The sex industry: predatory men taking advantage of victimised women (or so it is popularly assumed). But the reality is actually far more complex than that.

New research from the universities of Birmingham and Lancaster, based on data taken from a prominent online directory of escorts, paints a surprising picture of the sex industry in the UK.

More than a third of the 27,000 escorts advertising on the website self-identify as male or trans, with more than two-thirds advertising to women. Less than half self-identify as straight, while ages range from 18 to 91 and 40% advertise to disabled clients.

Political debates about commercial sex frequently reproduce age-old heterosexist stereotypes that women are sexual objects, that men are sexual subjects, and that desire is inherently heterosexual. But this research from Birmingham and Lancaster shows how diverse and multi-faceted the industry really is, and underscores the need to challenge dominant prejudices about sex workers and their clients.

Calls for national policy to follow a ‘Swedish model’ of criminalisation – criminalising the purchase but not the sale of sex – depend upon constructions of sex workers as victimised women and their clients as predatory men.

This new research directly contradicts such assumptions and instead points to a diversity of identities and practices in the contemporary sex industry, highlighting the need to rethink dominant stereotypes and popular prejudices about sex workers and their clients, and to develop policy that acknowledges and responds to the complex reality of the contemporary UK sex industry.

The criminalisation of clients will only increase the dangers that sex workers and their clients face in their attempts to avoid criminal prosecution. The government should consider the wealth of evidence demonstrating that criminalisation increases the risks and likelihood of violence – including evidence from Sweden itself.

It is also worth noting that calls to criminalise the purchase of sex assume that legislation introduced to ‘tackle demand’ will be used to penalise clients. Research shows that, in fact, police continue to prosecute sex workers more than their clients, despite policy changes designed to view sex workers as victims rather than offenders

Political debates and government policy must do justice to – rather than continue to ignore – the multiplicity of identities and practices in the sex industry today.

Desire takes many forms, and the sex industry is no exception to this.

Dr Nicola Smith, Senior Lecturer in Political Science, University of Birmingham

Dr Sarah Kingston, Lecturer in Criminology, Lancaster University