The Home Affairs Committee has published an interim report on prostitution, acknowledging that elements of the present law are unsatisfactory and that the criminalisation of sex workers must come to an end.
The Committee says the Home Office should immediately change existing legislation so that soliciting is no longer an offence and brothel-keeping laws allow sex workers to share premises, without losing the ability to prosecute those who use brothels to control or exploit sex workers.
The Committee’s report closely follows Amnesty International’s first policy on the protection of Sex workers human rights published earlier this year which called for decriminalisation of all aspects of adult consensual sex work globally.
Prostitution and the United Kingdom
According to the Home Affairs committee report around 11% of British men aged 16–74 have paid for sex on at least one occasion, which equates to 2.3 million individuals with the number of sex workers in the UK is estimated to be around 72,800 with about 32,000 working in London.
In the United Kingdom prostitution itself is legal. A person can buy sexual services and working as a private prostitute or outcall escort is legal. However, many related activities are not. This includes kerb crawling, pimping, keeping a brothel, advertising the services of call girls and having sex in public.
The Sexual Offences Act 2003 defines a prostitute as a person who has offered or given services of a sexual nature to another person in return for financial gain on one or more occasions.
The need for change
Sex workers face high levels of stigma, prejudice and discrimination, often compounded by presumptions of illegality or immorality imposed by sex work-related laws. Sex workers are frequently shamed and blamed for acts of violence committed against them – by police, clients, family, other private individuals, health care service providers and employers.
As the law stands sex workers are required by law to work alone and therefore their capacity to engage in work safely is compromised greatly. The law prohibits a lot of actions that sex workers may take to manage their safety, in doing so, it is violating a sex worker’s human rights, including their right to security of person, housing and health.
The Rt Hon Keith Vaz MP, Chair of the Committee rightly states that; ‘the current law on brothel keeping means sex-workers can be too afraid of prosecution to work together at the same premises, which can often compromise their safety.
The criminalisation of sex work creates a situation whereby punters, law enforcement, other officials and third parties can perpetrate violence, harassment and extortion against sex workers with impunity. A sex worker’s access to justice and equal protection under the law is compromised because of the very real threat of persecution or risk of hardship should they come forward.
This is the first time that UK Parliament has considered the issue of prostitution in the round for decades and the investigation into prostitution in the United Kingdom will continue. The Committee has called for the Home Office to commission an in-depth research study on the current extent and nature of prostitution in England and Wales, within the next 12 months. There is no doubt this is a highly contentious issue, but that is no excuse for shying away from tackling human rights violations and abuses both in the UK and on a global scale.
Off the back of findings from Amnesty International’s global inquiry into the sex industry, there are three key areas of reform. To bring meaningful change in this area and to meet the state’s human rights obligations to sex workers we must focus on the following;
- We must repeal existing laws criminalising the consensual exchange of sexual services between consenting adults for remuneration and refocus on protecting sex workers health and safety. There must be zero tolerance of the organised criminal exploitation of sex workers.
- We must address the underlying societal causes driving people to enter the sex industry; and
- We must ensure there is effective framework and services available to people who wish to leave the sex industry safely.
In respect of the third objective, promoting safe exit from the industry the Committee has specifically called for the Home Office to legislate to delete previous convictions and cautions for prostitution from the record of sex workers. Criminal records of this kind make it much more difficult for people to move out of prostitution into other forms of work if they wish.
Irrespective of one’s moralistic views on the sex industry it is important to remember when considering the decriminalisation of the sex industry that this is about the realisation of sex workers’ human rights and above all, ensuring the safety of consenting adults who wish to engage in sex work.