What does Britain think of sex work and sex workers?

Matthew SmithHead of Data Journalism
February 28, 2024, 9:37 AM GMT+0

Sex work has been described as the world’s oldest profession, but it is one that remains controversial to the present day. A new YouGov study looks at current public opinion on the legality of sex work, who Britons consider to be a sex worker, and attitudes towards sex work and sex workers themselves.

The results show that the public do think that sex work should be legal, but are split on whether it should be considered ‘real work’. Most Britons believe that sex work is stigmatised in the UK – but that it shouldn’t be. Despite this, large numbers of people say they would not be willing to friends with a sex worker.

There is also a key gender divide on attitudes to sex work, with men typically having more permissive attitudes than women.

By 52% to 28%, Britons say it should be legal to pay for sex in the UK. A near identical proportion say it should likewise be legal to accept payment from someone to have sex with them – a not unimportant distinction, as some campaign groups seek to either legalise or criminalise both the buying and selling of sex work, while others would prefer to target only those who wish to buy sex.

Currently sex work is legal in Britain (excluding Northern Ireland), although there are caveats. Most Britons (57%) support the legality of “an individual independently selling sexual services they perform themselves in a private location” – i.e. an independent prostitute or outcall escort in a home or hotel room.

However, the law prohibits street solicitation – i.e. offering sexual services while in a public location. The public are aligned with the status quo here, with 72% agreeing that this should not be legal, compared to only 14% who think it should.

It is also illegal in Britain to serve as a sex worker employer – this would generally fall under the category of pimping and/or brothel-keeping. Again, the public tend to support the current law, with 53% saying it should not be legal to employ workers to provide sexual services to paying customers. Three in ten (29%) think it should.

There are significant gender differences when it comes to attitudes to sex work, with women being less likely than men to think it should be legal. For instance, while 64% of men say it should be legal to pay someone to have sex, this falls to 41% among women (although this is still higher than the 36% of women who say it should not be legal).

What jobs count as sex work?

There is no official classification of ‘sex worker’ jobs, so we asked the public to tell us whether they considered various different forms of employment to be “sex work”.

Unsurprisingly, almost everyone considers prostitutes and escorts to be sex workers (94%). Very high numbers likewise say that porn actors (88%) and cam-girls (86%) are sex workers, as are phone sex line operators according to 69%.

There has been some debate as to whether ‘sugaring’ constitutes sex work. Sugaring is generally where a younger person offers a romantic/sexual dating-like relationship to an older wealthy person in exchange for material benefits. The results show that two thirds of Britons (65%) say they do consider this to be sex work.

By 55% to 38%, most Britons also consider strippers and lapdancers to be sex workers. However, these figures are reversed when it comes to modelling nude or semi-nude in a sexualised manner: 38% of Britons consider this sex work compared to 54% who do not.

And were the nudity to be non-sexualised – e.g. in the manner of an artist’s model – then the number considering that to be sex work falls to just 11%.

Male and female opinion is consistent across these occupations, although women are notably more likely than men to consider phone sex operators to be sex workers (75% to 60%). Likewise, there is close consensus between the generations, although younger Britons are more likely to say strippers and lapdancers are sex workers than their elders (69% of 18-24 year olds versus 46% of those aged 65 and above).

How many British men have ever paid for sex?

Unsurprisingly, men are far more likely than women to have paid a sex worker for a service (only 0-2% of women say so across the categories we asked about).

The results find one in eleven British men (9%) admitting to ever having paid for sex. More still have paid to receive a striptease or lapdance (15%).

In terms of paid pornographic content, 22% of British men say they have paid for a porn magazine, 13% for porn video on VCR/DVD, 8% for pornographic content from a company (e.g. a porn website) and 6% for such content from an individual creator like an OnlyFans model.

That covers only paid-for pornographic content; fully 78% of men admit to having ever watched pornography, with 51% saying they currently watch it. (Among women, 50% say they have ever seen it but only 14% that they currently watch it).

Is sex work ‘real work’? Britons are divided

A key campaigning slogan of pro-sex work groups is that “sex work is real work”, suggesting that sex workers should have the same employment protections that other professions do, and that sex workers should not face social stigma for their line of work.

Britons are divided on the statement, however. When we asked them about those sex work jobs that involve having sex with a paying client, 43% of people say they consider sex work as “work that should be regarded legally and socially like more conventional forms of employment”, but 36% disagree.

Men and women differ in their views, with men saying sex work should be treated like other jobs by 52% to 28%, while women tend to disagree by 43% to 34%.

Britons say that sex work should not be stigmatised…

Aside from settling the legal status of sex work in the UK, sex work campaigners also seek the de-stigmatisation of the profession. The public certainly agree with their assessment of attitudes – 75% say that there is a great deal or fair amount of stigma against sex work. Only 11% think there is little to no shame associated with the occupation.

The public likewise say that sex work should not be stigmatised. Half (51%) feel this way, compared to 22% who think there should be a stigma. Women are, however, more likely than men (27% vs 17%) to want to see the profession stigmatised.

…but many wouldn’t want to even be friends with a sex worker

While the public say that sex work should not be stigmatised, many may be protesting too much. Further questions show that the vast majority of Britons would not want to be in a relationship with a sex worker, and would be upset if their child became one. Many Britons even say they would not want to be friends with a sex worker.

Given that sexual exclusivity is a fundamental part of most people’s relationships, it is not surprising that so many would object to dating or being in a relationship with a current sex worker – 87% would be unwilling to data someone who works as an escort or prostitute, for instance, and 86% say the same for a porn actor.

But this willingness carries over to former sex workers as well – 78% would not be willing to date a former porn actor, and 74% say the same of a former prostitute/escort.

Of the types of sex work we listed in our relationships question, the most likely person Britons might be willing to date is a former stripper or lapdancer, at 26% – but even here 63% of Britons are still unwilling.

Those who have ever paid for some form of in-person sexual service of sex work are more willing to date a sex worker. Four in ten of those who have ever paid for a striptease (43%) would be willing to date a current stripper; this rises to 59% for a former stripper.

While few who have ever paid for sex would be willing to date a current escort or prostitute, at 28% it is still significantly higher than the wider population. For a former escort or prostitute, this rises to 46%.

While many people are happy to watch porn, they are much more reluctant to date those they see on screen, however. Among those who watch porn on at least a weekly basis, only 20% would be willing to date a current porn actor, rising to 36% for a former porn star.

Britons are more open to being friends with a sex worker, although many are still circumspect. At one end of the scale, Britons are most willing to be friends with a former lapdancer, by 51% to 36%, while at the other they are least likely to be willing to associate with a current porn actor, at 37% compared to 52% who would be unwilling.

Likewise, the large majority Britons would be upset if their child became a sex worker, from 77% in the case of a stripper or lapdance to 86% in the case of a prostitute or escort. Between 9-14% say they would be neither pleased nor displeased, while a mere 0-2% would be actively pleased.

The most successful sex workers can make very large amounts of money, but the prospect of doing so does little to make people feel any better about their child being in the profession. When specified that their hypothetical child was making tens of thousands of pounds a month in a sexual profession, the number of people who would be upset budges barely a few percentage points, to 74-82% across the respective jobs.

Men are more likely than women to say they would willing to date or be friends with a sex worker, and to not be upset were their child to become a sex worker.

In the case of dating or children this is still very much the minority view among men, but men are more likely than not to say that they could be friends with a sex worker; for women it is the other way round, with the majority in most cases being unwilling to form such a friendship.

See the full results here and here

Photo: Getty

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