Prostitution is legal in the UK, and it is also legal for an individual to buy sexual services in certain cases. However, many related activities are not. This includes kerb crawling, pimping, keeping a brothel, advertising the services of call girls by placing cards (‘tart cards’) in phone boxes, and having sex in public.
The law relating to prostitution applies to both male and female prostitutes, and male and female clients.
Under the Street Offences Act 1959 (as amended), it is an offence for anyone persistently to loiter or solicit in a street or public place for the purposes of offering services as a prostitute. ‘Persistently’ means if the conduct takes place on two or more occasions in any period of 3 months.
Prostitutes can be fined up to £500 (£3000 for repeated offences). However, the court can require the offender to attend meetings as an alternative penalty to a fine. The court can make an order requiring him or her to attend three meetings either with a named ‘supervisor’ or with such other person as the supervisor may direct. The idea of this kind of order is to help the offender by addressing the causes of the conduct, and finding ways to prevent further conduct of this kind. If charges are to be brought, the police should consider whether such an order may be appropriate. If so, prosecutors are required to remind the court of the availability of the order following conviction.
Usually, first or second time offenders will be cautioned and encouraged to use support services. Subsequent offenders are usually arrested and charged and, again, encouraged to use the support services. In the case of fifth offences, an anti-social behaviour order (‘ASBO’) may be made on conviction with encouragement to use the support services.
People under 18 are primarily treated as victims of abuse and the procedure may differ from what is outlined above.
Legal definition of a prostitute
The Sexual Offences Act 2003 defines a prostitute as a person who has offered or given services of a sexual nature to another person in return for financial gain on one or more occasions.
Pimping is controlling prostitutes for financial gain. A pimp profits from the prostitution of individuals under their control. If a person is convicted of exploiting the prostitution of others, they may face up to 7 years’ imprisonment under the Criminal Justice Act 2003. The sentence will be determined based on factors relating to the harm and culpability of the offence:
- If there is evidence of mental or physical coercion, the defendant may be sentenced to between two and five years
- If there is no coercion, but the defendant was closely involved in the prostitution of the victim, then they may face from 26 weeks up to two years in custody
- Where there is no coercion and the involvement of the offender is only very small, there is no custodial sentence
The laws outlawing pimping make escort agencies illegal where they control the escorts. Working as an outcall escort is legal.
It is an offence for someone to keep a brothel, and to manage or assist in the management of a brothel. This extends to a landlord or tenant allowing premises to be used as a brothel. A brothel is defined as a place where two or more prostitutes offer sexual intercourse – whether or not they actually pay for sexual services. The offence carries a maximum sentence of 7 years in prison, though the role played by the offender will be taken into consideration (a receptionist, for instance, will not be treated as severely as the brothel owner).
The police can also apply for a court order closing premises associated with prostitution-related offences for up to three months.
Clients and the law
It is illegal for potential clients to solicit sex from prostitutes in a public place. Child prostitution is illegal as far as the person paying is concerned. ‘Child’, for these purposes, is defined as a person below the age of 18. Offences involving children are punished severely, for instance, if a child under the age of 13 years is solicited for sex, a maximum life sentence can be imposed.
It is illegal for a person in a street or public place to solicit a prostitute for the purpose of obtaining sexual services – including from a motor vehicle in a street or public place. Kerb crawling is an indictable offence under section 71 of the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001 if it causes annoyance or disturbances to people in the neighbourhood or if it is persistent behaviour.
Kerb crawlers can be punished with a maximum fine of £1000. They can also be disqualified from driving under Section 1 of the Powers of the Criminal Courts Act 2000 – and even deprived of the property used to commit the offence.
Paying for sexual services
It is illegal to pay for the sexual services of a prostitute subjected to force or coercion. This includes threats – whether or not these are threats of violence. If the prostitute is threatened, forced, coerced or deceived into providing sexual services – the offender can be fined up to £1000. It is no defence to claim that it was not known that the prostitute had been forced, etc.