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The Future for Prostitution Policy in the UK

In order to better protect those most vulnerable to exploitation, the current legal settlement should be reviewed. An aim to reduce the demand for sexual services by transferring the burden of criminality from those selling sexual services onto those who facilitate or create the demand for its sale is a crucial part of this review.

First we need to understand some of the difficulties legislators face when deciding if Parliament should regulate, or not regulate, such a contentious subject.

There is little doubt that this is an area with highly polarised views. For some, prostitution represents the institutional, economic and sexual model for women's oppression. For others, it is a legitimate form of employment, reflecting a woman's freedom of choice.

There are many more moral and ethical questions around prostitution which complicate law-making on the issue. But perhaps one thing the majority of us will agree on is that this is an issue.

It has been estimated that there are 80,000 sex workers in the United Kingdom alone, but it may be much higher than this, with as many as 42million people worldwide. It is indisputable that prostitution is a highly gendered issue; it is estimated that 95% of individuals in prostitution are female.

It involves the abuse of children and the serious exploitation of adults - many of whom are trafficked into and around the UK for this purpose. It has close links with problematic drug use and, increasingly, with transnational and organised crime.

It is this growing evidence of the harm of prostitution for those involved that has led to an increasing consensus that regulation may be the answer.

Recent debates in Parliament

In many respects discussion of prostitution and the global sex trade is still seen as somewhat taboo, yet in recent years we have seen a wealth of inquiries, reviews and legislation.

Although we are some way off having an effective legislative framework, we have come a long way from the days of the Wolfenden Committee in 1957, which focussed on the harm of prostitution solely in terms of public order and decency, with no thought given to the consequences for those involved.

The thirteen years of Labour government between 1997 and 2010 must be given some credit for debating and discussing these issues, and for shifting the dialogue towards one which looks at prostitution's serious detrimental consequences for individuals and communities.

Paying the Price, a 2004 Home Office consultation paper on prostitution began this process. It recognised that systematic abuse, violence and exploitation are endemic, and that a clear and coherent strategy would be needed to protect and support those vulnerable to exploitation through prostitution. The then Home Office minister, Caroline Flint, stressed the importance of looking at projects to divert women from entering prostitution, and to engage with those already trapped to help them exit.

It resulted in the government publishing a coordinated prostitution strategy in 2006 which involved disrupting sex markets by preventing individuals, particularly children and young people, from being drawn into prostitution. It also incorporated some consideration of the growing international concerns about trafficking for sexual exploitation, and emphasised the need for local partnerships to work together in addressing these challenging issues.

A further review, Tackling the demand for prostitution in 2008, followed. It focused on an area which for many years had been largely ignored in policy making - the person responsible for creating the demand. It concluded that there was evidence to support the development of a new offence to criminalise those who pay for sex with a person who is being controlled against their wishes for someone else's gain. This led to the Police and Crime Act 2009.

The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade, of which I am member, has also been an important contributor to this debate. Its most recent publication - Shifting the Burden - builds on Tackling the Demand by recommending a further change in the burden of criminality from those who are the most marginalised and most vulnerable - to those that create the demand in the first place. Fiona Mactaggart MP has been particularly vocal in this regard, and she continues to argue that we need to direct policy towards the men who pay for sex.

This is a view that has recently been echoed by Members of the European Parliament, who recently voted in favour of a resolution to criminalise the purchase of sex. Although non-binding, this will no doubt put pressure on member states to re-evaluate their policies on sex work. It represents a vital signal from MEPs that we cannot continue to tolerate the exploitation of women.

Shifting the Burden also highlighted the background of most prostitutes: many are survivors of child sexual abuse or exploitation, care leavers, women who entered the trade at an age where they could not consent. And for most women in on-street work, drug and alcohol abuse are a fact of life. When I was a 26 year old social work student, my friend, a probation student, was doing her dissertation on women in prostitution who were being prosecuted. I remember being shocked that 90% of the women were younger than me - mostly much younger than me.

Where are we now?

All of these things mark recognition of the need to tackle both the supply and demand for prostitution.

The Shifting the Burden report came to some stark conclusions. Current legislation is complicated and confusing, and loopholes allow men to escape prosecutions for abusing girls as young as 12, and women trafficked into the country to be repeatedly raped.

Furthermore, policing and enforcement is unevenly prioritised and resourced across the country, with a few exceptions only made possible through extraordinary political leadership at a local level. At its worst this can trap women in cycles of abuse and prevent them from exiting prostitution.

Irrespective of the positive steps taken over recent years to help those exploited in prostitution, in practice those who sell sexual services continue to carry the burden of criminality, despite being those who are most vulnerable to coercion and violence. This serves to normalise the purchase and stigmatise the sale of sexual services, and undermines efforts to minimise entry into and promote exist from prostitution.

Moreover, the legislation does not appear to be adequately addressing the gender imbalance of harm within prostitution, and as such is detrimental to wider strategies which pursue gender equality.

Clearly the current legal settlement is not sufficient.

International comparisons

Perhaps it is time for us to look at how other countries are developing their laws in this area. It is apparent that there is huge variety in this respect.

The model used in Sweden has strong advocates in the United Kingdom. Since 1999 it has been illegal to purchase sex. Proponents of this model point to the reduction in the numbers of prostitutes since the policy came into force; they also praise it for addressing deeper concerns of gender imbalance, and for sending a positive message about equality.

I visited Sweden during the time I was minister for women and equality and was impressed by their approach. The change was coupled with an education programme about respect for both genders and respect within relationships more widely. The police also reported clear evidence of traffickers avoiding trafficking women into Sweden because of the law.

Its critics, however, argue that criminalising the buying of sex simply drives prostitution underground increasing the vulnerability of prostitutes. Social workers are reluctant to offer support because they do not want to encourage prostitution. Men who might once have told the police about women they feared had been trafficked are reluctant to do so. In essence the argument is that no form of criminalisation reduces prostitution; it just makes it less visible.

The Home Office in Tackling the Demand recognised that we can learn lessons from Sweden, but acknowledged the cultural differences and that the Swedish sex industry is tiny when compared with our own.

In total contrast to criminalising the buyers of sex, the Dutch government has opted to legalise prostitution. This approach purports to improve the safety, rights and prospects for social inclusion of sex workers. In reality, however, this approach has only served to legitimise exploitative practices - regulation has not ended violence against prostitutes and has not reduced trafficking or the involvement of organised crime in prostitution.

The future for prostitution policy in the UK

Given the inadequacy of the current law, this is an issue that Parliament will have to re-examine and I believe there are some specific legislative steps we should take.

Shifting the Burden recommends consolidating current legislation in a single act with clear principles underpinning it. It calls for the introduction of a general offence for the purchase of sexual services. Other suggested changes included amending the strict liability offence for purchasing sexual services from a child by raising the age at which strict liability is established from 13 to 16 (under the Sexual Offences Act 2003).

All child safeguarding boards should be required to identify children, including those aged 16-18, at a heightened risk of commercial and sexual exploitation in order to provide targeted intervention.

Although it was initially a positive step in protecting victims of coercion, it is now apparent the evidential requirements of s.14 of the Police and Crime Act 2009 are demonstrative of a failure to recognise the complexity of coercion. The definition of force and coercion under the Act should be looked at again.

We must, however, also recognise the limitations of legislative reform. Shifting the burden from seller to buyer will not solve the inherent problems with prostitution on its own. Unless meaningful steps to address the structures that drive people into prostitution are simultaneously taken, legal and other measures aimed at preventing prostitute use will do little to improve the lives of those who are exploited.

By meaningful steps I mean things like funding programmes which facilitate exit from prostitution, adopting measures and language that demonstrate prostitution to be a form of violence against women and girls, and investing in our communities.


In order to better protect those most vulnerable to exploitation, the current legal settlement should be reviewed. An aim to reduce the demand for sexual services by transferring the burden of criminality from those selling sexual services onto those who facilitate or create the demand for its sale is a crucial part of this review.

But it is not the only part. We must also strive to bring about a change in culture - ensuring that legislation is consistent with strategies to pursue gender equality, and fighting for all women to be able to make empowered choices. We cannot and must not forget the most important aspect of this debate - the harm done to those who are forced, coerced, exploited into prostitution.

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