Sexual Violence Policy Monitoring Sub-group of the Women’s National Commission – February 2008 – Prostitution Q & A

1. Is prostitution a business like any other, which should be legalised?

There are a number of reasons why prostitution is not just a business like any other. Women who sell sex report high levels of physical and sexual violence, including verbal abuse, threats and intimidation – one UK study of found that 63% of women in street and indoor prostitution had experienced violence (Barnard et al 2002). Selling access to the body also has a negative psychological and emotional impact for women. A study in five different countries found that two thirds of women in prostitution met the criteria for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (Farley et al, 1998).

The majority of those in prostitution are women, and the majority of buyers are men. Prostitution arises from and perpetuates gender inequality. The majority of women who sell sex were socially marginalised even before entering prostitution. Legalisation only serves to entrench and give government sanction to this commodification and the discrimination inherent in it. Those who profit from the legalisation are the pimps and brothel owners who become third party organisers. Legalised regimes of prostitution also cultivate the illegal dimensions such as trafficking and exploitation of children and young people.

2. Would legalising and regulating prostitution make it safer for women in prostitution?

Prostitution itself is not illegal in the UK. Activities associated with prostitution are, such as soliciting or loitering on the street and brothel management (where more than one woman sells sex) illegal, as well as a range of offences in respect of exploiting children and trafficking.

The latest research on legal brothels in Nevada shows that legalisation does not protect prostituted women from the violence, abuse and psychological and physical injury that occur in illegal prostitution (Farley, 2007). In many senses the opposite might be true. A pan-European study also found that levels of violence were high in both indoor and outdoor settings and where brothels are regulated (Transcrime, 2005). In the Netherlands, where prostitution has been legal since 2000, the government is rethinking its approach as it is seeing more and more signals that abuse of women is continuing. A research study in Germany, where prostitution was legalised in 2002, found that the reform has not delivered the hoped for benefits to women in prostitution. There is an important question about whether legalising prostitution and making it a job like any other would further reduce the already limited services for women in prostitution, including programmes for helping them exit.

3. What about women who choose to sell sex?

Research consistently finds that women involved in prostitution have backgrounds of abuse, neglect and disadvantage. Sexual and physical abuse in childhood and adolescence, family breakdown, running away, homelessness and poverty are all known factors that precede entry into prostitution. These vulnerabilities make it very difficult for women to exit destructive cycles as they may not have had the opportunity to develop life skills to manage the pressures. Accessing welfare support – housing particularly – is also very difficult for women who are socially excluded, may have criminal records and experiences of prison, and erratic lifestyles.

That it is the most vulnerable women who see prostitution as a ‘choice’ as a viable means of making money tells us that we should be thinking about how we define ‘choice’. There is no real choice unless there is a range of acceptable life options. Where there is poverty, abuse, lack of opportunity and gender discrimination, women’s real choices or options to earn a living are very limited. To take analogous example: as a society, we have decided that we won’t allow the general sale and purchase of body parts, such as kidneys. This is in no small part because we know full well that it would largely be the poor and disadvantaged who would exercise their ‘choice’ to sell body parts for cash and those more fortunate who would be able to ‘choose’ to live a healthier and longer life.

There is a group of women who say they have freely chosen to work in the sex industry. It is not clear how many of these women have sex with many customers each day as opposed to being an escort and/or doing telephone sex. There are also a small number of women who do make large amounts of money in a short space of time. These women are the tiny minority – most prostitution here and globally is prosaic and decidedly unglamorous. A recent economic analysis showed that over the lifecourse, prostitution is a route into poverty for many women (DeRiviere, 2006). Even women in legalised brothels report having to pay extortionate sums for rent, food etc and to pay pimps inside and outside the brothels. They are not always free to come and go. Whether they drink or take drugs before they enter prostitution, many end up using both drugs and/or alcohol afterwards as a way of numbing their experiences of having sex with many men every day.

4. Would legalising prostitution help sexually exploited children and young women?

As sexually exploited children and young people are found wherever there is a sex market, approaches that would expand the sex industry, such as legalisation, will increase the number of underage young women who are forced or drawn into selling sex.

Research suggests that approximately 50% of women in prostitution began selling sex under the age of 18 years old. There are a range of precipitating factors including family disruption and/or breakdown, experiences of abuse, poor educational achievement, disenfranchisement from school, running away and homelessness and substance misuse (Melrose et al 1999, O’Neill 2001, Pearce et al 2003). There are also known links between experiences of local authority care and routes into prostitution (Coy, 2007). These experiences render young women vulnerable to ‘grooming’ by older men and being forced (pimped) into selling sex. Sometimes it also appears as if young women and girls are ‘choosing’ to enter prostitution. The children’s charity Barnardos refers to this as ‘constrained choice’ (Harper & Scott, 2005), recognising that sexually exploited young women have histories of social and personal disadvantage that shape their decision-making processes.

In England and Wales, young people under 18 are recognised in government policy to be victims of abuse through sexual exploitation and should be offered statutory multi-agency support. However, there is a clause within this policy that means young people who ‘persistently and voluntarily return’ to selling sex can be prosecuted and criminalised. This fails to recognise the ways in which young women find a sense of belonging in street prostitution communities, have emotional/financial pressures, a lack of other options, and therefore find it very difficult to withdraw from selling sex (Melrose et al, 1999, Pearce et al, 2003, O’Neill, 2001, Coy, 2007). Young women involved in prostitution need intensive support services and effective diversions. Legalising prostitution would suggest to young women, particularly those already vulnerable and marginalised, that selling sex is a normalised career option.

5. What are the wider social effects of legalising prostitution?

The sex industry is sometimes cited as a public service that reduces levels of rape and sexual violence. However, there is no evidence that prostitution reduces rape. In fact, the opposite can be said to be true if you consider all the rapes of women involved in prostitution. Evidence from Nevada, where prostitution is legal in some counties, indicates that legal prostitution fosters a general ‘prostitution culture’ that affects all women and children in the community (Farley, 2007). This results in increased sexual harassment. Nevada’s rape rate is twice that of New York and 25% higher than the US average (Farley, 2007).

Men also say that they are more likely to buy sex when it is legal and more socially acceptable (Coy, Horvath and Kelly, 2007). There are many destinations within Europe that men visit for ‘prostitution tourism’, such as Germany and the Netherlands but also the Czech Republic and others (Coy, Horvath & Kelly, 2007).

6. Would legalising prostitution reduce the stigma attached to women who sell sex?

Legalising prostitution only reduces the stigma attached to the sex industry, not women who sell sex. This is partly because the stigmatisation of women who sell sex is rooted in how society thinks about women’s sexual behaviour. Think of the language that is used to be negative about women in prostitution – how many times do you hear the same words about women who have lots of sexual partners? We have no similar words for the men who use women in prostitution. Even “pimping” has been re-worked in popular culture to mean something cool and desirable.

That women in the Netherlands and Germany choose not to register tells us everything we need to know. Legalisation does not erase the stigma of prostitution and could even make women more vulnerable because they must lose anonymity (Bindel & Kelly, 2003). Legalisation improves the position and status of those who buy sex.

7. What support is available for women to leave prostitution?

Although support provision has increased in recognition of the specific needs of women in prostitution and their alienation from mainstream services, less than one in ten local authority areas have specialised support services for women in prostitution (Coy, Kelly & Foord, 2007). Women in prostitution are often homeless or in unstable housing, have drug/alcohol problems, few personal support networks, and histories of abuse. Criminal records (for street prostitution related offences) and unresolved welfare benefit claims make it difficult for women to find jobs and alternative sources of income.

These complex needs require holistic models of service provision (Hester & Westmarland, 2004). This includes outreach to women on the street and indoor premises; sexual health and safety advice and information; advocacy and liaison with mainstream services, housing advice, drug treatment, arrest referral, diversion schemes and provision of safe space. Very few services are funded for ‘exiting’ work, which focuses on enabling women to leave prostitution. There are only two statutory-funded specialised residential support projects for trafficked women in the UK (the POPPY Project in London and the Tara Project in Glasgow).

8. Who are the men that buy sex?

A number of international and UK studies show that men who buy sex are just as likely to be in relationships and/or married as men who do not buy sex. Recent research on men who buy sex in London found that 36% were in a relationship and a further 16% were married (Coy, Horvath & Kelly, 2007). Similarly, of the profile of men arrested for kerb crawling, in one study almost half were married (Hester & Westmarland, 2004) and in another 73% had a regular sexual partner (Elliot et al, 2002). Some US research has found that men who buy sex are less likely to be married, but the differences are very small (Monto & McRee, 2005). In the London study, 40% of sex buyers were in their twenties. What is rarely discussed is the fact that the majority of men have not paid for sex.

9. Why do men do it and what do they say about it?

Men provide a range of reasons for paying for sex, all of which link in some way to beliefs about ‘male sex drives’ and a sense of entitlement (O’Neill, 2001, Mansson, 2004, McKeganey & Barnard, 1996): that men not only ‘need’ sex but also have a ‘right’ to it. The idea that men ‘need’ sexual release is frequently invoked when suggesting that prostitution prevents ‘innocent’ women from being sexually assaulted.

They also express a range of views about the women they pay: from clichéd ‘tarts with hearts’ ideas to viewing them as less intelligent, inferior and ‘dirty’ compared to other women (Elliott et al, 2002). Many men are instrumental, using the language of consumption moving here from notions of ‘value for money’ to seeing and treating women as just another commodity on the market (Coy, Horvath & Kelly, 2007). The focus is predominantly on the bad character and baseness of the prostituted woman rather than any self-reflection on the harm buyers of sex are inflicting. However, a minority also report feelings of shame, guilt and ambivalence, albeit that some of this group continue to pay for sex.

10. What would the criminalisation of the buyers of sex achieve?

Making the purchase of sex a criminal offence means defining the demand side of prostitution as the problem, rather than women who sell sex. Currently, kerbcrawling – picking up women in the street – is the only illegal activity associated with buying sex. Criminalising paying for sex altogether enshrines in law the principle that is the act of buying women’s bodies and male entitlement to do so that is the problem, not the setting.

Sweden made buying sex illegal in 1999, as part of a wider campaign to end violence against women and achieve gender equality. The Swedish government says that ‘prostitution is regarded as an aspect of male violence against women and children. It is officially acknowledged as a form of exploitation of women and children and constitutes a significant social problem.’

There is debate over not only the impact of the Swedish reforms, but also how its success should be measured. Despite many claims there has been no official evaluation of it, other than to canvass public opinion and 80 per cent of Swedes support it. Sweden does not evaluate ‘success’ of legal reforms in the quantitative measures we expect in the UK – how many men have been prosecuted etc. Rather they use law in a normative way, and will assess the impact in terms of generational changes with respect to the acceptability of paying for sex. This is the same process as when in the early 1970s they outlawed smacking children: success was not how many parents were prosecuted, but that they changed understandings of the relationships between adults and children at first at home, and then more widely.

11. Is there any good practice in the UK that we can learn from?

In Scotland, prostitution is recognised as ‘a form of abuse of women’ and is included in strategic approaches to addressing violence against women. The Scottish Executive has introduced measures aimed at reducing demand through new legislation that criminalises buying sex on the streets (Prostitution (Public Places) Act 2007). A significant percentage of UK support services for women in prostitution are in Scotland (Coy, Kelly & Foord, 2007).

12. What is the link between prostitution and trafficking?

Trafficking of women into the sex industry is a direct consequence of demand for women and girls in prostitution. In countries where prostitution (or most aspects of it) is legal, sex industries are larger and create a demand for more women to sell sex, attracting traffickers and others who exploit women for financial gain. The legal sex industry acts as a magnet for traffickers, thus increasing the number of women who are being exploited. It also results in the growth of a parallel illegal sex industry. Recently, the Dutch government responded to estimates that as many as 3,500 women are trafficked to the Netherlands each year by announcing the closure of almost two-thirds of brothels in Amsterdam.

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Resources and research about young people and sexual exploitation can be found at

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