Challenging demand for prostitution: international evidence review

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

6. Barriers to challenging demand

This chapter provides an overview of the main barriers to implementation of challenging demand approaches referenced in the evidence. Due to aforenoted evidence gaps, the discussion provides insights on individual jurisdictions and describes associated barriers rather than proven ones. The evidence points to some common barriers impeding implementation of challenging demand approaches and achievement of its central objectives, such as issues in the consistency of implementation, the application of legal provisions, the reach and accessibility of support for victims, the protection of women and men involved in prostitution and in capturing the scale and effects of online prostitution.

The research also highlights the heterogeneity of experiences among those involved in prostitution particularly in respect to migrants who constitute the majority of adults involved across the jurisdictions examined and who report heightened vulnerabilities to exploitation and exclusion. Moreover, the evidence suggests there are low levels of trust in enforcement agencies as well as low levels of support for challenging demand policy among women and men involved. Interviewed women and men involved report continued fears of criminalisation, stigmatisation and the reliance on risky purchasers who use legislative provisions to threaten them.

The evidence primarily reflects findings from small qualitative studies which are unable to account for the scale or generalisability of the issues described. The fact that the barriers here identified have been seen across cases, however, suggests that there is validity into the insights synthesised and point to possible learnings and areas for improvement. The barriers can be summarised as follows:

Table 5. Summary of barriers to challenging demand referenced in the literature
Inconsistent enforcement and implementation Difficulties in proving offences Gaps in support provision
  • Regional enforcement differences contributing to punitive targeting of those selling sex and varied (in some cases more lenient) penalties issued against purchasers.
  • Regional differences in support provision limiting access to necessary services among women and men involved.
  • Evidence requirements making the proving of purchase of sex offences challenging.
  • Legislative loopholes resulting in a failure to fully account for the purchase of sex.
  • Inconsistent training of support providers and awareness raising contributing to uneven support access.
  • Insufficient financing and resourcing of support provision resulting in failures to address needs and limiting the appeal of service access to women and men involved.
  • A lack of legal rights resulting in the exclusion of migrant women and men involved from access to support, locking them into prostitution.
Continued criminalisation of women and men involved in prostitution Welfare and safety concerns among women and men involved in prostitution and stigma Online/Indoor prostitution and child sexual exploitation
  • Brothel keeping, public nuisance and immigration legislation contributing to a continued targeting of victims, the exacerbation of exploitation, exclusion and stigma of women and men involved, and low levels of trust.
  • Migration legislation targeted at migrant adults involved in prostitution who make up the majority of those selling.
  • Inadequate tackling of harassment and violence of women and men involved, particularly risky purchasers who use existing legislation to threaten women and men involved in prostitution.
  • Continued feelings of stigma and judgement experienced by women and men involved.
  • Low levels of support for the legislation among women and men involved in prostitution.
  • Difficulties in the monitoring of online prostitution.
  • Possible pimping, human trafficking and increased prostitution of minors on hard to monitor online platforms.

Inconsistent enforcement and implementation

Studies in France indicate a lack of regional consistency in the enforcement and implementation of the legislation. Gaudy and Le Bail's comparative summary of 3 evaluations (2020) notes issues related to the uneven implementation of the legislation in France. Of particular concern has been the adoption of divergent policing approaches at local level. One of the reviews, Le Bail et al.'s 2018 study examining the effects of the legislation on women and men involved, found that municipal by-laws banning public loitering in cities such as Lyon, Nîmes, Narbonne and Toulouse and differences in policing approaches across municipalities, were resulting in diverging implementation practices and in some cases a continued targeting of women and men involved.

The evaluations in France also suggest that regional disparities in implementation have not been solely an issue of enforcement but are also visible in the delivery of the legislation's support provisions (Gaudy & Le Bail 2020: 17). Discrepancies in the interpretation of programme eligibility by committees across depártements and in the delivery of the awareness courses for offenders were identified. The 2019 government evaluation found that a lack of guidance with regards to issuing residency permits as provided in the exit programme meant regional committees were often reluctant to go against separate migration provisions such as the Code of Entry for Residence and Foreigners and the Right of Asylum (Gaudy & Le Bai 2020: 19).

Similar inconsistencies were identified in St. Denny's research drawing on documentary analysis and interviews with policy actors, which noted that at the time of publication (i.e. four years after the introduction of the legislation), only 71 out of 96 French depártements had been convened, (2020: 8). A further seven were in the process of accrediting a relevant organisation to help deliver the programme. The study found further discrepancies in regional budgets, the numbers of women accessing the programme and in applicant success rates. In some depártements almost all applications had been successful, in others success rates were as low as 35%, reflecting diverging interpretations of the eligibility criteria (St Denny 2020: 9).

Differences in implementation in France were attributed to contrasting interpretations of the eligibility criteria, an absence of clear ministerial guidelines and uneven regional budgets which often resulted in large urban areas receiving a high share of funding to the detriment of less densely populated depártements. The study also drew attention to contrasting policing practices across municipalities, noting that police tended to issue light penalties such as fines of €300-€550 and very few offenders were referred to the awareness courses (St Denny 2020: 12).

Regional inconsistencies have also been identified in the Republic of Ireland (RoI) (Amnesty International 2022) and Norway where local police can determine fine amounts leading to discrepancies in the fines being issued (Jahnsen & Skilbrei 2018b: 188) and where support service provision varies across municipalities (Brunovskis & Skilbrei 2018: 312). Further research, however, is needed to evidence the nature and effects of these variations on implementation.

Difficulties in proving offences

A second barrier to the implementation of challenging demand approaches identified in the evidence relates to difficulties encountered in the enforcement of the legislation, particularly with regards to proving offences. This was highlighted in Northern Ireland (NI) where interviewed police officers and prosecutors described challenges in collecting the necessary evidence. They noted that the legal requirement that there be evidence of "physical presence, sexual touching for sexual gratification and payment made or promised" made proving that a crime had occurred very difficult in practice (Ellison et al. 2019: 62). Moreover, police officers also highlighted limited tools in targeting demand due to Article 64A not falling within the seriousness threshold specified by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (2000) which meant police could not use surveillance tools used in countries such as Sweden (Ellison et al. 2019: 61-65). Interviewed police officials stressed that they regarded prostitution as sitting along a "continuum of vulnerability" with police officers prioritising the investigation of organised crime and trafficking which may mean all cases of purchase may not be equally prioritised (Ellison et al. 2019: 60).

In the same study, prosecutors further stressed that the reluctance of women and men involved in prostitution to provide evidence made it very challenging to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the events had indeed taken place (Ellison et al. 2019: 66). They also described anomalies in the legislation which had resulted in potential loopholes around sexual touching. As the legislation stands, paying someone to touch themselves sexually regardless of penetrative sex taking place constitutes an offence, however, it does not adequately account for cases where the purchaser may pay two people to touch each other (Ellison et al. 2019: 68).

Low conviction figures have also been reported in the RoI. An interim review of the legislation produced on behalf of the High Level Working Group noted that as of July 2019, a total of only four outcomes of criminal proceedings against buyers with a further 13 pending prosecution since the introduction of challenging demand legislation (Shannon 2020: 10)[85]. More recent figures released in response to a parliamentary question of the total numbers of charges and court summons for purchase-related offences between March 2017 and December 2021 were 10 and 57 respectively[86]. Contributing factors for the low charges remained unclear, however, interviews with senior members of the Garda National Protective Services Bureau (GNPSB) in O'Connor & Breslin's SERP study, described complexities and difficulties in identifying independent persons and organisers of prostitution during police raids and targeted days of action (O'Connor & Breslin 2020: 100-101).

These concerns echo previous findings with regards to Sweden where difficulties in the interpretation of the legislation by the courts were highlighted in the 2017 review (Malloch et al. 2017). The 2010 Swedish Inquiry reported that there had been some uncertainties in the application of the provision around whether those "who have been exploited should be considered witnesses or injured parties in court proceedings" in addition to "the point in time at which an attempted offence has been committed" (SOU 2010: 40). It identified difficulties on proving attempted crimes with police having to resort to waiting for the sexual act to commence before intervening (SOU 2010).

Gaps in support provision

Insufficient resourcing and awareness of support services for women and men involved was flagged in a number of studies in France, RoI and NI. The French evaluations found evidence of gaps in training offered to exit programme committee members and inadequate funding provisions for accredited organisations. The 2019 government report noted that training of committee members varied between one hour and half a day and interviews conducted with programme delegates suggested that committee members were not always aware of the realities of those involved in prostitution, highlighting major knowledge gaps (Gaudy & Le Bail 2020: 18). Crucially, all three evaluations noted a lack of awareness of the exit programme among women and men involved in prostitution and concluded that the financial aid offered to applicants was insufficient to cover their daily spending costs. Indeed, in the Le Bail et al. 2018 report, more than half of those who responded to the questionnaire (n= 583) were unaware of the exit programme and only a third of those who had heard of it were interested in it (Le Bail et al. 2018: 55). Moreover, the €330 offered was criticised for falling well below the poverty line and amounting to €220 less than ordinary welfare benefits, raising doubts about the appeal of funding offered to applicants (Gaudy & Le Bail 2020: 22).

Other factors contributing to limited support provision and/or take up identified in the evaluations included lengthy application processes which meant organisations often selected cases with greater chances of success, excluding those with more complex needs (Gaudy & Le Bail 2020: 21), strict accreditation criteria for support organisations which meant services that do not adopt a challenging demand stance are unable to support exit programme applicants (Gaudy & Le Bail 2020: 21), and a reluctance to grant temporary residence permits by committees due to limited resources such as sheltered accommodation. Gaudy and Le Bail report that by 2020 only 341 people had effectively benefited from the exit programme which contrasts starkly with estimates that the number of people involved in prostitution in France stand anywhere between 30,000 and 40,000 (2020: 26). The number does seem to be an increase from the 29 individuals that had their applications accepted in 2017 and the 183 by April 2019 (St Denny 2020: 9). Without baseline figures for the numbers seeking to access the services, however, it is difficult to determine how high or low the acceptance rate is. St Denny notes, however, that the national budget initially provided for 1000 applicants had been reduced to 600 (St Denny 2020). All the evaluations in France call for the removal of exiting as a necessary condition for access to support (Gaudy & Le Bail 2020), drawing attention to the need for sustained support which incorporates an awareness of the non-linearity of entry and exit.

Similar issues around insufficient resourcing were flagged in reports on the approaches in the RoI and NI. As described previously, SERP's 2020 analysis of Ruhama case studies and WHS[87] user records showed that service users had a wide range of needs requiring enhanced resourcing, increased awareness raising and a "recognised and resourced" exit programme which included "regularisation of immigration status, access to housing, health services and social protection, access to justice and provision of education, training and employment opportunities" (O'Connor & Breslin 2020: 106). SERP's more recent study examining the effects of Covid-19 on prostitution in Ireland, found that the pandemic had exacerbated some of the challenges experienced by service users (Breslin 2020). Interviewed service providers were concerned about the consequences the loss of employment, as a result of the pandemic would have on the women who had recently exited prostitution, stressing the need for long-term support and the development of a statutory support package to ensure women could "build sustainable lives outside prostitution" (Breslin 2020: 40).

The RoI's limited statutory support provisions were criticised in Amnesty International's 2022 study by interviewed "sex workers" who described difficulties in "accessing and retaining adequate housing" and an inability to "meet their basic needs through social welfare payments" which in some cases had been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic (Amnesty International 2022: 45). Prostitution emerged as a way of accessing crucial "additional income" to meet basic needs (Amnesty International 2022: 45). Ryan and McGarry's research referenced previously also highlighted gaps in health care provision. In this study, participants stated that the services were often poorly resourced and the exit support offered was "insufficient or not tailored to the specific circumstances of their lives" (Ryan & McGarry 2021: 6-7).

Sweeney et al.'s analysis of eight RoI service provider interviews on barriers preventing women involved in prostitution from accessing health services prior to the legislative change found that interviewees wanted to learn more about women and men involved in prostitution but felt restricted in what they could offer due to limited capacity (Sweeney et al. 2020: 342). Service providers had recommended budgetary measures to develop services, education and training (Sweeney et al. 2020: 342). The authors criticised the failure to develop additional infrastructure such as specialised units to support the "psychosocial health needs" of women and men involved in prostitution (Sweeney et al. 2020 335). They showed that whilst the National Sexual Health Strategy 2015-2020[88] acknowledged "sex workers"' health needs, it did not sufficiently "capture" the complexity of needs of those involved in prostitution or their circumstances (Sweeney et al. 2020: 335).

The National Women's Council submission to the 2020 consultation for the Irish evaluation of the legislation, suggested there was a need for the inclusion of "state funded exit pathways" in statute and which covered the same requirements as noted in the O'Connor & Breslin 2020 study referenced above including immigration status, housing and access to justice (National Women's Council 2020: 6). Similar recommendations were also made by the High Level Working Group's interim report which called for greater state resources for "exit supports for women affected by prostitution and sex trafficking" (Shannon 2020).

In NI, the 2019 evaluation found that there was an overreliance on services supporting women and men involved in on-street prostitution and more needed to be done to provide services tailored to targeting those involved in online prostitution (Ellison et al. 2019). One of the central weaknesses according to the evaluation's authors was the absence of a single agency tasked with managing and operationalising the strategy, further stressing the need for a coordinated response highlighted previously (Ellison et al. 2019: 72). The evaluation also stressed the Department of Health's acknowledgement of a lack of funding in its Leaving Prostitution Strategy (Ellison et al. 2019: 69).

Gaps in support provisions for migrant women and men involved

The issue of a lack of resourcing was particularly marked in relation to support provisions for migrant women and men involved in prostitution. Studies conducted in Sweden, Norway, France and the RoI indicated that migrant women and men involved in prostitution struggled to access statutory support services. In Norway, qualitative research examining service provision and drawing from interviews with social workers (n=35) found serious shortcomings in access to support due to limited legal rights among migrant women and men (Brunovskis & Skilbrei 2018). The authors noted that despite Norway's introduction of human trafficking support allowing victims to access a six months' residence and work permit and an "inroad to Norwegian welfare services" extendable to a year if they cooperate in a police investigation, there was limited help aimed at addressing the women and men's "socio-economic vulnerability" i.e. their financial reliance on earnings from prostitution (Brunovskis & Skilbrei 2018: 314). Only one measure addressed education and employment opportunities for trafficking victims which entailed vocational courses in beauty and small business starter packs, however, in the main, the researchers argued that migrant women had been excluded in policy discussions around specialist and welfare support.

Similar concerns were expressed in Vuolajärvi's (2019) ethnographic research in Finland, Norway and Sweden between 2012 and 2018 which found that the majority of participants in the Nordic region were highly mobile migrants from Russia and Eastern Europe, Latin America, Nigeria and Thailand. The study also found that between 78-79% of support service users (i.e. sellers of sex) in Norway and Finland were foreigners (Vuolajärvi 2019: 160). Participants rarely had residency permits and were worried about a "lack of access to rights and services, police harassment and deportation" and a "lack of police protection" (Vuolajärvi 2019: 157). The study found that social services were not available to many migrant workers who were unable to "enter the formal labor market", due to not having the necessary work permits or skills to apply, leading to the entrapment of "third-country-nationals" in a "gray economy of commercial sex" (Vuolajärvi 2019: 160). For many participants, the possibility of having regular work was important as "selling sex was 'hard' and a 'dead end' job" (Vuolajärvi 2019: 160). Moreover, interviewed social workers in Sweden expressed frustration at the limited resources they could draw from to support irregular migrants, an issue which also extended to victims of trafficking (Vuolajärvi 2019: 160).

In the case of France, the evaluations identified issues around the accessibility of provisions for applicants with low French literacy and education levels which meant many women and men involved in prostitution were unable to complete training and access resources. In the case of those applying for temporary residence permits of 6 months, it was unclear how they would be able to access training within the timeframe (Gaudy and Le Bail 2020: 24). Reflecting the high proportion of migrants among women and men involved[89], the Le Bail et al. 2018 study reported that the most common form of support selected in the survey as being most needed were "residency permits" (Le Bail et al. 2018: 56). Over half of respondents selected it over housing and financial assistance.

In the RoI, the literature suggests irregular migrants who are not victims of human trafficking also lack legal rights to support (Sweeney et al. 2021), experience isolation (McGarry & Ryan 2020; O'Connor & Breslin 2020) and share fears of deportation (Amnesty International 2022). These conditions may be contributing to increased risk taking by women and men involved and making them more susceptible to exploitation and worsening safety and well-being. The evidence indicates that the majority of women and men involved in NI are also migrants, however, no studies exploring migrants' access to services were identified in this review (Ellison et al. 2019).

Continued criminalisation of women and men involved in prostitution

Qualitative research suggests that women and men involved in prostitution continue to be criminalised under separate legislative provisions aimed at combatting brothel keeping and monitoring migration. In Norway and Sweden, Vuolajärvi's ethnographic research found that migrant women and men were the targets of punitive immigration laws which could result in deportation and eviction from rented premises (Vuolajärvi 2019: 152). Research participants in Sweden described experiences of violence and harassment by the police and feelings of being partly blamed for their engagement in prostitution, and women involved in both Norway and Sweden reported being targets of ID checks by police (Vuolajärvi 2019: 158). These practices were confirmed by police informants in Sweden who participated in the study and who also noted that police often used escorting advertisements as a way of conducting immigration checks (Vuolajärvi 2019: 159). The research found that these practices resulted in a reluctance to report violence to police by migrant women and men involved (Vuolajärvi 2019: 159).

Meanwhile, the study also found that third-party legislation in both Sweden and Norway which criminalises landlords and hotel owners providing accommodation or renting to people involved in prostitution on the grounds of pimping, was leading to the development of "blacklists" of women involved among hotel owners and landlords (Vuolajärvi 2019: 161). Migrant women who participated in the research described being evicted from their accommodation, losing their deposits, and having to pay higher rental rates or through sex in exchange for cramped housing offered by informal landlords exploiting their vulnerable situation.

Similar challenges were raised in Jahnsen & Skilbrei's qualitative research in Sweden conducted between 2010 and 2016 which incorporated fieldwork observation, media discourse analysis and interviews with a wide range of stakeholders including "sex workers", victims of human trafficking, police investigators, public prosecutors, lawyers, politicians, and social outreach workers and health personnel, as well as a range of NGO representatives. The authors found that police could move women and men involved in prostitution from certain areas if they received public nuisance complaints (Jahnsen & Skilbrei 2018a: 260). They also noted that police conducted identity checks and urged landlords to terminate tenancies, threatening them with pimping charges (Jahnsen & Skilbrei 2018a: 261).

Amnesty International's highly critical study of the Norwegian case published in 2016 and which drew from 54 interviews, 30 of which were from women with experience of selling sex, also found that many women and men involved were being subject to high levels of surveillance such as regular identity checks and inspections of personal belongings to identify condoms (Amnesty International 2016: 8). They found that these practices were making many reluctant to report and were resulting in penalisations (deportation, forced eviction and loss of livelihood) that had worse implications for those involved than the fines for purchasers (Amnesty International 2016: 10).

In the RoI similar fears around criminalisation were expressed by women involved. WHS service user records showed women involved were fearful of becoming known to Gardaí and being deported, (O'Connor & Breslin 2020: 89). According to the study's findings of user records, the majority of service users were migrants, many had language barriers and were undocumented (O'Connor & Breslin 2020: 37-38). Accounts of negative experiences with Gardaí included descriptions of being unfairly targeted, of being dismissed or ignored and not being supported (O'Connor & Breslin 2020: 91-95). Interviews with "sex workers" in a separate RoI study found that all research participants perceived law enforcement negatively, with fears particularly marked among migrant workers and some expressing fears of eviction (Berry & Frazer 2021: 8-10). Similar concerns were voiced in McGarry and Ryan's research where "sex worker" focus groups indicated a continued reluctance to report to Gardaí and migrant workers described feeling like they needed to be "doubly invisible" (McGarry & Ryan 2020: 38).

The NI evaluation also identified a continued lack of reporting to police officers by women and men involved. A small majority of surveyed women and men involved in prostitution stated they would not report crime directly to the PSNI (39.6%), compared to those who would (33%) (Ellison et al 2019: 11). Reasons given for not reporting (n=141) included police blaming them (22.6%), police not being interested (21.9%), being arrested (17.7%), being reported to their landlord (14.8%), and a lack of trust (14.8%) (Ellison et al. 2019: 156).

Of particular concern in research on the RoI were the potentially criminalising effects of existing brothel keeping legislation which penalises anyone who:

"(a) keeps or manages or acts or assists in the management of a brothel,

(b) being the tenant, lessee, occupier or person in charge of a premises, knowingly permits such premises or any part thereof to be used as a brothel or for the purposes of habitual prostitution, or

(c) being the lessor or landlord of any premises or the agent of such lessor or landlord, lets such premises or any part thereof with the knowledge that such premises or some part thereof are or is to be used as a brothel, or is wilfully a party to the continued use of such premises or any part thereof as a brothel"[90].

Concerns have been raised about how this legislation can apply to two or more women and men working from the same premises even for safety. One high-profile case which was referenced in the literature was the arrest and imprisonment of two migrant women from Romania, one of whom was pregnant in November 2019 (Amnesty International 2022: 27).

Whilst Amnesty International's study acknowledged that the numbers of brothel related incidents recorded by Gardaí were low (22 between 2019 and 2021 according to An Garda Síochána's PULSE system), they also found that the fear of the risk of criminalisation was having an impact on women and men's behaviours (Amnesty International 2022: 28). The majority of interviewed "sex workers" stated that they shared premises to ensure their safety, whilst some decided to work alone despite being isolated so as to not risk being criminalised for brothel keeping (Amnesty International 2022: 24-25). Their accounts suggested they were unable to exercise their rights due to fear of being the subject of state proceedings (Amnesty International 2022: 29).

Research participants in McGarry and Ryan's study described experiences of being evicted from homes due to landlords feeling pressured to not renew leases (2020: 35). "Sex workers" suggested the need to "disaggregate" liaison work from Garda operations such as Operation Quest, to protect those most vulnerable such as undocumented workers (2020: 36). In SWAI's participatory study (n=24), the most significant impact of the law identified by "sex workers" were not being able to "live/work with another sex worker for fear of arrest for brothel keeping" (n=20), concerns that the "police will arrest […] clients" (n=18) or themselves (n=17) (SWAI 2019: 14). The majority stated they had not reported to Gardaí (SWAI 2019: 24), with the most common reason for not reporting being the worry that they would be blamed by the police (n=20) and the second most common reason being the worry that they would lose their accommodation (n=18) (SWAI 2019: 25). In focus groups, "sex workers" noted that the increased targeting of migrant women and men by Gardaí meant they often earned less than their Irish or British counterparts (SWAI 2019: 50).

Finally, some evidence indicates criminalisation of women and men involved may have increased during the Covid-19 pandemic. An international survey[91] examinined the impacts of Covid-19 on women and men involved in prostitution conducted by the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe (ICRSE) between October 2020 and February 2021 (Fedorkó et al. 2021). The ICRSE defines itself as a sex worker-led community network aimed at "[amplifying] the voices of sex workers in the region" and "engaging in awareness-raising about the social, political and economic marginalisation of diverse sections of sex workers" (Fedorkó et al. 2021: 1). The study highlighted reports that police in Norway were using pandemic regulations to target foreign women and men involved, some of whom were fined 19,000 NOK (approx. £1650) for breaking quarantine and infection rules despite suggestions of a limited legal basis. It is worth noting, however, that the survey was restricted to ICRSE members and the findings may not therefore be representative of the experiences of sex workers more generally.

Welfare and safety concerns of women and men involved

The evidence shows that some women and men involved in prostitution continue to experience obstacles to improved safety and welfare after challenging demand legislation is introduced. Research conducted with service providers and women and men involved in prostitution suggests that there has been a deterioration in working conditions for those involved particularly with regards to their ability to negotiate with clients and set boundaries since the introduction of challenging demand legislation. Key driving factors identified include an increasing reliance on riskier "clients" willing to purchase sex despite the risk of a criminal penalty and heightened financial vulnerability of those involved in prostitution due to the reduction in clients (Gaudy & Le Bail 2020; SWAI 2019).

In their review of the effects of the legislation in France on the working and living conditions of women and men involved in prostitution, Le Bail et al. noted that interviewees spoke of a reduction in negotiation time with clients crucial to their ability to screen potential problem purchasers (2018: 6). The majority of those interviewed (n=70 "sex workers") reported that respectful clients were now rare and half stated that insults in the street had increased (Le Bail et al. 2018: 43, 48). Moreover, there were reports that women and men involved in prostitution were being forced to work in more secluded, isolated areas, as well as experiencing increased exposure to violence, reduced condom use and substance abuse (Le Bail et al. 2018: 7). This, however, did not seem to be deterring women and men from continuing to sell with many reporting that they were now accepting clients they would not have accepted previously (Le Bail et al. 2018: 43). These issues may be contributing to a lack of support for the legislation among women and men involved. The survey found that 511 respondents opposed criminalisation of clients whereas only 20 supported it (Le Bail et al. 2018: 32).

Similar concerns were raised by the French government report, which also highlighted an increase in problem clients noting that the lack of negotiation was not only putting women and men involved in prostitution at greater risk of violence but was also resulting in increased STI exposure due to a decrease in condom use (Gaudy & Le Bail 2020: 11). Reluctance to report to police was also found in Le Bail et al.'s study which pointed to low levels of trust in enforcement agencies among interviewed "sex workers" (Le Bail et al. 2018: 35-36). Moreover, "sex workers" described struggling with stress, physical pain, and increased anxiety over their livelihoods as a result of a drop in purchasers (Le Bail et al. 2018: 52-53).

Signs of increased harassment and intimidation by purchasers were highlighted in Campbell et al.'s analysis of reports of incidents on[92] (2020). The study showed that the new legislation in RoI did not appear to have reduced crime and abuse experienced by those involved and who reported incidents on UglyMugs (Campbell et al. 2020: 284). "Sex workers" continued to be targets of hostility. The most common threat reported by UM website users was purchasers threatening to report them to the police (98.31% increase) (Campbell et al. 2020: 301).

O'Connor and Breslin's SERP study in RoI also draws attention to ongoing experiences of violence and coercion among women involved. The analysis of 1,300 reviews left on Escort Ireland between 20th April 2020 and the 27th July 2020 found that purchasers demonstrated a notable lack of concern for women's enjoyment in their exchanges or for signs of trafficking or third-party involvement described in reviews (O'Connor & Breslin 2020: 63-66). Participants (people involved in prostitution n=24) in the SWAI study described a decline in "decent regulars" and an increase in abuse and purchasers using sellers' "fear of persecution" as "leverage against" them (SWAI 2019: 54). 19 stated they had been victims of a crime (SWAI 2019: 18). The most common perpetrators were new clients (n=14) or strangers (n=11) (SWAI 2019: 23).

Ellison et al.'s 2019 examination of data in the Northern Irish review found there had been an increase in reports of incidents on the website (225%) between 2016 and 2018 in NI, particularly with regards to threatening behaviour and abusive phone calls since the law came into effect (Ellison et al 2019: 13). Moreover, "sex worker" survey responses (n=199) showed that 41.8% felt the legislation had made prostitution a lot more dangerous; 14.9% a little bit more dangerous; 29.1% felt no difference (Ellison et al. 2019: 47). In narrative interviews, "sex workers" described having to deal with more requests for unsafe sex practices and clients using the law to "barter" (Ellison et al. 2019: 13-14).

The evaluation also noted, however, that despite finding an increase in reports of "anti-social, nuisance and abusive behaviours", they did not find an increase in serious violence (Ellison et al. 2019: 165). O'Connor & Breslin's SERP study similarly found no evidence of a surge of violence against women and men involved in prostitution following the introduction of challenging demand legislation (O'Connor & Breslin 2020: 74), while Le Bail et al. stressed that many social workers were cautious when attributing claims of increased experiences of physical and sexual violence to the legislation (Le Bail et al. 2018: 49). The evidence does nevertheless point to a need for improved strategies to monitor the violence and harassment experienced by women and men involved in prostitution.


Across all jurisdictions, there were reports of ongoing stigma experienced by women and men involved in prostitution. In NI, nearly all respondents in narrative interviews felt the law had increased stigmatisation (Ellison et al 2019: 14). Most described having to lead a double life and expressed fears of being "outed" (Ellison et al. 2019: 8). In Vuolajärvi's study in Sweden, Norway and Finland, although some women involved perceived the law as being beneficial giving them better protection against clients, the majority opposed the law on the basis of it increasing stigma which made them feel victimised (Vuolajärvi 2019: 157). In Sweden, sellers reported being treated differently within social services and more widely and many had bad experiences of reporting violence and harassment to police who they regarded as seeing them as partially responsible (Vuolajärvi 2019: 158).

Feelings of having to lead double lives were echoed in Berry and Fraser's interview analysis in the RoI (Berry & Frazer 2021: 10). Ryan and McGarry's study of people's experiences of accessing health services found that many continued to express reluctance to disclose experiences of "sex work" with health professionals due to feelings of judgement and a fear of their details being shared with other agencies (Ryan & McGarry 2021). "Sex workers" described feeling silenced and some noted that existing conditions meant they did not feel confident in demanding their rights (McGarry & Ryan 2020: 33). Feelings of stigma and judgement by interviewed "sex workers" were also flagged in Amnesty International's study (2022: 53) and in SWAI's research (2019).

Online prostitution and child sexual exploitation

The evidence points to difficulties in monitoring and gauging the scale of online prostitution i.e. cybersex and the advertising of sex online. Despite a widespread acknowledgement of online prostitution as a major component in prostitution practices across jurisdictions, there was nevertheless little data on the numbers of people involved and the effects of challenging demand legislation on online prostitution. A trend analysis of 173,460 online advertisements placed on Escort Ireland between the 1st January 2012 and the 31st December 2018 conducted for the 2019 National Evaluation showed that, since the introduction of the challenging demand legislation, there had been an increase in the number of advertisements for women involved (Ellison et al. 2019). The authors identified a spike in advertisements between 2014 and 2016 around the time of the legislation's implementation, which may have been the result of increased publicity around prostitution (Ellison et al 2019: 86). The number of unique "sex workers" on the platform increased between 2012 and 2018, peaking in 2015 with a total number of 1,270 (Ellison et al. 2019: 91). However, the number of user profiles behind the advertisements across four platforms[93] also indicated that there was little change in the numbers of women and men advertising online every day in 2018 (n=308) compared to 2014 when a similar study had estimated around 300-350 advertised daily on Escort Ireland (Ellison et al. 2019: 114). Male "sellers" constituted a small proportion of users on all sites, and the majority of those involved were foreign nationals.

Estimates for the RoI based on online profiles on "escorting websites" made prior to the legislation's introduction estimated that anywhere between 500 and 700 women were available each day, the majority of whom were foreign nationals (Shannon 2020: 5). More recently, the University College Dublin's SERP study included a "data scraping exercise" on Escort Ireland with the aim of providing a "snapshot" of advertising levels on the 20/07/20. It found a total of 692 profiles advertising across the RoI and NI (O'Connor & Breslin 2020: 35). The majority were foreign nationals with only 6.5% of profiles being for Irish and British women, with "client" reviews indicating signs of pimping and human trafficking. SERP's Covid-19 study showed that during the lockdowns there had been an increased focus on the development of online platforms enabling monthly subscriptions for access to pictures and videos, chat and live "performances" on Escort Ireland (Breslin 2020).

The prevalence of online prostitution in other jurisdictions is equally difficult to determine. Olsson's study of criminal case records in Sweden between 2011 and 2015, suggested that a high number of purchasers came into contact with women and men involved in prostitution on the street despite the rise in online forms of prostitution at that time (61% versus 35% who first contacted online n=267) (2021: 363). It also found that 73% of those arrested had addresses in the city where the offence had taken place, suggesting it had been done locally (2021: 363). The findings resonate with the Le Bail et al. study in France which similarly found that the most common means of meeting "clients" was the street (61.7%) versus 20.8% who stated the internet (Le Bail et al. 2018: 89). The findings indicate that despite the rise in online prostitution, the street may still constitute an important meeting place between purchasers and women and men involved. However, given the scarcity in data on online prostitution, little is known about what proportion on-street and indoor prostitution currently make of all prostitution cases. The evidence nevertheless points to the existence of a substantial online network of prostitution which is difficult to monitor.

The significance of online prostitution has become particularly marked in France with regards to the rise in the prostitution of minors. Recent government estimates suggest that as many as 10,000 young people may be involved[94]. In terms of possible contributing factors, the 2019 government evaluation noted a lack of awareness and discussion of the provisions for the sexual exploitation of minors and a lack of adequate accommodation for minors (Gaudy & Le Bail 2020). The reports also noted that no policies (for children and young people) regarding the national awareness policy had been published at the time of publication and there were major flaws in the monitoring of possible trafficking for sexual exploitation among minors in contact with child protection services (Gaudy & Le Bail 2020: 29-30). A recent report produced by the National Advisory Commission on Human Rights, highlighted the lack of knowledge around the prostitution of minors and suggest that a major contributing factor behind the lack of visibility has been the increased use of the internet[95].

National exploratory research conducted in Sweden on adolescent motives for engaging in the selling of sex found that out of a total of 5,839 surveyed adolescents (mean age 18), only 51 (0.9%) reported having had experience of selling sex (Fredlund et al. 2018). The majority of those who had sold sex were male (60.8%) and the main motives for selling sex identified were emotional reasons such as a desire for "closeness", "to feel appreciated", and low mental health/to reduce anxiety (Fredlund et al. 2018). The most common form of compensation among those who engaged in prostitution for emotional reasons was money (47.4%) and the most common means of contact was the internet (57.9%) (Fredlund et al. 2018). However, given the small sample size (of those involved in prostitution) and the fact that the findings are based on a self-selection sample questionnaire, the generalisability and robustness of these findings are limited.



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