Prostitution in the United Kingdom
In Great Britain (England, Wales and Scotland), prostitution itself (the exchange of sexual services for money) is legal, but a number of related activities, including soliciting in a public place, kerb crawling, owning or managing a brothel, pimping and pandering, are crimes. In Northern Ireland, which previously had similar laws, paying for sex was criminalised in January 2015.
In England and Wales, it is an offence to pay for sex with a prostitute who has been “subjected to force” and this is a strict liability offence (clients can be prosecuted even if they did not know the prostitute was forced).
Throughout Great Britain it is illegal to buy sex from a person younger than 18, although the age of consent for non-commercial sex is 16 throughout the United Kingdom.
- 1 Extent
- 2 History
- 3 Current legal status
- 4 Reform of prostitution laws
- 5 Crimes against prostitutes
- 6 See also
- 7 References
- 8 Further reading
- 9 External links
The total number of prostitutes is not known and is difficult to assess, but authorities and NGOs estimate that approximately 100,000 persons in the country are engaged in prostitution. According to data from the Office for National Statistics, prostitution contributed £5.3 billion to the UK economy in 2009.
The sex trade takes different forms, such as prostitution practiced in massage parlors, saunas, private flats, street prostitution and escort prostitution. The size of brothels in the UK is often small; Cari Mitchell, speaking for the English Collective of Prostitutes in 2008, said that "most brothels are discreetly run by two or three women, sometimes with a receptionist, or one woman, usually an ex-sex worker who employs two or three others". By 2015 approximately 70% of sex workers were indoor workers.
In the late 2000s, a study compiled by the Poppy Project found brothels in all 33 London local authority areas. Westminster had the highest number with 71, compared with 8 in Southwark. For this study the researchers had posed as potential customers and had telephoned 921 brothels that had advertised in local newspapers. The researchers estimated that the brothels generated between £50m and £130m a year. Many brothels operated through legitimate businesses - licenced as saunas or massage parlours - though the vast majority were in private flats in residential areas. The report found 77 different ethnicities among the prostitutes, many from areas such as Eastern Europe and South-East Asia. The study has been called "the most comprehensive study ever conducted into UK brothels" but its methodology has been criticized, and it has been rejected by sex workers' activists and academic studies.
According to a 2009 study by TAMPEP, of all prostitutes in the UK, 41% were foreigners - however in London this percentage was 80%. The total number of migrant prostitutes was significantly lower than in other Western countries (such as Spain and Italy where the percentage of all migrant prostitutes was 90%). The migrant prostitutes came from: Central Europe 43%, Baltic 10%, Eastern Europe 7%, Balkans 4%, other EU countries 16%, Latin America 10%, Asia, 7%, Africa 2%, North America 1%. 35 different countries of origin were identified.
Surveys indicate that fewer British men use prostitutes than in other countries. Estimates of between 7% (1991 data) and 11% (2010-2012 data) of men have used prostitutes at least once in the UK, compared to 15%-20% in the USA or 16% in France. The authors stress the difficulty of finding reliable data given the lack of prior research, differences in sample sizes, and possible underestimates due to the privacy concerns of survey respondents.
A 2004 survey of street-based sex workers found that the average age of entry into prostitution was 21. In March 2105 the University of Leeds, funded by the Wellcome Trust, published one of largest ever UK surveys of prostitutes. It found that 71% had previously worked in health, social care, education, childcare or charities, and that 38% held an undergraduate degree.
Bullough argues that prostitution in 18th century Britain was a convenience to men of all social statuses, and an economic necessity for many poor women, and was tolerated by society. However, a ban on brothel-keeping was included in the Disorderly Houses Act 1751 as part of legislation against public nuisance. The evangelical movement of the 19th century denounced prostitutes and their clients as sinners, and denounced society for tolerating it. The Vagrancy Act 1824 was passed, introducing the term "common prostitute" into English Law and criminalising prostitutes with a punishment of up to one month hard labour. The act also made it a crime for a man to live on the earnings of a prostitute (often known as "living off immoral earnings").
According to the values of the Victorian middle class, prostitution was a horrible evil, for the young women, for the men and for all of society. The introduction of the Town Police Clauses Act 1847 made it an offence for common prostitutes to assemble at any "place of public resort" such as a coffee shop.
For several reasons prostitution was predominantly a working class profession. For many working class women their journey into prostitution was one of circumstance. During the 19th century the public began to concern itself with particular social problems, an increasing view of the "ideal woman" was beginning to emerge and the "angel of the home" was becoming a popular stereotype. This rise of the middle class domestic morality made it increasingly harder for women to obtain work in certain professions, causing an increase in such areas as needle-trades, shop girls, agricultural gangs, factory work, and domestic servants, all occupations with long hours and little pay. Low earnings, it is argued, meant that women had to resort to prostitution to be able to provide for themselves and their families, particularly in households where the main breadwinner was no longer around. The figures below, however, show this to be untrue. A study from the late Victorian period showed that more than 90 per cent of prostitutes in Millbank prison were the daughters of "unskilled and semiskilled working men", more than 50 per cent of whom had been servants, the rest having worked in dead-end jobs such as laundering, charring and street selling.
The level of prostitution was high in Victorian England, but the nature of the occupation makes it difficult to establish the exact number of prostitutes in operation. Judicial reports of the years 1857 to 1869 show that prostitutes were more common in commercial ports and pleasure resorts and less so in hardware towns, cotton and linen manufacturing centres and woollen and worsted centres. The Westminster Review placed the figure between 50,000 and 368,000. This would make prostitution the fourth-largest female occupation. However, the police estimates of known prostitutes portray an entirely different estimate:
Police estimates of known prostitutes
|Date||London||England and Wales|
However, this table relates only prostitutes known to the police. The unreliability of statistics during the 19th century prevents one from knowing if prostitution was increasing or decreasing during this period, but it is clear that Victorians during the 1840s and 1850s thought that prostitution and venereal disease were increasing.
Prostitutes found work within the armed forces, mainly due to servicemen's forced celibacy and the conditions of the barracks the men were forced to endure. The barracks were overcrowded and had a lack of ventilation and defective sanitation. Very few servicemen were permitted to marry, and even those were not given an allowance to support their wives, which occasionally lured them to become prostitutes as well. Regulating prostitution was the government's attempt to control the high level of venereal disease in its armed forces. By 1864, one out of three sick cases in the army was caused by venereal disease; admissions into hospitals for gonorrhoea and syphilis reached 290.7 per 1,000 of total troop strength. The Contagious Diseases Acts were introduced in the 1860s, adopting the French system of licenced prostitution, with the goal of minimising venereal disease. Prostitutes were subjected to compulsory checks for venereal disease, and imprisonment until cured. Young women officially became prostitutes and were trapped for life in the system. After a nationwide crusade led by Josephine Butler, legalised prostitution was stopped in 1886 and Butler became a sort of saviour to the girls she helped free. The Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885 made numerous changes that affected prostitution, including criminalising the act of procuring girls for prostitution by administering drugs or intimidation or fraud, suppressing brothels and raising the age of consent for young women from 12 to 16. This last provision undercut the supply of young prostitutes who were in highest demand. The new moral code meant that respectable men dared not be caught.
In the 20th century attempts were made to reduce street prostitution. The Street Offences Act 1959 added new restrictions, stating: "It shall be an offence for a common prostitute to loiter or solicit in a street or public place for the purpose of prostitution. "As a result, many prostitutes left the street for fear of imprisonment. The penalty for living off immoral earnings was increased to a maximum of seven years' imprisonment. The Sexual Offences Act 1985 created two new offences which criminalised acts performed by prostitutes' clients. These were kerb crawling and persistently soliciting women for the purposes of prostitution.
An increase in the number of prostitutes originating from overseas in the 21st century led to concerns regarding allegations of human trafficking and forced prostitution. A Home Office review Paying the Price was carried out in 2004. It focused on projects to divert women from entering prostitution, and to engage with those already trapped to help them exit. A second Home Office review Tackling the demand for prostitution (2008) proposed 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 approach to prostitution began to make legislative progress in 2008, as Home Secretary Jacqui Smith announced that paying for sex from a prostitute under the control of a pimp would become a criminal offence. Clients could also face rape charges for knowingly paying for sex from an illegally trafficked woman, and first-time offenders could face charges. The Policing and Crime Act 2009 made it an offence to pay for the services of a prostitute "subjected to force" and made other provisions in relation to prostitution.
Current legal status
England and Wales
Although previous acts still remain in force, the Policing and Crime Act 2009 (together with the Sexual Offences Act 2003) replaced most aspects of previous legislation relating to prostitution. An important change resulting from the 2009 act was the amendment of the laws on soliciting and loitering for the purposes of prostitution. The main differences involve the shifting of focus from the prostitutes to the customers. Before 1 April 2010, it was illegal for a customer to kerb crawl/solicit only if this was done "persistently", or "in a manner likely to cause annoyance". Today, all forms of public solicitation by a customer are illegal, regardless of the manner in which the prostitute was solicited. The act also makes it an offence for someone to pay or promise to pay a prostitute who has been subject to "exploitive conduct". The law now applies to male as well as female prostitutes because the term "common prostitute" has been replaced with "person". Before 1 April 2010, a prostitute was committing a crime by soliciting/loitering in a public place more than once in a period of one month. Today, he/she commits a crime if he/she does it more than once in a period of three months.
Street prostitution is illegal. It is an offence to loiter or solicit persistently in a street or public place for the purpose of offering one's services as a prostitute. The term "prostitute" is defined as someone who has offered or provided sexual services to another person in return for a financial arrangement on at least one previous occasion. To demonstrate "persistence" under the current legislation, two police officers must witness the activity and administer a non-statutory prostitute caution. This caution differs from an ordinary police caution in that the behaviour leading to a caution need not itself be evidence of a criminal offence. There is no requirement for a man or woman to admit guilt before being given a prostitutes caution and there is no right of appeal. Working as a prostitute in private is not an offence, and neither is working as an outcall escort. Nor is it illegal for prostitutes to sell sex at a brothel provided they are not involved in management or control of the brothel.
Soliciting someone for the purpose of obtaining their sexual services as a prostitute is an offence if the soliciting takes place in a street or public place (whether in a vehicle or not). This is a broader restriction than the 1985 ban on kerb-crawling. It is now also an offence to make or promise payment for the sexual services of a prostitute if the prostitute has been subjected to "exploitative conduct" (force, threats or deception) in order to bring about such an arrangement for gain. This is a strict liability offence (clients can be prosecuted even if they didn’t know the prostitute was forced). Additionally there exists an offence of paying for sexual services of a child (anyone under 18).
There are various third party offences relating to prostitution. For instance, causing or inciting another person to become a prostitute for gain is an offence. Pimping (controlling the activities of another person relating to that person’s prostitution for gain) is also illegal. Similarly brothelkeeping is illegal. It is an offence for a person to keep, or to manage, or act or assist in the management of, a brothel. Note that the definition of a brothel in English law is "a place where people are allowed to resort for illicit intercourse". It is not necessary that the premises are used for the purposes of prostitution since a brothel exists wherever more than one person offers sexual intercourse, whether for payment or not. Thus the prohibition on brothels covers premises where people go for non-commercial sexual encounters, such as certain saunas and adult clubs. However, premises which are frequented by men for intercourse with only one woman are not a brothel, and this is so whether she is a tenant or not. Thus in practice to avoid committing this offence a prostitute who works in private must work alone. Additionally there exists an offence of causing, inciting, controlling, arranging or facilitating child prostitution.
Advertising for the services of prostitutes is usually expressed in euphemistic language, partly as an attempt to avoid prosecution and partly as an expression of British cultural values. Prostitutes advertise in contact magazines despite a common law offence of "conspiracy to corrupt public morals" which was created in 1962 to prohibit such advertising. Adverts for prostitutes are also placed in public telephone boxes (where they are known as tart cards) despite the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001 making such advertising an offence. Adverts are also placed in newspapers, which is not in itself illegal. However, a newspaper which carries advertising for illegal establishments and activities such as brothels or venues where sexual services are offered illegally may be liable to prosecution for money laundering offences under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002. This is the case even if such places are advertised under the guise of massage parlours and saunas. Some police forces have local policies in place for enforcement against prostitution services advertised in the local press. Newspaper companies sometimes adopt a policy of refusing all advertisements for personal services. More recently, social media have become a common way to attract clients.
It will be illegal to pay for sex in Northern Ireland from 1 June 2015 as a result of the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Criminal Justice and Support for Victims) Act (Northern Ireland) 2015 which was enacted in January 2015. Until then, prostitution in Northern Ireland remains legal as elsewhere in the United Kingdom, subject to a number of similar restraints.
Street prostitution is dealt with under the Civic Government (Scotland) Act 1982, section 46(1). Kerb crawling, soliciting a prostitute for sex in a public place and loitering for the same purpose are also criminal under the Prostitution (Public Places) (Scotland) Act 2007. There was formerly no specific offence directed at clients in Scotland in contrast to the “kerb crawling” offence in England and Wales in the Sexual Offences Act 1985.
A Prostitution Tolerance Zones Bill was introduced into the Scottish Parliament but failed to become law. A number of attempts have been made to criminalise the purchase of sex but all have failed.
Reform of prostitution laws
The debate about the legal situation of prostitution in the UK centres around whether the UK should follow the example of the Netherlands, Germany or New Zealand and tolerate prostitution, or whether the country should make it illegal to pay for sex, like in Sweden, Norway and Iceland (a situation sometimes described as the Nordic model of prostitution).
A CATI survey conducted in January 2008 revealed the following answers:
Paying for sex exploits women and should be a criminal offence: 44% of the total respondents agree (65% of those aged 18–24 agree; 48% of all women agree, 39% of men agree)
Paying for sex exploits women but should not be a criminal offence: 21% of the total respondents agree
Paying for sex does not exploit women and should not be a criminal offence: 17% of the total respondents agree
Paying for sex does not exploit women but should be a criminal offence: 8% of the total respondents agree 
A Ipsos-Mori poll conducted in July and August 2008 showed that 61% of women and 42% of men thought that paying for sex was "unacceptable". 65% of women and 40% of men said selling sex was "unacceptable". Young people were the most opposed to prostitution: 64% of the youth said that paying for sex was "unacceptable" and 69% believed that selling sex was "unacceptable"; older people had more relaxed attitudes about prostitution (men over 55 were the most accepting of buying sex). 60% of all the people who were questioned would feel ashamed if they found out a family member was working as a prostitute. 43% thought it should be illegal to pay for sex, however 58% would support making it illegal to pay for sex if "it will help reduce the numbers of women and children being trafficked into the UK for sexual exploitation".
Like many other countries, the UK has sex workers' rights groups, which argue that the best solution for the problems associated with prostitution is decriminalisation. These groups have criticised the provisions from the Policing and Crime Act 2009. The English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP) founded in 1975, campaigns for the decriminalisation of prostitution, sex workers’ right to recognition and safety, and financial alternatives so that no one is forced into prostitution by poverty; in addition the ECP provides information, help and support to individual prostitutes and others concerned with sex workers’ rights. One member, Nikki Adams, said that the government was overstating the extent of the trafficking problem, and that most prostitution was consensual. The UK based International Union of Sex Workers (IUSW), part of GMB Trade Union, campaigns for the labour rights of those who work in the sex industry.
In 2006, the Labour government raised the possibility of loosening the prostitution laws and allowing small brothels in England and Wales. According to the law that is still current, one prostitute may work from an indoor premises, but if there are two or more prostitutes the place is considered a brothel and it is an offence. Historically, local police forces have wavered between zero tolerance of prostitution and unofficial red light districts. Three British ministers, Vernon Coaker, Barbara Follett and Vera Baird, visited the Netherlands to study their approach to the sex trade, and came to the conclusion that their policy of legal prostitution was not effective, and therefore ruled out the legalisation of prostitution in the UK. Plans to allow "mini brothels" were abandoned, after fears that such establishments would bring pimps and drug dealers into residential areas.
In 2010, in response to the Bradford murders of three prostitutes, the new Conservative prime minister David Cameron said that the decriminalisation of prostitution should be "looked at again". He also called for tougher action on kerb-crawling and drug abuse. The Association of Chief Police Officers suggested that designated red-light zones and decriminalised brothels might help to improve prostitutes' safety.
The Nordic model of prostitution
The focus of those who oppose the legalisation of prostitution is the ethical argument that prostitution is inherently exploitative, a view held by many in the Government and the police. Additionally it is argued that the legalisation of prostitution would result in an increase in human trafficking and crime. The common example offered by anti-prostitution activists is that of the Netherlands, which currently has severe problems with human trafficking and crime, the mayor of Amsterdam, Job Cohen having said about legal prostitution in his city: "We’ve realised this is no longer about small-scale entrepreneurs, but that big crime organisations are involved here in trafficking women, drugs, killings and other criminal activities" and "We realise that this [legal prostitution] hasn’t worked, that trafficking in women continues. Women are now moved around more, making police work more difficult.”
In 2007 Commons Leader Harriet Harman proposed that the "demand side" of prostitution should be tackled by making it illegal to pay for sex. Ministers pointed to Sweden, where purchasing sexual services is a criminal offence.
In March 2014 an all-party parliamentary group in the House of Commons issued a report called Shifting the Burden which claimed that the current legislation is complicated and confusing. The report expressed concern at the difficulty of successfully prosecuting the sexual abuse of girls and the rape of trafficked women. The report proposed the introduction of the Nordic model of prostitution to England and Wales, consolidating current legislation into a single act with a general offence for the purchase of sexual services. It also suggested re-examining the definition of force and coercion in the Policing and Crime Act 2009 and raising the age at which strict liability is established under the Sexual Offences Act 2003 from 13 to 16.
In November 2014 Fiona Mactaggart MP added an amendment to the Modern Slavery Bill, a bill consolidating and simplifying slavery and trafficking offences into one law. Mactaggart's amendment aimed to criminalise the purchase of sex ("procuring sex for payment"). The amendment was dropped before the bill became law in March 2015 despite its receiving cross-party support.
Crimes against prostitutes
Prostitutes are routinely victims of crime as a result of the nature their profession and its legal status. University of Leeds research in 2015 found that 47% of prostitutes had been victims of crime, including rape and robbery, while 36% had received threatening texts, telephone calls or emails.
There have been a number of notable serial murders of prostitutes in the United Kingdom.
- The Whitechapel murders were a series of eleven unsolved murders of women committed in or near the impoverished Whitechapel district in the East End of London between 3 April 1888 and 13 February 1891. Most, if not all, of the victims were prostitutes. Some of the attacks were notable on account of post-mortem abdominal mutilations. Some or all of them have variously been ascribed to the unidentified serial killer known as Jack the Ripper.
- The Jack the Stripper murders (also known as the "Hammersmith murders", "Hammersmith nudes" or "nude murders") were a series of between six and eight unsolved murders of prostitutes that took place in London between 1964 and 1965. All the victims were found dead in and around the River Thames, all had been strangled and all were naked. "Jack the Stripper" was the nickname given to the unknown serial killer.
- In 1981 Peter Sutcliffe (popularly referred to as the "Yorkshire Ripper") was convicted of a series of murders of thirteen women including a number of prostitutes that took place between 1975 and 1980 in and around West Yorkshire. Sutcliffe was sentenced to life imprisonment.
- The Ipswich serial murders took place between 30 October and 10 December 2006, when the bodies of five murdered women were discovered at different locations near Ipswich, Suffolk. All the victims were prostitutes from the Ipswich area. Steve Wright was sentenced to life imprisonment - with recommendation of a whole life tariff - for the murders. The case received high media attention.
- The Bradford murders took place in 2009–10 in Bradford. Three prostitutes were killed. On 24 May 2010 Stephen Shaun Griffiths was arrested and subsequently charged with the crime. Griffiths was convicted of all three murders on 21 December 2010 after pleading guilty. He was given a life sentence.
In the early 2000s there was growing concern about human trafficking, in particular allegations regarding the trafficking of women and underage girls into the UK for forced prostitution. As a result the Sexual Offences Act 2003 included sections dealing with cases of sex trafficking. Section 57 of the Act covers trafficking into the UK for sexual exploitation. Offences relating to trafficking within and out of the UK are contained in sections 58 and 59. These offences apply in England and Wales and Northern Ireland, with section 22 of the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 2003 providing similar offences for Scotland. The act uses a much looser definition of "trafficking" than the international definition used in the UN Protocol, lacking any requirement that a person is trafficked for sex against their will or with the use of coercion or force. Simply arranging or facilitating the arrival in the United Kingdom of another person for the purpose of prostitution is considered trafficking. Hence the act covers the movement of all sex workers, including willing professionals who are simply travelling in search of a better income.
In 2005 a high-profile court case resulted in the conviction of five Albanians who trafficked a 16-year-old Lithuanian girl and forced her to have sex with as many as 10 men a day. A 2007 UN report identified the major sources of trafficked persons include Thailand, China, Nigeria, Albania, Bulgaria, Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine. The British government signed the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings in March 2007, and ratified it in December 2008 .
In July 2008 Operation Pentameter Two, the UK’s biggest ever investigation into sex trafficking, announced 528 arrests but resulted in no convictions. A study carried out in 2011 by London Metropolitan University and funded by the Government's Economic and Social Research Council found that 6% of prostitutes were "deceived and forced" into the work. Commenting on the low figure, Dr Nick Mai said that "the large majority of migrant workers in the UK sex industry are not forced or trafficked" and that "working in the sex industry is often a way for migrants to avoid the unrewarding and sometimes exploitative conditions they meet in non-sexual jobs."
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- Gorham, Deborah. "The" Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon" Re-Examined: Child Prostitution and the Idea of Childhood in Late-Victorian England." Victorian Studies (1978): 353-379. in JSTOR
- Grey, Daniel JR. "Common Prostitutes and Ordinary Citizens: Commercial Sex in London, 1885–1960." Contemporary British History 27.1 (2013): 112-113.
- Howell, Philip. "A private Contagious Diseases Act: prostitution and public space in Victorian Cambridge." Journal of historical geography (2000) 26#3 pp: 376-402.
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- Walkowitz, Judith R. City of dreadful delight: Narratives of sexual danger in late-Victorian London (University of Chicago Press, 2013)
- UK Crown Prosecution Service: Offences Against Public Morals And Decency
- Operation Pentameter, UK Police operation into forced prostitution
- NewScientist: Belle de Jour: On science and prostitution
- UK sex law information