Red light district

New IEA paper identifies the benefits of decriminalising Britain's sex industry

The sex industry should be fully decriminalised, as all attempts to regulate prostitution are ineffective, ill-informed and a waste of public money.

The demand for commercial and professional sexual entertainment is growing steadily world-wide, as economic growth drives demand for luxuries, the internet creates new meeting places for sexual encounters (both amateur and professional), and globalisation makes sexual markets international in scope. Recreational and non-marital sexuality is becoming just as important as reproductive and marital sexuality, and the distinction between amateur and professional sexual encounters is becoming increasingly blurred.

In a new report for the Institute of Economic Affairs, leading academic Catherine Hakim identifies large and continuing differences between male and female perspectives on sexuality, finding that they are pervasive in all cultures, even in Scandinavia. Male sexual desire is manifested at least twice as often as female desire, with the gap growing over time. Given this sexual deficit among men, it is no surprise that men are the main customers for commercial sexual entertainment, and that sex workers – both male and female – cater to men almost exclusively.

Dispelling the feminist myth

Sex surveys around the world show a substantial gap in sexual desire and motivation between men and women. This cannot be dismissed as an outdated patriarchal myth as argued by some feminists.

Several factors suggest that the male sexual deficit will not disappear, and is even growing in the 21st century. Women’s increasing economic independence allows them to withdraw from sexual markets and relationships that they perceive to offer unfair bargains, especially if they already have enough children, or do not want any. Changes in national sex ratios towards a numerical surplus of men also help women to reset the rules in their own favour in developed societies.

Male demand for sexual entertainments of all kinds is thus growing, and ineradicable.

Decriminalisation will lead to better outcomes for women

A key objection to the sex industry is that it damages women and that the presence of pornography, lap-dancing and prostitution in a country promotes rape and other violence against women. However, all available evidence points in the direction of prostitution and erotic entertainments having no noxious psychological or social effects, and they may even help to reduce sexual crime rates.

Whilst it is perfectly legal to sell sexual services, any third-party involvement is not. This serves to criminalise the industry and brothels, not only preventing girls working together in a flat for their mutual protection, but also stopping anyone from lawfully supplying services to a sex worker or even renting a flat to them.

Countries that criminalise buyers (such as Sweden), simply push demand abroad to countries with a more sex-positive culture. Policies that criminalise sellers directly, or criminalise third parties who supply them with services, simply push the sex industry underground, increasing the risks for sex workers.


The commercial sex industry is impervious to prohibitions and cannot be eliminated. It is estimated to be worth over four billion pounds to the British economy alone. It should be completely decriminalised.

Commenting on the paper’s release, its author Catherine Hakim, said:

“Internet dating has fundamentally changed meet markets and sex lives in the last three decades. Laws on prostitution are now outdated, misinformed and redundant. The very concept of prostitution is no longer workable in today’s fluid sexual markets, where anyone can meet anyone, on whatever terms they choose. Decriminalisation is the only workable way forward. The proposal to copy Sweden and criminalise customers in the sex trade is a complete waste of public money, unforgiveable in a time of austerity.”

Notes to editors:

To arrange an interview about the report please contact Stephanie Lis, Head of Communications: [email protected] or 07766 221 268.

The full report, Supply and Desire: Sexuality and the Sex Industry in the 21st Century, can be downloaded here.

The mission of the Institute of Economic Affairs is to improve understanding of the fundamental institutions of a free society by analysing and expounding the role of markets in solving economic and social problems.

The IEA is a registered educational charity and independent of all political parties.