Prostitution: Should it Be a Criminal Offence?

In England and Wales Prostitution is legal, however, restrictions are in place over some criminal activities linked to prostitution, for example, street prostitution, drugs and violence.

The Sexual Offences Act 2003, Section 54 (2) defines a prostitute as a person who, on at least one occasion and whether or not compelled to do so, offers or provides sexual services to another person in return for payment or a promise of payment or a third person.

An inquiry by the House of Commons reported that it is estimated that there are between 60,000 and 80,000 sex workers in the UK and that about 11% of British men aged 16–74 have paid for sex on at least one occasion.

Sex workers are a marginalised group and have little protection from the law or abusive clients. And whilst it is not illegal for people to pay for sex if the person is over 18, it is illegal for a person to :

  • Solicit sexual service in a street or public place
  • Exploit another person for obtaining their sexual services as a prostitute using force or coercion
  • Advertise in phone boxes
  • Kerb crawl
  • Rent or allow a property to be used as a brothel
  • Traffic people

Research provides by YouGov found that 54% of British people support decriminalising prostitution in Britain. With the introduction by police forces of experimental ‘safe- zones’, it is hoped that this will contain the activity and make it easier to protect sex- workers. Holbeck in Leeds was the UK’s first safe zone.

Superintendent Sam Millar, of West Yorkshire Police, says ‘The managed area has significantly improved the relationship between sex workers and the police, giving them the confidence to report offences. This has directly led to the convictions of dangerous offenders.’

The laws regarding prostitution have been a point of debate for decades, some are in favour of relaxing the law, whilst others want tighter controls.

So what are the arguments supporting decriminalisation? 

A poll by YouGov found that 42% of people polled support the decriminalisation of prostitution because it empowers sex-workers to be insistent about healthy and appropriate sex. The poll found that 39% of people are in favour of decriminalising prostitution because it reduces stigmas surround the sex-work industry and makes it easier for sex-workers to seek police assistance in cases of abuse. Furthermore, 33% of people polled support the removal of criminal sanctions placed on the sex-work industry because they believe consensual sex between adults over 18 should be free from state interference.

Home Affairs Select committee chair Keith Vaz said “The current law on brothel keeping also means sex-workers can be too afraid of prosecution to work together at the same premises, which can often compromise their safety.”

The Daily Star reported that the Home Office has set aside £150,000 for an inquiry into prostitution on the streets, in brothels and online. Furthermore, MPs are looking at introducing a New Zealand style model of decriminalisation.

What arguments are there for making prostitution laws stricter?

The same poll by YouGov also revealed that 37% of the public support the criminalisation of prostitution because it expands related criminal activities such as sex-traffficking, drugs and violence. Guidance provided by the CPS regarding prostitution and the exploitation of prostitution found a strong correlation between street prostitution and drug markets, particularly crack cocaine. A documentary by the BBC called Selling Sex for £4 in Liverpool found that many sex-workers will sell sex services for as little as £4 to fund their drug habits.

YouGov also found that 27% of people think that criminal sanctions should remain because allowing prostitution would only boost sex tourism and make towns and cities less safe and desirable, this is evident in the BBC Three documentary in which those interviewed provided information that the sex industry in Holbeck has made the area less desirable and as a consequence local businesses have lost business because customers no longer want to visit the streets that prostitutes solicit their services on.

The CPS guidance found a link between violence and prostitution, considerably, female prostitutes are often at risk of violent crime in the course of their work which often results in physical and sexual attacks. Often the perpetrators include pimps and or violent clients. The CPS also found that sex-workers may often be the victims of domestic abuse at home.

As sex-workers are a marginalised group, sex-workers are often vulnerable and open to exploitation and human trafficking, this may be because of their immigration status, economic situation or abuse, coercion and violence.

Whilst there are clear advantages of keeping prostitution a criminal activity, it is evident that decriminalising prostitution may be more advantageous so long as it is regulated, there are many benefits namely that it would ensure that the practice can be practised with more safety. Furthermore, decriminalising brothels would enable sex-workers to work in non-isolated locations and less susceptible to attacks.

What’s your view, should it be decriminalised?


Bibliography and further reading:

What are the laws for prostitution in the UK?

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