Bristol University research into sex work in the UK

Two Backlash volunteers are participating in a regional meeting for the Bristol University research on sex work in the UK tomorrow. Backlash responded to this consultation in July last year; discussing the ways that criminalising sex work harms more marginalised workers and advocating for the decriminalisation of sex work as a harm reduction measure. A number of our volunteers who are current sex workers also submitted personal responses.

The researchers are holding a number of regional consultation meetings across England on Thursday. Blake, our Spokesperson, and Rosie Hodsdon,
an academic at the University of Northumbria who has been vocal on issues around porn and sex work law, will both be attending as representatives of Backlash. The meetings will involve a presentation by the research team on their draft findings, followed by a group discussion on the findings, then an opportunity for presentations and a plenary discussion.

Here’s an overview of the research:

The University of Bristol has been commissioned by the Home Office to investigate the nature and prevalence of prostitution and sex work in England and Wales.  We are interested in what forms of sex work currently exist, approximately how many people are involved in each, and how best to measure this. As well as conducting a literature review and obtaining information from individuals and organisations via an online survey, we are also carrying out consultations including people currently or formerly involved in sex work, practitioners, academics and others.

In 2016 a Home Office Affairs Select Committee published a report on sex work in the UK, which recommended decriminalisation of the offences of brothel-keeping (which includes two sex workers sharing a flat for safety, even if they use it at different times and never cross paths) and of soliciting. 

A comment made in that report was “One of the challenges in examining prostitution is the absence of robust data”. It’s very hard to assess the number of people doing sex work in the UK and the kind of sex work they’re doing; e.g. how many people are doing indoor vs outdoor, how many people advertise online, how many people do in-person as opposed to online work, such as camming or porn. The government has commissioned this research to address that gap. 

However, notable members of the research team have previously come out strongly in favour of the Nordic model, i.e. criminalisation of sex workers’ clients, which is a punitive law that criminalises half of all sex work transactions, incentivising sex workers and clients to hide from the police, which puts workers at greater risk of violence and abuse. These harms have been well-attested in Sweden since the introduction of the law there – “criminalising the purchase of sex has had a devastating effect on the rights, health and safety of sex workers in Sweden.” 

In the UK sex worker’s rights activists are at great pains to advocate for the reduction of laws controlling and criminalising sex work in the UK, in order to reduce the harms associated with aggressive policing and with driving the industry underground. Many politicians and lobbyists are trying to introduce the Nordic model here, but current sex workers will be put in further harm’s way by criminalising their clients. This is why Amnesty International and many other organisations recommend decriminalisation for harm reduction’s sake. Blake and Rosie will go and add their voices to those advocating for decriminalisation, and to add to the number of current sex workers who are present – ie. people who are actually going to be affected by any change to the law.

We’re looking forward to hearing more about what the research has found so far, and we’ll be very interested to see whether it matches our understanding of the wider sex work landscape in the UK.

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