Nurses are calling for prostitution to be decriminalised, saying it is a matter of “fundamental human rights”.
The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) is to start actively lobbying the Government to change the law following a vote at the union’s conference in Liverpool.
Members said it would help protect women and give them more rights, saying prohibition only served to isolate vulnerable people.
Nurses argue sex workers would be more likely to access health care, such as regular STI checks, and be protected from exploitation if prostitution was decriminalised.
Bristol-based nurse Lou Cahill, who put forward the motion, described it as a “fundamental human rights issue”.
After it was voted through, she said: “Nurses rightly chose to follow the evidence which shows that criminalisation undermines sex workers’ health and welfare.
“Decriminalisation would mean that sex workers can better negotiate safer sex. HIV risk and other vulnerabilities can be greatly reduced.
“Lending our voice to support a stigmatised and marginalised group was not only the right thing to do but will lead to improved health outcomes.”
She emphasised that decriminalisation of sex workers would not mean sexual exploitation or trafficking would become legal.
But some nurses objected to the vote, saying that while they accepted decriminalisation could help women, it also risked legalising criminal pimps and brothel managers who exploited them.
But Abigail Lawrence, from the RCN’s eastern region, disagreed with the move.
“The sex industry is by its very nature exploitative, manipulative and based on coercion. The model not only decriminalises prostitution but also brothel owners, pimps and buyers.”
Margaret Devlin, from the RCN’s southern branch in Northern Ireland, said: “An explosion in demand and trafficking always follows decriminalisation.”
Sex workers have been lobbying nurses to support decriminalisation for at least 11 years.
The English Collective of Prostitutes, whose members spoke to nurses outside the conference before the vote, said it welcomed the result.
Spokeswoman Cari Mitchell said: “We commend the RCN for its support for decriminalisation of sex work and look forward to continuing our work with them to improve sex workers’ safety and health.”
The RCN’s professional lead for public health, Helen Donovan, said: “Nurses often take a leading role in the care and treatment of sex workers, and advocate for their health and wellbeing and they want to know if there’s more that can be done to safeguard their patients.”
She added: “The political appetite to fund sexual health services targeting sex workers isn’t there. As nurses, we have a duty to ensure we serve the needs of society’s most vulnerable.
“The future of these services depends on a proper, meaningful investment and we must also consider if the Government must change the law to improve the health of these people.”
There are an estimated 72,800 sex workers in the UK, of which nearly nine in ten are women.
New Zealand fully decriminalised prostitution in 2003, while other countries like Norway and Sweden have models which make buying sex illegal but selling it legal.