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Prostitution: What you need to know


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”. 4 million children in the UK are living in poverty(3) and 1 in 5 low income mothers are skipping meals to feed their children.(4) More than 70% of UK sex workers have previously worked in healthcare, education or the voluntary sector.(5) 

Prostitution is increasing because of austerity. A 60% increase in street prostitution recorded in Doncaster is primarily attributed to destitution caused by benefit sanctions.(6) 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.(7) 86% of austerity cuts have targeted women.(8) 


Whilst it is legal to exchange sex for money, anything that sex workers do to contact a client is criminalised. For an explanation of the prostitution laws and sex workers’ rights under them see Know Your Rights – A Guide For Sex Workers.(9)

The most commonly used laws are: 

  • Street Offences Act 1959, Section 1: Loitering or soliciting for purposes of prostitution,(10) which criminalises the act of offering sex for money on the street. 
  • Sexual Offences Act 1956, Section 33: Keeping a brothel,(11) which criminalises sex workers who work with others from premises and anyone that manages or assists in the running of a brothel. 
  • Sexual Offences Act 2003, Section 53: Controlling prostitution for gain)12) and Sexual Offences Act, Section 52: Causing or inciting prostitution for gain.(13) No evidence of force, coercion or even exploitation is required to bring charges for controlling or inciting. Consequently, these laws prevent sex workers from working with others and employing a security guard, driver, assistant or anyone who could provide protection and reduce the risk of violence. 
  • Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (used against sex workers on the street)(14) and Brothel Closure Orders (used to close premises)(15) are imposed on the basis of police evidence alone. Adverts placed in phone boxes have been banned since 2001. 
  • Criminal Behaviour Orders are given out on the basis of a suspicion of prostitution and Community Protection Notices are used against sex workers found in a designated area (defined by the Council). These civil orders also rely on police and hearsay evidence but a breach is a criminal offence punishable with prison sentences or fines up to £2,500. 
  • Sexual Offences Act 2003, Section 51A: Soliciting,(16) criminalises a person who solicits another for sex in the street or a public place. Sex workers complain that this law increases their vulnerability to violence as they have little time to check out a client who is nervous of arrest. 
  • Sexual Offences Act 2003, Section 53A: Paying for sexual services of a prostitute subjected to force(17) is a strict liability offence which means a client can get convicted whether or not he knew the sex worker was forced and regardless of what efforts he made to find out. 
  • Proceeds of Crime Act (POCA) 2002(18) gives courts the power to freeze bank accounts and seize savings and assets of people convicted for prostitution offences. The burden of proof is reversed so people have to prove that any money they have was not earned through “criminal activity”. Police and the Crown Prosecution Service keep a proportion (18% respectively)(19) of any money and assets seized.(20) Prosecutions for brothel-keeping and other prostitution charges have risen since POCA indicating that police profiteering is fuelling raids and arrests.(21) 
  • Sexual Offences Act 2003, Section 57 to 59: Trafficking into the UK for sexual exploitation.(22) A person can be convicted for trafficking under UK law for helping a sex worker come into the UK or move around within the UK – no evidence of force or coercion is needed. 


Under the prostitution laws thousands of sex workers a year, the vast majority cis and trans women, are arrested, raided, prosecuted and even imprisoned. A 2008 study found that approximately 50% of street-based sex workers had been through the criminal justice system.(23) When women are imprisoned, the impact is far-reaching — the lives of children are devastated for a start.(24) Fines force women back into prostitution to get the money to pay the fine. Criminal records prevent sex workers from leaving prostitution and getting another job. 

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.(25) 

The English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP) regularly compiles and publishes information on prosecutions around the UK.(26) The cautioning, arrest and prosecution of street based sex workers is likely to be under represented because such cases are less likely to appear in the press. 

The ECP’s experience is that the prostitution laws – against sex workers and clients – are implemented in a racist way with immigrant people and people of colour being targeted for arrest. There is no UK based evidence of this that we know of but evidence from the US shows this to be true: Black people are 13.2% of the population but make up 42% of all prostitution arrests.(27) 


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”.(28) But even in situations where someone is facing violence and exploitation it is rare for them to see themselves as a “victim”. More often they are planning and organising to escape and/or fighting to improve their working conditions and claim their rights. For more information on trafficking see Trafficking Briefing.(29) 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).(30) 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.(31) 


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.(32) It is much safer to work indoors(33) with others but this is illegal. 

But criminalisation increases violence. Attacks on sex workers doubled in Scotland after kerb-crawling laws were introduced which criminalised clients.(34) 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.(35) 


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.(36) 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.(37) 70% said they were more likely to report incidents of violence to the police.(38) 

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.(39) Despite claims that the law has led to a decline in prostitution, there is no actual evidence of this.(40) 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.(41) 

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.(42) 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.(43) 


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.(44) 


The average age of entry into prostitution is 19 for outdoor workers and 23 for indoor workers.(45) The claim that 75% of sex workers became involved in prostitution as children is false. It comes from small surveys (e.g. 30)(46) 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 all under 18 when they entered prostitution.(47) 


Generally, sex workers take good care of their health. Research has found high levels of condom use among sex workers(48) and that clients got more health education from sex workers than they did from health professionals. Criminalisation and 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.(49) Decriminalisation could reduce new HIV transmissions by up to 46% globally over a decade.(50) Using possession of condoms as evidence of prostitution makes it harder for sex workers to practice safer sex.(51) Since police raids in Edinburgh in 2013 condom use among sex workers had fallen and the prevalence of STIs had increased.(52) 


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. 



Decriminalisation of Prostitution: the Evidence  

The English Collective of Prostitutes is a self-help organisation of sex workers, working both on the street and in premises. We campaign for the decriminalisation of prostitution, for sex workers’ rights and safety, and for resources to enable people to get out of prostitution if they want to.


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, 16 March 2017. Available here.
4 METRO, 15 February 2012. Available here.
5 The Guardian, 27 February 2015. Available here.
6 The Star, 19 March 2014. Available here.
7 Crisis. (2012).
8 The Guardian, 9 March 2017. Available here.
9 English Collective of Prostitutes. (2012). Know Your Rights an A-Z for Sex Workers. Available here.
10 Street Offences Act 1959, Section 1: Loitering or soliciting for purposes of prostitution. Available here.
11 Sexual Offences Act 1956, Section 33: Keeping a brothel. Available here.
12 Sexual Offences Act 2003, Section 53: Controlling prostitution for gain. Available here.
13 Sexual Offences Act 2003, Section 52: Causing or inciting prostitution for gain. Available here.
14 Crime and Disorder Act 1998, Section 1: Anti-social behaviour orders. Available here.
15 Community Safety Partnership Executive. (2010). Policing and Crime Act 2009 – Closure Order Provisions. Available here.
16 Sexual Offences Act 2003, Section 51A: Soliciting. Available here.
17 Sexual Offences Act 2003, Section 53A: Paying for sexual services of a prostitute subjected to force. Available here. 18 Proceeds of Crime Act 2002. Available here.
19 Home Office. (2013). FOI Release: Criminal confiscation receipts for brothels, pimping, prostitution and pornography. Available here.
20 Between 2002 and 2013 “. . . more than £12 million has been confiscated by the police relating to brothels, prostitution, pornography, and pimps. Of this, the police were awarded £2.26 million and the Crown Prosecution Service £1.78 million.” Broadly. 6 April 2016. Available here.
21 Prosecutions for brothel-keeping rose from 29 in 2004 to 96 in 2015. Hansard (Citation: HC Deb, 26 January 2009, c101W). Available here. Hansard (Citation: HC Deb, 13 October 2015, c61WH). Available here.
22 Sexual Offences Act 2003, Section 57 to 59: Trafficking into the UK for sexual exploitation. Available here.
23 Hough, J. & Rice. B. (2008) A Review of Services for Street-based Sex Working Women in Lambeth.
24 The Independent, 17 September 2012. Available here.
25 Hansard (Citation: HC Deb, 13 October 2015, c61WH). Available here.
26 English Collective of Prostitutes. Police Raids, Arrests and Legal Cases. Available here.
27 U.S Department of Justice, FBI, Criminal Justice Information Services Division. Crime in the U.S, 2013. Available here.
28 Mai, N. (2011). Migrant Workers in the UK Sex Industry: ESRC Full Research Report. Available here.
29 English Collective of Prostitutes. (2016). Trafficking Briefing. Available here.
30 Jeal, N & Salisbury, C. (2004). A Health Needs Assessment of Street-based Prostitutes: Cross-sectional Survey.
Available here.
31 The Express, 19 April 2015. Available here.
32 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.
33 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.
34 The Scotsman, 16 April 2008. Available here.
35 Data provided by National Ugly Mugs (UKNSWP). (2012-2015).
36 Ministry of Justice. (2008). Report of the Prostitution Law Review Committee on the Prostitution Reform Act 2003. Available here.
37 “There has been a remarkable shift in the balance of power between workers and brothel operators in the last 10 years. Sex workers are more able to refuse a client without management interference. Research carried out prior to decriminalization reported that 47 per cent of brothel workers had refused to see a client in the previous 12 months, yet research done after decriminalization has reported that 68 per cent of brothel workers had done this (Abel, 2010). Sex workers are utilizing their rights and have more freedom to govern their own sex work.” Abel, G. (2014). A Decade of Decriminalization: Sex Work ‘Down Under’ but not Underground. Available here.
38 Ministry of Justice. (2008). Report of the Prostitution Law Review Committee on the Prostitution Reform Act 2003. Available here.
39 Global Commission on HIV and the Law. (2012), Risks, Rights & Health. Available here.
40 Research by The Nordic Institute for Women’s Studies and Gender Research that found a decrease in men saying they buy sexual services from 14% (1996) to 8% (2008), is unreliable because buying sex was not criminal in 1996 so there were fewer reasons for men to lie. The Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare found it was “difficult to discern any clear trend” up or down (2007). Evidence of an increase in Thai massage parlours in Stockholm is ignored (RPS Rapport, 2012). Plus: Levy, J. (2015). Criminalising the Purchase of Sex: Lessons from Sweden. Available here. 41 Jakobsson, P. & Edlund, C. (2014). Another Horizon; Sex Work and HIV Prevention in Sweden. Available here.
42 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.

43 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.
44 New Statesman, 19 October 2015. Available here.
45 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.
46 Benson, C., & Matthews, R. (1995). Street prostitution: Ten facts in search of a policy. International Journal of the Sociology of Law.
47 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.
48 Ward, H., Day, S. & Weber, J. (1999). Risky Business: Health and Safety in the Sex Industry Over a Nine-year Period. 49 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.
50 The Lancet. (2015). Keeping Sex Workers Safe. Available here.
51 The Lancet. (2015). Human Rights Violations Against Sex Workers: Burden and Effect on HIV. Available here.
52 Health, Social Care and Housing Committee. (2015). Sex Work in Edinburgh – A Harm Reduction Framework – Year One Progress Report. Available here.
53 English Collective of Prostitutes. (2016). Decriminalisation of Prostitution: the Evidence. Available here.
54 English Collective of Prostitutes. (2015). Fact and Fiction – Debunking Common Myths on Prostitution. Available here.