Prostitution is sometimes described as ‘the world’s oldest profession.’ In the media’s glamorised portrayal, it is often at best fun, harmless and empowering, and at worst, a legitimate means for women to pay the bills.

This presentation of prostitution is a far cry from the reality. For the vast majority of those involved, prostitution is a last-resort rather than a free choice; it is a source of acute physical and psychological harm rather than of empowerment; it is an oppression rather than a profession, and it is both a cause and consequence of inequality.

“We, the survivors of prostitution and trafficking… declare that prostitution is violence against women. Women in prostitution do not wake up one day and ‘choose’ to be prostitutes. It is chosen for us by poverty, past sexual abuse, the pimps who take advantage of our vulnerabilities, and the men who buy us for the sex of prostitution.”

Quick facts: Prostitution in the UK

  • There are approximately 60-80,000 prostituted women in the UK– although the exact number is extremely difficult to gauge, as prostitution is mostly hidden and its population is transient. Around 32,000 are based in London.
  • It is estimated that some £770m ($1.2bn) is spent on prostitution every year, more than on cinemas or many other forms of entertainment.
  • The sex trafficking of women into England and Wales is estimated to be worth at least £130 million per year.
  • The UK sex industry is growing in size and diversity, with more opportunities to buy and sell sex via sex clubs, escort agencies, the internet, and sex tourism. There’s been an increased demand in those willing to pay for sex.
  • London is “a city saturated in prostitution” with 10 of the 33 London boroughs having established red light areas, and all having off-street prostitution: “Westminster alone has more than 130 identified brothels. This excludes walk-up flats in Soho, brothels advertised covertly in particular ethnic groups and “secondary level” services (escort agencies, chat-lines, lap-dancing clubs).”
  • Fewer than 20% of prostituted women in London are from the UK.
  • 11% of British men aged 16–74 have paid for sex at least once. This equates to 2.3 million individuals.

Who Sells Sex?

The overwhelming majority of those who end up in prostitution are highly vulnerable.

Whenever prostitution is defended as a ‘choice’, it’s important to consider that many prostituted women describe what they do as an involuntary way of making ends meet – in short, it’s the choice of choicelessness.

For the vast majority of people, sex work or whatever name you give it is a survival strategy. For most it is a practice enforced by poverty, degradation, homelessness, hunger and powerlessness; a form of slavery to economic, social and cultural deprivation, stigmatisation and marginalisation. S. Khan

I worked with women who had grown up in foster care, women who had fled childhood sexual abuse, women who had lived on the streets, women living with drug dependency, and young single mothers who had no other way to provide for their kids. All of us had been raped at least once, and some of us habitually self-mutilated (punters never seemed to care about the scars on our wrists). We are told of women who ‘love’ working in the sex industry but in my time I never met such a woman. Rhiannon, Sex trade survivor

Risk Factors for Entering Prostitution

Poverty, debt and marginalisation from the mainstream employment structures are important drivers to prostitution.1

American Clinical psychologist Melissa Farley writes: “Everywhere, prostituted people are overwhelmingly poor, indeed normally destitute. There is no disagreement on this fact. Urgent financial need is the most frequent reason mentioned by people in prostitution for being in the sex trade.”2

In one study, 74% of women working in off-street prostitution in the UK cited paying household expenses and supporting children as their prime motivating factor.3

Many prostitutes in the UK say they were driven into it because they were unable to find other forms of employment. Some asylum seekers who have no recourse to public funds turn to the sex trade as a form of survival. 4

Poor education, as well as a lack of training and qualifications, both drives women into prostitution and reduces the chance of them finding alternative forms of employment once they exit. One study of UK prostituted women found that a third left education at the age of 14 or younger.5Another found that 39% had no formal qualifications or training.6

Previous abuse and neglect
Research shows that previous abuse- whether physical, sexual and emotional- is something experienced by the majority of women in all forms of prostitution.7Childhood abuse is such a common precursor to prostitution that it’s considered by some experts to be a necessary if not sufficient risk factor.8

Through childhood sexual abuse, many prostituted women have become conditioned into thinking that this is their choice… It normalises this kind of behaviour and causes many to enter into the trade. 9

In a 2012 study of UK sex workers, 72% reported experiences of physical, sexual and verbal violence during childhood; past experiences of abuse were said to compound feelings of worthlessness.10

Research into young people in the UK abused through prostitution shows that many were sexually, physically or emotionally abused at home or bullied at school.11 The charity ECPAT found that, in the majority of cases, there had been serious child protection concerns within the family. ‘Physical and sexual abuse were frighteningly common.’12


I knew about half the girls who were on the street with me from the institutional care system and all were in their teens, under the age of consent. Prostitution is populated by people who have no other choice, girls so inured to sexual abuse that prostitution is the next logical step. Rachel Moran, prostitution

Globally, women typically enter prostitution when they are young, “often well below the age of consent.” Around 50% British prostituted women started out before they were 18.13 It’s estimated that the prevalence of under-aged prostituted women has increased here in recent years.14

75% of children abused through prostitution are missing from school,15 and it’s been suggested that up to 5000 young people in the UK may be involved at any one time, with a female/ male ratio of 4:1.16

Ethnic minority, black and indigenous women are often over-represented in the sex trade. This is largely down to the oppression resulting from intersecting forms of racial, class and gender inequality. Women of colour are often stereotyped and hypersexualised- a legacy of slavery and colonisation kept alive by pornography.17 In brothels, they are often segregated from white women, are paid less, experience more violence and find it more difficult to leave.

Ethnic minority women are often especially vulnerable when they are isolated from their homeland, isolated from mainstream society by virtue of their minority status and then from their own immigrant communities because of their prostitution. 18

‘When combined with other sources of vulnerability, race and gender discrimination are strong push factors toward prostitution. A disproportionate number of racial minorities are trafficked – coerced into prostitution…’

Addiction and homelessness
Homelessness and drug addiction are the two most significant factors prompting engagement in on-street prostitution and two of the main barriers to stabilising the lives of prostituted women. Many of those in UK street prostitution have no stable accommodation and ‘typically spend their days on a friend’s floor, in squats, crack houses or, occasionally, at a ‘client’s home.’19

Trafficking, grooming and third-party control:
These factors of vulnerability make girls and women particularly susceptible to entering (and remaining) in prostitution through force, coercion or deception. Around half of women in prostitution are under pimp control, a fact understood by almost half of UK sex buyers. 20

Prostitution as actually practised in the world usually does satisfy the elements of trafficking. It is rare that one finds a case in which the path to prostitution and/or a person’s experiences within prostitution do not involve, at the very least, an abuse of power and/or an abuse of vulnerability…. 21

Any third-party involvement in a woman’s prostitution meets the international definition of human trafficking. Although it’s illegal to profit off a woman’s prostitution, according to a 2018 APPG report, trafficking is “widespread across the UK”, facilitated by adult services websites and often operating through legitimate businesses (licensed as saunas or massage parlours). 22

Pimping usually involves multiple kinds of coercive control- not just physical violence but also manipulation, deception, debt bondage, threats, surveillance and isolation, all of which increase a dependence. In recent years, there’s been an increase in ‘pimp/partner’ relationships where control is classified as domestic violence. 23

Who Buys Sex?

The ‘sex buyer’ shares none of the vulnerability of those who sell sex. Financially and socially, he is privileged in relation to them.24 However, despite not differing from non-sex buyers significantly in terms of socio-economic status, there are distinctive characteristics of men who buy sex:

Sex buyers are more sexually-aggressive than non sex-buyers: A recent study has found that men who buy sex are characterised by “a preference for impersonal sex, a fear of rejection by women, a history of having committed sexually aggressive acts and a hostile masculine self-identification.”25

Another study in Scotland found that the more often a sex buyer uses women in prostitution, the more likely he is to have committed sexually coercive acts against non-prostituted women.26

Studies show that sex buyers acknowledged having committed significantly more sexually coercive acts against women (non-prostituted as well as prostituted women) than non-sex buyers.27 They are also more accepting of rape myths.28

Sex buyers engaged in significantly more criminal activity than non-sex buyers. “They were far more likely than non-sex buyers to commit felonies, misdemeanors, crimes related to violence against women, substance abuse-related crimes, assaults, crimes with weapons, and crimes against authority. All of the crimes known to be associated with violence against women were reported by sex buyers; none were reported by non-sex buyers.”29

Along with other sexually-aggressive men, those who buy sex have less empathy than men who don’t. They tend to view prostituted women as “intrinsically different from other women.” 30 They therefore tend to treat them with less respect.

Sex Buyers Say …

It’s like renting an organ for 10 minutes 31

Being with a prostitute is like having a cup of coffee, when you’re done, you throw it out. 32

If my sister or mother did this I would be very angry 33

If I wasn’t able to have sex with a prostitute and was frustrated, I might have to go out and attack real women. 34

If my fiance won’t give me anal, I know someone who will. 35

Sex Sellers Say …

They own you for that half hour or that twenty minutes or that hour. They are buying you. They have no attachments, you’re not a person, you’re a thing to be used. 36

I’ve had clients confess that the things they paid me to do were things they would never ask their wives, whom they respected, or their ‘child’s mother’’ to do. 37

Men who purchase sex are quite open about their belief that their entitlement to sex should take precedence over the wellbeing of the woman they buy. 38

Sex buyers either deny or choose to ignore trafficking or the harms of prostitution.
In a study interviewing sex buyers from 6 countries, 39 50% of the men admitted that they knew the women they bought were trafficked, pimped, or otherwise coerced and yet, ‘not one man chose not to have sex with the women upon realising this.’

Several studies strongly suggest purchasers understand that prostituted persons do not enjoy the sex, are economically strapped, are subjected to violence and grave hardships, and are often pimped or trafficked, but nonetheless, they proceed to purchase sex. 40

One Dutch report notes: ‘Prostitutes have little trust in clients as whistleblowers of abuse. They can’t imagine that clients would actually, sincerely and for the right reasons be interested in the well-being of prostitutes… prostitutes describe their clientele as much less responsible than the clients themselves describe. According to them, clients are primarily occupied with their own pleasure and sexual arousal.’ 41

In Romania, researchers interviewed sex buyers, women in prostitution, pimps, and police officers, all of whom agreed that sex buyers ‘are not interested if the girls are actually trafficked or not but are rather more interested in satisfying their sexual needs.’ 42


I may as well have been a plastic doll. After they had their way I would lose my appeal and they’d dispose of me. Rhiannon, Sex trade survivor 43


Renting a body turns a woman into an object; and, ‘[o]nce a person is turned into an object, exploitation and abuse seem almost reasonable.’ 44All research points to the fact that violence against women is a common occurrence in the sex industry. 45 The 2014 APPG report describes violence experienced by women in prostitution as ‘near pandemic.’ 46Prostitution is violent in a multitude of different ways, as prostitution survivor Tanja Rahm explains: “the violence in prostitution is complex. It’s not just being hit, kicked and raped… It is psychological and verbal…physical…sexual… material… financial.” 47 Trafficking for prostitution and violence against prostitutes was one of the most common and severe forms of violence against women in the world. 48

The johns – the clients – are violent. I’ve been shot five times, stabbed 13 times. I don’t know why those men attacked me, all I know is that society made it comfortable for them to do so. They brought their anger or mental illness or whatever it was and they decided to wreak havoc on a prostitute, knowing I couldn’t go to the police and if I did I wouldn’t be taken seriously. Brenda Meers Powell, Sex trade survivor 49

Women in prostitution have the highest rates of rape, physical assault, and homicide of any women ever studied. It’s been estimated that women involved in street prostitution are 60 to 100 times more likely to be murdered than are non-prostituted women. 50 In the UK, it’s estimated that around 89 prostituted women have been murdered in the last 10 years (although this figure is conservative). 51A 1995 report found 87% of the women were victims of some sort of abuse from a client, and 73% of the participants had been a victim multiple times. Of the 87% that reported client abuse, 43% suffered physical assault or abuse, and 27% reported being raped. 52A 2002 study interviewing women in Merseyside 53 found that: 43% had been sexually assaulted, 36% had been raped, 43% had been threatened with a weapon, and 13% had been kidnapped. 54A 2004 study commissioned by the CRP reported that just over half of the 133 prostituted women surveyed ‘had been forced to have sex or been indecently assaulted and the perpetrators were most often the male clients (81%) and/or a boyfriend/pimp/partner (23%).’ 55Women in prostitution are often reluctant to complain about violence against them; there’s a double-standard for them since, ‘[i]f prostitution is “sex work”, then by its own logic, rape is merely theft.’ 56

Women in prostitution are seen as a legitimate target for men’s violence, that we somehow deserve what we get…

In prostitution, women are defined as rentable sex organs, as unrapeable, less than human, as having no feelings. “What others see as rape, we see as normal,” a woman prostituting in Vancouver explained.” 57

Psychological Damage

Irrespective of the type of prostitution, there is extensive evidence that prostitution causes profound emotional damage.58

The emotional distress experienced by prostituted women is “off the charts” and includes depression, suicidality, post traumatic stress disorder, dissociation and substance abuse.59

Prostitution has this way of stealing all the dreams, goals and beautiful essence out of a woman. During my years in it, I didn’t meet one woman who enjoyed what she was doing. Everyone was trying to get out. Woman Prostituted for 19 years 60

In a study of prostituted women across 9 countries, 68% were found to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. This is “‘a prevalence that was comparable to battered women seeking shelter, rape survivors seeking treatment, and survivors of state-sponsored torture.’61

Dissociative disorders, where the mind detaches from the current emotional or physical state, are commonplace for women in prostitution.62 Long-term, dissociation erodes a sense of identity, self-esteem and psychological stability from which it is difficult for women to recover even after exiting prostitution.63 Women who exit the sex trade report the struggle to regain their identity and psychological stability.

One review of studies offers the following summary: ‘Victims or survivors of sexual exploitation and trafficking maintain increased rates of mental health issues such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and have elevated rates of trauma. These are important risks and consequences of sexual exploitation because they profoundly affect individuals’ experiences during sexual exploitation and any assistance they may subsequently seek. A victim’s mental health may be further complicated by the cyclical nature of trauma, substance abuse, PTSD, and other mental health issues as well as the length of time and intensity of the sexual exploitation.’64

Addiction and Homelessness

Addiction is both a cause and consequence of prostitution. Drugs and alcohol are well-known as ‘coping mechanisms’ to deal with the reality and shame of the work 65
or to deal with loneliness or the effects of previous abuse. 66

A common argument that has long been used by the pro-prostitution lobby is that women enter street prostitution primarily to pay for drugs. Those of us who understand the harm that is inherent to the sex trade have long argued that many women turn to drugs because of the horrors they have to deal with in prostitution. 67

Homelessness and drug addiction are the two most significant factors prompting engagement in on-street prostitution and two of the main barriers to stabilizing the lives of prostituted women. 68 Many of those in UK street prostitution have no stable accommodation and ‘typically spend their days on a friend’s floor, in squats, crack houses or, occasionally, at a ‘client’s home.’ 69

Class A drug addiction is almost ubiquitous among street prostitutes. As many as 95% of those working on the street are believed to be problematic drug users. 70Increasingly, men ‘pimp out’ their partners in order to fund both of their drug addictions. 71

Why don’t women simply leave?

Leaving prostitution is extremely difficult; the factors that drive marginalised people into the sex industry in the first place (e.g. vulnerability, trauma and economic insecurity) are the same factors that make it nearly impossible for them to exit.72

According to the Home Office report from 2004: ‘Most women reported that they had tried to leave prostitution but failed to do so as a result of problematic drug use and a catalogue of historical and continuing vulnerabilities which acted as significant barriers.’73
Even the women who eventually succeed only manage to after multiple attempts.74

Why didn’t I just walk away? After all, no one was holding a gun to my head, right? But the gun doesn’t always have to be physical. It can be psychological. …As a former victim of sexual abuse, at no time did it occur to be that I deserved better. The words of past abusers rung in my head- “this is all you are good for.” Words I believed with every part of my soul. Threats of exposure, of arrest and jail-time, and the huge influx of cash, were other psychological chains that bound me to sex work. Charlotte, Sex trade survivor 75

A major UK report into the exiting of prostituted women76 identified 9 major barriers:

  • Coercion: 50% of the women were under control by a pimp, partner or other relative.
  • Criminalisation: 49% of the women had criminal convictions for prostitution related offences. Whether prostitution-related or otherwise, this leads to stigma, debt and barriers of entry into employment.
  • Problematic alcohol and drug use: these were also found to be strongly linked with poor mental and physical health problems, problems with accommodation and debt, and involvement with the criminal justice system.
  • Housing: the threat of homelessness means some women remain in prostitution or stay with pimps or abusive partners
  • Childhood violence: emotional, physical, verbal and sexual trauma as children sometimes links with the prostitution to compound feelings of worthlessness
  • Poor physical and mental health: problems like depression, anxiety and dissociation make it difficult for women to engage with the idea of exiting.
  • Young age of entry– with no memory of life before prostitution, it’s harder to form a new role and way of life.
  • Lack of qualifications/training
  • Money problems: including debt, debt-bondage and dependence on a disposable income lifestyle




The Wider Social/Community Cost of Prostitution

Prostitution has a significant impact on the communities in which it takes place: “Prostitution has a close affinity with a host of other important social issues, in particular crime, drugs, sexual equality, poverty and health.”77

The Home Office’ 2004 Report “Paying the Price” identified numerous key concerns:78

  • The neighbourhood nuisance of noise, litter and harassment
  • The undermining of local economic regeneration and neighbourhood renewal
  • The advertising of prostitution, particularly through street soliciting and the use of prostitutes’ cards
  • The spread of sexually and drug-transmitted infections
  • Increasing use of the internet as a grooming/advertising medium
  • Links with drug abuse / markets links with criminality, including robbery related violence, including
  • serious assaults against those involved in prostitution
  • The increasing stigmatisation and social exclusion of those involved in prostitution the abuse of children through prostitution
  • The impact on their families
  • People trafficking for the purposes of commercial sexual exploitation
  • The effect on the attitudes of men to women, and on gender equality more generally.

Communities are often seriously concerned about the existence of local street-based prostitution. Anti-social behaviour can include noise – verbal abuse among those involved in prostitution and from local residents – and kerb crawling, which increases and often slows down the flow of traffic through the area. Sex buyers will often mistakenly focus their attention on other women passing by, and prostituted women on men who are not potential clients.

Sexual activity can take place in public, in car parks, playgrounds and private gardens. Litter includes used condoms, dirty needles and other drug paraphernalia. Drug dealing is often also present. This general level of nuisance and anti-social behaviour can create an intimidating atmosphere and lead to degeneration of the area, impacting significantly on the value of property and on insurance premiums.

Degeneration: The cumulative impact of these different factors is that an area becomes undesirable, unpleasant and unsafe, deterring families and businesses from moving in, contributing to a spiral of decline. This can also lead to a decline in public order and an increase in lawlessness.

Crime: There is also evidence of crime specifically associated with those involved in prostitution and their users. Those involved in prostitution, particularly where this is to fund a serious drug habit, may also be involved in theft and other areas of criminality. A Greater Manchester study of street criminals, Both Sides of the Coin, found that sex buyers were considered to be ideal robbery victims as they carried large amounts of cash, were unlikely to report the incident, and are distracted.

A report commissioned by the Home office in 2003 aimed to examine the impact of anti-social behaviour upon key service providers (e.g. the police, local authorities and the fire service). In a single day, 1,099 reports were made relating to the Crime and Disorder Reduction Partnership (covering kerb crawling, soliciting, prostitutes’ cards in telephone boxes, discarded condoms and inappropriate sexual acts) in England and Wales, suggesting just under 400,000 reports per year.79






Current legal framework in the UK

In the UK, prostitution is not illegal. However, a Home Office report makes it clear that the government realises the serious damage prostitution inflicts on the individuals involved and the communities in which it takes place, including antisocial behaviour, criminality and organised crime, trafficking and drug abuse, sexually and drug-transmitted infection, and endemic abuse, violence and exploitation.

In an attempt to mitigate the harm and risks associated with prostitution, the UK government has criminalised more than 30 activities associated with prostitution, including: soliciting sex on the street; kerb crawling; advertising using cards in telephone boxes; causing/ inciting prostitution or controlling it for personal gain (pimping); brothel-keeping; and the buying of sex from trafficked individuals.

There are numerous shortcomings in the current law, as identified by a 2014 APPG Report, in which a survey of Police forces and local councils found that only 7% considered the current laws on prostitution to be effective and consistent in safeguarding those involved in prostitution.80

Prostitution is a social issue where there is considerable variation in the legislative intent and framework of different countries, even within Europe.81
There’s been a shift in recent years in Europe’s approach to prostitution, because of the massive problem of sex trafficking: ‘A recent European parliamentary report estimated there were about 880,000 people living in slave-like conditions in Europe, of whom 270,000 were victims of sexual exploitation.’82

In the UK, the debate over the appropriate legal model for prostitution is fierce and polarised, with some advocating total legalisation of brothels and designated areas for street prostitution and others who believe customers and pimps should be penalised, and women in the sex industry should be supported to exit.

 ‘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. ….’

2014 APPG Report 83

There are some calls to reform the UK law on prostitution by decriminalising or legalising prostitution in all of its forms. To clarify the difference: ‘Legalization of prostitution with laws regarding where, when, and how prostitution could take place. Decriminalization eliminates all laws and prohibits the state d law-enforcement officials from intervening in any prostitution-related activities or transactions, unless other laws apply.’

Studies suggest that with legalization comes an increased demand for more prostituted persons. Indeed, legalization appears to be associated with a culture in which prostitution and sexual coercion are more normalized. 84

Nations and nongovernmental organizations advocating for legalization or decriminalization include, Germany, parts of Australia, the Netherlands,Denmark, the World Health Organization, UNAIDS, the International Labor Organization, UN Women, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health, and a variety of other entities.

Legalisation/Decriminalisation: The Distinction

Often, people use the terms legalisation and decriminalisation interchangeably when it comes to the sex trade industry. But, there is an important distinction85. This distinction is explained here by Professor Donna Hughes86:

“Legalization would mean the regulation of prostitution with laws regarding where, when, and how prostitution could take place. Decriminalization eliminates all laws and prohibits the state and law-enforcement officials from intervening in any prostitution-related activities or transactions, unless other laws apply.”

This is the distinction in theory, but as we will see, the results expected from enacting one over the other ultimately often lead to the same end: violence, abuse and trafficking.

Legalisation: The Theory

Where prostitution is understood as ‘sex work’ and, ‘the oldest profession; a cultural universal; consensual because paid; stigmatized because illegal; a job like any other denied that recognition; love in public’ it makes perfect sense to remove all criminal sanctions from all those involved in the sex industry ‘so that prostitution becomes as legitimate as any other mode of livelihood.’

If prostitution is inevitable, the argument goes that recognising and legitimising it as a ‘job’ means that it can be better regulated so that women are safer, and abuse/ violence can be more easily rooted out. There could be unions, ensuring workers rights and rigorous health and safety procedures; women could work openly, avoiding unnecessary risks and reporting violence to the police without fear. There could be cohesive legislation and policy, rather than a piecemeal initiatives and the occasional police crackdown.

When prostituted women become “employees”, and part of the “labour market”, pimps become “managers” and “business entrepreneurs”, and the punters are merely clients. Services helping people to exit are irrelevant because who needs support to get out of a regular job? J. Bindel

‘The management could ensure that all the women were over 18 and consenting; that they could receive help with any alcohol, drug or other problems; and counselling and advice in areas such as jobs, benefits and housing could be offered to those who wished to move away from prostitution. They would be working in a supervised environment, to greatly increase safety, and any violent users could be banned and, of course, arrested and prosecuted.’

Legalisation: In Practice

The above “benefits” of proposed legalisation of prostitution are a far cry from the reality. Prostitution has expanded the sex industry in countries where it has been legalised (due to the scale effect).

  • In the decade since 2000, when pimping and prostitution was legalized, the sex industry increased by 25% in the Netherlands.
  • Legalization of prostitution in the State of Victoria, Australia, resulted in massive expansion of the sex industry. Prostitution has become integral to the tourism and casino boom there.
  • In Germany, the sex industry generates around $20 billion per year.

Prostitution is lucrative and legalising it means that profits reach the the pimps first and foremost, and then the government through tax revenue, while the women are left with the overheads and a meagre take home wage. 87The women are seen as nothing more than products to generate tax revenue.

‘….prostitution remains a source of high tax revenue, providing the Dutch government with a powerful incentive to uphold the legislation. …What legalization and decriminalization have done is bring the illegal prostitution market into the legal arena for significant taxation and tourism profit. As of today, the Netherlands attributes five percent of its total GDP to the sex industry.’

In Germany, where recent estimates indicate that roughly 400,000 women service 1.2 million men every day, the Verdi public services union estimates that prostitution generates €14.5 billion annually.

‘The complicity of governments sustains prostitution…. Blood taxes are collected by the state-as-pimp in legal and decriminalized prostitution. Banks, airlines, internet providers, hotels, travel agencies, and all media are integral to the exploitation and abuse of women in prostitution tourism, make huge profits, and are solidified as part of a country’s economy.’

Prostitution becomes more acceptable and normalised under legalisation. Legalisation sends out the message that sex buying is legitimate; that message is passed down even to children. Teachers in Germany are offered sex education material that explicitly endorses prostitution.

Under legalisation, prostitution is portrayed as a legitimate ‘career option’

She gave me some literature from the Scarlet Alliance… It made life as a prostitute seem like an exciting adventure… They called prostitutes ‘sex workers’ because it sounded like it really was a profession: the ‘oldest profession’ was how they put it.” 88
Annabelle, Sex trade survivor

“The legality of the sex industry made it a more visible and viable option for young women who needed work… the women who went to work there were invariably the ‘troubled’ girls, the ones labelled ‘sluts’ at school, the once with known histories of childhood sexual abuse or teenage rape, and the ones from dysfunctional families.”Rhiannon, prostitution survivor 89

Legalisation promises to bring more safety and control over prostitution. However, the reality is that, in many areas, it fails to meet its explicit aims and objectives. The legalization of prostitution results in an increase in sex trafficking. This has been documented in the Netherlands, Germany, Victoria in Australia, and elsewhere. 90 This phenomenon has been verified by extensive research conducted in 150 countries across the globe and is understood to be a consequence of the increase in prostitution scale and demand. 91

As a business decision, it makes sense to traffic women and children where business is legal, since the risks to sellers are minimal even if trafficking is formally a crime, and the profits to be made from operating in the open are vast.

In 1994 and 1995, the Amsterdam police estimated that approximately 75% of all prostituted persons ‘behind windows in the Red Light district, De Wallen, were foreigners and that 80 percent of all foreign prostitutes are in the country illegally’ 92

In 2008, the New York Times reported that, after legalization reforms in 2000, the situation had deteriorated further. 93

Amsterdam’s 2008 National Police Service report stated, ‘The idea that a clean, normal business sector has emerged is an illusion.’Around 60% of prostituted men and women there are non-Dutch, and around two-thirds of trafficked women are also non-Dutch, meaning that trafficking occurs within the borders of the Netherlands, not just beyond them.’ 94

To avoid being controlled by pimps (and to avoid compulsory health checks and registration), many women prefer street prostitution under legalisation. Street prostitution became so bad in St. Kilda that it led to a street protest by residents in 2001.

Legalisation leads to the expansion of illegal/ clandestine prostitution. Due to the scale effect and the reluctance of women to register, there’s a significant growth in illegal prostitution wherever it is legalised

  • Over a period of 12 months from 1998-1999, unlicensed brothels in Victoria tripled in number and still operate with impunity.
  • After legalization in the Netherlands, organized crime spiraled out of control. Mayor Job Cohen closed much of Amsterdam’s legal prostitution in response to organized crime. Amsterdam’s well-known tolerance zone (Tippelzone) was closed down by the city council in 2003 after it had become a haven for traffickers and drug dealers.

Melissa Farley writes: ‘As the illegal market explodes, the governmental apparatus to address it erodes because the industry is decriminalized, no one sees any harm in it, and the illegal market intersects and overlaps the legal market. Only the stigma stays the same.’

Legalisation increases child prostitution. Child prostitution has increased dramatically where prostitution has been legalised.

  • The Amsterdam-based ChildRight organization estimates that the number of children in prostitution has increased by more than 300% between 1996 –2001, going from 4,000 children in 1996 to 15,000 in 2001, and estimates that 5,000 of these children are trafficked from other countries.
  • Child prostitution in Victoria, Australia has the highest reported incidence of child prostitution, compared with other states; the rate has increased dramatically, and there is increased evidence of organized commercial exploitation of children.
  • At least 1,320 underage Dutch girls between the ages of 12 and 17 fall victim to sexual exploitation in the Netherlands each year.

Head of an Escort Service in legalised Switzerland: “Numerous clients ask for the youngest adolescents possible and 16-year-old girls telephone me to sell their charms…it proves that the market exists.”

‘ Interpol and Dutch police statements reveal that the Netherlands plays a leading role in creating and sustaining pedophile networks in Europe. From 2006 to 2010, in the Netherlands, there existed the only known political party to promote pedophilia. The Party for Brotherly Love, Freedom and Diversity sought to lower the minimum age of consent to 12 and to legalize child pornography.’

There are serious shortcomings in the regulation and inspection of brothels intended to prevent violence, coercion and abuse.

Sometimes, it is due to ineffectiveness or corruption. For example, in 2008 the Dutch National Police Service report asked, ‘How is it possible that forced prostitution, i.e., human trafficking, was able to take place (almost unimpeded) in the licensed window prostitution sector?’ The report identified the answer as including the fact law enforcement has less power and incentive to investigate prostitution as a legal activity, and the fact that brothel inspections were not successful in detecting exploitation.

‘In part, the legislation relies on the goodwill of brothel owners and buyers, often exploiters themselves, to prioritize reporting abuse over profit margins and personal sexual satisfaction… Prostitution buyers and brothel operators may choose to not report the abuse that they witness. Women are often under extreme duress, facing violence and threats of violence by pimps.’

Legalising prostitution fails to offer sufficient exiting services

Where prostitution is considered a legitimate career option, it makes less sense to invest in exiting strategies; after all, such provision is not made for other occupations. In a review, the German Government concluded that ‘the Prostitution Act had only to a limited degree achieved the goals intended by the legislator; that there had been little measurable improvement in working conditions of prostitutes and little improvement in the ability of prostitutes to exit the sex industry.’

The legal status of prostitution also makes it difficult for women to recognise the harms done to them through prostitution, as prostitution survivor Tanja Rahm describes: “…how are prostitutes ever able to open their eyes to the violent structure of prostitution when there is no social or political support for recognising prostitution as being violent and harmful?”

Legalisation increases prostitutes’ engagement in risky sexual acts

As basic economic theory predicts, more women working as prostitutes means decreased pay, increased competition and thus more pressure to perform sex acts that are risky or dangerous.

One brothel owner told me it can be hard to make money, and for every woman unwilling to perform something risky (such as not insisting on the man using a condom) there’s another willing to try it… 95

The legalisation of prostitution does not reduce violence and coercion in prostitution

Prostitution establishments do little to protect the women, whether or not they are legal: ‘The only time they protect anyone is to protect the customers.

A 2018 study of prostituted women working legally in the Netherlands found

  • 93% of report being victims of social-emotional violence like bullying, privacy violations or stalking.
  • 78 % experienced sexual violence.
  • 60% fell victim to physical violence, ranging from hair pulling to aggravated assault.
  • 58% said they faced financial-economic violence, ranging from customers stealing from them or  refusing to pay, to being refused at banks or insurance companies because of their line of work. Only 20 % reported these incidents to the police.

We legalised prostitution in 2000. The idea was it was giving women their freedom and to get rid of the criminality. But we took it away from being linked to freedom and we linked it to human trafficking. The red light district is a dark place. It’s chilling, it’s humiliating …it’s just commercialised rape. 96 Dutch MP Gert-Jan Segers, leader of the Christian Union party

‘Since 2002, when prostitution was fully legalized in Germany, at least 56 prostitutes were murdered by clients or by persons from the milieu, and there have been at least 31 attempted murders. The countless other acts of violence (as well as murders/attempted murders in the private sector, out of jealousy etc.) have not even been taken into consideration.’

Legalisation does not improve prostitutes’ access to working rights or social security. In a 2007 evaluation of the impact of the legislation, the Dutch Ministry of Justice found that 95% of prostitutes remained ‘self-employed’, which meant they did not have access to the social security system.

In the light of the fact that only 1% of prostitutes in Germany had signed a legal work contract and had worker rights, the government introduced new legislation forcing this issue. This has led to ‘widespread panic’ with some some women complaining that they ‘… feel “forcibly outed” as prostitutes and that, rather than enjoying greater protection, they are more likely to be stigmatized, criminalized and forced further underground.’


In response to the disastrous impact of legalisation, interested parties started calling for an alternative legal framework; decriminalisation. Where legalisation creates a regulatory framework that users and participants have to abide by, decriminalisation takes a different approach in that it rolls back criminal sanctions on those working within prostitution. As Dr Donna Hughes explains:

“Legalization would mean the regulation of prostitution with laws regarding where, when, and how prostitution could take place. Decriminalization eliminates all laws and prohibits the state and law-enforcement officials from intervening in any prostitution-related activities or transactions, unless other laws apply.”


While the pro-sex trade lobby wax lyrical about the success of decriminalising prostitution, a closer look shows that beneath the surface, abuse, violence and trafficking are rife. New Zealand was the first country to fully decriminalise prostitution in 2003 with the passing of the Prostitution Reform Act. This was an attempt to reduce what many saw as harmful “facets” of prostitution, while allowing those that wanted to pursue the sale of sex consensually to do so. But as Chelsea, a woman working within the system of prostitution in New Zealand points out 97:

“The environment within the brothels is one which doesn’t allow self-expression. You are pressed to ‘play the game’ and tell men what they want to hear, go along with their fantasies, not be a real person.”

It is clear that decriminalising the act, while affording more legal protection to the women than outright criminalisation), does nothing to change the abusive and misogynist attitudes of the men purchasing the women. The sanitisation of the industry with terms such as “sex worker” also doesn’t sit well with Chelsea:

“Even as prostitutes ourselves, when we reject the term ‘sex worker’ we will be immediately dismissed, abused, and deleted, by people claiming to do so in order to support us. There’s a deadly irony there.”

The decriminalisation of prostitution also does little to tackle, reduce or outright end things such as trafficking and violence, and vulnerable demographics such as children are at particular risk. Anti-child prostitution charity ECPAT recently found of New Zealand98:

“According to a survey carried out in 2003/2004, 56 percent of street-based sex workers became victims of commercial sexual exploitation before reaching the age of 18. The majority of victims surveyed indicated that they were forced into prostitution in order to make ends meet.”


“New Zealand has been named as a destination country for women who are forced into sex work from, Hong Kong, Thailand, Taiwan, China and Eastern Europe”

While New Zealand meets international standards for child trafficking, the government fail to recognise instances of internal trafficking comprised of sexual slavery and sexual exploitation. This has been widely criticised, as failing to recognise that this takes place necessarily means research and statistics will be skewed accordingly, and the first country to pioneer decriminalisation of prostitution is rapidly becoming an example of how to ignore a problem that is growing and only getting worse.

Aside from issues of trafficking, there are also practical implementation failures. For example, Julie Bindel describes how, since the change in the law in New Zealand, ‘brothel owners set prices for services, and customers demand kissing and unsafe practices…’ Responsibility for regulating these falls on Health Officials, but ‘aside from 12 that were conducted in 2003 in the first few weeks of the new legislation, only 11 inspections occurred across the whole of New Zealand until January 2015.’

The New Zealand government’s own evaluation of its law concluded that after prostitution was decriminalized, violence and sexual abuse continued as before.’The majority of women felt that the law could do little about violence that occurred’ and that it was an inevitable aspect of the sex industry. During one year, 35% of women in NZ decriminalized prostitution reported that they had been coerced. While there may be technical differences between legalisation and decriminalisation, it’s clear that the elements of abuse, violence, coercion and trafficking still remain.


The model first adopted in Sweden in 1999 (hence known as the ‘Nordic model’) doesn’t tolerate prostitution as inevitable or view it as something that can be fixed, regulated or ‘made safe’. Instead, it seeks to eliminate prostitution altogether by decriminalising those exploited in prostitution (primarily women and children) and penalizing the buyers of prostitution (alongside pimps and brothel owners).

The Nordic model is not simply a law, it is a comprehensive model…[It’s] the only one of its kind — it includes a strong welfare state, exiting services for women who wish to leave the industry, the retraining of police officers, so that they understand that prostituted women are victims, not criminals, and public education.99

The Nordic model was a collaborative effort focused on changing the social norms that enable prostitution to flourish.100 It has 3 important components:

  1. Community Education: not only convincing people to abstain from buying sex, but also to “establish norms under which no woman, man, girl, or boy can be sold and no one has the right to sexually exploit another human being.”
  2. Social Services: helping vulnerable women to access social services, including housing, welfare support, healthcare. The penalties for buying sex vary and fines are assessed on a sliding scale based on the buyer’s income. There are also services to assist the sex buyers change their habits.
  3. law enforcement: the law reflects an understanding that prostitution involves exploitation. Sex buyer penalties vary according to the type of buying (e.g. buying sex from an under-18 results in the maximum 2-year prison sentence), and fines are also assessed on a sliding scale based on the buyers’ income.

Numerous countries have since passed legislation that recognizes prostitution as sexual exploitation: South Korea (2004), Iceland, (2008), Norway (2009), Canada (2014), Northern Ireland (2015), France (2016), and Republic of Ireland (2017).

3 Drivers of the Nordic Model:

Equality: The prohibition on the purchase of sexual services in Sweden was part of a comprehensive piece of legislation addressing violence against women. Prostitution is perceived as a form of gendered violence, and both a cause and consequence of gender inequality: “It is not acceptable in modern day society that women and children can be bought and sold. It is not acceptable that a man on his way home from work is paying 150 Euro to do whatever he pleases with the woman. That is not equality.”

Prostitution is framed, not in terms of individual choice but rather in terms of social responsibility. It considers individuals, not as isolated beings but in their broader social context. According to social democratic theory, ‘society is free to the extent that . . . its institutions and policies are such as to enable its members to grow to their full stature.’101

Protecting the vulnerable: The law is driven by a concern for the well-being of those caught up in prostitution, to protect the overwhelming majority who are used and abused but who have no recourse to express themselves in the public debate.

I have full respect for the views and opinions of those that claim they are doing this of their own volition, but they are the voice of a minority . . . . We need a law that speaks to the majority who are oppressed. Not the unoppressed minority. Detective Inspector Simon Häggström, Sweden102

Rather than as being seen as a ‘choice’, prostitution instead seen as a result of a lack of choice. In an interview, Law Enforcement Officers with Stockholm’s Prostitution Unit said: ‘Most women instead shared experiences of childhood abuse, single motherhood, and trauma; all of which are coercive factors either facilitating their entrance into prostitution, or preventing them from leaving.’103 They report that, in their experience, only two or three women out of 100 might say, “I want to be in prostitution.”104

Fighting organised crime: The law is designed as an effective weapon in the war against organised crime and human trafficking. It recognises that these things are all ultimately funded and propped-up by the sex buyers: “the ordinary sex buyer is actually paying the monthly salaries to the traffickers, because he’s investing his money to organised crime.” Cutting off the demand will make a country a less attractive prospect to criminal groups.

In Practice

‘The legislation has been very successful in the countries where it has been adopted – leading to a reduced demand for sexual services and thereby becoming a powerful tool in combating sex trafficking – and in 2014 The Council of Europe recommended all member states to adopt the Nordic approach on prostitution after having conducted an extensive report on the effects of this approach as opposed to legalization.’105

Comparative figures on numbers of prostitutes (as of 2011):

  • Sweden (pop. 9 million): 600 women in prostitution
  • Denmark (pop. 5.6 million): over 5,500 women visible in prostitution106
  • Netherlands (pop. 16.5 million) : 25,000 people are involved in prostitution

‘… the number of prostitutes in Germany is more than 60 times that of Sweden, while having a population of 82 million, less than 10 times larger.’107

This reduction in the size of the sex industry is considered vital in reducing sex trafficking: ‘In terms of human trafficking victims, a recent expert paper has demonstrated that regardless of the prostitution regime and the commitment to anti-trafficking measures, it is the scale and the demand of the sex industry that is the defining factor in the number of trafficked women supplied to the market.’108

By recognizing the clear link between prostitution and trafficking-that the reality of prostitution ‘usually does satisfy the elements of trafficking’ -it becomes evident that in order for trafficking to end, prostitution must end as well. ‘[T]he estimated number of human trafficking victims in Sweden is 500, whereas in Denmark the estimate was much higher at 2,500.’109

‘In 2011, Jonas Tolle Chief Inspector with the Stockholm police with responsibility for combating trafficking, prostitution estimates that in the last few years between 200 to 400 women and girls have been annually trafficked into Sweden for prostitution while in Finland the number is 15,000 to 17,000.’110 Following the passing of the sex buyer act, Sweden became a hostile destination for traffickers and pimps.111

Improved Police Relations: Since they do not face the risk of incarceration, many women in prostitution speak openly to police; many express resentment towards the buyers. 90% were ‘willing to provide statements against the buyers.’112
Women understand that the law enforcement is committed to ensuring their safety and not to penalising the selling of sex. They are thus empowered to rely on police where there is violence or abuse.

Case Studies

Sweden: Sweden was the first country to adopt this approach in 1998. In 2008, the Swedish government commissioned a high-level inquiry into the effectiveness of the law in practice and its effect on prostitution and trafficking over a decade. This showed that, ‘the prohibition of the purchase of sexual services has had the intended effect and is an important instrument in preventing and combating prostitution and human trafficking for sexual purposes.’113

The Swedish government’s position is quite clear – prostitution is abuse and should not be tolerated. Women must be assisted to leave the sex industry, not helped to remain in it. The buyers are the ones who should meet the cost of prostitution, not the women and men in the sex industry. Gunilla Ekberg, Sweden’s Special Adviser on Prostitution and Trafficking114

It concluded115:

  • There was a reduction in prostitution: Street prostitution in Sweden halved since the introduction of the ban
  • Prostitution did not move underground: There was no evidence that prostitution has gone underground. Sexual services have to be advertised somewhere (often online), so it is relatively easy for the police to track prostitution services that are on offer, to survey what’s happening and to take action.
  • There was no increase in violence: There was no indication of an increased the risk of violence or worsened the conditions of those in prostitution. No prostitutes were murdered in Sweden last year; in Germany, where prostitution is legal, 70 were killed by pimps or buyers. Rape and domestic violence have not increased in Sweden. The concern was that men would no longer be able to take out their sexual frustrations on prostitutes.
  • Trafficking reduced: Trafficking is considered to be of a substantially smaller in scale than in comparable countries. The National Criminal Police believe the law has acted as a barrier to human traffickers and procurers establishing themselves in Sweden. “A reduced market and increased law enforcement posit larger risks for human traffickers…The law has thus affected important pull factors and reduced the extent of human trafficking in Norway in comparison to a situation without a law.”
  • Public attitudes changed: There has been a marked change in attitude to the purchase of sexual services that coincides with making it a criminal offence to buy sex. There is now strong support for the ban on purchasing sexual services in Sweden (70%-80%) —a finding that may be indicative of the law’s success in shaping social norms.
  • Demand for sexual services reduced: The ban has proved to be an effective deterrent to sex purchasers with a decrease in buying from 13.6% in 1996 to 7.9% in 2008. In Stockholm, between 200 and 300 buyers are arrested a year.”116 Most men are less concerned with the fine and more concerned with whether prosecution will reveal their purchase of prostitution to their family, the public, or their employer.”117Buying sex in Sweden is now deemed so shameful that Haggstrom says the overwhelming majority of those arrested plead guilty and pay a fine rather than go to trial.118

Norway: Norway adopted the Sex Buyer Law in 2009. Systematic field observations of the street prostitution market in Oslo reveal it has shrunk by 40%-65% since the law was adopted.119Norway has become a more hostile destination for traffickers. An evaluation of the law’s impact reported: ‘A reduced market and increased law enforcement posit larger risks for human traffickers…The law has thus affected important pull factors and reduced the extent of human trafficking in Norway in comparison to a situation without a law.’120

Ipswich, UK: Ipswich adopted a similar approach in 2007. Following the brutal murder of 5 prostitutes in 2006, Suffolk Constabulary joined with local agencies to end street prostitution in Ipswich. It took a zero tolerance approach to kerb-crawling, diverting women involved in prostitution away from the criminal justice system and towards accessing the necessary support and exiting services they needed to build a new life.

An independent evaluation of the Ipswich/Suffolk Prostitution Strategy for 2007-2012 (EVISSTA 2) by the University of East Anglia confirmed the apparent success of this approach. It concluded there has been, ‘clear and sustained success in terms of: Eliminating kerb-crawlers from the streets (Tackling Demand).’121

An economic analysis of the strategy also found that for every £1 spent as part of the Ipswich/Suffolk Prostitution Strategy, there were savings of £2 to the public purse, due to the reduced costs associated with the burden of prostitution on criminal justice and social support. However, the police have been prevented from tackling demand for off-street prostitution because the act of paying for sex is not illegal in the UK.

“People always ask me how the criminalisation of buyers would have helped me while I was in prostitution. My answer is this: If it had been a crime to buy women for sexual pleasure then I would have known that what these men were doing was wrong. For a long time I blamed myself, thinking that it was my own fault. I chose to be a prostitution. … I am sure I would have left prostitution much earlier if the law had been on my side.” Tanja Rahm, prostitution survivor


In spite of the obvious advantages of this approach in reducing prostitution, it should be noted that the ideology is not always worked out in practice. Different countries encounter different problems and challenges when adopting the policy; ‘ In particular, law enforcers do not utilise and apply the law’ 122, meaning that only the rhetoric and ideology are being adopted, without a corresponding change on the ground.

In order to enact real change, the law must be accompanied by active and visible enforcement and communication of the law. The Nordic Model has been implemented in Ireland and, although it’s too early to tell its effects, some campaigners for the legislation have expressed concern at the lack of progress in raising concerns: ‘There have been no major media campaigns by the government to advertise the change, and those in the industry believe many police officers have not been trained to adopt new best practices.’123





Prostitution is a form of sexual freedom and an expression of a woman’s right to own her body
There is a difference between sex and prostitution, between a woman enjoying her right to sexual freedom and a woman offering sexual services imposed on her by the power of money because she is in dire need for it. If the desire to have intercourse is free and mutual, why is money exchanged? When the buyer uses money, he requests the sexual acts he wishes for, and not those desired by the woman. Prostitution is an expression of a man’s sexuality rather than the woman’s.

Prostitution is the world’s ‘oldest profession’; isn’t demand inevitable?
Firstly, it’s absurd to consider prostitution a ‘profession’ when today, as in the past, the vast majority of women sell their bodies for sex because they are forced, either by a third-party or by circumstances or desperation. Abolitionist Norma Ramos instead regards prostitution as the world’s oldest oppression. It’s an oppression stemming from gender, social and even racial inequality. Because of its inherent harm, prostitution should not be tolerated and, like slavery and poverty, we should do everything within our power to eradicate it.

Isn’t prostitution OK if there’s consent?

The assumption of choice leads to the conclusion of consent, but choice and consent are erroneous concepts here. Their invalidity rests on the fact that a woman’s compliance in prostitution is a response to circumstances beyond her control, and this produces an environment which prohibits even the possibility of true consent. There is a difference between consent and reluctant submission. As a lawyer and scholar Catharine Mackinnon says ‘…when fear and despair produce acquiescence and acquiescence is taken to mean consent, consent is not a meaningful concept’. Rachel Moran

Can prostitution be considered a route to a better life?
Every year, many women cross from poorer, developing countries to wealthier, more developed countries. Some are trafficked into prostitution, hoodwinked into believing that a good job is waiting for them and with it, the hope of a ‘better life.’ Others are migrants who enter into prostitution, ‘to fund aspirations of social mobility, better living standards, educational aspirations and greater and more rewarding working conditions. In many instances, migrants engage in sex work to earn money which they then send back to their home countries to support families, including their own children and other dependants.’ Such women are often unable to find work in their home countries.

However, prostitution is not just a ‘job’. Aside from providing money, it also brings with it sexual harassment and assault, STIs and verbal and physical abuse and a high risk of post traumatic stress disorder, depression and substance addiction. What’s more, as a group, prostitutes are stigmatised, marginalised and socially-isolated; exiting prostitution and re-entering mainstream society is extremely difficult. These things are hardly conducive to a ‘better life’.

In prostitution, people are simply used. The money earned is an illusion of power. Real power is found in mutual respect, compassion and giving to others,… The money men give us is not helping the disadvantage we face and which continued when we started prostitution.

What about the ‘sex workers’ in the media who say they love what they do?
There are some outspoken, high-profile ‘sex workers’ who make media appearances defending what they do as empowering, glamorous and money-making. These women seem to be living proof of the glamorous fantasy and float like lilies on a bog. They’re rare, media-savvy business women who exploit their persona for fame and financial gain. If they represent any group at all it’s a very small, “relatively-privileged minority- primarily white, middle-class Western women in escort agencies- not remotely representative of the global majority.”

These women may appear to be empowered and autonomous but in fact they are usually supported (directly or indirectly) by pro-prostitution lobbies and at very least puppet the interest of sex industrialists, pornographers and pimps.

The vast majority majority of prostitutes have no voice in the public debate, no mainstream public platform on which to speak about the reality of what it’s really like; and often those who do try face hostility and opposition, as one former prostitute describes: “A lot of women around the world have been trying to tell the truth about prostitution and what is going on in prostitution. But when you speak out, you take a high risk. You run the risk of being threatened, hated, being told that you were weak, weren’t strong enough, that prostitution isn’t for everyone, that you chose it for yourself, that you got a lot of money from prostitution and are therefore a whore.. What the pro-prostitution lobby tries to do is frighten women into not telling the truth about their experiences, so that you won’t be able to hear the truth.” Tanja Rahm

That an individual experience does not invalidate structural analysis should be obvious but the persuasive power of the ‘ I love sex work’ refrain endures largely because it is seen as nullifying the claim by radical feminists and others that systems of prostitution are harmful to women. …Just because you like something does not mean that it cannot be harmful, to you, or to others

If prostitution is so bad, why do so many women in prostitution defend it?
Some women in prostitution are open about the abuses they experience. Others, however, do not face up to the reality and are in denial- even to themselves, as Janice Raymond explains:“Initially, many women in prostitution will deny the exploitation and violence that has happened to them for various reasons including: to tell the truth about their experiences could be dangerous; they come from backgrounds of sexual abuse where the sexual exploitation they are subjected to is accepted as sex, not as violence; they see violence as part of the job and as an occupational hazard; and they have survived the violence done to them in the sex industry by dissociating from it.”
“… one woman explained, “While in it, it felt awful and I was repeatedly abused. But I needed to legitimize it so I could keep living.” Another woman laughed, stating, “I would have told you I was doing it voluntarily.” One more added, “I would have said I was raped only once, but it wasn’t that bad.”

If you had asked how I had gotten into the sex industry, I would have told you it was MY CHOICE! I was very good liar and able to act like I enjoyed the sex, even though 99% of the sex was disgusting to me; sex with unattractive, cruel, joyless and married men.Linda

When you are in prostitution you internalise the violence. You hear the same repulsive things over and over when you are being called a slut, a whore, stupid or disgusting. But still, you defend your ‘free choice’ and say that prostitution is just ordinary work, because realising the truth is so depleting. Tanja Rahm

The business of deceiving ourselves out of a fuller acceptance of an oppressive situation is useful, but only to the extent that it protects us in the short term. It will also store up more hurt for the future, much like using painkillers to mask the ache of a decaying tooth. Rachel Moran

What about those who choose sex work?

…we are not all floating around in a cultural vacuum making decisions completely unaffected by structural issues like systematic economic equality, racism and sexism.

Although we have rarely, if ever, come across a prostituted woman whose life experience did not include any of the vulnerability factors that are linked to prostitution, we could concede for purposes of this consultation that a microscopic minority might claim that prostitution was a free and clear choice. There are victims of intimate partner violence might also encounter women who are not capable or ready, for whatever reason, to leave their batterers. In neither case should governments develop laws and policies that exonerate perpetrators because of the so-called choices of these women.

It is simplistic to defend prostitution as an individual woman’s right to choose to be exploited. That opinion fails to recognize the systemic issues that prevent women from having free choice: poverty, racism, isolation, violence, coercion, abuse, child abuse, colonization, marginalization and oppression. Even if a small minority of prostituted women assert that it is their right to choose, the focus must be on the vast majority who are the most vulnerable for whom prostitution is not a choice.

What about indoor/ ‘high class’ prostitution?
There is undoubtedly a kind of hierarchy in the world of prostitution, with high-class escorts at the top of the tree and street prostitution at the bottom. Proponents of prostitution will often argue that indoor prostitution is safer and gives the women more control. They make a distinction between dangerous street prostitution and prostitution that’s well-paid, where the women appear to be classy, with real options, safety and control.

Many former prostitutes who have been involved in both types of prostitute testify to the fact that this difference is illusory. For a start, the emotional consequences of prostitution are the same, regardless of the context. Secondly, indoor prostitution often offers women fewer options; in brothels, they have to do what the managers/ owners tell them to do. There’s less accountability, since the women are out sight of the public.

As a survivor of indoor and outdoor, legal and illegal exploitation, I can assure you that all are equally harmful to the soul. Prostitution is routinely violent, psychologically and physically. Autumn Burris

What you do and what you experience is the same whether you are picked up in the streets or if you are sitting in a brothel with a spa, silk sheets and champagne. You can find drug and alcohol addicts both in brothels and in street prostitution. Actually, it might be easier to comprehend the depression of the situation when on the streets… Tanja Rahm

I’ve walked into more hotels more times than I could count, wearing sharp suits, high heels, and every shade of lipstick. None of that changed what was going on in my heart or in my mind, and none of it made any difference to the bodily experience involved here. None of it was of any practical benefit to my mouth, breasts, or vagina. What was going on was the very same thing that was going on when I was lifting my skirt in the backstreet alley. The nature of prostitution does not change with its surrounds. It does not morph into something else because your ass is rubbing against white linen as opposed to roughed concrete. Rachel Moran

Don’t the unions represent the real feeling of prostitutes? Don’t they protect them and their rights? Aren’t sex workers the only ones qualified to comment on prostitution?
Numerous unions have grown up over the past few decades, both in the UK and across the globe.These appear to represent the voices and defend the rights of those working in the sex trade (e.g. SWARM, IUSW -part of the GMB).

However, appearances can be deceptive. The unions include brothel owners and managers of women in the sex trade- i.e. pimps who control and profit from the prostitution of others. Sometimes, these members even hide their affiliations, claiming to represent the interests of the sex workers themselves; sometimes, they publicly identify themselves as “sex workers”. It is blatantly unethical for them to hide behind the banner of labour unions to appeal to the Left’s sympathies. How can one organisation claim to protect the rights of both managers and those under their control at the same time? workers and managers at once? There is a clear conflict of interest.

Furthermore, the very act of unionising prostitution involves endorsing it as something that’s an easy, fun and lucrative job for the women involved. They present something that’s inherently harmful as a legitimate ‘job’ where workers can be have ‘rights’, control and safety. However, while they aggressively promote labour as work, many such unions do not offer pensions, safety, shorter hours, unemployment benefits, or exit services (which is what 90% of women in prostitution say that they want). Talk of safety is empty rhetoric where there’s no realistic hope of robust occupational health and safety standards ever being in place. Even where there are good intentions, the very goal of putting prostitution on a par with other professions is impossible since violence is the rule, not the exception and psychological harm is inevitable.

Given the conditions and preconditions of entry, the nature of treatment in the industry, and the place of sexuality in the status of women, what would a union change? Suppose how much and what kind of sex was bargained over and put in a labor contract. Could it be enforced? Suppose the person collecting the money a prostituted woman makes is a former prostitute now called union organizer. Does that make her not a pimp? Suppose organized crime still controls. Does being in a unionized brothel eliminate your PTSD? Make it easier to leave? Catherine A. McKinnon

Can’t you make a clear distinction between consensual sex work and exploitation/ trafficking, like Amnesty International has?
Everyone agrees that sex trafficking and sexual exploitation is wrong. However, those who defend the sex trade argue that ‘consensual sex work’ is entirely different and should be acknowledged as legitimate and acceptable.

There is, of course, a difference between those who are directly forced or coerced into prostitution by a third party and those who enter into prostitution of their own volition. This should be acknowledged. However, it is wrong to imagine this difference amounts to whether or not women are acting freely. The vast majority of women who ‘choose’ prostitution do so out of desperation, as a last-ditch resort for survival. They are effectively ‘choiceless’- coerced, not by direct force, but by life circumstance. They only give their consent because other options are closed to them.

The United Nations defines trafficking for sexual exploitation as the recruitment or transportation of victims via the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability, for the purpose of sexual exploitation. Here, one can see the interconnection between human trafficking and prostitution since the vast majority of women and girls in prostitution come from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds and this position of weakness is used to recruit or keep these women in prostitution and exploit them.

Isn’t “sex work” a kind of work? Shouldn’t it be treated as such?
Work involves some form of compensated labour to ensure our survival. However, generations of reform have led to the recognition that work should be performed within certain boundaries; certain kinds of ‘work’ are condemned (and banned) because they are too dangerous, inherently harmful or exploitative (e.g. child labour, work with asbestos, etc.).

We demand certain minimum standards of safety for workers and ensure there are strict rules in order to mitigate risk and to protect the rights of workers, even (and especially) where risks are high and the work is hard.

The reality of prostitution is a far cry from any other regulated profession, since sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape are a requirement of the job. The trauma and risks other workers are protected from comprise the core duties and conditions of ‘employment’ for those in prostitution.

Prostituted-women’s ‘rights’ are superseded by the ‘rights’ of those who pay to sexually access their bodies. The risks of post-traumatic stress disorder, STDs, bodily injury and substance abuse are high and impossible to mitigate through regulation: ‘A 1998 International Labor Organization (United Nations ILO) report suggested that the sex industry be treated as a legitimate economic sector, but still found that “…prostitution is one of the most alienated forms of labour; the surveys [in 4 countries] show that women worked ‘with a heavy heart’, ‘felt forced’ or were ‘conscience-stricken’ and had negative self-identities. significant proportion claimed they wanted to leave sex work [sic] if they could (Lim, 1998, p. 213).’

Prostitution does not and crucially, can never be made to fit within our human rights and labour law. Therefore, it should be understood not as labour, but as commercial exploitation.

The global, multi-dollar sex trade is linked to organised criminal networks that profit immensely and illegally from the sale of women and girls for sexual acts, and counting on sex buyers to sustain such incalculable profits.

If you cannot live inside your own head and be who you are and do this—is that what freedom looks like? Being subjected to constant rape, beaten to stay, prevented from looking into other options, sustaining the trauma of a war zone or a torture chamber, needing drugs to keep doing it—is this what you mean by employment? When you think, “I am going to go get myself a job,” is this what you have in mind? MacKinnon

…governments wash their hands of women under legalisation because, according to the mantra, “It is better than working at McDonald’s.” As one sex-trade survivor told me, “At least when you work at McDonald’s you’re not the meat.

Isn’t the problem stigma?
Those who defend the sex trade argue that the discrimination, violence and social marginalisation experienced by prostitutes is largely down to stigma. They argue that when prostitution is not legal and legitimate, it carries a deep and damaging stigma that prevents prostitutes from being accepted and integrated into mainstream society.

Stigma is a problem; no one would deny that, and those who oppose prostitution would certainly never stigmatise or attempt to shame women involved in it. However, identifying prostitution as legitimate ‘work’ and making it legal does not make the stigma go away. The vast majority of women in these places are choosing not to register for tax or to officially disclose their identity to the authorities. They are still stigmatised.

Rather than assuming the stigma is rooted in prostitution illegality, it’s worth considering that the stigma comes from the abuse and degradation itself: “Men who choose to buy access to women in prostitution are stigmatising [sic] people in prostitution by commodifying another human being.” When people are denied their humanity, they are stigmatised. We cannot hope to remove the stigma without first removing the abuse.

If prostitution is so bad, why don’t most of it think of it that way?
Since prostitution often goes on ‘somewhere else’, most of us don’t encounter it directly, and only see it in glimpses. Much of our understanding is based on media reports- and very often, such reports misrepresent the reality.

Some of this misrepresentation is a deliberate PR strategy by sex-trade advocates and profiteers. The amount of money that can be made of selling women’s bodies and sexualities is vast, and matches the incentive to put out ‘sanitised’ information about prostitution the sex trade through carefully-crafted propaganda that turns the facts upside-down and replaces reality with fantasy.

These efforts are persuasive and effective. They cause many statutory bodies and media outlets to imagine that respecting prostitution as ‘work’ is politically-correct and shows respect to the ‘choices’ of the women involved. Embracing the sex industry is often perceived to be an appropriate modern, liberal-minded position compared with opposing it, which is often demonised as being judgemental or puritanical. Many journalists and those involved in the media are genuinely unaware of the true state of affairs and the reality that, “… validating prostitution as work dignifies the sex industry and the male consumers, not the women in it.”

And they call this “sex work”? Attempts have been made, overwhelmingly now by the pro-prostitution lobbyists, to make this a term of dignity for the prostituted. However, whose dignity does it really serve? We are prostituted. The word is ugly and visceral. Put simply, it is truthful. This is why the pimps and johns don’t want us to use it, and why the general public may not want to hear it. We do not owe dignity of the pimps and johns. Simone Watson

Prostitution is glamorised by the entertainment industry. Sex sells, and growing global commercialisation has coincided with a massive increase in hypersexualised culture that objectifies and commodifies the female body.

Tolerating prostitution is part of the “pornification” of society, where all women are seen as objects to some degree, whether through the soft porn of MTV or in advertising images,… Rachel Moran, Prostitution Survivor

Here, representing the sex industry as empowering and glamorous is a logical fit. Music like Rihanna’s ‘Pour It Up’, the Memoirs of ‘Belle de Jour’ and films like ‘Pretty Women’ help to create an attractive fantasy smokescreen to the dirty, dangerous reality. The myths created by such media representations are persuasive; in 1991, Bindel visited Moscow and was speaking to a group of 16-18-year old girls who were vulnerable to being trafficked into prostitution. Asked what they would like to od as a career, more than 50% said they would like to be a prostitute, and the most common answer why, apart from the opportunity to migrate to the West, was that they could meet a nice rich man and live happily ever after with him.

When people describe prostitution as being something that is glamorous, elegant, like in the story of Pretty Woman, well that doesn’t come close to it. A prostitute might sleep with five strangers a day. Across a year, that’s more than 1,800 men she’s having sexual intercourse or oral sex with. These are not relationships, no-one’s bringing me any flowers here, trust me on that. They’re using my body like a toilet.

How glamorous is it, I wonder, to think of a huge heaving fat sweaty man shoving his penis into the most intimate part of your body? The truth is that prostitution is always an affront to human dignity. It is psychosexual bullying. Women in prostitution are not seen as equal humans,” Moran says.

Prostitution is sanitised through language: in the past couple of decades, the language of ‘sex workers’ rights (forcefully pushed by the pro-prostitution lobby) has infiltrated the media: ‘Words are crafted that appeal to these rationalizations or to the desire not to witness the cruelty of prostitution. These maneuvers to deny risk include words that conceal harms: voluntary prostitution, which implies that she consented when she had no survival alternatives; forced trafficking, which implies that somewhere there are women who volunteer to be trafficked into prostitution; sex work, which defines prostitution as a job rather than an act of violence. The term migrant sex worker disappears both prostitution and trafficking. Strip club prostitution has been reframed as sexual expression or exotic dancing or freedom to express one’s sensuality. Brothels are referred to as massage parlors, saunas, nail parlors, and health clubs.’Melissa Farley

This use of language has had a profound effect on how the general public perceives prostitution. As Bindel points out, ‘language is a powerful weapon in the ideological battle over prostitution.’

In her book, Janice Raymond points to the similarities of the pro-prostitution lobby with a pro-slavery strategist in the West Indies: ‘Instead of SLAVES, let the Negroes be called ASSISTANT PLANTERS and we shall not hear such violent outcries against the slave tried by pious divines, tender harred poetesses and short-sighted politicians.’

The inherent harm and risks of prostitution are ignored:
According to Prostitution Research and Education, 70-95% of women in prostitution experience physical assault during ‘work’; 60-75% are raped, and 95% experience sexual harassment that in other industries would result in legal action. The harm is very real, and this harm is highlighted with sex trafficking and yet often completely ignored with ‘chosen’ prostitution. Spinning a threadbare facade that focuses on the apparent ‘positives’: the ‘opportunities’, the money, the flexibility, there’s careful and concerted effort to ignore (or to make light of) the extreme risks and harms inherent.

Men have a big sexual appetite that they need to satisfy
We are raised to believe that men have sexual appetites that they cannot control, and which they must satiate even if it requires buying sexual acts. This belief is based on the assumption that a failure to satisfy men’s sexual needs will lead to psychological problems and to severe social consequences such as an increase in the percentage of sex assaults and rape in society. In simple terms, this assumption is a social construction, which negatively construes men as creatures that are helplessly controlled by their instincts and sexual needs.

Doesn’t prostitution allow sexually-aggressive men to have sex on demand, so they won’t rape?
There are conflicting views on this. Some suggest that normalising and legalising prostitution leads to a reduction in sexual violence: the argument goes that ‘by providing an anonymous, appealing and easily accessible outlet for sex to otherwise violent individuals’ men can ’indulge their fantasies’ through paid-for sex and are less likely to abuse in other contexts.

This concedes that the violent tendencies of perpetrators are inevitable. It can only be conceived of as positive if there is a clear distinction between prostituted women and other women. It’s well-document that prostituted women are on the brunt-end of horrific sexual violence, rape and abuse; the only difference is that because they are compensated and therefore have limited recourse to complain or to report (hence Rachel Moran’s description of prostitution as ‘compensated abuse’).

What’s more, the idea that prostiuttion does lead to a reduction of sexual violence is contested: “Given that prostitution is a typically short-lived sexual exchange that often involves violence against sex workers, the experience of buying sex may lead one to seek more precipitate sexual contact such as rape. Under this assumption, buying sex could be seen as a catalyst for more violent, riskier sexual behaviors in that the relationship between prostitution and sex crimes would be complementary rather than substituting.” The view that predicts that the legalization of prostitution exacerbates sex crimes instead of constraining them has been supported by research.
A 2018 study concludes: “… buying sex significantly increases the probability that one commits various forms of sex crimes – sexual assaults in general and forced sex with a stranger or a partner” which suggests “that prostitution can increase sexual violence.” In other words, rather than satisfying men’s ‘urges’ for more violent, riskier sexual behaviours, prostitution complements and precipitates them.

What about disabled men? Don’t they deserve to be able to purchase sex?
This argument depends on the idea that sex is somehow an inalienable right- and this (men’s) right trumps a women’s right to equality and bodily autonomy. It places the desires of one group above the basic needs of another, ignoring the fact that the very act of prostitution inflicts psychological damage to women who are already socially disadvantaged and marginalised.

The argument is also built on the false and utterly demeaning notion that disabled people have to resort to buying sex because they are somehow incapable of sexual expression within the context of mutual relationships with other disabled and abled-bodied people.

Won’t the Nordic Model just drive prostitution underground?
A report from Sweden specifically investigated this question:
‘When the ban on the purchase of sexual services was introduced, various misgivings were voiced. These included fears that criminalization would risk driving prostitution underground, making it harder to reach out to vulnerable persons through social measures, and that the ban would bring an increased risk of physical abuse and generally worsen living conditions for prostitutes. As far as we can judge from the written material and the contacts we have had with public officials and people involved with the issue of prostitution, these fears have not been realized.’ Selected extracts of the Swedish government report 2010: 9

Ultimately, the sex industry can’t ever be totally invisible, as buyers need to be able to access women in prostitution. If the buyers can find the sellers, so too can police and investigators.

Doesn’t decriminalisation make women safer, reduce stigma, harassment and discrimination?
This was the explicit aim of decriminalising prostitution. However, in practice, it hasn’t worked at all. Decriminalisation leads to:

  • An increase in demand, and growth in the sex trade (including an increase in illegal/ clandestine/ unregulated prostitution)
  • An increase in trafficking
  • No reduction in stigma or violence
  • No increase in prostitutes’ rights or accessing of social security/ services



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