Here we bust some common myths and misinformation about laws to combat sexual exploitation.
For further information and full references read our report.
MYTH: ‘Criminalising paying for sex would drive prostitution underground’
There is a logical fallacy underling the claim that criminalising sex buyers would drive prostitution ‘underground’. It implies that criminalising paying for sex would prevent police and support services from finding women who are being exploited, rather than stop sexual exploitation from happening. However, the prostitution trade relies on sex buyers being able to locate women to sexually exploit. If sex buyers can locate them, so can the police and support services.
Law enforcement agencies can look at exactly the same adverts that sex buyers look at on websites, in newspapers and in phone boxes - and so locate women being sexually exploited, as well as the individuals exploiting them.
“Sex markets are reliant, by definition, on buyers finding spaces and places where it is possible to pay for sex. In this sense, the underground argument has a logical fallacy at its heart since some level of visibility is required.”
- Study on the gender dimension of trafficking in human beings,
European Commission, 2016
Related to this myth is the claim that shutting down pimping websites would merely displace the advertising of sexual exploitation to the dark web, rather than substantially reduce its scale. However, as the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and Tech Against Trafficking point out: “the use of the dark web for advertising human trafficking victims has its limitations. ...human trafficking is a financially motivated crime and traffickers seek as many clients as possible. This is best achieved by using the open web to which everyone has access. The dark web has several technological barriers that can reduce the overall marketplace, and thus it is not well-suited for increasing the numbers of clients".
The substantial scale on which sex trafficking currently takes place is enabled precisely by how quick and easy openly operating pimping websites make it for traffickers to connect with sex buyers. Sex buyers, traffickers and pimps require no technical expertise to use legal, openly operating pimping websites. Prohibiting online pimping would remove this major enabler of sex trafficking. Additionally, if a substantial proportion of sex buyers can continue to locate adverts for sexual exploitation on ‘less accessible’ parts of the internet, so can law enforcement – and they would be empowered to take enforcement action against exploiters.
MYTH: ‘An overground sex trade that is fully decriminalised / legalised is safer’
The fallacious claim that demand reduction legalisation simply drives sexual exploitation ‘underground’ is juxtaposed with the myth that the sex trade can be made safe by moving it ‘overground’. Referred to as legalisation or full decriminalisation, this approach legalises pimping, brothel-keeping and other forms of third-party profiteering from prostitution.
Far from erasing harms associated with the sex trade, legalising brothels and pimping has been shown to magnify these harms. Fundamentally, there is no ‘safe place’ to be sexually abused and exploited in.
Legalising or ‘fully decriminalising’ the sex trade increases the scale of sexual exploitation. In an analysis of prostitution regimes in nine countries, researchers at the Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit at London Metropolitan University concluded: “Both legalised and unregulated regimes have considerably larger sex industries.” Countries with legalised / decriminalised prostitution regimes - where pimping and brothel-keeping are legal - also experience significantly higher rates of trafficking.
“The regulation has hidden the legalized sector from the view of the criminal justice system, while human trafficking still thrives behind the legal façade of a legalized prostitution sector. Brothels can even function as legalized outlets for victims of sex trafficking ... [The] legalization and regulation of the prostitution sector has not driven out organized crime. On the contrary, fighting sex trafficking using the criminal justice system may even be harder in the legalized prostitution sector.”
- The challenges of fighting sex trafficking in the legalized prostitution market of the Netherlands (Huisman & Kleemans, 2014)
An evaluation of the Netherlands’ legalised prostitution regime commissioned for the Dutch parliament, published seven years after the law was adopted, reported: “the researchers observed that the great majority of window prostitutes works with a so-called boyfriend or pimp."
The legalisation of the prostitution trade in Germany led to a rise in ‘mega-brothels’, and Germany’s prostitution trade is now worth an estimated €15 billion annually. In 2019, the owner of a high-profile chain of mega-brothels – including Stuttgart Paradise - was imprisoned for aiding and abetting sex trafficking:
"The Paradise business model is the same as the hundreds of other “sauna clubs” across Germany – brothel owners provide the premises, and the women are self-employed. Yet Rudloff’s high-volume, low-cost model only works if the supply of women is enough to satisfy demand and bring enough customers through the doors.
According to court documents, this became a problem for Paradise almost immediately. There weren’t enough women to fill the clubs. So Rudloff’s friends in the industry offered to help him out. ...In a trial lasting almost a year, testimony from the jailed pimps revealed that trafficking was crucial to the success of Rudloff’s business.”
- Trouble in Paradise: the rise and fall of Germany's 'brothel king', the Guardian
MYTH: ‘Women would be less able to assess potential sex buyers under demand reduction laws and would therefore be less safe’
The claim that criminalising paying for sex would result in women having less time to ‘assess’ or ‘vet’ potential sex buyers is generally meant to infer that women soliciting on the street would have less time to judge whether a sex buyer is going to be violent towards them, because the buyer would want any ‘negotiation’ to take place more quickly in order to avoid arrest. However, it is already an offence to solicit a person in a public place in order to pay them for sex. Criminalising paying for sex would not alter the illegal status of the sex buyers’ actions.
What demand reduction legislation would do is remove any risk that a woman soliciting on the street would face criminal sanction – as selling sex is decriminalised.
A similarly misleading claim has been made with respect to prohibiting pimping websites; that doing so would significantly decrease the opportunity to assess potential sex buyers, and that this would trump any potential safety benefits of closing them down. However, prostitution adverts hosted by pimping websites openly display the phone numbers of women being advertised on the sites. An inquiry into pimping websites conducted by the Scottish Parliament’s Cross-Party Group on Commercial Sexual Exploitation concluded: “It is wholly implausible that the open, anonymised online access to the phone numbers of women being advertised for sexual exploitation (or the phone numbers of their pimps and traffickers) delivers any meaningful notion of ‘safety’ or ‘security’ to the individuals being advertised.”
“[Pimping websites] concentrate and centralise the nation-wide customer base for sex traffickers: sex buyers. This ready-made, instantly accessible, open online marketplace incentivises sex trafficking. The websites substantially lower the practical, financial and technical threshold for individual exploiters and organised crime groups to engage in this highly lucrative crime. Quite simply, websites that incentivise and facilitate paid rape cannot be claimed to enhance women’s safety.”
- Online Pimping: An Inquiry into Sexual Exploitation Advertising Websites, Cross-Party Group on Commercial Sexual Exploitation, 2021
Fundamentally, this myth relies on the false assumption that a woman can reliably assess and predict whether a sex buyer is going to be violent towards her (in addition to sexually exploiting her) simply by looking at him or based on his previous behaviour. The murders of five women by a sex buyer in 2006 highlight why this assumption is dangerously misplaced. Steve Wright, who was eventually caught and convicted of the murders of five women involved in sexual exploitation in Ipswich, was a regular sex buyer and known to women involved in the local sex trade.
"You can never accurately assess. In prostitution you are the one vetted, you are the one assessed, and you are the one hoping to come out of it unharmed that night. The reality is that there is no real way of differentiating between who is or is not ‘more dangerous’. So many punters are the man next door, the mild mannered friendly guy who waves at his neighbours, pats his children on the head, finishes his nine-to-five and then drives over to the red light district, child car seats in the back. I have lost count of the violence doled out by ‘regulars’ reported to me by women."
- Diane Martin CBE, survivor of prostitution and sex trafficking & founder of a support service for women involved in prostitution
It is simply not possible to reliably predict whether a sex buyer is going to commit (additional) acts of violence when he pays to sexually exploit a woman.
Sexual exploitation can never be made ‘safe’. What enhances the safety of vulnerable women and girls everywhere is the reduction, and ultimate end, of demand for sexual exploitation – the demand that drives the ‘supply’ of women through sex trafficking. That is why governments have a duty to tackle demand and support victims via the introduction and enforcement of demand reduction legislation.
MYTH: ‘Sex trafficking is a completely separate issue from prostitution and can be tackled independently’
There is not a specific demand for trafficked victims. Demand for sexual exploitation is indiscriminate. Therefore, reducing demand for sex trafficking requires reducing demand for paying for sex in general.
The cohort of men who constitute the demand for the prostitution trade is the same cohort that constitutes the demand driving the trafficking of women into the prostitution trade. As an analysis of the gender dimension of trafficking, published by the European Commission, points out: “trafficked persons are located within existing sex industries ... there is no separate or specific market for trafficked persons”.
Prostitution laws have a substantial impact on the scale of demand and rates of sex trafficking. Countries with legalised and unregulated prostitution regimes have significantly larger sex industries, and they experience higher rates of sex trafficking. Reducing demand for sex trafficking requires reducing demand for prostitution.
“The profitability of trafficking to a given country hinges on the characteristics of that country’s market for commercial sex. A crucial factor for the profitability of commercial sex is the legal framework surrounding it ... there are indications that traffickers consider the legal rules surrounding prostitution when choosing destination countries.”
- The law and economics of international sex slavery: prostitution laws and trafficking for sexual exploitation (Jakobsson & Kotsadam, 2013)
MYTH: ‘To combat sexual exploitation you have to combat poverty – but not demand from sex buyers’
While poverty and economic difficulties can be a significant factor in women’s entry into sexual exploitation, so too can factors such as coercion by a partner, addiction, force or threats from an organised crime group, childhood sexual abuse and neglect. All such factors need to be individually addressed. However, none of these factors excuse or legitimise the actions of sex buyers and third parties who sexually exploit women. Without demand from the minority of men who pay for sex, vulnerable women and girls would not be ‘supplied’ into the sex trade.
Sexual exploitation is highly gendered and underpinned by unequal power relations between women and men. It is overwhelmingly women and girls who are sexually exploited - by men - in brothels and hotel rooms across the UK and around the world.
Demand is preventable – and sexual exploitation and abuse is not a solution to poverty.
"For me, heroin became the lifeline to cope with re-living that trauma [of being raped by sex buyers] night after night, where it began with selling myself to cope with heroin. Welcome to the paradox that so very few of us escape from."
- Mia de Faoite, survivor of prostitution
MYTH: 'Being paid to perform sex acts is ordinary work’
Men who exchange money – or food, or services, or accommodation – in return for sex acts are not ‘consumers’ innocuously availing ‘workers’ of their services. They are committing sexual exploitation and abuse.
Most women exploited through the sex trade were highly vulnerable before their involvement and experience significant harms as a result. Up to 95% of women in street prostitution are believed to be problematic drug users. 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. 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.
The psychological and physical harms resulting from sexual exploitation can be severe, wide-ranging and long-lasting. Prostitution is a form of violence against women – as recognised by the Scottish Government, the Crown Prosecution Service and the Mayor of London’s Tackling Violence Against Women and Girls Strategy.
“I became involved in prostitution in my early twenties, courtesy of my then ‘boyfriend’; I now use the word pimp. My body always hurt, from the constant rough sex. I’d get jaw ache from blow-job after blow-job. Group stuff was especially harrowing. I often threw up at the anticipation and couldn’t have done it sober. Prostitution isn’t glamorous and fun. It’s scents and tastes and body fluids, pretending to enjoy (or at least endure) stuff you don’t want to do – stuff that hurts, stuff that’s degrading. I developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I got flashbacks and nightmares, when I could sleep.
"The addiction and the prostitution went together – I sold myself to fund my habit, and I couldn’t do it sober. It was a vicious cycle.”
– Crystal, survivor of sexual exploitation
MYTH: ‘Legally recognising women who sell sex as workers, rather than victims of sexual exploitation, leads to women having greater rights and protections’
Attempts to boost the welfare of women involved in the sex trade by legally recognising them as workers, rather than victims (and recognising brothel-keepers as ‘employers’) have not only failed to deliver the promised protections in practice, these legalised prostitution regimes have magnified the scale of sexual exploitation and sex trafficking.
In addition, state sanctioning prostitution as ‘work’ places legal responsibilities on women who sell sex, removes the impetus for governments to provide exiting services to help women leave the sex trade, and fundamentally fails to recognise or tackle the harm inherent to sexual exploitation.
Rights and responsibilities
Attempts to deliver employment-based rights to women who sell sex by legalising (or ‘fully decriminalising’) the prostitution trade have been largely predicated on these rights, such as sick pay, being accessed via employment contracts with brothels. However, when the German Government evaluated its legalised prostitution regime six years after it was passed, an empirical study found just 1% of people in prostitution who were surveyed had an employment contract - and only 6% definitely wanted one. Reasons women provided for not wanting an employment contract included concerns over the powers it would give brothel owners over them and not wanting to remain in the prostitution trade.
When the New Zealand Government commissioned an evaluation of its legalised prostitution regime, it found the “standard position” was that women in brothels were ‘independent contractors’, rather than brothel employees. The evaluation observed: “The distinction is crucial. Only an employee can take a personal grievance action to the Authority or Court, and only an employee is automatically guaranteed minimum rights such as holiday pay, sick pay and others. An employee has tax deducted automatically from their earnings, and no Accident Compensation Corporation (ACC) or Goods and Services Tax (GST) obligations.”
A major ramification of women who sell sex being legally designated as self-employed workers, rather than victims of sexual exploitation, is that this status imposes significant legal obligations on them. For instance, New Zealand’s Prostitution Law Review Committee noted that a failure by women who sell sex to fulfil their obligations under health and safety law could result in “serious financial consequences”.
If the law recognises women who sell sex as regular ‘workers’, rather than victims of sexual exploitation, this removes the logical impetus for state agencies to provide exiting services to help women leave the sex trade. This logic has been reflected in practice.
In New Zealand, where brothel-keeping is legal and those who sell sex are recognised as 'workers', an official review of the country’s prostitution legislation observed that when it comes to supporting people to exit prostitution, “adequate resourcing is vital to ensure good service provision”. The evaluation by the Prostitution Law Review Committee noted, “the very fact of decriminalisation may make funding [for exiting services] harder to get.” The Committee asked New Zealand’s 84 local authorities whether they had done anything to assist individuals to exit the sex trade. Only two said yes.
Legalised and unregulated prostitution regimes - which recognise women who sell sex as ‘workers’ – have significantly larger sex industries. They also experience significantly higher rates of sex trafficking. Designating women who are paid to perform sex acts as ‘workers’ does not expunge the inherent harm of sexual exploitation and abuse. On the contrary, legally sanctioning brothel-keeping as a legitimate business - and paying for sex as a legitimate consumer activity - fuels demand and incentivises sex trafficking, magnifying the scale of sexual exploitation.
“If you view prostitution as a form of discrimination and inequality and violence, then you’re going to invest in exiting. If you view it as harmless - or as work like any other or something to which you need to not engage too much - then why would you invest in exiting?"
- Heather Harvey, Head of Research and Campaigns, Nia
MYTH: ‘Women who sell sex are decriminalised under ‘legalised’ / ‘fully decriminalised’ prostitution regimes’
Legally recognising women who sell sex as workers, rather than victims of sexual exploitation, imposes legal obligations on women which, if not met, can result in criminal sanction.
If women who are paid to perform sex acts are legally recognised as workers, legal requirements placed on them can include health and safety and tax obligations. In New Zealand, where prostitution is recognised as 'work', an official review of the country’s prostitution laws found that the “standard position in the industry” is that individuals who are paid for sex in brothels are ‘independent contractors’, not employees. As a result, the review pointed out, “She or he has significant responsibilities under HSE [Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992], and failure to take action to meet these may have serious financial consequences.” Furthermore, any person who sells sex in New Zealand can face criminal sanction for failing to adopt ‘safer sex practices’.
Giving someone money - or accommodation, goods or services – on the condition that they perform sex acts is sexual exploitation and abuse. Individuals who are sexually exploited should not face criminal sanction for their own abuse. That is why demand reduction legislation should be introduced – to prevent legal obligations and sanctions being applied to individuals who are sexually exploited, and to instead provide support and exiting services.