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Why is it still legal to pay for sex?

CARE say it's time for a law that properly recognises the exploitative nature of prostitution | Credit: Adobe

James Mildred, Chief Communications Officer

James Mildred, Chief Communications Officer | CARE

4 min read Partner content

We must explore options to criminalise the purchase of sex, sending the message that exploitation will not be tolerated.

Do we want to live in a society where you can buy sexual consent? That was the question posed two years ago in a ground-breaking report from the Conservative Human Rights Commission. It recommended that buying sex should be criminalised and people in prostitution supported through clear exit pathways and strategies. Now, two years on, are we any further forward?

The fact is, a debate about current prostitution laws is long overdue. When I say debate, I mean a proper, evidence-led, robust discussion about the type of society we want to be. Prostitution is a divisive issue, with strong feelings either side of the debate. But all campaigners agree that the current law is not working. 

Paying for sex and providing sexual services for payment are legal in England, Wales, and Scotland. Someone can sell their body for the purposes of sex and someone else can legally buy it. However, other activities closely related to prostitution are against the law – soliciting in a public place, brothel keeping and controlling others for prostitution. This confusing legal framework is unsustainable and morally indefensible. The deficiencies are summed up by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Prostitution, who, in their 2014 report wrote:

“The legal settlement around prostitution sends no clear signals to women who sell sex, men who purchase it, courts and the criminal justice system, the police or local authorities. 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.”

Considering this, what we really need is a law that properly recognises the exploitative nature of prostitution. In 2019, the Conservative Human Rights Commission inquiry found that “the overwhelming majority of those in prostitution would not meet the threshold for establishing free choice – most describe their choice to enter prostitution as dictated by their circumstances”.

Rebecca Perry from Safe Exit said: “Through my experience, the women we’ve worked with, we’ve never met a woman who has consciously made a decision that that is the career choice that she’s obviously decided for. It’s something that she’s found herself within, and there’s no point within her experience where she can actually pinpoint the moment that she entered, because it’s such a continuum. So I think for that reason, that evidences the fact that it’s not a choice; it’s a coercion. It’s something out of desperation.”

Looking at some of the latest statistics, there are approximately 72,800 people in prostitution with nearly half being in London. It’s a highly gendered issue that disproportionately affects women. 2014 ONS figures estimated around 58,000 women in some form of prostitution with an average of 25 clients a week There’s evidence demonstrating a high number of women in prostitution have experienced coercion from a partner, relative or pimp. Incidents of violence against women are far higher. Many people enter prostitution at a young age, sometimes even under the age of 18. Current laws are failing to protect them from exploitation and help them leave prostitution.

By criminalising the purchase of sex, you send a powerful message that exploitation will not be tolerated, and that consent cannot be purchased

At CARE, we advocate for an approach being taken by a growing number of countries around the world. It’s the approach adopted in Northern Ireland, where the law was changed in 2015 to make buying sex illegal. This is the approach taken by Norway and Sweden and from there it’s gained the name the ‘Nordic model’. Evidence shows this approach helps reduce levels of prostitution while also deterring human traffickers.

By criminalising the purchase of sex, you send a powerful message that exploitation will not be tolerated, and that consent cannot be purchased. Under this approach you also invest heavily in proper exiting services, which are a vital and much needed lifeline to help people in prostitution leave and rebuild their lives. As the Government seeks to build back better following the covid-19 pandemic, it should welcome opportunities to reform the law and make buying sex illegal.

James Mildred is Chief Communications Officer for social policy charity CARE.

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