New evidence devastates govt sex worker laws

By Ian Dunt

New evidence has been published which fundamentally undermines the government’s arguments in favour of criminalising those who pay for sex.

The research comes from Vancouver and was conducted by the University of British Colombia. It found a direct correlation between criminalisation and increased violence against sex workers.

The research is highly problematic for the government, which intends to create a new offence of paying for sex with someone who is controlled for gain and introduce new powers to close brothels in the upcoming policing and crime bill.

“Evidence from Vancouver and the UK shows that criminalisation reinforced stigma and facilitates violence against sex workers,” a spokesperson for the International Union of Sex Workers told

“We know that the government’s policies in the policing and crime bill although they are described as intending to protect vulnerable women, they will in fact increase the level of violence sex workers experience – both indoors and out.”

The new research follows a damaging report from the respected Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) which found the majority of migrant workers in the UK sex industry were not forced or trafficked.

It also concluded that criminalising clients would not stop the sex industry and that it would be pushed underground, making it more difficult for migrants working in the UK sex industry to assert their rights in relation to both clients and employers.

Taken together, the research provides a devastating critique of the government’s policy platform, which was based on an attempt to end the trafficking of women into the UK to work in the sex industry.

The Vancouver research found the factors causing a prevalence of violence could be “stemmed by decriminalising the sex industry”.

According to the report’s author, Professor Kate Shannon, factors such as being forced to service clients in cars or public places, inability to access drug treatment and a prior assault by police all correlated with violence against female sex workers.

“The persistent relationship between enforcement of prostitution and drug use policies (eg confiscation of drug use paraphernalia without arrest, and enforced displacement to outlying areas) suggests that criminalisation may enhance the likelihood of violence against street-based female sex workers,” Professor Shannon said.

Over half of participants (57 per cent) had experienced violence at least once in the 18-month follow-up period, from the first question session. Almost four in ten (38 per cent) reported physical violence, a quarter (25 per cent) reported rape, and three in ten (30 per cent) said their clients had been violent towards them.

“The findings support global calls to remove criminal sanctions targeting sex workers,” Professor Shannon said.

A Home Office spokesman told “We want to offer greater protection to this very vulnerable and exploited group of people. To do this we need to focus attention on the people who buy sex so that they’ll think twice about who they are buying sex from.

“But we also want to help those wanting to leave prostitution. This is one of the key aspects of the government’s Prostitution Strategy which we are continuing to implement.”

The policing and crime bill is currently at committee stage in the Lords.