Prostitution and sex work should be legal, MPs recommend

Sex workers in Germany

Parliament’s influential Home Affairs Select Committee has called for an end to laws that criminalise sex work.

At present in the UK people who sell sex can face action under laws that outlaw soliciting in a public place, kerb crawling, owning or managing a brothel, pimping and pandering.

However, after a year-long inquiry into the subject, an influential cross-party committee is calling for change on the issue.

The Home Affairs Select Committee, chaired by Labour’s Keith Vaz, said there is not enough evidence to support prostitution being illegal.

The inquiry report, published today, warns: “The law is incoherent at best and detrimental at worst.

“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.”

The report recommends that “at the earliest opportunity, the Home Office change existing legislation so that soliciting is no longer an offence”.

Under the proposed model, solicitation-based offences would be removed from law. There were conflicting views on whether a new offence introduced for buying sex.

The report follows submissions from groups including the National AIDS Trust and Action for Trans Health.

NAT warned: “NAT strongly believes that people who sell sex should not be subject to criminal sanction, but instead should be supported to maintain their rights, safety and health.

“Criminalising sex work undermines HIV prevention and treatment for a high-risk population, which risks further destabilising the lives of those involved and potentially cementing their position in relation to the sex industry.

“This runs entirely contradictory to the aim of providing individuals opportunities to exit from sex work, as well as broader aims for public health and public order.

“The World Health Organisation (WHO) has identified sex workers among the groups that ‘due to specific higher-risk behaviours, are at increased risk of HIV irrespective of the epidemic type or local context.’

“Globally, sex workers are disproportionally affected by HIV. In 110 countries with available data, the prevalence of HIV infection is almost 12 times higher among sex workers than for the population as a whole.”

Action for Trans Health noted: “In a large study of online profiles selling sex in the UK , it was found that 4% identified as trans (of which, 70% identified as women, 27% as men, and 3% as non-binary); and overall 33% of profiles identified as men, and just under 66% of profiles identified as women.

“As far as we know this is the only study which has attempted to approximate the number of trans sex workers, but this obviously does not include those who operate solely offline.

“The data seems to suggest that trans people, and particularly trans women, disproportionately engage in sex work compared to their cisgender peers. This may be due to a combination of discrimination in more conventional forms of employment and high poverty rates within the trans community. Trans people, and particularly trans youth, are also more likely to be homeless or vulnerably housed compared to their cisgender peers.

“Lack of access to healthcare has also been highlighted by our members who are sex workers as a significant driver for their choice to sell sex.”

The group added: “We believe that it is fundamentally necessary to protect the human rights of trans sex workers, and that to do so it is necessary for policy makers to listen to the voices of trans sex workers alongside those of their cisgender peers when considering policy and practices that impact their lives.

“We believe that the criminalisation of sex workers disproportionately impacts the trans community. Trans people face significant discrimination in various arenas of everyday life, particularly in employment, healthcare, and housing. For many trans people, sex work is necessary for survival, and criminalisation only harms an already marginalised community.”

However, the report has not been met positively by all – with many criticising the suggestion of criminalising sex work clients.

One pro-prostitution group warned the proposals “will further divert police time and resources from investigating rape, trafficking and other violent crimes to policing consenting sex”.