12.Prostitution policy and legislation are devolved matters, and it is open to both Scotland and Northern Ireland to legislate separately. In England and Wales, the sale and purchase of sexual services is legal, but various related activities are criminal. This includes activities linked to exploitation, such as controlling prostitution, or managing a brothel, and activities that can present a public nuisance, such as buying or selling sex in public. The relevant legislation is spread over several Acts. All prostitution legislation is gender neutral. The Home Office provided an overview of the relevant legislation, which is reproduced as an Appendix to this Report.
13.The Home Office stated that the Government’s legislative aim is to prevent people leading or forcing others into prostitution and to target those who make a living from the earnings of prostitutes. The legal approach is therefore intended “to tackle those who recruit others into prostitution for their own gain or someone else’s by charging offences of causing, inciting or controlling prostitution for gain, or trafficking for sexual exploitation”. Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) guidance on prostitution includes an overview of the relevant legislation in England and Wales, and sets out practical and legal guidance to prosecutors dealing with prostitution-related offences.
14.The Home Office did not provide any information in its written submission about the current extent and nature of prostitution in England and Wales. Some witnesses did provide statistics, and referenced research studies which gave some background information about the current profile of prostitution in parts of the UK, and this information is summarised in the following paragraphs.
15.There appear to be many gaps in the information available, particularly about indoor prostitution which forms the largest and least visible part of the sex industry. In addition, much of the data which is available is interpreted in different ways, and used to support different arguments. Sex workers with health, addiction and other support needs who are known to the authorities can be easier for researchers to contact, whereas many indoor sex workers, especially those who keep their sex work secret from their friends and families, are very difficult to contact. National Ugly Mugs, a national support organisation for sex workers which was initially funded by the Home Office, said that statistics pertaining to the sex industry are often conflicting and contested and can be difficult to understand for the following reasons:
16.Dr Belinda Brooks-Gordon, who has recently analysed the economic contribution of sex work to UK GDP for the Office of National Statistics, told us that the total number of sex workers in the UK is estimated to be around 72,800, with approximately 32,000 of those working in London. The Fawcett Society referred to research conducted in 2014, which indicated that there were at least 58,000 women in prostitution in the UK, with an average of 25 clients per week, each paying on average £77.69 per visit.
17.End Demand, a campaign calling for Parliament to adopt the sex buyer law, said that “the majority of people exploited through prostitution are women and girls and the majority of those who pay for sex are men.” In its 2014 Report, Shifting the Burden, the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade reported that 95% of sex workers are women. However, other witnesses pointed out that, whilst the majority of sex workers are female, there is a significant minority of male and transgender sex workers, and that some sex buyers are women. The Sex Work Research Hub (a consortium of academics based at the Universities of Durham and Leeds) cited research which estimates that women comprise just over 80% of indoor sex workers, with more than 17% male and just over 2% transgender. Professor Philip Hubbard commented that the scope and scale of male and trans work, much of which occurs online and via mobile phone connection, is often significantly underestimated. The National Aids Trust noted that, while the sex work profession is dominated by women, it is vital to recognise the breadth of people involved in order to target interventions effectively.
18.The term “prostitution” includes various types of sex work including street prostitution and various forms of indoor prostitution including brothels, massage parlours and escort work. Assistant Chief Constable Nikki Holland, the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) lead for sex work and prostitution, told us that street sex working was far more prominent when she joined the police service 28 years ago, and that contacts were now much more likely to be made online than in the streets. According to the Sex Work Research Hub, street based sex workers comprise just over a quarter of sex workers in the UK, with the remainder working in diverse indoor settings, particularly in independent work. In a recent survey of sex workers conducted by Dr Mary Laing, 87% of the 218 respondents worked independently, 4% in a brothel, sauna or parlour, 4% escorted through an agency, 3% were street based and the remainder worked in another part of the sex industry.
19.A fundamental difference in view between supporters of the sex buyer law and those of decriminalisation is whether sex workers have the capacity to exercise real choice about the work they are doing. Advocates of the sex buyer law believe that many sex workers are women who have been coerced into prostitution as children and so are victims of exploitation. End Demand quoted a statement made in a 2004 Home Office consultation paper that “approximately 50% of women in prostitution in the UK started being paid for sex acts before they were 18 years old”. However, National Ugly Mugs disputed the validity of this evidence, saying that:
If this statistic is analysed for representativeness, it can be found that the original sources cited by the Home Office used to make this point relates only to female street based sex workers—excluding workers in varied off street spaces, as well as male and transgender workers; much of the research is old (6 of the 9 sources are pre 1999, and the report itself is 12 years old) the sample sizes of the sources vary and at least one source only had participants under the age of 18, offering a foregone conclusion. Therefore it cannot possibly be the case that 50% of women in prostitution became involved when they were children.
20.Dr Brooke Magnanti gave an overview of some other research findings which suggested that the average age of starting sex work in the UK was between 20 and 24 years old. She also pointed out that it was very common in sex work for sex workers to advertise their age as younger than the reality. Laura Lee told us that in her 22 years working in different parts of the sex industry, she had “never come across anybody who came in under age”, and that:
In some ways we are a very self-regulatory industry, so that if we came across a woman who was coerced or trafficked that would not be tolerated, not for one second. Neither would underage. I would certainly report that and I know many of my colleagues would do the same.
21.The Children’s Society notes that children and young people aged 16 and 17 can become victims of child exploitation in different ways such as “being introduced into situations of sexual exploitation by a person who they believe to be their ‘boyfriend’ to being exploited in gangs, through online grooming or by being introduced to or made dependent on drugs and alcohol”. The Children’s Society stated that prosecuting cases of sexual exploitation when the victim is aged 16 or 17 is very difficult, due to the fact that sexual offence legislation sees those in this age group as different to those under the age of 16, as they can give consent to sexual relationships. It maintains that the number of prosecutions for the offences of sexual exploitation of children under the age of 18 remains low and that there is no data readily available on the number of prosecutions for sexual exploitation crimes where the victim is aged 16 or 17. The Society recommended that the Government develop guidance for the police and local authorities on this matter.
22.We support the Children Society’s recommendation that the Government develop guidance for the police and local authorities on how young people identified as being victims of, or at risk of, child sexual exploitation prior to turning 18 should be dealt with after they reach 18. This should include guidance to the police on how to respond to young adults who are found to be offering sexual services in the community or online, especially if they have been formerly known as young people at risk of child sexual exploitation, to ensure that they receive the support they need.
23.The NPCC’s National Policing Sex Work Guidance notes that “the murder of sex workers continues to take place at an alarming rate” and that at the time of writing the guidance, 152 sex workers had been murdered since 1990. CARE described prostitution as one of the most dangerous occupations in the world, with many workers experiencing violence from sex buyers, and the APPG report on prostitution referred to “near pandemic levels of violence experienced by women in prostitution”.
24.Other witnesses agreed that some very vulnerable women were involved in prostitution, particularly on the streets. St Mungo’s, which provides a range of services to support clients who are involved in prostitution, told us that 1 in 4 women living in their supported housing services (and 1% of male residents) had current or past involvement in sex working, rising to 1 in 3 female residents who had a history of sleeping rough. Others questioned the extent to which the research on these very vulnerable women could be generalised to the sex industry as a whole. Research published by Jane Pitcher of Loughborough University, found that many claims about the vulnerability of sex workers drew on examples of young people and/or street-based workers, who tend to encounter a range of factors which increase their vulnerability, whereas research demonstrates that the experience of adults working in indoor sectors is markedly different. We received evidence which pointed not only to the underlying vulnerabilities as a driver to entry into prostitution but also to the harm done from street prostitution. Equality Now refers to research which found that those in street prostitution suffer a significantly higher mortality rate compared to women of similar age and backgrounds who are not in prostitution. A former prostitute told us: “the evidence that prostitution is harmful is hard to dispute”.
25.Many witnesses wrote about their personal experiences as sex workers. Of those who explained their reasons for doing sex work, most said that the main motivation was to earn money. Some highlighted the fact that a significant number of sex workers are single mothers who entered prostitution to support their families. Sex Worker Open University, a UK sex worker-led collective, explained that many people sold sex simply because they are unable to access other means of earning an income, and that many sold sex intermittently, to accumulate savings or cope with one-off or occasional financial needs like debts or buying gifts for the holiday season. The National Union of Students (NUS) pointed to research led by Swansea University into student sex work which found that almost 5% of the students in the study had done sex work at some time. The NUS went on to explain:
Financial hardship is a principal motivating factor for students to pick up work in the sex industry. Continued efforts need to be made to locate those students who do not succeed in getting the financial support that they need within the existing administrative protocols.
Clarissa Duckworth, a former prostitute stated: “It can be horrible to have to do sex for money. I had decided to do it to get money for drugs. It’s true that it’s a choice but it’s also true that it’s horrible”.
26.Very few witnesses commented on the clients of sex workers. The Fawcett Society referred to a survey undertaken during 2010 to 2012, with a sample of 6,293 men aged 16–74 years and resident in Great Britain. This found that 11% of respondents reported having ever paid for sex and 3.6% had paid for sex within the previous five years. Among men ever having paid for sex, 62.6% reported paying for sex outside the UK, most often in Europe and Asia. The data demonstrated a steady increase with age in the mean number of paid partners, suggesting either generational changes in paid sex, or that a proportion of men who paid for sex continue to pay for sex as they age.
27.Dr Belinda Brooks-Gordon provided an overview of research into the motivations for clients of sex workers. She said that in-depth interviews with clients found that most men were seeking sexual solutions for emotional problems, and that for these men going to a sex worker relieved feelings of despair and intense loneliness. However, there was a wide range of other factors influencing their behaviour. She also said that clients are, in general, more law abiding than males in the general population.
28.There are indications that an increasing number of migrant women are working as prostitutes. Many of these are women who choose sex work as a means of earning an income. Laura Lee told us that:
The industry is awash with migrant sex workers and that is simply because it is a buoyant industry, so what you have is mothers coming to the UK earning money and sending it back home to their children and to feed their families.
29.Some migrant women are particularly vulnerable to violence and exploitation. Assistant Chief Constable Nikki Holland told us that out of the last 11 murders of sex workers, nine of those had been migrants. Some migrant sex workers are victims of trafficking, but the Salvation Army, which currently holds a government contract to support adult victims of modern slavery, points to the need for clarity in distinguishing between prostitution and sex trafficking:
It is important to distinguish that people trafficked for sexual exploitation are recognised in the law as victims, that their involvement in exploitative sexual activities is involuntary, and will invariably reveal elements of coercion, control and deception in bringing about cooperation. By contrast, people entering prostitution may do so voluntarily, and for differing reasons.
30.Research has been conducted to try to establish the numbers of women who have been trafficked for the purpose of prostitution, but different studies have reached different conclusions. Professor Nicola Mai conducted research between 2007 and 2009 which analysed the experiences of migration and sex work of 100 migrant women, men and transgender people working in London, and found that only around 6% of all female interviewees felt that they had been deceived and forced into selling sex in circumstances within which they felt they had no share of control or consent.
31.The ACPO-led Project Acumen research, published in 2010, included interviews with 200 migrant off-street prostitutes. It estimated that around 17,000 migrant women were involved in prostitution in England and Wales. Of these, around 15% (2,600) were trafficked, a further 54% (9,200) were vulnerable but had day-to-day control over their activities, and 31% were aware before leaving their home country that they were likely to become involved in prostitution and were able to live and work largely independently.
32.In his 2012 report on sex work in London, Silence on Violence, London Assembly Member Andrew Boff pointed out that estimates of the proportion of migrant prostitutes who had been trafficked ranged from a (now rejected) figure of 80% (mentioned by Fiona Mactaggart MP) down to Professor Mai’s estimate of 6%. He pointed out that the inherently covert nature of sex trafficking makes it virtually impossible to obtain accurate data. He suggested that the estimates made by Professor Mai and Project Acumen were likely to be on the low side, because many people would not come forward to participate in research due to fear or intimidation, and because both studies excluded English women forced into selling sex and women trafficked from Africa, one of the most underground and potentially widespread sources of trafficking victims.
33.Statistics from the UK National Referral Mechanism for 2015 showed that there were 1,080 potential victims of trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation, up from 830 in 2014, an increase of 30%. Statistics for the period 2009–13, before the new provisions in the Modern Slavery Act 2015 were implemented in July 2015, indicate that there were 111 cases brought and 63 convictions for offences related to trafficking for sexual exploitation under the Sexual Offences Act 2003. Meaningful data on prosecutions under the Modern Slavery Act specifically relating to the offence of trafficking for sexual exploitation offences are not yet available, although the CPS reported in February 2016 that the number of defendants being taken to court each month for trafficking offences overall is “higher than ever before” with 183 people being taken to court between April and December 2015 compared to 187 in the whole year 2014–15. In 2014 the CPS identified 1,139 victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation; in the period April–June 2015, 248 sexual exploitation victims were identified.
34.ACC Nikki Holland said that trafficking was very difficult to prove because the women were very vulnerable, would say that they were not victims, and were reluctant to talk to the police. She added “that is why we want to work more with the sex workers themselves, to give them confidence to report to the police, to give us intelligence and give us those opportunities to be more proactive and not reliant on their evidence.” In terms of the involvement of organised crime and gangs in prostitution, ACC Holland said that more of it seemed to be coming from overseas, but intelligence was sparse and a lot more information was needed to fully understand the nature and the scale of the problem and its links to serious and organised crime.
35.When we asked about the enforcement of provisions in the Policing and Crime Act 2009, which criminalise the payment for sexual services of a prostitute subject to force, ACC Nikki Holland told us that the legislation had rarely been used. She said it was difficult both to obtain the necessary evidence from victims to confirm that the exchange had taken place, and to get evidence in any other way. She later confirmed in writing that there had been no convictions in the past year for these offences under the Act (Section 53A).
36.We were dismayed to discover the poor quality of information available about the extent and nature of prostitution in England and Wales. Without a proper evidence base, the Government cannot make informed decisions about the effectiveness of current legislation and policies, and cannot target funding and support interventions effectively.
37.Despite the obvious difficulties involved in finding out about an essentially covert industry, there appears to be an extensive range of useful research material available. However, findings from these studies are sometimes misinterpreted and applied too broadly across a diverse industry. In addition, factors such as greater internet use and increased migration have dramatically changed the way that the sex industry operates, and so some previously valid research will now be out of date.
38.We recommend that the Home Office commissions an in-depth research study to help develop a better understanding of the current extent and nature of prostitution in England and Wales, and to draw together and put in context any recent relevant research. The research study should be conducted within the next 12-month period and there should be a report to Parliament by June 2017. It should aim to publish and explain reliable statistics which can be used to inform future legislative and policy decisions, and to discard any unreliable data.
39.Trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation is an important and separate issue from prostitution between consenting adults. It is too early to make a proper assessment of the impact of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 on levels of trafficking, although the Crown Prosecution Service identified 248 victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation in the first three months of the Act’s operation, compared to 1,139 in 2014. It is clear that it is very difficult to identify victims, to gain their confidence and to put together the necessary evidence for successful prosecutions. However, it is essential that information on trafficking for sexual exploitation is collected and published regularly. The Government should also consider how changes to legislation and policies relating to the sex industry might better support the prevention of trafficking for sexual exploitation.
3 Home Office written evidence ()
4 Crown Prosecution Service, [accessed May 2016]
5 National Ugly Mugs (supplementary evidence) ()
6 Dr Belinda Brooks-Gordon ()
7 The Fawcett Society ()
8 End Demand ()
9 APPG on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade, , March 2014
10 Dr Sarah Kingston, University of Lancaster and Terry Thomas, Emeritus Professor, Leeds Beckett University ()
11 Sex Work Research Hub ()
12 Professor Philip Hubbard ()
13 National Aids Trust ()
14 Oral evidence taken on , Q139
15 Sex Work Research Hub (
16 Dr Mary Laing ()
17 End Demand ()
18 National Ugly Mugs ()
19 Oral evidence taken on , Q160
20 Oral evidence taken on , Q22
21 Oral evidence taken on , Q15
22 The Children’s Society ()
23 The Guidance is available on the section of the College of Policing website
24 CARE (); and APPG on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade, , March 2014, p5
25 St Mungo’s ()
26 , 2014 14, The impact of different regulatory models on the labour conditions, safety and welfare of indoor-based sex workers, Pitcher and Wijers
27 Equality Now () and Crystal ()
28 Sex Worker Open University ()
29 National Union of Students ()
30 Clarissa Duckworth ()
31 Jones et al, , 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
32 Dr Belinda Brooks-Gordon ()
33 Oral evidence taken on , Q11
34 Oral evidence taken on , Q142
35 Salvation Army ()
36 Professor Nicola Mai ()
37 ACPO, Setting the Record: The trafficking of migrant women in the England and Wales off-street prostitution sector, August 2010. [ACPO was the Association of Chief Police Officers, which was replaced in 2015 by the National Police Chiefs’ Council.]
38 , a report by Andrew Boff AM, March 2012
39 See NCA, , published January 2015. The National Referral Mechanism is operated by the National Crime Agency and is a framework for identifying victims of human trafficking or modern slavery and ensuring they receive the appropriate support.
40 Parliamentary written question , answered on 23 January 2015
41 CPS, News release , “Trafficking prosecutions on the rise as British prosecutors sign up to new anti-trafficking commitments”
42 Oral evidence taken on , Q133
43 Oral evidence taken on , Q141
44 Oral evidence taken on , Q90
45 ACC Nikki Holland ()
16 June 2016