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In Great Britain England , Wales and Scotland , the act of engaging in sex as part of an exchange of sexual services for money is legal,  but a number of related activities, including soliciting in a public place, kerb crawling , owning or managing a brothel , pimping and pandering , are crimes. In Northern Ireland, which previously had similar laws, paying for sex became illegal from 1 June Though laws regulating sex work exist, they are not always strictly enforced, with some reports of police forces turning a blind eye to brothels.
Although the age of consent is 16 throughout the United Kingdom, it is illegal to buy sex from a person under 18 where the perpetrator does not reasonably believe they are 18 or over. The total number of prostitutes in the United Kingdom is not known exactly and is difficult to assess. In , authorities and NGOs estimated that approximately , persons in the country were engaged in prostitution. Thirty-five different countries of origin were identified. The sex trade in the UK takes diverse forms, including street prostitution, escort prostitution and prostitution conducted from premises.
The premises used include massage parlours , saunas, private flats and Soho walk-ups. In , undercover police visited the lap dancing club Spearmint Rhino on Tottenham Court Road in London and claimed that it was a front for prostitution.
Westminster had the highest number with 71, compared with 8 in Southwark. For this study the researchers had posed as potential customers and had telephoned brothels that had advertised in local newspapers. Many brothels operated through legitimate businesses which were licensed as saunas or massage parlours. However, the vast majority were in private flats in residential areas. The report found 77 different ethnicities among the prostitutes, with many from areas such as Eastern Europe and South-East Asia.
Surveys indicate that fewer British men use prostitutes than in other countries. The authors stress the difficulty of finding reliable data given the lack of prior research, differences in sample sizes, and possible underestimates due to the privacy concerns of survey respondents. A survey of street-based sex workers found that the average age of entry into prostitution was In , the Home Affairs Select Committee conducted its first ever enquiry into the sex industry.