As sex workers from across Europe gather at the House of Commons to argue against proposals to criminalise their clients, Channel 4 News asks one woman what effect changing the law would have.
The sex workers say proposals drawn up by the all-party parliamentary group on prostitution would not stop prostitution, but would make it more dangerous to work as a prostitute, as well as stigmatising women who choose to do so.
The meeting on Wednesday has been organised by the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP), which says “these proposals will further divert police time and resources from investigating rape, trafficking and other violent crimes, to policing consenting sex”.
Sex workers there will argue that Britain would be better off following the example set by New Zealand, which has decriminalised prostitution, than the so-called Nordic model on which the all-party group’s proposals are based.
In a report published in March, MPs and peers argued that women working as prostitutes should no longer be criminalised, while their clients and pimps should be. In other words, buying sex would become illegal, but selling sex would no longer be a criminal offence.
The group’s chairman, the Labour MP Gavin Shuker, said the current laws were “in effect prioritising the gratification of punters at the expense of often vulnerable women and girls”.
The report said it was sex workers, rather than their clients, who were most likely to fall foul of these laws, facing fines, anti-social behaviour orders (Asbos) and criminal records as a result.
The European Parliament has also voted to criminalise clients, the vast majority of them men, following Sweden’s decision in 1999 to go down this road.
“Nikki” (not her real name) works as a prostitute. Most of her clients are disabled – men, she said, who find it difficult to meet women and have sex with them.
In an interview with Channel 4 News (watch video above), she said she has chosen to earn a living as a prostitute and is fulfilling a need.
She believes that if it became illegal to buy sex, men would continue to visit prostitutes, but making what they do a criminal offence would drive the activity underground and risk destroying families.
“I don’t think it will stop them. I think it will make it more difficult for them. I don’t think the majority of guys would pay attention,” she said.
“I think part of seeing a lady is the risk taking. You know, they’re married, some of the clients that I’ve got are older.
“I see a lot of over 50s and the over 50s are in loving, happy family relationships and thery love their wives but the intimacy side of that relationship … they are unable to fulfil their sexual requirements.
“Criminalising it, it will be as bad as kerb crawlers, they will be dishing out fines, destroying families.”
What are the laws on prostitution?
It is not illegal to buy or sell sex, but sex workers break the law if they loiter and solicit on the streets, keep a brothel (by teaming up at a premises with another woman/women) or advertise their services.
Their clients break the law if they kerb crawl. Legislation passed in 2009 makes it an offence to buy sex from someone "subjected to force, deception or threats". This is designed to clamp down on pimps and traffickers.
The English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP) says although advertising is illegal, there is a lot of it on the web and it is now common for men to make contact with sex workers in this way, with sex taking place at the client's home. Sex also sold at massage parlour and saunas.
The ECP says sex workers often receive Asbos, which can stop them from moving around the areas in which they live. Breaches can be punished by imprisonment.
ECP spokeswoman Niki Adams told Channel 4 News: “Criminalising clients will not stop prostitution. It will not stop the criminalisation of sex workers, but it will make it much more dangerous and will stigmatise sex workers.”
She said prostitution was not “uniquely degrading”, adding: “I would say in my experience there are a lot of other jobs that are more exploited and degraded than prostitution.
“A lot of women will say they would rather work 20 hours a week in a brothel and have money to support their family than work 45 hours in some low wage, zero hours job and be constantly struggling to put food on the table.”
Ms Adams said 70 per cent of sex workers were mothers, the majority single mothers, and most were not drug users or addicts. The men who paid for sex with them were of all ages and backgrounds, she said.
Crime Prevention Minister Norman Baker said: “The most important thing we can do is to ensure we protect the vulnerable people involved in prostitution who are at risk of harm and exploitation.
“We believe that those who want to leave prostitution should be given every opportunity to find routes out. We will ensure that legislation surrounding prostitution remains effective and continue to work with law enforcement agencies and the voluntary sector to achieve this.”