SWARM Welcomes Release Of New Home Office-Commissioned Study On Sex Work That Finds Poverty And Criminalisation Are Key Drivers Of Harm

The message from Bristol University’s Home Office-commissioned report into sex work is loud and clear: austerity is pushing people into sex work at the same time as current laws make them less safe. This echoes SWARM’s demands for the full decriminalisation of sex work and for real measures to tackle poverty.

‘Less income made me more desperate’

Sex workers, most of whom were women, pointed to financial need as the driving force behind their entry into prostitution. As one sex worker said, “I just want to say that I know the industry is bad but I don’t think it’s ever going to not exist unless we solve all of the money problems people have. So I think the focus should be on what would make it safer rather than what would make it smaller.”

Another told researchers “I started in 2014. I was in a desperate financial situation, no parents to support me and about to become homeless. As I am disabled and was in full time education my opportunities for work were (and remain) limited. Due to my immigration status (not meeting the habitual residency test) I don’t qualify for benefits, so despite living in the UK since infancy, having had all of my education here, and never having lived elsewhere, I wasn’t eligible for support from the state.

The researchers write, “NGOs and sex worker collectives reported changes in social security benefits to be a driver for many, either in returning to sex work after leaving it, or entering it for the first time.” SWARM and other sex worker groups have long argued that cuts to benefits, the roll-out of universal credit, and sanctions are key factors in pushing people into sex work.

Acknowledging that it is financial need that pushes people into sex work helps to make it obvious why ‘end demand’ or client criminalisation measures are so harmful to sex workers. Criminalisation cannot address the reasons why people turn to sex work – it can only make the conditions in which they need to wok more dangerous. As one respondent told researchers, “Eventually I paid off the debt and felt less poor and therefore able to extricate myself. […] being poorer made it much easier to abuse me. More money = more freedom of choice. So when people say they’re ‘cracking down’ on demand that strikes me as stupid because less income made me more desperate.

Police raids a ‘constant threat’

The report acknowledges that the criminalisation of prostitution is a huge factor in producing sex worker vulnerability to violence and exploitation. The researchers write that ‘the combination of financial need and the legal and regulatory environment were identified as a “perfect cocktail of conditions” for undermining safety’.

Many women included in the research mentioned the fear of, and experience of, physical or sexual violence. The majority linked this to the legal environment and in particular to the law against two or more people working together from the same premises. Police raids on indoor premises were described as a “constant threat” and many sex workers said they felt unable to report crimes against them to the police.

The way in which criminalisation enables the police to steal money from sex workers was also highlighted. One respondent told the researchers, “In the brothel – because reception held my money – I would have lost it all had there been a raid. Also, if there was trouble then we were told not to contact police and draw attention to the place.

SWARM welcomes these findings, which back up our longstanding message that people need resources not criminalisation. Many sex workers would leave the industry if they had access to adequate welfare benefits, housing, healthcare (in particular, trans healthcare), and free education. In the meantime, criminalisation makes us less safe. SWARM calls for the full decriminalisation of sex work.


“Sex workers are frequently asked to share our time and experiences for research so it’s a relief to see our voices become part of something common sense-driven and useful. I’ve worked in prostitution since I was a teenager and, while I have no great love for the industry, the very obvious need for decriminalisation seems never to get through to law-makers. I hope the results of this survey will change that.” Katie, SWARM member and respondent to the Bristol survey.

“The Home Office has been unleashing its hostile environment on migrant sex workers over the last few years with full, brutal force. Raiding workplaces and homes, dragging migrant women into detention centres and deporting them. The treatment of migrant sex workers should be a national scandal – and the Home Office is directly responsible. Migrant rights are sex worker rights – if campaigners want to reduce harm and exploitation, they should start by pushing the Home Office to leave migrants alone” Hel, SWARM member.

“Every time sex work is in the media, we see more whipped up panic and more police crackdowns which just make our lives even harder. If the government really cares about us, they would prioritise our needs and safety. Stop treating us like criminals – sex workers need rights”. Jane, SWARM member.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *