Skip to main content

Accessibility controls

Main content area

Prostitution and Exploitation of Prostitution

Revised: 04 January 2019; 25 April 2024|Legal Guidance, Sexual offences


This prosecution guidance outlines:

  • evidentially, the key offences which might be considered in relation to prostitution and the exploitation of prostitution
  • the key public interest considerations, in particular the emphasis on a prosecution being required in the public interest for those who force others into prostitution, direct or control or otherwise harm prostitutes
  • by contrast, the importance of joint working with the police to help those involved in prostitution to develop routes out as a relevant factor tending against prosecuting prostitutes – with those public interest factors also being relevant to low culpability offending involving brothel-keeping
  • the relevant selection of charges considerations: for those who direct, control or otherwise harm prostitutes modern slavery charges should be considered, if there is insufficient evidence for these, alternative either way offences available

“Prostitute” is the legal term used for a sex worker, used by section 54(2) Sexual Offences Act 2003 (SOA 2003), and is therefore used in this guidance. It means a person (A) who, on at least one occasion and whether or not compelled to do so, offers or provides sexual services to another person in return for payment or a promise of payment to A or a third person; and “prostitution” is to be interpreted accordingly.

This guidance relates only to offending involving adults either as victims and/ or suspects/defendants. Offences involving children require consideration of other SOA 2003 provisions and related prosecution guidance on Child Sexual Abuse and Rape and Sexual Offences.

A person consents to sex if they agree by choice and have the freedom and capacity to make that choice. Prostitution where consent is absent requires consideration of other SOA 2003 provisions for offences including rape, assault by penetration and sexual assault and the prosecution guidance on Rape and Sexual Offences.

This guidance relates to offences concerning prostitution and exploitation of prostitution. However it should be made clear that there is a strong public interest in prosecuting offences committed against prostitutes. Prostitutes are often targeted victims of violence, including assault and rape, either by their controllers or customers, in the belief that they are unlikely to report crime or support a prosecution. It is important to support witnesses, to give evidence in any prosecution which follows, whether through special measures or other support available.

Case strategy can be particularly important to set out how the case is put, how it will be built and kept under review, addressing clearly the approach to the evidence, public interest in prosecution and appropriate charges.

Evidential considerations

This guidance distinguishes between:

  • either way offences available for those who direct or control prostitution
  • summary only offences available for those who buy sex
  • summary only offences available for those who sell sex

Either way offences available for those directing or controlling prostitution

It may assist prosecutors to consider the following four main offences:

Section 2 Modern Slavery Act 2015 – trafficking for sexual exploitation (maximum sentence: life imprisonment)

A person commits an offence if they arrange or facilitate the victim’s travel by recruiting, transporting or transferring them, or harbouring or receiving them, with a view to the victim being exploited in any part of the world. For these purposes, exploitation involves the commission of an offence under Part 1 of the SOA 2003, or section 1(1)(a) Protection of Children Act 1978. It therefore captures all sexual offences including controlling prostitution for gain and causing or inciting prostitution (see below). Further information can be found in the Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking prosecution guidance.

Where there is insufficient evidence to show trafficking for sexual exploitation, prosecutors should go on to consider whether the suspect controlled prostitution for gain.

Section 53 SOA 2003 – controlling prostitution for gain (maximum sentence: seven years’ imprisonment)

A person commits an offence if they intentionally control activities relating to the prostitution of another person in any part of the world with the expectation of gain for themselves or another. ‘Control’ includes, but is not limited to, ‘compulsion’, ‘coercion’ and ‘force’. It is enough that the person acted under the instructions or directions of the suspect. This could include, although this is not exhaustive, arranging meetings with clients; confirming which sex acts will take place; keeping recordings of earnings or driving them to meet clients. There is a wide variety of possible reasons why the person may do as instructed. It may be, for example, because of emotional blackmail or the lure of gain. There is no requirement for the person to have acted without free will: R v Massey [2007] EWCA Crim 2664. A prostitute can still be controlled whilst in an intimate relationship with their controller.

Where there is insufficient evidence to show the control of prostitution for gain, prosecutors should go on to consider whether prostitution was caused or incited for gain, or whether a brothel was being kept.

Section 52 SOA 2003 – causing or inciting prostitution (maximum sentence: seven years’ imprisonment)

A person commits an offence if they cause or incite another person to become a prostitute in any part of the world with the expectation of gain for themselves or another.

The offence requires control or influence over the other person and that the offender contemplated or desired that the act would ensue. This offence is aimed at individuals who cause prostitution through some form of “fraud or persuasion”. It cannot be committed if the “other person” was already a prostitute either in the UK or abroad.

This conduct includes “sex for rent cases” where a property owner causes or incites prostitution through the terms of the provision of rented accommodation in accordance with the definition of prostitution contained in section 54 Sexual Offences Act 2003:
(3) In subsection (2) and section 53A, “payment” means any financial advantage, including the discharge of an obligation to pay or the provision of goods or services (including sexual services) gratuitously or at a discount.

There has been an increase in reports of advertisements where landlords offer accommodation in exchange for sex. Such arrangements can lead to the clear exploitation of vulnerable persons who are struggling to obtain accommodation. Other offences may also apply, depending on the particular circumstances of the case.

Prosecutors should be mindful that in certain cases the evidence may also highlight an absence of ‘free’ consent to sexual activity as in R v PK [2008] EWCA Crim 434 (a case involving a vulnerable and destitute 14 year old girl who submitted to sex in return for money to buy food). In these circumstances consideration should be given to alternative charges of sexual offending, such as rape.

Prosecutors should focus on whether prostitution was caused or incited. If the arrangement was at the instigation of the (prospective) tenant or where there was no significant power imbalance particular scrutiny of causation or incitement is required.

Before using a section 52 ‘incitement’ charge to prosecute individuals who post advertisements which amount to ‘sex for rent’ consideration should be given to whom the advertisement was directed. If it did not reach its intended audience, who was capable of being incited (whether or not in fact they were incited) then an offence of attempted incitement may be more appropriate than the full offence. Prosecutor will therefore need to be clear about the evidence on which reliance is placed to demonstrate an act which was more than merely preparatory: what exact conduct was engaged in and what steps were taken for it to reach an audience capable of being incited?

Section 33A SOA 1956 – keeping a brothel (maximum sentence: 7 years’ imprisonment)

It is an offence for a person to keep, or to manage, or act or assist in the management of, a brothel to which people resort for practices involving prostitution (whether or not also for other practices).

There is no statutory definition of a ‘brothel’. It is likely to require two or more persons to occupy the same premises simultaneously for the purposes of prostitution, applying Stevens v Christy [1987] 85 Cr. App. R. 249. Careful consideration is required to establish whether in fact there is evidence of the existence of a brothel. Even where there is, careful consideration of the public interest (see below) is required in low culpability cases.

Further offences are provided for by sections 33 to 36 of the same Act but carry only a summary penalty (see below).

Prosecutors should address whether there is sufficient evidence of each of the four ways in which this offence may be committed. This is potentially relevant to the assessment of the public interest in prosecuting (see below).

Section 39 SOA 2003 – care workers causing or inciting sexual activity in those who have a mental disorder (maximum sentence 10 years' imprisonment)

Finally, it should be noted that this offence may be committed, if care workers arrange for prostitutes to engage in consensual sexual activity with those who are unable to make their own arrangements for sexual activity: see Secretary of State for Justice v A Local Authority and others [2021] EWCA Civ 1527. The court made clear that to act in this way was to cause sexual activity which Parliament had decided was inconsistent with the protections which should be afforded to those with a mental disorder. Further, that both care workers and those for whom they care may risk prosecution for the section 53 SOA 2003 offence set out below.

Summary only offences for those who buy or intend to buy sex

Section 51(A) SOA 2003 is a summary-only offence prohibiting a person in a street or public place from soliciting another person for the purposes of obtaining their sexual services as a prostitute. This captures all forms of soliciting and replaces the previous law on “kerb crawling” such that it need not be proved that the conduct was persistent, nor that nuisance or annoyance need be caused.

Section 53A of the SOA 2003 is a summary-only offence, committed where a person pays for the sexual services of a prostitute who has, in fact, been subject to exploitative conduct. Exploitative conduct is defined in section 53A(c). The suspect need have no knowledge (or other mental state) in respect of the exploitative conduct. This requires proof that the prostitute has in fact been subject to exploitative conduct but will cover conduct which does not occur in a street or public place, in particular in a brothel. It may be particularly relevant where premises are raided and suspects are found in situ.

To prove the offence, the testimony of the sex worker is not required, nor that the exploitative conduct in fact induced them to offer sexual services (provided it was likely to do so). These offences may come to light during the course of a much wider investigation into those who are responsible for the exploitation. Exploitative conduct could be proven by recorded footage of the number of visitors per day to the brothel, funds paid to the controllers rather than the sex workers, the living accommodation within the brothel, phone calls taken, prices negotiated and contact arrangements made by controllers etc. If there has been a wider investigation into those exploiting, it may be possible to trace those who paid or promised to pay for sex. As a summary-only offence, any prosecution would need to commence within 6 months of the commission of the offence. Where there is sufficient evidence to prosecute it is also likely to be in the public interest to prosecute, given the mischief to which the offence is directed.

Summary only offences for those who sell or intend to sell sex

Section 1(1) of the Street Offences Act 1959 is a summary-only offence prohibiting a person from persistently loitering or soliciting in a street or public place for the purposes of offering services as a prostitute. It applies only to those aged 18 or over. Persistent means it takes place on two or more occasions in any period of three months. The previous incidents need to be particularised if the offence is to be charged, and evidence provided of them. It may be that the police rely on a record of a “prostitute’s caution” having been issued. This is different from other cautions in that the incident itself need not be a criminal offence nor need it be admitted: instead, it is a way of recording one such incident. Nonetheless, if a prosecution is to be based on evidence of persistence it follows that there must be evidence to support the record of the caution having been issued and that the suspect was indeed loitering or soliciting. However, once a prosecution has taken place, in order to support routes away from prostitution and to prosecute only where required in the public interest, reliance should not be placed on any prostitute’s caution which previously led to a prosecution. A single further incident (combined with evidence which was “dealt with” in a previous prosecution), without more, should not therefore lead to further prosecution.

Public interest considerations

As to either way offences, all of the offences are by their nature and the penalty determined by Parliament, serious. It is very likely to be in the public interest to prosecute those who direct, force others into prostitution, cause it to occur, exploit or abuse or otherwise harm them (whether for their own gain, or that of someone else).

Where greater care is required is with the offence contrary to section 33A Sexual Offences Act 1956. This (and the other brothel-keeping offences) can be committed on a spectrum ranging from high culpability behaviour which it is very likely to be in the public interest to prosecute to low culpability behaviour which it may not be. When considering the different roles and therefore culpability for public interest purposes of those involved in prostitution, a distinction may be made between:

  • major involvement – the controller or trafficker, closely supervising those on the premises and their earnings and finances, perhaps committing further offences as part of the operation
  • medium involvement – a greater role in the operation of the brothel, by vetting prospective clients and organising the provision of sexual services
  • minor involvement - looking after those supplying sexual services by keeping the premises clean, buying provisions and so on, dealing with appointments and general reception duties.

It is important to bear in mind that sometimes those who continue to engage in prostitution progress to a greater or even controlling or directional role. This conduct is likely to require prosecution. By contrast, those who engage in prostitution may simply play a minor role in maintaining a premises where more than one person is selling sex. This conduct is less likely to require prosecution and, see below, engages many public interest considerations relevant to not prosecuting prostitution without a clear basis for concluding that a prosecution is required in the public interest.

In relation to summary-only offences, the police retain a discretion about how they go about policing such conduct. In relation to soliciting sexual services, for instance, it may be that it is better that this takes place in well-lit and safe places rather than being displaced and therefore only anti-social soliciting is targeted. This is a decision for the police. Care should be taken by the prosecution however, if it appears that a different policing approach has been taken, and it might be argued that the tolerance or management of prostitution could amount to an implied promise not to prosecute. The Abuse of Process prosecution guidance, and relevant authorities on promises not to prosecute, should be applied if a change of approach to prostitution is said to unfairly affect the suspect.

The police retain the discretion, in particularly in relation to those who sell or offer to sell sex:

  • not to arrest, or to take no further action
  • to pursue other resolutions such as civil preventative orders
  • to divert a suspect from prosecution

The National Police Chief’s Council (NPCC) National Policing Sex Work and Prostitution Guidance published in December 2019 supports this.

Both the police, and the CPS at court, will review the case in accordance with the Code for Crown Prosecutors. In applying the public interest stage, the CPS has regard to the fact that:

  • those who sell sex should not be routinely prosecuted as offenders – the emphasis should be to encourage them to engage with support services and to find routes out of prostitution
  • diversionary approaches should be prioritised over enforcement of offences, even where rehabilitative options are available at court (see below)
  • there should be a clear basis for concluding that a prosecution is required in the public interest – non-prosecution and diversion should be explored and the fact it has been explored before is not a reason in and of itself to prosecute – only where prosecution is clearly required should a prosecution follow

Where a prosecution is required in the public interest there are rehabilitative disposals open to the court: see section 17 (and also 18) Policing and Crime Act 2009.

These public interest considerations apply also to low culpability offending concerning brothel-keeping. Maintaining a premises at which prostitution occurs is unlikely, without more e.g. a recruiting role, or anti-social behaviour, to require a prosecution in the public interest.

Selection of charges

Section 6 of the Code for Crown Prosecutors sets out the approach to selection of charges where there is a choice. The following may assist in applying section 6, especially assessments of seriousness and adequate penalty.

Where there is sufficient evidence and it is in the public interest to prosecute, a charge contrary to the Modern Slavery Act 2015 will usually be appropriate.

Where a person directs, forces others into prostitution, cause it to occur, exploit or abuse or otherwise harm them (whether for their own gain, or that of someone else) and there is insufficient evidence for modern slavery charges then the either-way offences are should be considered. Those who are alleged to be keeping a brothel with high factors present should be considered for prosecution under controlling prostitution or causing or inciting prostitution.

Further reading

Scroll to top