The latest data on prosecutions and convictions of the various prostitution-related offences that are in force in England and Wales over the five years to 2022 leave little doubt that the police do not enforce the law and that these offences have become more or less decriminalised.
The following chart shows the average number of prosecutions for the various prostitution-related offences in England and Wales per year over the period 2018-2022. The numbers of convictions are generally lower.
(The data on which this chart is based is provided in an appendix to this article.)
Notice that there was not a single prosecution for kerb crawling or paying for sex with a prostituted person who was subject to force or coercion. Also notice that the highest number of prosecutions were for women soliciting to sell prostitution on the street – even though for each woman involved in prostitution, whether on the street or indoors, there are hundreds of punters.
It is the willingness of so many people (who, let’s face it, are almost entirely men) to pay to sexually use and abuse women that drives the entire prostitution industry – and yet the police make no use of the two laws that are currently in place for dealing with these men.
Instead, the police continue to go after the women who are selling sex on the street, even though, almost without exception, they have been driven there by poverty, personal catastrophe, drug addiction or outright coercion.
Same old same old: men cause the problem and women pay the price.
Similarly of the thousands of brothels in England and Wales, there were on average less than 10 prosecutions a year for brothel keeping. And of the even greater numbers of pimps, there were only 11 prosecutions a year for ‘Controlling prostitution for gain’, the main pimping offence.
In order to understand the data, we need to understand the context – roughly how many brothels there are in England and Wales, how many people are involved in prostitution, how many of those people are under the control of a pimp, how many punters there are, and how many children are being sexually exploited.
In 2016, a Police Foundation study into organised crime in indoor prostitution identified 65 brothels in Bristol. Of these, 14 operated from commercial properties under the guise of massage parlours. We have found no evidence that there has been any systematic attempt to crack down on the identified brothels since the report was published, even though 77 per cent “displayed links to organised crime groups” and tackling organised crime is a priority under the government’s serious and organised crime strategy.
It is therefore likely that there were a similar number of brothels in Bristol during the years that the prosecution and conviction data covers (2018-2022).
Bristol is a city with a population of approximately 428,234. It is reasonable to expect that there are also many brothels in the other 69 cities in England and Wales, excluding London. While a few cities are larger than Bristol, most are smaller – so we would not expect all 69 cities to also have 65 brothels. But even if the other cities have an average of only 30 brothels, that still makes a total of more than 2,000. A 2008 study found 921 brothels advertised in local newspapers in London – meaning that an estimate of 3,000 brothels in England and Wales is probably reasonable.
This means that there were likely thousands of brothels in England and Wales during the years that the prosecution and conviction data covers.
And yet on average there were only 10 prosecutions for brothel keeping each year, meaning there was a negligible chance that a brothel keeper would be prosecuted in any one year.
While women are not prosecuted for simply selling sex in a brothel, we know that the police undertake brothel raids – sometimes under the guise of ‘welfare checks’ – and then, shamefully, arrest women involved for immigration offences.
Numbers involved in prostitution
Research published in 2015 suggested that there were approximately 72,800 people involved in prostitution in the UK, of which approximately 32,000 were based in London, and 88% were women, 6% men and 4% transgender. As approximately 89% of the population of the UK live in England and Wales, we can assume that at least 64,800 of those people were based in England and Wales.
We are not aware of any comprehensive surveys of the numbers involved in prostitution since 2015. However, it is almost certain that the numbers have increased significantly for several reasons. There has been an increase in poverty, caused by benefit changes, the government’s austerity measures, repercussions of the COVID lockdowns, the rising cost of housing, and the “cost of living” crisis. This has led to an increase in the number of people, particularly women, who are turning to prostitution simply to make ends meet.
At the same time, the online environment has become increasingly saturated with hardcore porn and mainstream culture has become more and more pornified and dominated by “sex work is real work” tropes. This normalises prostitution and inevitably increases men’s demand for it and the likelihood of women and girls being drawn into the industry without fully understanding the implications.
It is therefore likely that there were in fact significantly more than 64,800 people involved in prostitution in England and Wales in the years 2018-2022 that the prosecution and conviction data covers.
Research from 2012 based on in-depth interviews with more than 100 UK women involved in, or exited from, prostitution found that 50% had suffered some form of coercion. A European Parliament Report, found that of the 40-42 million people involved in prostitution worldwide, “90% are dependent on a procurer”, such as a trafficker or a pimp. A conservative estimate would be that approximately 30% of the estimated 64,800 people involved in prostitution might be pimped. This gives a rough estimate of 19,440 pimps in England and Wales during the period in question.
And yet only 11 were prosecuted on average each year.
Let’s assume that the estimated 64,800 people involved in prostitution in England and Wales each “see” 100 unique punters a year. (This is probably an underestimate, but many punters will “see” more than one woman.) This equates to approximately 6.5 million punters in England and Wales – which is approximately a quarter of the 24.1 million men over 14 in England and Wales.
Let that sink in. This suggests that one in four men in England and Wales are prostitution buyers. But not a single one of them was prosecuted for kerb crawling or buying sex from a woman who had been coerced into prostitution.
This means that men are being given total impunity to break the laws around buying sex, which have been designed to protect women and children.
Child sexual exploitation
Until 2015 the equivalent offence to ‘controlling prostitution for gain’ when the victim was a child was ‘controlling a child prostitute or a child involved in pornography.’ However, in 2015 all references to child prostitution were removed from the English criminal law and replaced with the term ‘child sexual exploitation’ (CSE) and the offence is now ‘controlling a child in relation to sexual exploitation.’
Those who pushed for this change in terminology were reacting to the shameful history of blaming girls who were being pimped, and writing them off as child prostitutes – which was seen as a ‘lifestyle choice.’ To counter this, campaigners used the catch phrase ‘no such thing as a child prostitute’ and the law change was the result. While we appreciate the intentions of those who pushed for this, it has had unintended consequences.
Using different terminology for prostitution when it relates to children implies that adult prostitution is acceptable even though we know that many women started in prostitution before their 18th birthday, typically through the involvement of one or more third parties.
The word ‘prostitution’ is well understood to mean that a person (almost always a man) pays for sexual access to another person (usually a woman or a child) and that all or much of the payment often goes into the pocket of a third party (the pimp). All of this is conveyed in the word ‘prostitution.’ ‘Sexual exploitation’ on the other hand, is not clearly understood by the general public or even professionals.
The framing of the offences as CSE also obscures the financial motivation driving the pimps and makes the men who pay to sexually abuse children invisible.
We know from scandals in Telford, Rotherham, Oxford, Rochdale, Oldham, Bradford, Newcastle and elsewhere that CSE is rife in England and Wales. There is a myth that this is something mainly perpetrated by Asian men against white girls, but this is misleading. White men are also common perpetrators – although their modus operandi might be different – and Asian and Black girls are also often victims.
From this we must assume that thousands of children in England and Wales are subject to CSE every year. And yet there were only 24 prosecutions on average for all the CSE offences combined each year (although some perpetrators may have been prosecuted under other legislation, including the Modern Slavery Act 2015, and for offences, such as rape and sexual assault).
We want to be clear that we are totally opposed to anyone being criminalised for their own prostitution. However, we are equally clear that third parties profiting from and facilitating prostitution should feel the full weight of the law. These are serious crimes that have a devastating impact on the individuals concerned and on wider society.
Under English law, some of these offences are “summary only” offences, which means that they are considered relatively trivial, are only tried in a magistrate courts, and the police have discretion about whether to pursue them or not.
However, this is not true for the pimping offences, brothel keeping (Section 33A), and all the child sexual exploitation offences. These are all indictable offences, meaning they are considered serious crimes, can be tried in the crown court, and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and not the police make the decision about whether to prosecute or not.
It is shameful therefore that the police pursue many times more women for soliciting on the streets than the far more numerous kerb crawlers or even pimps and brothel keepers.
This is not really a surprise because for many years now, national police guidance has recommended not pursuing most prostitution-related crimes. It is shameful nevertheless and reveals a deeply sexist and misogynistic state of affairs in which it would seem the greatest taboo is challenging men’s patriarchal sex right – the right to brutalise women and children for momentary pleasure.
Appendix: The data
All data is from the Outcomes by Offence data tool that is freely available on the government’s Criminal Justice System statistics webpage. For instructions on how to use the tool for this purpose, see the response to our FOI request.
Pimping (Sexual Offences Act 2003)
Sex-buying (Sexual Offences Act 2003)
Soliciting to sell sex (Street Offences Act 1959)
Brothel-keeping (Sexual Offences Act 1956)
Advertising (Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001)
Sexual exploitation of children (Sexual Offences Act 2003)