Prostitution Contents

4The sex buyer law

60.A large proportion of the evidence we received was from individuals and organisations arguing in favour of the introduction of a sex buyer law in England and Wales. This would represent a significant policy change in that it would criminalise prostitution, by making the purchase of sexual services illegal. In this Chapter we review the evidence we received about this legislative model.

The sex buyer law in other countries


61.In 1999, Sweden became the first country to introduce a sex buyer law, making it illegal to pay for sex, but not to be a prostitute (the client commits a crime, but not the prostitute). The legislative proposal stated that it was shameful and unacceptable that, in a gender equal society, men could obtain casual sexual relations with women in return for payment. It pointed out that prostitution resulted in serious harm to both individuals and to society. It was expected that criminalization would have a deterrent effect on prospective buyers of sex, would help to reduce the extent of organized prostitution activities, and would have an inhibiting effect on the prevalence of prostitution in Sweden.69

62.Several years after implementation, the Swedish Government commissioned an evaluation of the legislation, which was delivered to the Swedish Minister of Justice in 2010. The report pointed out that evaluation had been difficult because prostitution and trafficking are complex issues which often occur in secret, and empirical surveys were often limited in scope, and so any data should be treated with caution. However, it went on to conclude that:

63.Another evaluation commissioned by the Swedish Government was published in December 2013. This report also pointed to the methodological challenges of researching the “hidden population” of prostitution, and was also cautious about the reliability of any data, but concluded that:


64.Norway criminalised the buying of sex in 2009. Under the Norwegian Penal Code, it is illegal to buy sex or to promote the prostitution of another person. The Government’s stated rationale was to prevent and reduce human trafficking, but it also sought to change public attitudes to prostitution; to reduce the size of the sex industry by reducing demand; and to reduce sexual exploitation of men and women in prostitution. The Norwegian Ministry of Justice and Public Security commissioned an evaluation of the impact of the law in 2013. This evaluation concluded that the ban had made Norway a less attractive country for prostitution-based trafficking than would have been the case if the law had not been adopted, and that there was no evidence that the ban had led to an increase in violence against prostitutes.72

65.Amnesty International published its own evaluation of the impact of the Norwegian sex buyer law in 2016. It found evidence that sex workers were subject to high level policing in order to “disrupt, destabilise and increase the pressure on those operating in the sex sector”, and that the legal provision banning the promotion of prostitution was being used to target sex workers. It gave the example of Operation Homeless, a period of increased enforcement of the law on promotion of sex work which ran between 2007 and 2011, and which led to the rapid eviction of many sex workers from their place of work and/or home. It found that many of the women interviewed were extremely reluctant to report crimes to the police and said that they would only do so as a last resort. It also pointed out that the Government’s conclusions that levels of sex work and trafficking had reduced substantially as a result of the ban had been systematically questioned by academics on the basis that there are too many uncertainties in the data used to claim success.73

Northern Ireland

66.Northern Ireland has become the first part of the UK to pass legislation making the purchasing of sex illegal. Under section 15 of the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Criminal Justice and Support for Victims) Act (Northern Ireland) 2015, it is an offence to obtain sexual services in exchange for payment, either by paying, or promising to pay, any person directly, or through a third party. The legislation came into effect on 1 June 2015. However, Sex Worker Open University pointed out that, under the terms of the legislation, street sex workers are newly subject to an offence under the Public Order Act 1994 if they are “acting in a manner which consists of loitering in a public place for the purpose of offering his or her services as a prostitute”, and so “a Bill that claims to ‘shift the burden’ has in fact increased the criminal burden on street-based sex workers”.74

67.The Northern Ireland ban was opposed by the then Northern Ireland Justice Minister, David Ford, on the grounds that there was inadequate evidence on the impact of prohibiting the purchase of sex. Mr Ford also noted that the police did not support a ban as they believed it was unlikely to assist in reducing human trafficking.75 Mr Ford told the Northern Irish Assembly:

I am concerned about the possibility of unwelcome implications: for example, an increase in problems for vulnerable women involved in prostitution; possible costs in justice terms to the flow of information to the police on trafficked victims; inability to enforce; an increase in crime; and a threat to the safety of those in prostitution.76


68.France introduced a sex buyer law in April 2016, in a change from prostitution being legal in the country.77 There has clearly not yet been time for any assessment of the impacts to be made but an evaluation would assist in any consideration of a change in legislation in England and Wales.

Potential benefits of a sex buyer law

Gender inequality and commercial exploitation

69.Those in favour of the introduction of a sex buyer law believe that prostitution is commercial exploitation, reinforces gender inequality and is a form of violence against women and girls.78 The APPG on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade’s 2014 report suggested that the current law normalises the acceptability of purchasing sexual services whilst stigmatising and penalising those providing sexual services. It added that the failure of legislation to reflect the gender imbalance within prostitution encourages assumptions that men have a right to purchase sexual services from women, and that the law is detrimental to other strategies that promote gender equality.79 Some witnesses argued that prostitution is inherently harmful, and that women should be protected by law from experiencing this harm. A number of witnesses provided information about their own experiences of prostitution to illustrate this view.80

Reducing demand for prostitution and deterring traffickers

70.Witnesses supporting the introduction of a sex buyer law argue that it is an effective way of reducing demand for prostitution. For example, the Nordic Model Information Network, an international alliance of sex industry researchers, submitted written evidence signed by 48 academics from the UK and elsewhere which commented that, since the introduction of the sex buyer law in Sweden, there has been no lethal violence against women in prostitution there; street prostitution has reduced by half; and reducing the commercial sex market had decreased the contexts in which trafficking and other forms of violence flourished.81 Witnesses also argued that a sex buyer law would make England and Wales “a more hostile destination for traffickers”.82

Arguments against a sex buyer law

Provisions already exist for criminal offences associated with the sex industry

71.Some witnesses argued that a sex buyer law is unnecessary, given the existing range of measures to tackle crime associated with prostitution. Support and Advice for Escorts (SAAFE), a peer support resource set up and run by sex workers, said that it was crucial to distinguish between consensual sexual activity between adults and genuine violence and exploitation, which the sex buyer law failed to do.83 The Sussex Centre for Gender Studies said that criminalisation was likely to deter clients who had no criminal intent but was less likely to deter those with the intention of abusing sex workers.84 Laura Lee explained:

Trafficking is already an offence, as is rape, kidnapping, sex with a minor or holding a person against their will. Targeting the purchasers of sex is not only erroneous in its aims of tackling trafficking but it is completely misguided in that it affects consenting adults, not those who would abuse and commit violence towards sex workers.85

Demand is not reduced, just displaced

72.A number of academics argued that there is insufficient evidence that the sex buyer law actually reduces demand. Professor Philp Hubbard of the University of Kent said that evidence from Sweden suggested that criminalisation had simply changed the way sex was sold and that prohibition pushed prostitution underground where workers were more liable to exploitation.86 The Sex Work Research Hub, which includes 32 academics, suggested that “too much attention is given to reductions in numbers of kerb crawlers and not enough to the purchase of sex in clubs, private flats and via webcams”.87 The New Zealand Prostitutes Collective pointed to estimates made by the Swedish National Bureau of Investigation which indicated that, since the introduction of the Swedish sex buyer law, the number of Thai massage parlours in Stockholm had increased from 90 to 250.88 Dr Belinda Brooks-Gordon argued that the concept of attempting to reduce demand in the sex industry by criminalising buyers was overly simplistic and not supported by evidence.89

Harassment and other negative effects on sex workers

73.Dr Jay Levy conducted fieldwork and research on the Swedish sex buyer law for over three years. He described cases where sex workers had been targeted and harassed by the police and faced consequences including eviction, removal of their children, deportation (of migrant sex workers) and ‘outing’ as sex workers. In addition, he reported cases where sex workers had been denied access to health information, harm reduction interventions and condoms.90

74.The International Union of Sex Workers said that “kerb crawling crackdowns”, such as those run by the Swedish police, merely changed the way in which prostitutes worked and increased the risks to which prostitutes were exposed including providing sex without a condom; working in more isolated locations; having less time to assess potential clients or agree prices, boundaries, safe sex and other limits; and finding themselves in situations they would have declined if they had more time to make a decision.91 Action for Trans Health, a UK network campaigning for trans healthcare rights, argued that trans sex workers were particularly vulnerable, and that the criminalization of clients would mean that sex workers would be forced to undertake unsafe practices to ensure that their client base was not arrested whilst they were working.92 However, representatives of the Mika Malmö organisation whom we met in Sweden told us that the sex buyer law empowered women at risk of exploitation, particularly those in street prostitution.


75.The Sex Work Research Hub stated that criminal sanctions harmed sex workers’ broader health and access to care, and that data from multiple countries linked criminalisation of sex work with up to a five-fold increase in risk of HIV infection or other sexually transmitted infections.93 Bridie Sweetman, a New Zealand-based lawyer and academic, argued that the Swedish model limited the ability of sex workers and their clients to access preventive health measures and health checks; was associated with a drop in willingness to carry and use condoms; and workers were more likely to engage in unprotected sex out of desperation for work and the inability to report a client for insisting on unprotected sex.94

Policing difficulties

76.Professor Peter Shirlow of the University of Liverpool was commissioned by the Northern Ireland Ministry of Justice to conduct research into prostitution, prior to the implementation of the Northern Ireland sex buyer law. He said that the Police Service Northern Ireland were of the view that a sex purchase ban would be difficult to enforce, that it would be resource intensive, and that it would be difficult to get adequate evidence against clients. He explained that in Sweden evidence was generally gained by employing covert tactics such as phone surveillance.95 Feminists for Solidarity Sweden said that Swedish sex workers had become the targets for police seeking evidence against sex buyers, and that sex workers had experienced having their homes under constant police surveillance, many had been placed on a register for the government to keep track of their movements, and others had experienced violent and traumatic police raids.96 ACC Nikki Holland said that it would be “really, really difficult to police the internet”. Although it would be possible for the police to go online and build up an intelligence profile of who was selling sex, “far more intrusive techniques” would be required to identify who was buying sex.97

77.Other witnesses said that criminalising buyers would make it less likely that sex workers would provide information to police about criminal activities. The Sussex Centre for Gender Studies suggested that negative relations between sex workers and the authorities meant that they were less likely to reach out when they witnessed trafficking, abuse and exploitative working, which would make the job of the police more difficult.98 Miss E, a sex worker, said that “no client is going to inform on a place where there is an underage girl as they would be terrified that they would get in trouble, so dangerous, exploitative establishments will continue to run”.99

78.The sex buyer law is a fundamentally different legislative approach to prostitution from that which is currently in place in England and Wales. It is based on the premise that prostitution is morally wrong and should therefore be illegal, whereas at present the law makes no such moral judgement. We acknowledge that the intention of many supporters of the sex buyer law is to protect sex workers, especially women, from the harm, violence and exploitation that can occur in the sex industry, but we also note that the sex buyer law makes no attempt to discriminate between prostitution which occurs between two consenting adults, and that which involves exploitation. Much of the rhetoric also denies sex workers the opportunity to speak for themselves and to make their own choices.

79.We are not yet convinced that the sex buyer law would be effective in reducing demand or in improving the lives of sex workers, either in terms of the living conditions for those who continue to work in prostitution or the effectiveness of services to help them find new ways to earn a living. Evaluations of the impact of sex buyer laws are largely based on data about street prostitution, and therefore offer little insight into the large parts of the sex industry which take place in various indoor environments, and there are indications that the law can be misused to harass and victimise sex workers, who are the very people whom the law is seeking to protect. We are not yet persuaded that the sex buyer law is effective in reducing, rather than simply displacing, demand for prostitution, or in helping the police to tackle the crime and exploitation associated with the sex industry.

80.The sex buyer law in Northern Ireland was only introduced in June 2015 and it was therefore too soon for its impact to be assessed in time to inform our inquiry. Similarly, France introduced a sex buyer law on 6 April 2016—only 10 weeks ago—and an evaluation of the impact of this change would provide very useful comparative information for assessing the likely implications in England and Wales. In our continuing inquiry, we will take further evidence on the impacts of the implementation of the sex buyer law in Northern Ireland and France so that a more robust evidence base can be established for assessing the potential impacts of introducing similar legislation in England and Wales, and our conclusions will be contained in our final report.

69 Selected extracts from the Swedish government report on The Ban against the Purchase of Sexual Services: an evaluation 1999–2008, SOU 2010:49, The Swedish Institute, 2010

70 Selected extracts from the Swedish government report on The Ban against the Purchase of Sexual Services: an evaluation 1999–2008, SOU 2010:49, The Swedish Institute, 2010

71 Länsstyrelsen Stockholm (Stockholm Country Board of Administration) Prostitution in Sweden 2014: The extent and development of prostitution in Sweden

72 Evaluation of Norwegian legislation criminalising the buying of sexual services (summary) commissioned by the Norwegian Ministry of Justice and Public Security In the autumn of 2013 (evaluation work conducted in the period between January to June 2014)

74 Sex Worker Open University (PRO0147)

75 Sex Worker Open University (PRO0147)

76 Northern Ireland Assembly Official Report (Hansard) 24 September 2013

77 The Guardian, 6 April 2016, France passes law making it illegal to pay for sex

78 See for example End Demand (PRO0070); and Nordic Model Information Network (PRO0143)

79 APPG on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade, Shifting the Burden, March 2014; and APPG written evidence (PRO0158)

80 See, for example, Mia de Faoite (PRO0160)

81 Nordic Model Information Network (PRO0143)

82 End Demand (PRO0070)

83 Amy Vergnés (PRO0038)

84 Sussex Centre for Gender Studies (PRO0125)

85 Laura Lee (PRO0107)

86 Professor Philip Hubbard (PRO0019)

87 Sex Work Research Hub (PRO0030

88 New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective (PRO0223)

89 Dr Belinda Brooks-Gordon (PRO0120)

90 Dr Jay Levy (PRO0245)

91 International Union of Sex Workers (PRO0151)

92 Action for Trans Health (PRO0165)

93 Sex Work Research Hub (PRO0030

94 End Demand (PRO0070)

95 Professor Peter Shirlow (University of Liverpool), Dr Susann Huschke (University of the Witwatersrand), Dr Eilis Ward (NUI Galway) and Dr Dirk Schubotz (Queen’s University Belfast) (PRO0212)

96 Feminists for Solidarity Sweden (PRO0103)

97 Oral evidence taken on 1 March 2016, Q136

98 Sussex Centre for Gender Studies (PRO0125)

99 Sex worker E (PRO0036)

© Parliamentary copyright 2015

16 June 2016