Whilst it is legal to exchange sex for money, anything that sex workers do to contact a client is criminalised. The most commonly used laws against sex workers are: Loitering or soliciting for purposes of prostitution, which criminalises the act of offering sex for money on the street; Keeping a brothel and Controlling prostitution for gain which criminalise sex workers who work with others from premises and anyone that manages or assists in the running of a brothel. Civil orders against so-called anti-social behaviour are increasingly used against sex workers. The Proceeds of Crime Act which gives the courts powers to seize women’s savings and assets have fuelled raids as police get to keep a percentage of the money taken.
Clients are mainly prosecuted for Soliciting for sex in the street or a public place.
For an explanation of the prostitution laws and sex workers’ rights under them see Know Your Rights: a Guide for Sex Workers.
Other legal Models
Decriminalisation – New Zealand
Decriminalisation increases sex workers’ safety and well-being. New Zealand decriminalised sex work in 2003 with verifiable success. Over 90% of sex workers said they had additional employment, legal, health and safety rights. One important measure of this is that prior to decriminalisation 47% of brothel workers had refused to see a client in the previous 12 months, after decriminalisation 68% of brothel workers had done this. 70% said they were more likely to report incidents of violence to the police.
Criminalising clients (Sex Purchase Law) – Sweden
Sweden criminalised the purchase of sexual acts in 1999, while decriminalising the sale of sexual services. Evidence shows that since its enactment, the law has not improved—indeed, it has worsened—the lives of sex workers. Despite claims that the law has led to a decline in prostitution, there is no actual evidence of this. Under the constant threat of police interference, sex workers are forced to hurry the process of screening and negotiating with clients, resulting in increased risks. In a 2014 study 63% of sex workers said the law created more prejudice.
Criminalisation of sex workers and clients – US
In the US both the selling and buying of sex is criminalised. Research from New York found that 80% of street workers and 46% of indoor workers experienced violence or threats in the course of their work. Thirty percent of sex workers had been threatened with violence by police officers, while 27% actually experienced violence at the hands of police In a 2015 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.
Decriminalisation vs Legalisation
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 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.
Legislation of sex work by country
Sweden – 1999 Sexköpslag (Sex Purchase Law).
There are multiple laws that criminalise or limit sex work in Sweden, the most well-known of which is the 1999 Sexköpslag (Sex Purchase Law). This legislation criminalised the purchase, or attempt to purchase, casual sexual services in exchange for any kind of compensation including alcohol, gifts, meals, or drugs. Read more
Germany – Legalisation
Although sex work is legal in Germany, it is limited by a wide range of laws and regulations that prescribe who can do sex work and under which circumstances. Central in this legislation are prostitution zoning laws (“Sperrgebietsverordnungen”) which limit the locations where sex work may be done, and which effectively render sex work illegal in many cities and communities. Read more.
Netherlands – Legalisation
Although sex work is legal in the Netherlands, it is limited by a wide range of laws and regulations that prescribe who can do sex work and under which circumstances. Generally, there is a municipal licence – and sometimes registration – required for sex work to be legal. Read more.