Most British people think that sex work should be legal, but is it ‘real work’?

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Despite the stigma that still surrounds the industry, most Brits say paying for sex should be legal. However, they remain unsure if sex work is ‘real’ work.

Still referred to as the world’s oldest profession, sex work persists as a contentious issue in today’s society.  A new YouGov survey delves into public sentiments regarding its legality, perceptions of who qualifies as a sex worker, and attitudes toward the profession.

The findings paint a nuanced picture: while most think sex work should be legal, there is still a divide on whether it is “real work”.

A majority acknowledge the stigmatised perceptions of sex work and sex workers and wish it didn’t exist – but many wouldn’t knowingly befriend a sex worker.

More than half of Britons (52 per cent) say it should be legal to pay for sex, with 28 per cent disagreeing, while 54 per cent believe getting paid for a sex act should also not be against the law.

The distinction between the two is important, as campaign groups on both sides debate whether to legalise or criminalise both paying for and selling sex work, or to focus solely on the demand.

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Sex work is legal in the UK (except in Northern Ireland), but there are conditions. A majority of Brits (57 per cent) report being happy with individuals independently offering sexual services in private settings, such as independent prostitutes or escorts operating from their homes or hotel rooms.

However, street solicitation is against the law. The majority of the public agrees with this regulation, with 72 per cent of those surveyed wanting it to remain illegal. Just 14 per cent want it legalised.

Employing sex workers is also illegal in the UK. Falling under the legal umbrella of pimping and/or brothel-keeping, this doesn’t have the public’s support either with only 29 per cent saying it should be permitted. 

What is sex work?

The term “sex work” can be quite ambiguous, so to understand the public’s perception of what it entails, the YouGov survey asked the question directly.

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Unsurprisingly, a huge majority of those who responded (94 per cent) consider prostitutes and escorts to be sex workers. Almost 90 per cent say porn actors and cam models are too.

Sixty-five per cent also consider “sugaring” – where a younger person offers a romantic (sometimes sexual-like) relationship to an older wealthy person in exchange for material things such as cars, holidays and jewellery – to be sex work.

Lap-dancers and strippers are also considered to be sex workers by 55 per cent of those surveyed, but when it comes to nude photos posed in a “sexual manner,” only 38 per cent think so.

Is it ‘real work’ and the sex-work stigma

The rallying cry for many sex work advocacy groups is often, “Sex work is real work,” which suggests that those in the industry should have access to the same employment protections as those in other professions.

But the UK is fairly evenly divided on this with 43 per cent of people saying that “sex work should be regarded legally and socially like more conventional forms of employment”.

In addition to advocating for the legal status of sex workers, campaign groups want to de-stigmatise the industry. The UK public overwhelmingly agrees, with 75 per cent saying there is a great deal or fair amount of stigma towards sex work.

Likewise, the public does not think that sex workers should be stigmatised, with 51 per cent saying so. However, many wouldn’t want to be in a relationship with a sex worker or even be friends with one. Close to 90 per cent of people would be unwilling to date an escort, prostitute or porn actor.

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Probably not surprisingly, the survey found that men were more likely to be in a romantic relationship with, or a friend of, a sex worker, past or present. Nine per cent of men admitted having paid for sex while 15 per cent had paid for a striptease or lap dance.

No women reported having paid for sex although one per cent had paid for a striptease, lap dance or to watch a performer on Only Fans.