Challenging demand for prostitution: international evidence review

This rapid evidence review assesses and synthesises evidence on international approaches to challenging demand for prostitution.

1. Executive Summary

This "rapid evidence review"[1] examines empirical research and "grey literature"[2] on international approaches to prostitution that seek to challenge demand through the criminalisation of the purchase of sex and decriminalisation of selling. It was prepared to inform work related to the Scottish Government's Programme for Government commitment (2021/22) to develop a model for Scotland which effectively tackles and challenges men's demand for prostitution.

The report identifies common principles that have shaped the design and implementation of challenging demand legislation across five jurisdictions (Sweden, Norway, Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and France) and places particular emphasis on the identification of enablers, barriers and lessons learned.

The review also examines evidence with regards to safety and support provision for those involved in prostitution from two jurisdictions that have not adopted a challenging demand model, namely, New Zealand and the Netherlands[3]. Evidence on welfare and safety provisions was assessed with the aim of maximising opportunities for learning and identifying examples of best practice.


The review was conducted by Justice Analytical Services at the Scottish Government. It does not constitute a systematic assessment of all available research, however, a wide range of sources were consulted in the drafting of this review including legislation, academic peer-reviewed and grey literature such as government and civil society reports and evaluations. A total of 53 papers were included on the basis of their quality and relevance to the review aims.

Most of the studies reviewed on this topic were qualitative and non-experimental and drew from small, unrepresentative samples, reflecting the difficulties in reliably studying the nature and scope of prostitution. Moreover, a number of notable evidence gaps limited the identification of lessons learned including a lack of evidence on:

  • day-to-day implementation (i.e. operational practice) both in terms of enforcement practices and support provision;
  • "what works" with regards to implementation of challenging demand approaches;
  • data monitoring mechanisms used by government and non-government agencies to identify the numbers of those selling and purchasing sex indoors and outdoors;
  • social attitudes around prostitution and the normative effects of the approaches adopted on deterrence;
  • and the experiences of those involved in selling prostitution, particularly of men.

Challenging demand models

Challenging demand models are characterised by a number of common features that seek to:

1. reduce demand for prostitution.

2. improve the lives of those involved in prostitution through support that reduces harm and/or supports exit.

3. change social attitudes towards the commodification of (primarily female) bodies.

Across the jurisdictions examined, these common features map onto three central strands:

  • a "criminal justice" strand that criminalises the purchaser and decriminalises the seller.
  • a "support for victims" strand aimed at helping those involved and preventing continued involvement.
  • a "changing social attitudes" strand focused on informing the public of legislative provisions, to prevent further demand and reduce violence against those involved in prostitution.

Despite these common features there are striking differences in legislation and implementation across jurisdictions, particularly with regards to the organisation of support services and the penalties issued to purchasers.

Impacts and enablers of challenging demand approaches

  • The evidence indicates that there have been sustained rises in recorded crimes and charges for purchase related offences in some of the jurisdictions (France, Republic of Ireland and Sweden). However, there is less evidence available about the prevalence of purchase. Purchaser surveys conducted in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland suggest that deterrence may be ineffective, however, it is likely they largely capture the views of those who continue to purchase.
  • Targeted intelligence-led police operations have been identified as a key means through which enforcement agencies have identified possible offenders and harder to reach victims as well as raise awareness of legislative provisions (Republic of Ireland). Some evidence indicates the need for increased focus on embedding widespread culture change across enforcement agencies in order to build trust with women and men involved in prostitution (Republic of Ireland).
  • Cross-agency coordination which includes strong representation of advocacy and support organisations at a national level has been identified as a possible enabler of coherent policy delivery, information sharing, and collaboration between public actors, civil society and women and men involved in prostitution (Republic of Ireland, Sweden, France).
  • The evidence suggests there has been a decline in on-street prostitution, however, the numbers of those involved in indoor prostitution remain unclear across jurisdictions. National estimates of the numbers accessing and benefiting from support provisions were not identified in the literature. Qualitative research does indicate that support provisions have helped women and men involved in prostitution to access vital support services such as housing and legal and health advice. It also shows that women and men involved in prostitution benefit from accessible, wide-ranging, sustained, trauma-informed and person-centred approaches to support provision.
  • Evidence on the normative effects of the legislation suggests there may be high levels of acceptance among the wider public in favour of challenging demand legislation (France, Sweden and Norway). Contributing factors such as the effectiveness of national campaigns aimed at changing social attitudes or awareness programmes, however, remain unaccounted for in the literature.

Barriers to challenging demand

  • Some of the evidence indicates that a lack of regional consistency in enforcement and service delivery can hamper implementation of challenging demand provisions (France, Norway). Regional differences in implementation have been attributed to contrasting local policing approaches, unclear government guidelines and uneven regional budgets.
  • Difficulties have been flagged with regards to the enforcement of the legislation, particularly in relation to proving offences and available surveillance powers to target offences (Northern Ireland). Challenges in gathering the necessary evidence may be contributing to low deterrence and conviction rates.
  • Attempts to support women and men involved in prostitution have been hindered by insufficient resourcing of support pathways and a lack of accessibility for some women and men involved. Gaps in infrastructure aimed at responding to women and men involved in prostitution's complex socio-economic and health needs were identified (e.g. housing, financial aid, training). Migrant women and men involved appear to be most vulnerable to experiencing limited access to support.
  • The evidence suggests women and men involved in prostitution continue to be targeted and criminalised by other legislative provisions such as immigration, brothel keeping and pimping laws, contributing to low levels of trust in the police and a reluctance to report incidents (Sweden, Norway, Republic of Ireland).
  • Women and men involved in prostitution continue to experience stigma and violence across jurisdictions. Some evidence suggests there has been an increase in harassment, a reduction in negotiation time to screen purchasers, and exposure to riskier behaviour (France, Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland). The research did not, however, find evidence of an increase in serious violence.
  • Finally, the evidence points to difficulties in the monitoring of online and indoor prostitution, which in the case of France has been associated with a rise in the prostitution of minors.

Support provision in other models

  • In the case of New Zealand the evidence suggests that specialist organisations and collectives can act as key facilitators of policy, providing valuable operational insights, information and leadership needed to secure support among those involved in prostitution.
  • In the Netherlands, the evidence highlights the importance of targeted outreach to improve access to health check-ups particularly among those harder to reach as well as coordinated responses to enforcement and information sharing.
  • The evidence also indicates some notable shortcomings in both jurisdictions such as a lack of adequate resources for individuals wanting to leave prostitution and migrant women and men, regional inconsistencies, a lack of monitoring of seldom heard individuals, and continued stigma and violence experienced by women and men involved in prostitution.

Lessons learned from the evidence

  • Overall, the evidence suggests that the implementation of challenging demand models benefits from clear and enforceable objectives that prioritise the safety and well-being of women and men involved in prostitution as well as sustained and targeted enforcement strategies aimed at detecting purchasers.
  • Effective implementation requires adequate resourcing of wide-ranging, trauma-focused, sustained and de-stigmatising support provision for all women and men involved in prostitution (universal and specialist), as well as training and trauma-informed enforcement approaches aimed at building trust in order to improve intelligence gathering and relationships with those involved.
  • The evidence also highlights the importance of national and regional bodies tasked with coordinating collaborative working and information sharing between relevant stakeholders (specialist/mainstream support providers, enforcement agencies, for example police, NGOs, women and men involved in prostitution) and with developing clear and evidence-informed guidance to strengthen operational consistency and improve information-sharing.
  • Strategies aimed at fostering widespread "culture change" in order to challenge the ongoing stigmatisation of women and men involved and combat continued violence, harassment and social exclusion are also needed to improve conditions for individuals involved in prostitution and change societal attitudes.
  • The literature indicates the importance of ensuring the approach adopted is regarded by those involved as being for them. The incorporation of lived experience insights of those involved in prostitution (particularly migrants) in the development, design, and delivery of challenging demand is key to successful implementation and operationalisation.
  • Finally, the absence of robust research on prostitution highlights the need for increased regular and transparent monitoring and evaluation practices in order to develop a more complete picture of prostitution's prevalence and nature and the impact of policy and legal interventions.



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