Prostitution and sex work: nature and prevalence in England and Wales


  • Funder: Home Office and the Office of the Police and Crime Commissioner for South Wales
  • Lead Applicant: Professor Marianne Hester
  • Co-Researchers: Dr Natasha Mulvihill, Dr Andrea Matolcsi, Dr Alba Lanau, Dr Geetanjali Gangoli
  • Research Centre: Centre for Gender and Violence Research


This Home Office funded research will explore the current nature and prevalence of prostitution and sex work in England and Wales.  We will take into account that contemporary prostitution may be complex, operate in a variety of contexts, with multiple realities experienced by those involved. The work includes a systematic review of the literature and consultation with individuals currently/formerly involved in prostitution and sex work; non-governmental organisations; police; health workers; academics and government departments.  The planned outputs are a typology to capture different forms, experiences and settings or contexts for the practice of prostitution and sex work, a data overview and development of robust tools to populate the typology with estimates of prevalence.
Please continue to check this page for updates. For general queries, please contact Dr Natasha Mulvihill ( or Dr Andrea Matolcsi ( The lead applicant Professor Marianne Hester can be contacted on

Project Updates (ongoing)

Update 21 January 2019

An update on where we are mid-January 2019 on the research project, as well as a reminder on what we have done to date.

The ‘nature’ of prostitution and/or sex work

This element of the work requires us to describe what prostitution and/or sex work looks like today in England and Wales. For example: what are the different settings; who is involved; what are the routes in; how are services advertised, and so on. It is important to note that we have not been asked to make recommendations on law or policy.

We did a systematic search of the UK and international academic literature for items relating to prostitution or sex work published post 2000. We identified about 10,000 potentially relevant items, which we sifted down to those that focus on ‘nature’ and/or ‘prevalence’. We have also supplemented these with hand searches and with the suggestions made by respondents in the online survey (see below). We have around 1400 pieces of literature now, which we have individually coded by focus and geographical setting.

We opened an online survey in June 2018, which closed on 31 December 2018. In that survey, we asked respondents to tell us what this research ought to cover; what we should read; whom we should speak to; and whether they had experiences that they could share (either in the survey or as a follow-up). Many of the survey responses included extended personal accounts, which gave us important early insight.

We asked for an initial response by end of July 2018 so that we could get going with the work, but left the survey open as we were conscious that consultations often close before people have had a chance to hear about them and respond.

Overall, we received 1180 completed responses, of which 529 (45%) were from individuals currently or formerly involved in prostitution and/or sex work. We also received responses from support groups, campaigning groups, police, health workers, academics, sex buyers, and others with a personal or professional interest in this research.

We know that not everyone involved in prostitution and/or sex work will have regular online access, nor engage with social media platforms. Therefore, at the end of 2018, we also distributed questionnaires to a number of organisations, asking them to complete either with their clients, or drawing on their own expertise as service providers.

Once we had read and analysed all of the qualitative data provided in the 1180 survey responses, we then identified a representative group of individuals involved in prostitution and/or sex work (in terms of setting, gender, type of engagement etc.).  Of the 529 who responded, we sent follow-up in-depth qualitative questions to 135 individuals.  As at 21 January 2019, we have had 38 responses (a 28% response rate).  We have also received 20 individual responses via the separate call to NGOs working with those involved in outdoor work or who have experienced trafficking or exploitation.  This sort of in-depth qualitative data is invaluable in understanding individual experiences and we are very grateful to those who have shared their time on this.

We are now engaged in writing up the typology, which will be a combination of (a) a description of the different settings; and (b) a discussion of the cross-cutting themes that respondents have raised. For example, around use of technology; how payment works; managing safety etc.

The typology draws directly on the individual experiences articulated through the survey responses (both original and follow-up) and on the literature identified.

The ‘prevalence’ of prostitution and/or sex work

This has involved first a review of the existing UK and international literature on estimating prevalence of those involved in sex work and/or prostitution.

We have also solicited anonymised numerical data from a number of organisations, including adult services websites, support service providers, police, local councils and others.

Our approach is:

(a) To identify the problems and opportunities in attempting an assessment of prevalence;

(b) To identify a small number of local case studies where there are a number of data sources which can be triangulated to show what is possible;

(c) To develop a data quality assessment tool and indicate how this work could be further developed in the future.


Given the very short timeline for this work, our principal focus up to this point has been on soliciting the views and experiences of those actually involved (current or former) in prostitution and/or sex work, to inform the research content. We have also had a number of meetings and email exchanges with many of the survey respondents in the other groups listed above. We are very grateful for the positive response, constructive feedback, and offers of support by so many.

It has a been a lot of work over a short period of time, and we have tried to use that time in the best way possible.

As we near a first draft, we would like to consult on this over January to March 2019 with primarily survey participants. This will be in a number of ways.

* Regional meetings: we are holding 4 regional meetings (London, Cardiff, Bristol, Leeds). This will be for invited NGO and statutory services

* Individual meetings: we will seek to meet individually with around 15 campaigning and support organisations (those identified repeatedly by survey respondents) who work directly with and/or have as members those involved in this sector.

* Individuals involved in sex work and/or prostitution: in addition to the above individual meetings with groups representing people currently or formerly involved in prostitution and/or sex work, we will also consult online with our follow-up questionnaire respondents.

* Academics: we will consult online with our list of 80+ academics, mainly UK but also international, who represent a breadth of opinion and expertise.

We will then try to incorporate feedback before publication in the Spring. We do not yet have a date for publication but will update once we do. Thank you.

Thank you for your interest in our work.  Should you have any queries or comments, please contact the researchers at the emails listed above.  

Update 10 October 2018 (PDF, 78kB)

Update 18 July 2018 (PDF, 71kB)

Survey FAQs - 6 July update (PDF, 114kB)


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