Is Prostitution Legal in the UK – and Elsewhere?

The UK government is only too aware of the serious damage that prostitution inflicts on the individuals involved in it, and on the communities where it takes place. Prostitution is associated with antisocial behaviour, organised crime, trafficking, drug abuse, sexually and drug-transmitted infection, and endemic abuse, violence and exploitation.1(2015) PROSTCOST

Prostitution in the UK is not illegal. However, in an attempt to mitigate the harm and risks associated with it, the UK government has criminalised more than 30 associated activities, including: soliciting sex on the street; kerb crawling; advertising using cards in telephone boxes; causing / inciting prostitution or controlling it for personal gain (i.e. pimping); brothel-keeping; and the buying of sex from trafficked individuals.

In other words, the UK law around prostitution is complicated and, for this reason, there have been various calls for reform. 

A 2014 report by the All Party Parliamentary Group on the sex trade surveyed police forces and local councils and found that only 7% considered the current laws on prostitution to be effective and consistent in safeguarding those involved in prostitution.2All-Party Parliamentary Group on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade March 2014 Shifting the Burden Inquiry to assess the operation of the current legal settlement on prostitution in England and Wales The report explains that the current law is not fit for purpose since it “sends no clear signals to women who sell sex, men who purchase it, courts and the criminal justice system, the police or local authorities. In practice, those who sell sexual services 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 exit from prostitution….”

Where we agree

The priority for those on all sides of this debate is the protection of those who sell sexual services, who have historically been targeted and penalised by law enforcement. Over the past few decades, we’ve become increasingly awakened to the fact that individuals in prostitution are vulnerable to coercion and violence and need protection. Related to this is the aim of ensuring that the burden of criminality is carried by those involved in coercion, violence, trafficking and other illegal activity. 

Where we disagree

However, when it comes to the best legislative intent and framework for achieving these twin aims, there is fierce debate – controversy that reflects the global picture. There is considerable variation in the approaches that different countries take to the issue, even within Europe where the burgeoning problem of sex trafficking has forced reform. 

When it comes to determining the right laws for governing prostitution, differing international approaches are essentially rooted in two different assumptions regarding the nature of prostitution:

Position 1: Prostitution is a form of legitimate (though dangerous) labour, which the government has a responsibility to regulate and make as safe as possible.

This position leads to the advocation of either the legalisation of prostitution (where the state requires registration of women in brothels, compulsory health monitoring, and taxation) or its decriminalisation (which involves the removal of penalties for soliciting, pimping and brothel-keeping). Though these two approaches are technically different, in practice there is a fine line between them.

Researcher Catharine MacKinnon summariese this position in her paper,  “Prostitution, Trafficking and Inequality”: ‘Where prostitution is understood as ‘sex work’ and, ‘the oldest profession; a cultural universal; consensual because paid; stigmatized because illegal; a job like any other denied that recognition; love in public’, it makes perfect sense to remove all criminal sanctions from all those involved in the sex industry ‘so that prostitution becomes as legitimate as any other mode of livelihood.’3C. MacKinnon (2009) Trafficking, Prostitution, and Inequality

Nations that have adopted legalization or decriminalization include Germany, parts of Australia, the Netherlands and Denmark, New Zealand, Bangladesh, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Columbia, Ecuador, Greece, and Indonesia. 

Position 2: Prostitution is a system of exploitation rooted in systemic inequalities and, as something  inherently harmful, the government has a responsibility to abolish it.

This position leads to the advocation of the so-called ‘Nordic Model’ (otherwise known as the ‘Sex Buyer Law’ or the Swedish, Abolitionist, or Equality Model). This model criminalises the buying of sex whilst offering supportive social and exiting services for those within the sex trade. 

An open letter from Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW) expands on the reasons for adopting this position:

“Medical professionals, the testimonies of survivors and extensive research all demonstrate that the sex industry is predicated on dehumanization, degradation and gender violence that can cause life-long physical and psychological harm to those exploited at the hands of pimps, traffickers and buyers of sex (or “johns”). Prostitution is a harmful practice steeped in gender and economic inequalities that leaves a devastating impact on those sold and exploited in the sex trade.”4CATW (2016) Stand Against Amnesty’s Policy Decriminalizing Pimps, Brothel Owners, Sex Buyers – CATW

Countries that have adopted this position include Sweden, South Korea, Iceland, Norway, Canada, Northern Ireland, France, the Republic of Ireland and Israel.

The table below helps to explain how the basic understandings and assumptions about prostitution result in different legislative approaches:

AssumptionLawThe consequence
Prostitution is accepted as provision of sexual services in consensual adult context. No prohibition of any prostitution-related activity; law enforcement ensures supervision and regulation of brothels. Normalisation of ‘sex work’ in society.
Increased demand.
Prostitution is rejected as system of exploitation.Prohibition of all prostitution-related activity; law enforcement focused on cutting off demand.Shift in public opinion: prostitution seen as exploitation. Decreased demand.
Those who sell sex are engaging in a legitimate form of labour.No criminalisation of those who sell sex: instead, they are treated as any other tax-paying citizen or left alone. Low investment in exiting services for those in prostitution; resources invested in social services and help for women to report violence to the police. 
Those who sell sex are being sexually-exploited.No criminialisation of those who sell sex: instead, they are supported to fully exit the trade.Investment in long-term social support and exiting services.
As a legitimate industry, the selling of sex warrants infrastructure and third-party involvement.No criminal sanctions against those involved in the sex industry. Growth of the sex industry. Boom in clandestine prostitution and sex trafficking.
High tax revenue.
As an inherently harmful and exploitative system, brothels and pimps are outlawed.All activities associated with prostitution are illegal.Shrinking of the sex industry. Less sex trafficking.
No tax revenue.