Prostitution Contents


1. In England and Wales, the sale and purchase of sexual services between consenting adults is legal. It is estimated that there are between 60,000 and 80,000 sex workers in the UK, the majority women, working either on the streets, or more commonly now in a variety of indoor environments. It is estimated (based on a small sample) that around 11% of British men aged 16–74 have paid for sex on at least one occasion (which equates to about 2.3 million individuals).1 Various activities related to prostitution, such as soliciting, kerb crawling, brothel-keeping and various forms of exploitation, are illegal. These activities are controlled through legal provisions which have been implemented over a period of decades, through several different laws, with a view to protecting vulnerable people from exploitation and reducing the negative impacts of prostitution on local communities.2

2.Prostitution is a social issue where there is considerable variation in the legislative intent and framework of different countries, even within Europe. Other countries around the world take different views on the acceptability of prostitution and adopt a range of different legislative approaches. Prostitution is illegal in many countries; most commonly, it is the sale of sexual services which is prohibited, but since 1999 some countries have introduced a form of prohibition, commonly known as the sex buyer law, which places the burden of criminality on those buying sex. In countries where prostitution between consenting adults is legal, legislative provisions exist to protect children and other vulnerable people and to prevent coercion, exploitation and other criminal activities which can be associated with the sex industry. Regulations are also usually implemented to manage issues such as neighbourhood nuisance and to regulate the ownership and management of brothels. Other variables include the employment status and rights of prostitutes; the investment in and approach taken to policing and enforcement; and the resources allocated to provide support services for prostitutes and help for them to exit prostitution. Different cultures and social factors, other existing legislation, and different implementation policies mean that, in practice, no two countries follow exactly the same approach.

3.In recent years, several countries have changed their approach to prostitution. Sweden implemented its sex buyer law in 1999, criminalising the purchase of sex. Since then, a number of other countries, including Norway and Iceland and more recently Northern Ireland and France, have adopted similar approaches. In February 2014, the European Parliament adopted a non-binding resolution which recognises prostitution as a violation of human dignity and an obstacle to gender equality, and states that the Swedish model is one way of combating trafficking and improving gender equality. However, other countries have chosen to decriminalise prostitution, such as Denmark in 1999, the Netherlands in 2000 and New Zealand in 2003. Decriminalisation is supported by a number of international organisations, including the World Health Organisation, on the basis that it would help to prevent the spread of HIV, and Amnesty International, which argues that criminalisation of sex workers makes an already disadvantaged group of people more vulnerable to violence and other violations.

World Map indicating laws on prostitution in each country (state or territory in the case of the US and Australia)

The legend means the following:

Prostitution legal and regulated

Prostitution (the exchange of sex for money) legal, but brothels are illegal; prostitution is not regulated

Illegal to pay for sex but not to offer the service (client commits crime, prostitute doesn’t)

Prostitution fully illegal

No data

Source: Wikipedia, Prostitution by country


1. This map is shown for illustrative purposes only. It uses classifications which are slightly different to the ones used by the Committee in making its assessment.

2. A sex buyer law came into effect in France in April 2016 (a change from prostitution being legal). This change is not yet reflected in the map.

Background to the inquiry

4.Given the importance of ensuring vulnerable people are protected from exploitation, we decided to hold an inquiry to examine this very important social issue. We believed it was important to assess the variety of different legal models and the evidence about their impact, and to consider whether there might be benefits to changing the existing legal framework in England and Wales. This is a complex area, and one which many neighbouring countries are currently reviewing or to which they have recently implemented a new approach.

5.We issued a call for evidence in January and received over 250 written submissions from a range of individuals and organisations, including people working in the sex industry, academics, campaigners, charities and service providers. Much of the evidence reflected views which were deeply held and deeply divided, with little common ground. Most witnesses were either in favour of the sex buyer law as implemented in Sweden; or of decriminalisation of sex workers, possibly along the lines of the New Zealand model.

6.To a large extent the different arguments were based on different moral viewpoints on the legitimacy of prostitution, with those in favour of the sex buyer law arguing that prostitution is commercial sexual exploitation of women and girls and incompatible with gender equality, and those in favour of decriminalisation arguing that prostitution between consenting adults is a legitimate occupation which women and men choose to pursue as a way of earning an income. However, both groups offered evidence to support the effectiveness of their preferred approach in terms of improving the lives of sex workers and reducing the negative effects of the sex industry on society. Both groups were also united in a desire to decriminalise sex workers.

7.We took oral evidence from Kat Banyard, Co-director, UK Feminista; Mia de Faoite; Laura Lee; Alan Caton OBE, Independent Chair, Islington and Bedfordshire Safeguarding Children Boards; Assistant Chief Constable Nikki Holland, National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for prostitution and sex work; Paris Lees; and Dr Brooke Magnanti. In April, we made a short visit to Copenhagen, Denmark and Malmö, Sweden to learn about the different legislative models operating in those countries and to hear the views of various organisations providing support to sex workers there. We are grateful to everyone who contributed to our inquiry.

8.Although a few written submissions made reference to male and transgender sex workers, the overwhelming majority of the evidence we received focussed exclusively on female sex workers. For that reason, this Report deals mainly with the issues affecting women involved in prostitution, although some of these will be equally applicable to male and trans prostitutes.

9.We have assessed the main legislative models adopted in other countries which might be followed if change to the existing law in England and Wales was considered to be desirable. (We have not assessed the merits of complete prohibition through the criminalisation of the sex worker, as this has not been put forward as an option with any merits for England and Wales.) No two countries operate a particular approach in exactly the same way but the models are broadly: the introduction of a sex buyer law (the Swedish model); decriminalisation of both the sale and purchase of sex (as operated in New Zealand and Denmark); and a legalised system (sometimes also referred to as “regulated”), in which laws are established to control where, when and how prostitution is legally permissible (as operated in the Netherlands and Germany).

10.This is the first inquiry that the Home Affairs Committee has ever held into prostitution. It was originally intended to be a short inquiry. However, the evidence made clear to us that the views on the legal approach to prostitution are strongly held and highly polarised. The different viewpoints often arise from moral values and people’s reactions are frequently emotive. The challenge of making a rational assessment of the advantages and disadvantages of the range of models is compounded by the lack of robust evidence, which arises at least in part from the covert nature of prostitution and the understandable unwillingness of those involved to identify themselves as sellers or buyers of sex. It should also be borne in mind that sex work is often linked to criminality, including trafficking, coercion, and illegal drugs.

11.This report therefore represents our interim views on the different legislative approaches in other countries, the changes we believe need to be made now in England and Wales, and the options for legislative change which need further, closer and more thorough examination. We hope that this report will stimulate public debate about the important issues which prostitution raises. We intend to follow this interim report with a final report later in the Session.

1 Jones et al, Sexually Transmitted Infections, 2014, The prevalence of, and factors associated with, paying for sex among men resident in Britain: findings from the third National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles; and ONS, Population Estimates for UK, England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, mid-2014, release date April 2016. The number of males aged 16-74 was about 22.7 million in mid-2014.

2 Home Office written evidence (PRO0236)

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16 June 2016