Prostitution should be decriminalised to protect the health and welfare of sex workers, nurses say.
The Royal College of Nursing is to start lobbying government to change the law after members voted in favour of the move at their annual conference.
Nurses said the current law put sex workers at risk and deterred them from seeking help from the NHS.
Delegates heard how sex workers are put off reporting attacks because of fears of prosecution.
There are believed to be more than 70,000 sex workers in the UK – nine in 10 of which are women.
Louise Cahill, a clinical nurse specialist in sexual health from south west England, who proposed the motion, said: “Current UK law makes it a criminal offense for sex workers to work together for safety. Brothel keeping is defined as just two or more sex workers working together.
“Therefore, sex workers have to choose between keeping safe and getting arrested. No one should be put in danger by the law.
“If you want to end sex work, end poverty. This is a fundamental human rights issue.”
RCN public health lead Helen Donovan said the stigma attached to sex work meant these vulnerable groups were not attending screening, having routine vaccinations or getting treatment when they needed it.
“Their health is at risk,” she added.
‘Follow New Zealand’s lead’
But Abigail Lawrence, a nurse from the east of England, said she disagreed with decriminalisation. “The sex industry is, by its very nature, exploitative, manipulative and based on coercion. The model not only decriminalises prostitution but also brothel owners, pimps and buyers.”
Others argued it could lead to an increase in trafficking.
Niki Adams, a spokeswoman for the English Collective of Prostitutes, said it was time for the UK to follow the lead taken by New Zealand.
It decriminalised prostitution in 2003, but reinforced offences against compelling people into prostitution.
“Criminalisation drives people underground. That puts sex workers at risk.”