FAQs

Here we answer some frequently asked questions.

        For full references and further information read our report.

 

What is sexual exploitation?

Exchanging money, food, accommodation, employment, services or other goods in return for sex acts is sexual exploitation and abuse. It is never acceptable.

Healthy, non-abusive sexual relationships require both parties to mutually and freely want to have sex. Offering someone money - or accommodation, or other goods and services – in return for them performing sex acts is a form of sexual coercion.

 

Commercial sexual exploitation is highly gendered. The majority of people exploited through the sex trade are women and girls, while the overwhelming majority of people who pay to sexually exploit them are men. Commercial sexual exploitation is underpinned by historically unequal power relations between women and men. It is a form of violence against women.

 

How many men pay for sex?

3.6% of men in the UK report having paid for sex in the past five years, according to the most recent National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal-3). Men who are most likely to have paid for sex are single men aged 25-34, in managerial or professional occupations and those who report high numbers of (unpaid) sexual partners. Men who binge drink at least once a week or who have taken hard drugs in the past year are also more likely to pay for sex. 

Demand for sexual exploitation is context dependent - not inevitable and unchanging. Levels of demand vary over time and place. For instance, surveys of 11,000 adults conducted in 1990 and 2000 found that the number of men in the UK who pay women for sex almost doubled from one in 20 to nearly one in 10 men.

 

Demand for sexual exploitation is context dependent because men who pay to sexually exploit women are not helplessly reacting to uncontrollable urges. They are engaged in an active decision-making process to pay for someone to perform sex acts on them, and that decision-making process is influenced by a range of factors – including the risk of criminal sanction.

 

What is the scale and nature of the problem?

Trafficking for sexual exploitation is the most detected form of human trafficking in the world - and the most profitable form of modern slavery.

Sexual exploitation is highly gendered. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime report that in 2016, 94% of detected victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation were female.

An inquiry by MPs in 2018 found that organised sexual exploitation is widespread across the UK. Common tactics used by organised crime groups engaged in sexual exploitation include:

  • recruiting victims via deception, coercion and the exploitation of pre-existing vulnerabilities;

  • exerting ongoing control over victims via debt bondage, sexual and physical violence, threats and isolation;

  • advertising victims to sex buyers on commercial pimping websites; and

  • sexually exploiting women in ‘pop-up’ brothels in residential properties, and via ‘out-calls’ to hotels rooms and private residences.

Romania is a significant source country of sexual exploitation victims in the UK:

  • Leicestershire Police visited 156 brothels, encountering 421 women, between 1 January 2016 and 31 December 2017. 86% of the women in the brothels were from Romania.

  • Northumbria Police visited 81 brothels between March 2016 and April 2018. Of the 259 women they encountered in the brothels, 75% were from Romania.

  • The Police Foundation identified 65 brothels operating in Bristol over a two-year period. At least 142 individuals were identified as being paid for sex in the brothels, and 74 offenders were identified as linked to the management of the brothels. 83% of the women selling sex in the brothels were non-British nationals, and the most frequently recorded nationality was Romanian (43% of women).

On a single day in March 2021, over 11,000 'escort' adverts were listed on just one pimping website in the UK.

Most women involved in sexual exploitation were highly vulnerable before their involvement and suffer acute harms as a result.

  • Approximately 50% of women in prostitution in the UK started being paid for sex acts before they were 18 years old, according to a Home Office report.

  • Up to 95% of women in street prostitution are believed be problematic drug users.

  • A nine-country study found that 68% of people in prostitution met the diagnostic criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder, and 89% of people wanted to leave prostitution.

"Prostitution is what most people imagine it to be: violent and dangerous. In the six years that I was involved, I endured a gang rape and three separate rapes, including being raped twice on the same night, plus countless humiliations and numerous physical assaults. There is no other “industry” where that level of violence would be tolerated. … The only countries in Europe who are making a substantial impact in the fight against modern day slavery are the ones who have acknowledged and faced the cause: the demand."

 

- Mia de Faoite, survivor and policy adviser

What is the current law on sexual exploitation?

 

Laws relating to commercial sexual exploitation are a devolved matter in the UK. 

 

England and Wales

Victims of sexual exploitation can face criminal sanction for soliciting in a public place. Men who sexually exploit women by paying them for sex only face criminal sanction if they solicit a person in a public place or if they pay for sex with an individual ‘subjected to force etc’. Third-party facilitation or financial gain from prostitution is illegal in some, but not all, circumstances.

 

Scotland

Victims of sexual exploitation can face criminal sanction for soliciting in a public place. Men who sexually exploit women by paying them for sex only face criminal sanction if they solicit a person in a public place or if they pay for sex with an individual ‘subjected to force etc’. Third-party facilitation or financial gain from prostitution is illegal in some, but not all, circumstances.

 

Northern Ireland

Unlike in England, Wales and Scotland, it is not an offence in Northern Ireland for victims of sexual exploitation to solicit in a public place. However, it is a criminal offence in all circumstances to sexually exploit a person by paying them for sex. The purpose of this legislation is to deter and reduce demand for sexual exploitation.

What is demand reduction legislation?

Demand reduction legislation is designed to reduce and ultimately end the demand from sex buyers and third-party profiteers that drives the ‘supply’ of women into sexual exploitation and sex trafficking.

Demand reduction legislation contains the following components:

  • Providing money or other benefit (such as accommodation) in return for a person performing sex acts is a criminal offence

  • Victims of sexual exploitation are decriminalised

  • Facilitating and profiting from the prostitution of another person is a criminal offence

  • Support and exiting services are provided for individuals who have been sexually exploited

 

This approach lifts the burden of criminality off individuals who are exploited through the sex trade and places it where it belongs - on the minority of men who fuel this abusive trade by paying for sex and the facilitators who profit from it. 

Countries that have adopted demand reduction legislation include Sweden, Iceland, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Norway, Israel and France.

 

Why are demand reduction laws needed?

 

Exchanging money, food, accommodation, employment, services or other goods in return for sex acts is sexual exploitation and abuse. It is a form of violence against women.

The law should work to deter sexual exploitation and abuse - not tolerate or enable it. In England, Wales and Scotland, however, men who exploit vulnerable women by paying them for sex acts do so with impunity - while lucrative pimping websites operate free from criminal sanction, profiting from sexual exploitation and incentivising sex trafficking. 

As a result of lax and outdated laws on sexual exploitation, England, Wales and Scotland are currently low-risk, high-profit destinations for sex traffickers. 

To bust the business model of sex trafficking, demand reduction legislation is urgently needed. 

Sweden was the first country to adopt demand reduction legislation when it introduced the Sex Purchase Act in 1999, affording over two decades of evidence of its effectiveness. Research on the impact of the Sex Purchase Act reveals:

 

  • Demand has dropped: Surveys conducted in 1996 and 2008 found that the proportion of men who reported paying for sex reduced from 13% to 8%. The most recent research on prevalence rates found that 7.5% of men had paid for sex. Just 0.8% of these men had paid for sex in the previous 12 months - the smallest proportion recorded in two decades and the lowest level in Europe.

  • Public attitudes have transformed: In 1996, prior to the law’s adoption, 45% of women and 20% of men in Sweden expressed support for criminalising paying for sex. By 2008, support for this legal principle had risen to 79% among women and 60% among men. The most recent statistics reported by the Stockholm County Administration in 2015 revealed that 85% of women and 60% of men (72% overall) were in favour of the law criminalising the purchase of sex.

  • Traffickers are being deterred: The Committee of Inquiry to Evaluate the Ban against the Purchase of Sexual Services, a committee headed by Sweden’s Chancellor of Justice, evaluated Sweden’s demand reduction legislation in 2010. The Committee reported: “According to the Swedish Police, it is clear that the ban on the purchase of sexual services acts as a barrier to human traffickers and procurers who are considering establishing themselves in Sweden.”

 

An analysis published by the European Commission of Sweden’s demand reduction legislation concluded: “Credence can also be afforded to the claims that the law has curtailed the growth of the sex industry, which is considerably smaller than that in neighbouring countries with smaller populations and compared with many other EU Member States. This, alongside pro-active policing, has created a less conducive context for trafficking.”