UK Legal Information

this information is kindly borrowed from SW5… thanks… for more information please see

The UK legal system is often a version of the jokes about good news and bad news.

Prostitution – exchanging participation in sexual activities for money or other goods – has always been legal in the UK. It’s actually arguably more acceptable to charge for your sexual skills than your cooking or brewing skills – you need a certificate or licence for the latter two!

However, many of the activities that prostitution often involve are illegal.

The legal situation in England and Wales has changed over time, and keeps changing. A government consultation on sex work laws, Paying the Price , was held in 2004 and the results were published in January 2006.

(Scotland and Northern Ireland are very similar overall but slightly different in the details – contact SCOT_PEP or a project in Northern Ireland to find out more.)

Sometimes, the courts move ahead of Parliament. The 1967 Act that decriminalised some sexual acts between men specified they had to be ‘in private’, interpreted as between only two people, not involving anyone else or being seen by anyone else.

However in 2000, the European Court of Human Rights quashed the conviction of men who were enjoying consensual group sex – so though the law book took until 2004 to catch up, it was in fact legal.

This is not always a positive thing though – although the Government stated that only deliberate transmission of sexually transmitted infections should be a criminal offence, as of January 2006, seven people have been convicted for ‘reckless’ transmission of HIV.

The Basics – from May 2004
The introduction of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 means there have been several changes.

It is now illegal to pay for otherwise legal sex with someone who is 16 or 17. Controlling someone under 18’s prostitution is a more serious offence – no element of gain is necessary and the penalties are up to fourteen years in prison.

The laws on working on the street have become ‘gender neutral’. Anyone, male or female, on the street (or on a balcony or in a window) can be found guilty of soliciting for the purpose of prostitution.
Streetwork is one of the few areas where clients of adult workers can get into trouble too – anyone kerb-crawling (approaching other people from or near a vehicle they’ve just got out of for the purpose of prostitution) is particularly at risk, not least as their vehicle can now be seized.

In fact it is illegal in general to persistently solicit anyone on the street for the purposes of prostitution, but this is much less fequently prosecuted, not least because if they are in fact prostitutes, they don’t count for this law!

Working alone indoors, or for an agency or in a brothel
All remain legal. Provided the worker is at least 18, buying sex from them is also legal.

‘Pimping’, running an agency or brothel
All remain illegal.
But controlling another adult’s prostitution is now only illegal if you gain from it (or know that someone else does). Looked at another way, gaining from someone else’s prostitution is now legal: it’s the control for gain that’s illegal.

So sex workers’ families should now be free of the risk of being charged with “living on the earnings of prostitution”, however owners of escort agencies and brothels as well as ‘pimps’ will still be at risk.

In addition, it is specifically illegal to own or run a ‘disorderly house’ or brothel – anywhere more than one woman or man resorts to for non-marital sex. As this doesn’t necessarily have to be at the same time, or involve sexual intercouse or, indeed, any payment, a very wide range of places are therefore ‘brothels’, including many hotels. (Remember that it’s legal to be a sex worker at a brothel provided you don’t assist in its management.)

The penalties for owning or running a brothel involving prostitution have been increased.

What gets prosecuted
In 1961, Frederick Shaw was controversially convicted of a conspiracy to corrupt public morals after publishing ads from prostitutes.

In 1971, a London-based ‘alternative’ newspaper, the International Times (IT), was convicted of the same offence. IT’s crime was having run personal ads for gay men. The House of Lords ruled that while the acts may be legal, public encouragement of the acts is not. IT closed down as a result. Today, there are several magazines which freely carry ads for male escorts, displaying their erections and their price.

It would be very difficult to find a jury today willing to convict for gay personal or escort ads. A similar situation exists with many of the other laws. The police have better things to do, and they know it.

The Crown Prosecution Service, responsible for deciding which cases to take to court, have published much of their advice to their staff. Of particular interest is the section on ‘Offences Against Public Morals And Decency’, including these thoughts:
Prostitution and related offences: Public Interest Considerations

At all times, you should bear in mind the following general objectives of the legislation involving prostitution, namely:

  • To keep prostitutes off the street to prevent annoyance to members of the public;
  • To prevent people leading or forcing others into prostitution;
  • To penalise those who organise prostitutes and make a living from their earnings;
  • Generally the more serious the incident the more likely that a prosecution will be required;
  • The age of the prostitute and the position of those living off the earnings will clearly be relevant;
  • When considering a child accused of prostitution, reference should be made to the policy document Safeguarding Children Involved in Prostitution elsewhere in this guidance, and the child should generally treated as a victim of abuse. The focus should be on those who exploit and coerce children. Only where there is a persistent and voluntary return to prostitution and where there is a genuine choice should a prosecution be considered.
  • … so people working for themselves, off the streets, are clearly not a priority for the CPS.

    Indeed, indoor work is generally targeted less than street work, and single brothels are targeted less than chains, but patterns of law enforcement vary at different times and in different places.

  • Find out what laws the police are currently enforcing in your area and try to work within those boundaries – some forces say they have ‘zero tolerance’ of brothels etc, while other forces will call around to check that everything is ok at brothels in their area.
  • Keep your activities low-key to avoid attracting attention – the neighbours can’t complain about things they don’t know about.Whatever your set-up, police involvement is more likely where there are under age or illegal immigrant workers, or where there is drug dealing, money laundering, violence or ‘exotic’ services such as bondage or SM, on the premises.
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