The New National Police Sex Work Guidance: The good, the bad and the downright shameful

The National Police Chiefs’ Council (the NPCC) has released new “Sex Work National Police Guidance” for the UK.

We are thrilled that, for the first time, it includes a ‘Professional Standards’ section that defines “the use of sex workers” as “incompatible with the role” of police officers and staff. This effectively bans police throughout the UK from buying sex – something we have been calling for through our petition.

A number of valid reasons are given for the ban (e.g. undermining public trust, risks of committing or condoning offences, and being the target of blackmail). However, it is disappointing that the NPCC did not take the opportunity to explain that paying for sex cannot be reconciled with the requirement that sex must be based on free consent. As the ‘Limits of Consent’ report by the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission puts it:

“The entire system of prostitution is built upon the exchange of money for sexual consent. Without the money, there would be no consent. […] this undermines the principle of consent itself.”

The links are well established between men’s prostitution use and attitudes that underpin male violence towards women and girls. But this wasn’t mentioned either – which seems like a missed opportunity given the epidemic of male violence against women and girls that we are now witnessing and the sexism and misogyny that pervade police forces throughout the UK.

Instead the very first page of the guidance states unequivocally that “sex working [sic] is not a violence against women and girls (VAWG) issue”. This, along with the terminology guide, which claims that the term “prostitution” is “pejorative” and that it is “best practice” to use the “sex work” terminology, reveals the ideological bias of the guidance.

We have written elsewhere about how the “sex work” terminology was promoted by sex industry lobbyists in a deliberate attempt to sanitise the sex trade and obfuscate its harms. We hear from young women that this terminology, with its implication that prostitution is a normal job, facilitated their entry into prostitution and the havoc that subsequently caused in their lives.

That the national police guidance does not recognise prostitution as a form of VAWG and accepts this biased and euphemistic terminology as “best practice” is disturbing. It also runs counter to policy in both Scotland and Northern Ireland and to the approach of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). The Scottish government defines prostitution as a form of VAWG and Northern Ireland has introduced a Nordic Model style law, which positions prostitution as a form of VAWG and makes buying sex a criminal offence. The CPS addresses prostitution “as sexual exploitation within the overall CPS Violence against Women and Girls (VAWG) portfolio, due to its gendered nature”.

The back cover states that because of legal differences, the new guidance only relates to England and Wales, “although its principles and recommendations may be used in the other constituent countries of the United Kingdom”.

In other words the NPCC is recommending an approach that runs in direct contradiction to the policy and/or law of Scotland and Northern Ireland – and the long-standing approach of the CPS.

The previous version of the guidance had a similar note – but more prominently placed on its front cover – and was similar to the new guidance in many respects. It seems likely that the Northern Ireland police force’s general lacklustre enforcement of its law against sex buying is connected to the influence of the earlier versions of the guidance.

Hate crime

We disagree with the recommendation in the guidance that the police should consider crimes against “sex workers” to be “hate crimes”.

Considering crimes against “sex workers” to be “hate crime” alongside crimes against people with immutable characteristics such as race would implicitly legitimise and normalise prostitution and affirm its position as a neutral and permanent feature of society.

We believe that violence and abuse against those involved in prostitution should be considered extreme forms of misogynistic, racist, homophobic or transphobic hate crime where appropriate, and the victims should be treated as particularly vulnerable – while public policy should focus on reducing the size and legitimacy of the system of prostitution and providing support and alternatives to those caught up in it, and on addressing all the factors that drive vulnerable people into it.

For more on this, see our response to Question 4 of the Law Commission’s hate crime consultation.

Emphasis on non-enforcement

Far from focusing on reducing the size of the system of prostitution by enforcing the existing legislation against pimping, human trafficking, brothel keeping, kerb crawling and paying for sex with someone who has been coerced, in many places the guidance advices not enforcing these laws. As to helping those caught up in the industry to find alternatives and routes out, the guidance contains just about zilch. There are three types of criminal offences in England and Wales:

  • Summary only – these offences are of lesser severity and are tried in a magistrate’s court. Local police have discretion over whether to pursue and prosecute these offences.
  • Indictable only – these are of greater severity and are always tried by jury in the crown court.
  • Either way – these are also of greater severity than summary only offences and they can be tried in either court.

On page 68 of the guidance, there is a list of the key relevant legislation in England and Wales. This list is preceded by a note that states that the listed offences are “all summary only offences, for which the police have discretion on how they respond”.

However, this is not true. The list includes a number of serious and very serious offences that are indictable, including: Section 33A of the Sexual Offences Act 1956 (managing, acting or assisting in the management of a brothel); Sections 52 and 53 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 (causing or inciting prostitution for gain and controlling prostitution for gain); Section 2 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 (human trafficking); and Sections 47, 48, 49 and 50 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 (various child sexual exploitation offences).

While the police have some discretion about what action to take with indictable offences, the decision about whether to prosecute these offences is taken by the CPS. The guidance goes close to suggesting that police should not pursue managing a brothel and controlling prostitution for gain offences on principle – which, as they are indictable offences, appears to be a contradiction of the police obligation to uphold the law.

This is hardly surprising since the chair of the NPCC “sex work” working group, Deputy Chief Constable Dan Vajzovic, has lobbied the government for brothel keeping to be decriminalised in order to “improve sex workers’ safety”. It seems to us that the guidance goes beyond the law as it currently stands and perhaps anticipates changes not in force and that are a matter for Parliament and not police guidance.

International obligations

On page 57 the guidance states:

“The NPCC guidance aims to target those who exploit and protect the vulnerable. Sex work poses a range of risks and sex workers gathering together at the same premises for safety should not mean they are criminalised under brothel keeping legislation.”

We are unequivocal that the law should not criminalise anyone for their own prostitution. The vast majority of those who are involved in prostitution are there as a result of poverty, addiction, disadvantage, coercion, and/or grooming by individual perpetrators or by the prevailing culture that promotes prostitution as a normal job. Once embedded in the industry it is notoriously hard to escape.

However, we are equally unequivocal that the law should criminalise those who profit from the prostitution of others – as required by CEDAW. We also believe that the law should criminalise sex buyers in order to reduce men’s demand for prostitution – as required by the Palermo Protocol. The UK has ratified both of these UN conventions and so has a binding obligation under international law to implement their terms. The UK is currently abjectly failing to do this and this guidance does nothing to address this failure.

Women working together

Many women with lived experience of English brothels tell us that in practice it is simply not feasible for many women to work together without someone running the brothel and profiting from the women’s prostitution. It might be possible for two women to share a flat and to both use it for prostitution without either one profiting from the other’s prostitution. But it is unlikely in practice for more than about two to be able to do this.

So invariably when there are more than two women working from a brothel, there will be a brothel keeper profiting from their prostitution – as we explain in The problem with “safety in numbers”. This means that almost all brothels will have at least one person who meets the CPS guidance on when prosecuting brothel keeping would be in the public interest:

“It will generally be in the public interest to prosecute those who abuse, harm, exploit, or make a living from the earnings of prostitutes.” [Our emphasis]

But the NPCC guidance suggests that the police should not generally take enforcement action against brothel keeping, beyond having a quiet word. For example on page 58 it says:

“Community concerns and complaints may focus neighbourhood teams on a brothel. If a location is being used as a brothel and is the cause of anti-social behaviour, there may be less intrusive ways to tackle this type of complaint. Interacting sensitively with the occupants may immediately address community concerns.”

Brothels in residential areas can cause significant problems to the local community. For example, neighbours might be upset by hearing screaming and other noise indicating the women are in pain or distress. Punters often knock on the wrong door at all hours of the day and night. This and punters driving or walking through the streets looking for the brothel and pimps waiting outside can be intimidating and pose a safety risk to women and children in the neighbourhood.

But the guidance suggests that none of this matters. Nor that a brothel – as a commercial concern – in a residential property is likely to violate planning regulations. Nor that “massage parlours” and other “special treatment premises” are required to first obtain a licence.

The implication is that the local community should get up to speed with the importance of having a thriving sexploitation industry on their doorstep and that any objection is small minded and unreasonable – as if women and children’s safety and dignity is of no consequence.

Not only is not prosecuting brothel keepers not making women safe, it is contributing to the normalisation and expansion of the industry and therefore leading to more women and girls being drawn into the industry and harmed there. In other words, the approach recommended in this guidance is almost certain to lead to more harm to more women and girls over time.


The guidance reveals considerable naivety about the reality of prostitution and how the sex industry works in practice. It encourages police officers to “safeguard the vulnerable” but there is little explanation of what this actually means in practice. There is a long list of points that might indicate that a prostituted person is being exploited. However, there is nothing about what the police officer can do to make an exploited woman safe – other than referring them to a partner service or making a referral when appropriate to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) for human trafficking.

Nor is there any discussion of the common scenario of women being coerced into prostitution by intimate partners who then use her as a meal ticket. Nor that this is likely to conform to the UN definition of human trafficking. Like women in other coercive control and domestic abuse situations, it can be extremely dangerous for women to attempt to leave and, as a survival mechanism, women often downplay the desperation of their situation.

The best thing the police could do for a woman in this situation would be to take the male partner into custody. But this is unlikely to happen because the guidance instructs focusing on “organised crime” – although why the harm should be worse when the pimp is part of a recognised organised network is not explained.

A US study found that prostituted individuals face a murder rate 18 times higher than non-prostituted individuals and a study in Canada estimated that their mortality rate was 40 times higher than the national average. This is the reality of prostitution. Nothing can make it safe.

And yet on page 37, the guidance says: “Safe working practices should always be encouraged in preference to less safe working practices.”

This is wishful thinking. And if police officers were to follow it and advise women to work in a brothel or follow the Ugly Mugs advice to not wear a scarf or to prevent punters penetrating them “doggy style”, is that not victim blaming? Is that not suggesting that if anything untoward happens to her, it’s her fault?

Pimping websites as “partners” to the police

The guidance has a lot to say about pimping websites, and instructs the police to call them “Adult services websites” or ASWs because:

“Likening websites to ‘pimps’ or directly linking them to sexual exploitation implies deliberate involvement in trafficking and suggests that they are solely engaged in advertising linked to trafficking which has not been evidenced.”

Except pimping means freeloading off women’s prostitution and what are these websites doing if not freeloading off women’s prostitution?

But of course we must not name these websites correctly because then the policy that the people behind them make excellent partners to the police in the battle against crime might be revealed as an oxymoron.

How can a criminal enterprise help the police battle crime? And surely the police partnering with a criminal enterprise is likely to skew the police’s perceptions and understanding?

The guidance’s ignorance of the reality is mind numbing. For example, it explains that in order to post an advert on most of these websites, you need to show photo ID. It goes on to say that the police can use this information to check the age and welfare of the women being sold. But nowhere does the guidance acknowledge the fact that pimps post adverts using one person’s ID (in one case we are aware of he used his wife’s ID) and then sell one or more other women and even children behind that advert. Meaning that checking the ID behind the advert does not necessarily tell you anything about who is actually being bought and sold.

The report of a Scottish inquiry into pimping websites shows that these websites have been so successful at facilitating pimping that they have led to an explosion in the size of the sexploitation industry – with the result that the scale of pimping and human trafficking that takes place through these websites vastly outstrips the capacity of any police force to deal with appropriately.

Valiant Richey, OSCE Special Representative and Coordinator for Combating Trafficking in Human Beings, who gave evidence to the inquiry, said:

“The problem is that these sites are facilitating an expansion of scale far beyond police resources or knowledge or capacity. So this argument is false, because it suggests that you should leave those sites in place to help law enforcement – and that is completely ridiculous because of the volume we’re talking about… How do we know that they can’t handle it? Because if they were making a dent in the problem the traffickers would go somewhere else, and they’re not.”

The NPCC guidance doesn’t even mention the Scottish inquiry, let alone discuss its findings. We recommend reading our summary of its key findings.

Instead, on page 16, the NPCC guidance says:

“UK policing and its law enforcement partners are committed to working with ASWs [pimping websites] as a key partner to make the industry safer, spot exploitation and increase good practice. This occurs through a national working group, contributed to by the NPCC portfolio for sex working.”

This is not only more wishful thinking but is truly shameful.

The illusion of “screening” clients

Page 15 of the guidance states that “selling sexual services online is generally safer, enabling more checks of customers to be made and security to be managed.”

Page 16 claims that some of these websites have “very robust” safeguarding measures. But this is almost entirely an illusion. Most adverts on most of the large prostitution advertising websites include contact details for the woman being advertised (or her pimp) and these are visible to anyone viewing the advert – regardless whether they are registered on the website and logged in or not – meaning that anyone can get in touch to book an appointment without any online screening whatsoever.

Even if the punter does register and create a profile for himself, he doesn’t need to show any photo ID and if he gets a bad review, he can easily make a new profile under a new name. But anyway an absence of bad reviews does not ensure that he will be ‘safe’.

The ineffectiveness of the screening mechanisms, such as they are, was demonstrated when Mark Brown was convicted of the murders of two women he met through Adultwork, where he was a registered user.

Far from making women safer, the review features on these websites and punter forums (e.g. UK Punting) provide a new way for punters and pimps to control and blackmail women, as we explain in Online Pimping: A New Dystopia.

But the guidance does not suggest cracking down on men who do this. Instead, on page 50, it advises:

“Reviewing ASWs and linked online forums provides law enforcement with the opportunity to better understand the online sex worker community in each area and to gather evidence against recorded crimes.”

The emphasis throughout the guidance seems to be on “understanding” the “sex worker community” rather than on preventing crime and enforcing the law as it currently stands.


While we wholeheartedly welcome the ban on police paying for “sexual services”, in most other respects this new guidance is dumbfounding. Its focus on “sex worker” safety is unrealistic and ill-informed and the focus on building an “intelligence picture” rather than on preventing and enforcing the law against pimping and brothel-keeping is beyond disturbing. We would go as far to suggest that in issuing this guidance, the NPCC is usurping the role of Parliament over this area of criminal law.

The unspoken implication of the guidance is that there should be no challenge to men buying sex and to women being available for this purpose and there should be no concerted attempt to disrupt the industry.

The only reasonable conclusion is that the NPCC is advised by academics and others who do not have first-hand experience of prostitution and/or are driven by an ideological position or vested interests to promote a distorted view of prostitution and how the industry actually works.

In other words, the evidence of this guidance suggests that the NPCC has been captured by those who favour the expansion of the sexploitation industry and who denigrate those who challenge it.

This flies in the face of the long-standing principle that British policing should be conducted without “fear or favour” and is a violation of audi alteram partem, the fundamental principle that justice requires hearing both sides.

Like the previous version, this new guidance is not fit for purpose. We call for it to be scrapped and for the NPCC to go back to the drawing board, this time putting women and girls’ human rights, and obligations under the Equality Act 2010 and binding international treaties firmly in the centre of all its considerations. Advisors should include survivors of prostitution and organisations like Nordic Model Now! which has many prostitution survivor members, and Nia, which provides high-quality exit services for women involved in prostitution.

Further reading

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