13. Women in prostitution and Commercial Sexual Exploitation (CSE)
The experience of women in prostitution/CSE differs in a number of ways from those experiencing domestic abuse. Evidence on women in prostitution/CSE began to be collected and collated in week 4 and was informed by telephone interviews with support services in the Click and Encompass network, and other specialist organisations engaged in supporting sex workers.
Robust and reliable data on prostitution and CSE is difficult to obtain and there is no identified, consistent data collection in this area. Lockdown presented a number of additional restrictions in monitoring and reporting on the experience of women in prostitution and CSE. A number of services usually collect intelligence on women in prostitution through direct observations by their workers. From the initial weeks of lockdown, services across a number of local authority areas reported there were limited mechanisms for them to observe and record the demand for street prostitution as their staff were restricted to working from home. One service has usefully conducted a national scoping exercises of online advertising sites, and this data was used to inform this report.
Organisations reported a significant economic impact of lockdown for women in prostitution/CSE. In some cases, women were not registered as self-employed and thus not eligible for governmental support, and many experienced significant financial challenges in depending on universal credit, particularly when their usual household income was higher.
Support services reported concerns regarding women who were entering or re-entering prostitution and CSE as a result of the economic challenges experienced during lockdown, including moving from online work to direct contact. A number of organisations reported there was a new demographic of women entering prostitution/CSE who were not involved prior to lockdown. For some women, opportunities for shoplifting, begging and personal thefts were vastly reduced as retail/service industries were closed and there were fewer people in public places, thus they were relying more heavily on prostitution/CSE as a source of income. The national scoping exercise of online adverts provided that online sites were flooded with new images and there was a higher level of competition for income. In some cases this was resulting in men pushing boundaries and women engaging in riskier practices, often within their own home.A number of online advertisements made reference to Coronavirus. Services observed women advertising that they are new to the sector and many justified their involvement due to unemployment/financial difficulties related to lockdown.
Services reported concerns that, due to the decrease in men out in public, women in prostitution were resorting to higher-risk practices, and throughout lockdown there were increased reports of women offering unprotected sex. Services reported significant concerns for those women who continued to work in public and their exposure to Coronavirus.
A number of services report that the stigma associated with working during lockdown prevented women in prostitution from safety planning as effectively as usual. Prior to lockdown, women in prostitution used various screening apps and networks within their community to screen men before meeting them. Women are not screening in the same way during lockdown. Similarly, when in public, women often work in pairs for safety, but have been unable to do so during lockdown because of the Health Protection (Coronavirus) (Restrictions) (Scotland) Regulations 2020. Services reported that women were not accessing sexual/reproductive health services as frequently during lockdown, due to the stigma associated with continuing to work.
There are a number of risks for women online.A number of women reported having their online images stolen. In some cases, individuals were threatening to out women to their friends and family. Organisations reported significant challenges in effectively advocating for women in these cases, particularly due to a lack of appropriate legal protections for women in these specific circumstances.