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The Law

There’s a lot to know about sex work and the law; from whether or not you can get into trouble or whether you need to declare your earnings. It can feel like a grey area, but we’ve listed the facts in black and white, so you can make sure you’re following best practice.

Is sex work legal?

In the UK, the exchange of sexual services for money is legal, but a number of activities, including soliciting in a public place, kerb crawling, owning or managing a brothel, pimping and pandering, are considered to be crimes, under the Sexual Offences Act 2003.

In England, Wales and in Northern Ireland it is an offence to pay for sex with a sex worker who has been “subjected to force” and this is a strict liability offence, which means that clients can be prosecuted even if they did not know the sex worker was forced.

It’s also illegal to pay for sex from a person under the age of 18, despite the age of consent for non-commercial being 16.

Can I get into trouble?

Yes you can, if you are caught soliciting for sex in a public place.

Do I need declare my earnings and pay tax?

Yes. According to HM Revenue & Customs: “If the activities of a prostitute or any other person deriving income from prostitution are organised in such a way as to constitute a trade or profession (see BIM20000 onwards), the profits are liable to Income Tax. This was confirmed by CIR v Aken [1990] 63TC395.”

If you’d like more information, you can visit our Taxation & VAT section, that will signpost you in the right direction.

Who can I turn to for help and advice?

If you need support, MASH have case workers can offer you  advice when it comes to the criminal justice process and what is likely to happen if you are caught or someone files a report.

Would your working premises be classified as a brothel?

Any premises, for example, private flats, may be classified as a brothel if they are used by more than one woman for the purposes of sex work, whether on the same day or on different days.

So, if you share premises with someone else and work on alternate days or weeks, the premises will still count as a brothel even though there is never more than one person working at any one time.

What about advertising?

It is not illegal to advertise sexual services, except in the following circumstances:

Advertising on the Internet

It is difficult to be prosecuted for advertising sexual services on the Internet. Because internet sites can be viewed anywhere in the world, in theory you could be subject to the laws of whatever country your advert is seen in, this is particularly so if your website is hosted offshore or in another country.

Under English law, the acts of soliciting or obscene publication could be said to have taken place.

Carding in Public telephone boxes

It is an offence to place on, or in the immediate vicinity of, a public telephone an advertisement relating to sex work. This does not apply in relation to telephones in places where under 16 year-olds are not allowed. The penalty is a fine of up to six months in prison.

Obscene articles

It is an offence, though rarely charged, to publish an obscene article. This offence applies to anything to be read or looked at and any sound or picture recording. The test is whether the effect of the article is such as to deprave or corrupt those who see it.

As a consequence of this offence, some directories, such as the Yellow Pages and Thomson, are reluctant to display adverts from escort agencies. The penalty is a fine or up to five years in prison.

This information is from Release’s booklet Sex Work and the Law. The full version is available at:


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