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Russell Webster

Russell Webster

Criminal Justice & substance misuse expert and author of this blog.

Should we decriminalise sex work?

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New report from Home Affairs Committee recommends legalising prostitution to protect sex workers from being criminalised and stigmatised.

Zero tolerance

The Home Office should immediately change existing legislation so that soliciting is no longer an offence and brothel-keeping laws allow sex workers to share premises, without losing the ability to prosecute those who use brothels to control or exploit sex workers. There must be zero tolerance of the organised criminal exploitation of sex workers.

That’s the conclusion of an interim report published yesterday (1 July 2016) by the Home Affairs Select Committee.

Entitled simply: Prostitution – third report of session 2016/17, the report also argues that the Home Office should also legislate to delete previous convictions and cautions for prostitution from the record of sex workers, as these records make it much more difficult for people to move out of prostitution into other forms of work if they wish to.

Key facts

The Committee has tried to base its report on data and said that, despite the obvious difficulties involved in getting data on an essentially covert industry, it was “dismayed” at the poor quality of information available about the extent and nature of prostitution in England and Wales. The figures below must be considered in this context.

The Committee argues that 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. It recommends that the Home Office should commission an in-depth research study on the current extent and nature of prostitution in England and Wales within the next year.

The report highlights these key facts about prostitution in the UK:

  • Around 11% of British men aged 16–74 have paid for sex on at least one occasion, which equates to 2.3 million individuals.
  • The number of sex workers in the UK is estimated to be around 72,800 with about 32,000 working in London.
  • Sex workers have an average of 25 clients per week paying an average of £78 per visit.
  • In 2014–15, there were 456 prosecutions of sex workers for loitering and soliciting.
  • An estimated 152 sex workers were murdered between 1990 and 2015. 49% of sex workers (in one survey) said that they were worried about their safety.
  • There were 1,139 victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation in 2014 and 248 in April to June 2015 (following implementation of the Modern Slavery Act 2015).

More work needed

This is the first time that Parliament has considered the issue of prostitution in the round for decades. This report is only an interim report and the Committee’s inquiry on changing the laws on buying sex continues.

The report compares the approach of different countries to the issue of legalising prostitution.

world prostitution map

The Committee intends to seek further evidence on the impacts of the recently introduced sex buyer laws in Northern Ireland and France, and the model of regulation used in countries such as New Zealand, to make a better assessment for its final report. The report argues that:

The laws on prostitution need ultimately to be reconsidered in the round, not least to give the police much more clarity on where their priorities should lie and how to tackle the exploitation and trafficking associated with the sex industry.

The Committee makes it very clear that trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation is an important and separate issue from prostitution involving consenting adults and says that it is too early to assess the impact of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 on levels of trafficking. It notes that 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.

Conclusion

This interim report summarises its key argument succinctly and in strong and direct language:

We are very concerned that, despite there being no clear evidence that it reduces demand for prostitution, the current practice of treating soliciting as an offence is having an adverse impact, in terms of preventing sex workers from seeking help to exit prostitution, exposing them to abuse and violence, and damaging other areas of their lives, such as access to health and welfare benefits. Having a criminal record for prostitution-related offences also often creates an unsurmountable barrier for sex workers wishing to exit prostitution and to move into regular work.

It is wrong that sex workers, who are predominantly women, should be criminalised, and therefore stigmatised and penalised, in this way. The current law on brothel-keeping also means that some sex workers are often too afraid of prosecution to work together at the same premises and as a result often compromise their safety and put themselves at considerable risk by working alone.

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