What is Prostitution?

Prostitution describes the offering and provision of sexual services for financial gain.

In the UK, prostitution itself is not illegal but there are a number of offences linked to it. For example it is an offence to control a prostitute for gain, or to keep a brothel.

Prostitution has a close affinity with a host of other important social issues, in particular crime, drugs, sexual equality, poverty and health.

Although there are exceptions, most prostitutes are women selling their services to men.


Prostitution is sometimes referred to as 'the oldest profession', as it meets the natural urges of humans in return for money, and is often claimed to be as old as civilisation itself.

The legal regulation of prostitution in the UK was set out in the Sexual Offences Act 1956, which reflected the findings of the Wolfenden Committee investigation into prostitution and homosexuality that took place around that time.

The Wolfenden Committee treated prostitution and its status in the law as a moral issue and this was reflected in the text of the Act. This led to famous debates between Lord Devlin and the philosopher Herbert Hart.

In late 2003 the Home Office announced its intention to review the laws on prostitution with the aim of overhauling the dated regulations of the 1956 Act. Subsequently amendments relating to prostitution were made under the Sexual Offences Act 2003 with regard to the following offences; "causing or inciting prostitution for gain", "controlling prostitution for gain", "penalties for keeping a brothel used for prostitution" and "extension of gender specific prostitution offences".

The Policing and Crime Bill, introduced to the Commons in December 2008, created a new offence of paying for sex with someone who is controlled for gain and introduced new powers to close brothels; it also modified the law on soliciting. The bill received Royal Assent in November 2009.


As with all matters of sexuality, prostitution continues to be debated on both social and moral levels. Opponents of prostitution and moral conservatives believe the practice is intrinsically morally corrupt and a challenge to family values, therefore regarding a ban to be justified in the name of public morality. Many religious groups adopt this position, adding another aspect to the debate.

However, many who regard involvement in prostitution as a matter of private morality still argue for legal regulation.

Prostitution's quasi-criminal status has led it to be closely associated with organised crime, poverty, drugs, child abuse and people trafficking.

Virtual imprisonment has become a particular problem in recent years, notably since the fall of the Iron Curtain and the break-up of Yugoslavia. There has been an increase in the 'white slave trade' from Eastern Europe and Russia, along with a general influx of organised crime, with many women thought to be living as virtual slaves.

Because prostitutes have large numbers of sexual partners, they are more likely to have sexually transmitted infections and be vectors for spreading these infections - adding a public health dimension to the debate.

The previous Labour government said it wanted to reduce prostitution in the UK and, as some said legal controls were too blunt a tool, tried to establish what policies would work. For example, in 2002 the Government made a total of £850,000 available for groups working in a multi-agency context to implement local strategies for reducing prostitution-related crime and disorder.

Some argue that licensed brothels would help to ensure worker safety, keep them off the streets, help prevent health problems, bring revenue to the Treasury and remove the need for exploitative and abusive pimps. However, many others find this morally repugnant.

The murders of five prostitutes in Ipswich in November and December 2006 reignited calls for a new approach to tackling the issue.

In November 2008 the Home Office published the findings of a six month review into how the demand for prostitution could be reduced. Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, in a foreword to the review, stated: "So far, little attention has been focused on the sex buyer, the person responsible for creating the demand for prostitution markets. And it is time for that to change."

But Government plans to create a new law under the Policing and Crime Bill making it an offence to pay for sex with someone who is "controlled by another for gain" caused particular controversy. Even if the person paying for sex was unaware that the prostitute was trafficked or controlled by a pimp, they would still be liable for prosecution and if convicted would be given a criminal record and a fine of up to £1000.

The Bar Council warned that the offence as drafted risked convictions that may be seen as unfair by reasonable people and that such convictions would bring the criminal law into disrepute, particularly given the stigma that would result.

Concerns were also raised by several MPs including the Labour chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee, Keith Vaz, who said that he was "not convinced that the best course of action is to prosecute in the proposed way men who go into situations where they wish to buy sex from prostitutes".

And Shadow Justice Minister, Henry Bellingham stated, "We do not in any way want to stand up for the people who feel they have to, in unfortunate circumstances, go and use prostitutes. We are concerned, however, about bringing in credible law that will stand the test of being put through the courts."

The Coalition government was strongly criticised in the Spring of 2010 for declining to support a proposal for an EU directive to prevent and combat trafficking in human beings and to protect the victims who were trafficked for different purposes, including into the sex industry.

The Government did, however, promise to review its decision when the finalised text was agreed and in March 2011, having scrutinised the final text, announced that it would now apply to opt in to the new EU directive (2011/36/EU) on trafficking in human beings.

In December 2011, the Home Office launched a national 'Ugly Mugs' pilot scheme to help protect sex workers from violent and abusive individuals. The Home Office is providing £108,000 to fund the 12 month pilot which includes establishing a national online network to bring together and support locally run 'Ugly Mug' schemes.

These local 'Ugly Mug' /dodgy punter schemes have been running for some years and, according to the UK Network of Sex Work Projects, have proved very useful in passing on warnings to sex workers about dangerous people, as well as helping to increase the reporting, detection and conviction of crimes.

The pilot scheme is being run by the UKNSWP.

In March 2012, the Greater London Authority published a report on the policing of off-street sex work and sex trafficking in London.  Entitled 'Silence on Violence – improving the safety of women', the report was written by Assembly Member Andrew Boff at the request of the London Mayor following a number of questions raised during Mayor's Question Time.

Mr Boff found evidence that sex workers were reporting fewer crimes to police and that raids had increased in some parts of London.  He made a number of recommendations including involving sex workers in police strategies that involve them and prioritising crime against sex workers by labelling it as a hate crime.


The Sexual Offences Act 2003 creates three offences of trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation: Section 57 for trafficking into the UK; Section 58 for trafficking within the UK; and Section 59 for trafficking out of the UK.

Section 46(1) of the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001 creates an offence to place advertisements relating to prostitution on, or in the immediate vicinity of, a public telephone an advertisement relating to prostitution.

Children under 18 involved in prostitution should be treated as victims of abuse. Those who use child prostitutes should be prosecuted under Sections 47 51 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003.

Section 16 of the Policing and Crime Act 2009 amends section 1(1) of the Street Offences Act 1959 to create an offence for a person (whether male or female) persistently to loiter or solicit in a street or public place for the purposes of offering services as a prostitute. This is with effect from 1 April 2010. The term "common prostitute" has now been removed.
Section 1(4) has been amended to insert that for the purposes of section 1, conduct is persistent if it takes place on two or more occasions in any period of three months.
Section 1(5) provides that in deciding whether a person's conduct is persistent, any conduct that took place before the commencement of this section will be disregarded.

Section 19 of the Policing and Crime Act 2009 introduces section 51A into the Sexual Offences Act 2003 and creates a new offence for a person in a street or public place to solicit another for the purpose of obtaining a sexual service as a prostitute. The reference to a person in a street or public place includes a person in a motor vehicle in a street or public place.
This replaces the offences of kerb crawling and persistent soliciting under sections 1 and 2 of the Sexual Offences Act 1985 with effect from 1 April 2010.
A person guilty of an offence under this section is liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 3 on the standard scale.

Source: The Crown Prosecution Service.


"The government's ambition is to end all forms of violence against women and girls. This includes protecting those involved in prostitution, who are particularly vulnerable to violent and sexual crimes.

"'Ugly Mugs’ schemes encourage individuals to report incidents so that others can be safeguarded in the future, and more perpetrators can be brought to justice.

"Local agencies are best placed to find solutions to local problems but where schemes are effective in protecting individuals and communities we want to share information and best practice.”

Home Office Minister, Lynne Featherstone, launching the 'Ugly Mugs' pilot scheme – December 2011

"There is a group in London who are at least 12 times more likely to be murdered than the national average. Approximately three quarters of those within this category will also be subjected to violence, assault and rape. 

"However this group often distrusts the police and are much less willing to report crimes against them than the national average.

"The group referred to are sex workers and it is imperative that we improve their safety in London."

Andrew Boff, leader of the Conservative group in the London Assembly - 2012

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