Challenging demand for prostitution: international evidence review

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

2. Introduction

This paper is intended to inform Scottish Government's work focused on developing a model for Scotland aimed at challenging and deterring men's demand for prostitution, through a review of evidence on international approaches that have criminalised the purchase of sex and decriminalised selling. It builds on research commissioned by Scottish Government in 2017 which examined the reliability of international evidence on the impacts of the criminalisation of the purchase of sex in Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Canada and Northern Ireland. It aims to provide an up-to-date picture of international evidence on the effectiveness of challenging demand approaches to prostitution and places particular emphasis on identifying lessons learned and examples of best practice which may help inform the development of a model for Scotland. Specifically, the review responds to the following research questions:

  • What does criminalising demand look like in practice in the countries that have adopted this approach? How have these approaches been implemented in law? Are there any common principles and lessons learned?
  • What have been the main challenges and barriers to decreasing demand in the countries that have adopted this approach?
  • What have been the key enablers/success factors in countries that have adopted a criminalisation of demand model?
  • What can we learn from the support available within alternative approaches (the decriminalisation/legalised models e.g. in the Netherlands and New Zealand) with regards to welfare and safety of those involved in prostitution?

Policy Context

Equally Safe, Scotland's strategy for preventing and eradicating violence against women and girls, adopts the position that prostitution is a form of gendered violence. In 2020 the Scottish Government held Scotland's first national consultation on prostitution: "Equally Safe: Challenging Men's Demand for Prostitution, working to reduce the harms associated with prostitution and helping women to exit", to discuss a future approach within the context of how women and girls should be treated in an equal society. There was a high level of engagement with the consultation by both individuals and organisations, with over 4,000 responses received.

Building on the consultation, the current Programme for Government 2021- 2022 commits to the development of a model for Scotland which effectively tackles and challenges men's demand for prostitution. As part of the work to design the model, Scottish Government is considering how to align this with the Equally Safe Strategy and Scotland's unique legal landscape, whilst also considering whether aspects of international approaches could be applied. This review has been undertaken to identify lessons learned and best practice from other countries and will inform the work to design a model for Scotland.

It will also be complemented by Scottish Government commissioned lived experience engagement work, which has been taken forward by an external research team. The project aims to understand current support service provision and the needs of service users. The report will be published here.


Building on the 2017 international evidence review, this "rapid evidence assessment" primarily focuses on empirical research published in English since 2016 to avoid duplication. The reader is therefore advised to refer to the first evidence assessment for an account of the impacts of the criminalisation of purchase prior to 2016 where relevant e.g. in the cases of Sweden, Norway and Northern Ireland.

This review does not purport to be an exhaustive account of the evidence on prostitution nor of the approaches adopted in the jurisdictions examined or overlapping issues such as human trafficking. Rather it aims to strengthen the existing evidence base and provide insights for policy on possible strengths and opportunities for improvement in the implementation of challenging demand approaches. A rigorous search, inclusion and assessment methodology has been adhered to and is outlined in Chapter 3. The review provides new insights into the cases of Sweden, Norway and Northern Ireland, as well as jurisdictions that have introduced legislation focused on challenging demand for prostitution since 2016, namely, France and the Republic of Ireland.

A search for examples of best practice with regards to safety and support provision for women and men involved in prostitution has also been conducted in jurisdictions that have not adopted a challenging demand model (New Zealand and the Netherlands)[4]. New Zealand's policy approach was raised in the consultation as one of the international examples of best practice with regards to protecting those involved[5]. Whilst an examination of the effectiveness of the legislative models adopted in these countries was beyond the scope of this study, the inclusion of evidence on alternative measures aimed at improving well-being and safety for those involved, maximises opportunities for wider learning and introduces a comparative element to the review's findings.

Review Limitations

The covert and stigmatised nature of prostitution makes it difficult to reliably gauge its prevalence or the effects of legislation targeting the purchase of sex (Malloch et al. 2017). Available evidence is highly fragmented due to the absence of data pre and post implementation as well as research specifically addressing "what works" with regards to challenging demand models (Malloch et al. 2017). Little reliable evidence exists on the numbers of people involved in both the selling and purchasing of sex, the scale of indoor prostitution and its overlaps with human trafficking.

Importantly, differences in evaluation and monitoring practices across jurisdictions means it is difficult to make international comparisons. The varied age of legislation across jurisdictions that have criminalised the purchase of sex, combined with a complex range of contextual factors such as the rise of the internet and contrasting social and cultural norms (Kingston & Thomas 2019; Wagenaar 2018), limits the extent to which we can determine the effects of challenging demand approaches on the prevalence of prostitution. Moreover, the literature primarily draws from small qualitative studies limiting a broader assessment of what works across cases. There is a lack of available administrative data on service users and the kinds of support accessed by those who sell sex, as well as research on the effectiveness of national awareness campaigns introduced across the jurisdictions. Finally, the scarcity of "value-free and neutral research" on the topic due to the influence of strong ideological positions on the ethical nature of the purchase and selling of sex has limited the quality and validity of empirical research on prostitution (Malloch et al. 2017; Wagenaar 2017; 2018)[6]. A list of the main evidence gaps identified is provided in Chapter 3.

Due to these limitations, the evidence assessment was in the main unable to identify direct causal effects of challenging demand approaches. The findings made in this review should therefore be interpreted with this in mind. Enablers and barriers identified are those associated with challenging demand measures referenced in the literature and cannot be definitively classed as reflective of direct causality. In light of these evidence gaps, the focus of this review is on providing a rounded picture of available evidence by including and analysing a wide range of studies including academic peer-reviewed quantitative and qualitative research, as well as grey literature such as government evaluations and civil society reports. In addition to assessing empirical research, the review also draws from resources such as literature reviews, historical analyses, and legislation to identify common principles and key features of the approaches adopted across jurisdictions.

Note on the use of language

Different language is often used by the media, individuals and organisations to refer to people who are involved in prostitution. This review adopts terminology that aligns with the Scottish Government's definition of violence against women that includes prostitution and is contained within the Equally Safe Strategy (women/men involved in prostitution, or women/men who sell/ exchange sex). However, other terms used in papers (such as "sex work" or "sex worker" and "sex trade"), are used when citing these studies.


The review begins with a description of the methods used to identify and assess the evidence. It then provides an overview of the main features of the approaches to challenging demand adopted in the jurisdictions examined, including: common principles, existing legislation, enforcement practices and support provisions for women and men involved. Focus then moves onto an examination of the main impacts, enablers and barriers to implementation identified in the evidence and some emerging lessons learned from New Zealand and the Netherlands' support services. The review ends with a brief discussion of some of the implications of the review findings and suggestions for further research.



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