The commercial sex trade exists in many forms throughout the UK. This includes in the form of street prostitution, but the larger concentration is in the booming ‘indoor’ sex industry, taking place in brothels, massage parlours that also function as brothels and via online escort services—thriving especially in larger cities like London. Several activities around prostitution are criminalised, but laws around prostitution and sex trafficking are incoherent, inconsistent and confusing and are therefore applied unevenly and sometimes barely at all. Much of the law enforcement focus continues to be on women in prostitution, rather than on pimps, brothel owners and buyers.
Foreign-born nationals are trafficked into the UK for sexual exploitation from countries such as Nigeria, as well as Eastern European countries including Romania, Slovakia and Hungary. There has been increased awareness and reporting in recent years of internal trafficking within the UK, including the high-profile ‘grooming’ and child sex trafficking cases in Rochdale and Oxford, where the victims were primarily British girls living in state care homes or were experiencing neglect at home, and recent research has shed more light on the sexual exploitation of young British women and girls from ethnic and religious minority backgrounds.
Life in Prostitution
Research shows high levels of violence, exploitation and abuse of women and girls (and boys and men) in both on-street and indoor prostitution across the UK. Homicide, physical and sexual assault and harassment at the hands of buyers, pimps, partners, traffickers, passers-by, law enforcement and others is widespread. Women in prostitution experience a higher mortality rate compared to women of similar age and backgrounds who are not in prostitution, and high levels of drug use have been documented especially—but not exclusively—among women in street prostitution.
Women face significant difficulties in trying to leave prostitution. A 2012 study by the London-based charity Eaves and London South Bank University, found that the women interviewed (114 women currently or previously in prostitution) faced numerous barriers to exiting, including criminal sanctions, drug and alcohol addictions and debt. Another significant barrier is women’s real and perceived alternatives to prostitution. Some women noted that being in prostitution for several years had significantly reduced their self-esteem and limited their perception of options and possibilities in life. Importantly, many of the women were never asked by those assisting them (for example with sexual health, housing or other issues) whether they might want to exit. As a result, many of the women interviewed had not even considered the possibility of exiting unless they were specifically asked about it by service providers.
The experience of organisations working on the ground with women in prostitution has shown that holistic, long-term services for women and girls in prostitution are vital. The women often need support with multiple issues, including employment, housing, drug/alcohol use, getting their children back from the care system, etc., which may take months or years to adequately address. Although there are some excellent organisations in the UK providing such services, they are underfunded and understaffed. To address this, the state must ensure that these organisations are properly funded, and that in general more support is guaranteed to those involved in all forms of prostitution, not only on-street prostitution, and regardless of whether or not there is drug or alcohol use involved, as currently some services are limited to individuals suffering from addiction issues.