

The average age of entry into prostitution is 19 for outdoor workers and 23 for indoor workers.[13]

The claim that 75% of sex workers became involved in prostitution as children is false. It comes from small samples (e.g., 30[14]) of street-based women. In one often cited study, the participants were chosen because they were all under 18 when they entered prostitution.[15]

Women face criminal charges and civil orders.

Statistics from London from 2016 to 2021 show that 100% of people arrested for “loitering for the purposes of prostitution” were women. Based on information shared within the ECP’s network, decreasing soliciting arrests hide that civil orders are now most commonly used to criminalise street workers.

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

People of colour, migrant and trans sex workers are targeted for arrest.[16] Over 90% of women arrested between 2016 and 2021 in London for loitering for the purposes of prostitution were migrant and/or women of colour.[17] Evidence shows that the criminalisation of clients is a “smokescreen for punitive and racialised policing” which often leads to deportations and evictions.[18]

The police profit from raids, arrests and convictions for prostitution.

The police, CPS and Home Office get a proportion of assets and cash seized under Proceeds of Crime law.[19]

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.[20] It is much safer to work indoors with others[21] but this is illegal. Sex workers are three times more likely to experience rape and other violence in countries where sex work is criminalised.[22] In Ireland, it was reported that violent crime against sex workers rose by 92% after clients were criminalised.[23] In Nordic countries which have laws to criminalise clients, sex workers are still the main targets of the police.[24]

Violence from the police is a significant problem.[25]

Research in 2021 found that 42% of street-based sex workers had experienced violence from the police.[26] and that women of colour and migrant sex workers are disproportionally targeted.[27] The police are also one of the most “common perpetrators of violence” against trans sex workers internationally.[28] 49% of online workers in the UK were unconfident that police would take reports of violence against them seriously.[29]

Criminalisation undermines health – the stigma associated with prostitution prevents sex workers getting appropriate health care. 

Evidence from around the world has shown a clear link between criminalisation and sex workers’ increased risk of HIV, STIs, and poor emotional health.[30] Fear of police, and increased police presence, were linked to avoidance of health care services.[31] Police confiscating condoms and using them as evidence for arrest forces sex workers into unsafe sex.[32]

Decriminalisation works.

New Zealand decriminalised sex work in 2003 with verifiable success.[33] 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.[34] 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.[35]

Decriminalisation is supported by prestigious organisations.

In the UK this includes the Royal College of Nursing, Women Against Rape, Freedom United and the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants. Internationally support comes from Amnesty International, the World Health Organization, Human Rights Watch, UNAIDS, International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association and Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women. Trade Unions both in the UK and internationally also support decriminalisation such as BFAW, ASLEF, GMB, Equity, and IWW.[36]

Decriminalisation is different from legalisation.

Decriminalisation involves the removal of all prostitution-specific laws; sex workers and sex work businesses operate under the same labour laws as everyone else. 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.[37]


[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] Women’s Budget Group and the Runnymede Trust (2017).

[6] House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee (2019). Universal Credit and “survival sex” .

[7] The Star, 12 February 2015. Doncaster Women Forced to Prostitute Themselves for £5 to Pay Bills.,   

[8] Doncaster Free Press, 7 November 2016. Austerity Measures like ‘Bedroom Tax’ Pushing Doncaster Women into Prostitution.

[9] The Hidden Truth About Homelessness, Crisis. (2012)

[10] Mai, N. (2011). Migrant Workers in the UK Sex Industry: ESRC Full Research Report.

[11] Vuolajärvi, N. (2022) Criminalising the buying of sex? Experiences from the Nordic Countries.

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

[13] 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.

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

[15] 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.

[16] Connelly, L. and The English Collective of Prostitutes. (2021). EU Migrant Sex Work in the UK Post-Referendum; Platt et al. (2022). The effect of Systemic Racism and Homophobia on Police Enforcement and Sexual And Emotional Resilience among Sex Workers in East London: Findings from a Cohort Study;

[17] Metropolitan Police, released under the FOI Act 2000:

[18] Vuolajärvi, N. (2022) Criminalising the buying of sex? Experiences from the Nordic Countries.

[19] Broadly. 6 April 2016.

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

[21] 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.

[22] Platt L, Grenfell P, Meiksin R, Elmes J, Sherman SG, Sanders T, Mwangi P, Crago AL. (2018). Associations between sex work laws and sex workers’ health: a systematic review and meta-analysis of quantitative and qualitative studies.

[23] The Belfast Telegraph, 27 March 2019.

[24] Vuolajärvi, N. (2022) Criminalising the buying of sex? Experiences from the Nordic Countries.

[25] Bowen, R., Redman, S., Swindells, K., and Herrmann, T. (2021). Sex Workers Too: Summary of Evidence for VAWG 2020-24 Consultation.

[26] Elmes J, Stuart R, Grenfell P, et al Effect of police enforcement and extreme social inequalities on violence and mental health among women who sell sex: findings from a cohort study in London, UK.

[27] Platt et al. (2022). The Effect of Systemic Racism and Homophobia on Police Enforcement and Sexual and Emotional Violence among Sex Workers in East London: Findings from a Cohort Study.

[28] In a global (2017).; South America and Asia: Balzer, C. and Hutta, S. (2015). US: National Center for Transgender Equality (2015).

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

[30] Platt, L., Grenfell, P., Meiksin, R., Elmes, J., Sherman, S.G., Sanders, T., Mwangi, P., and Crago, A. (2018). Associations between sex work laws and sex workers’ health: A systematic review and meta-analysis of quantitative and qualitative studies.

[31] Platt L, Grenfell P, Meiksin R, Elmes J, Sherman SG, et al. (2018) Policy brief:

[32] Platt, L., Grenfell, P., Meiksin, R., Elmes, J., Sherman, S.G., Sanders, T., Mwangi, P., and Crago, A. (2018). Associations between sex work laws and sex workers’ health: A systematic review and meta-analysis of quantitative and qualitative studies.

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

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

[35] Each Other, 26 August 2019.


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