Challenging demand approaches to prostitution share a number of common features. They aim to reduce demand for prostitution, improve the lives of those with experience of prostitution through support that reduces harm and/or helps those involved to exit, and change social attitudes about the commodification of (primarily female) bodies. Achievement of these objectives has manifested in the adoption of three central strands: a criminal justice component that criminalises the purchaser and decriminalises the seller, a support for victims strand aimed at helping and preventing those involved in prostitution from continued involvement, and a changing social attitudes component focused on informing the public of the law, prevent further demand and reduce violence against women and men involved.
Differences in legislative design and implementation practices, however, point to a highly complex picture with regards to the impacts and effectiveness of the approaches adopted. A lack of large scale comparable and reliable research directly addressing "what works" makes the identification of reliable cross-country observations difficult. These gaps notwithstanding, the evidence does indicate some learnings that merit further consideration when it comes to policy development and which may inform the design of a model for Scotland:
- Overall, the evidence suggests that challenging demand implementation 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 (mainstream and specialist). It will also require training and trauma-informed enforcement approaches aimed at building trust in order to foster increased cooperation of women and men involved and improved intelligence gathering.
- National and regional bodies tasked with coordinating relevant stakeholders (specialist/mainstream support providers, enforcement agencies, NGOs, women and men involved in prostitution) and with developing clear and evidence-informed guidance can strengthen operational consistency and improve information-sharing.
- The evidence points to the need for 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.
- The literature also indicates the importance of co-production of policy with women and men with lived experience of selling sex. 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.
Recommendations for further research
The absence of a large body of robust research on prostitution highlights the need for regular and transparent monitoring and evaluation practices in order to develop a more complete picture of prostitution's prevalence and nature and the issues facing those involved. The lack of accessible evaluations hinders the ability for learning and improvement, limiting the identification of interventions that work and areas that need strengthening. Areas which would benefit from further research to strengthen the evidence base are suggested below:
- Understanding who those involved are and the prevalence and nature of prostitution. Further research into the prevalence, demographics, characteristics, views and experiences of women and men involved is needed to increase understanding around support gaps, areas for improvement and to capture the views and needs of seldom heard from groups, in particular those engaged in prostitution online and migrants, who make up the majority of those involved in the countries assessed in this review. The evidence indicates the importance of trust-building and co-production of policy with women and men with lived experience of selling sex, however, the reliance on small qualitative samples of those involved means there was often an over-representation of particular sub-groups of support service users. Increased and rigorous research into lived experience could provide broader insights into who engages in selling, how to better monitor prostitution (particularly online), motivating factors contributing to entry and continued involvement, and any limitations of current legislative, safety and support provisions.
- How different countries have operationalised their models on the ground. Little evidence exists which sets out and rigorously assesses what challenging demand looks like in practice, making it difficult to determine contributing factors behind some of the impacts, enablers and challenges observed. Process maps detailing the policy cycle and operational practice of enforcement agencies, service providers, and local and national authorities would provide crucial insights into the kinds of interventions introduced, differences in the approaches adopted across countries and strengthen our understanding of "what works" to effectively challenge demand.
- Evaluation and monitoring of new approaches. There was a notable scarcity of evaluation and analysis of monitoring data and practice in the literature reviewed. Process evaluations on the day-to-day implementation on the ground (e.g. by police officers and service providers), particularly across cases that have more recently introduced challenging demand approaches (e.g. Republic of Ireland) are needed to improve our understanding of how interventions work and why. Greater examination and evaluation of the monitoring mechanisms used by countries would provide insights into the impact of policy making and implementation on the nature and scale of prostitution in addition to the operational effectiveness and efficiency of challenging demand interventions.
- Impact on social attitudes. Further research is needed to assess attitudinal changes and the effectiveness of national awareness campaigns and educational initiatives in changing social attitudes and behaviours relating to prostitution. Whilst the evidence indicates an increase in public support for challenging demand legislation in some of the jurisdictions included in this review, what is contributing to the attitudinal changes observed remains unclear. Greater examination of interventions aimed at changing social attitudes would help reach a more holistic picture of the impact of challenging demand that takes into account the role of beliefs, norms and traditions in the design and effectiveness of challenging demand.
- Deterrents and deterrence effects of the legislation as well as the motivations and characteristics of purchasers. The limited data on the estimated prevalence and drivers of purchase makes it difficult to determine the full effects of the approaches adopted on challenging demand and the impact of the penalties issued on preventing initial purchase and recidivism. Further research into the attitudes and behaviours of those with experience of purchasing sex could shed important light on the effectiveness of the approaches adopted on targeting demand.
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