13. Women involved in prostitution and commercial sexual exploitation
Organisations that support women involved in prostitution/CSE reported the sex industry had almost entirely re-opened by Phase 3 of Scotland's Route Map, with outreach workers observing on-street prostitution numbers steadily increasing to reach pre-COVID levels. The increase in on-street prostitution was also noted in a number of posts by men on online fora. During Phase 3 there was also an increase in online posts advertising women touring in Scotland.
Lap dancing venues remained close due to Coronavirus restrictions and organisations reported this was frustrating for women who depended on this for income. In particular, women had expressed concern regarding how to maintain their income as private dances – their main source of income – were prohibited due to the social distancing restrictions.
Organisations reported that customers were aware women in prostitution had been financially affected by the Coronavirus crisis and as a result men were putting pressure on women to change their boundaries and accept less money. Organisations had also received some reports of men putting pressure on women to offer unprotected sex, or removing the condom during sex.
As with the experience of domestic abuse organisations, service managers noted increased periods of time were dedicated to understanding changing Coronavirus restrictions and then communicating them and their specific impact to the women.
The local lockdown in the West of Scotland during September, which prevented household mixing, had an impact on women involved in prostitution, with some services engaging with women to consider the impacts this would have and signposting to financial resources and support them to access crisis funds where possible.
Some organisations reported challenges in identifying and engaging with women entering prostitution for the first time during this period, with one organisation receiving calls from women asking for advice on how to enter prostitution due to feeling they had no other choice. Organisations communicated this had an effect on women who had been involved in prostitution longer-term, as many customers preferred new women, leaving existing women in a precarious financial position or forcing them to engage in higher risk practice with regular customers.
Organisations reported that piecemeal and/or short-term funding and the lack of infrastructure supporting women to exit prostitution remained significant challenges in effectively supporting their clients, with one service facing closure during this period due to a lack of funding.
One service reported that they had observed some significant advantages for their service and clients during lockdown, related to being able to advocate for women via the telephone. The service observed that, for many women who have exited prostitution and who require intensive support to access mainstream support organisations, advocacy support via the telephone was more effective than face-to-face meetings because it was less time consuming and women were not required to attend specific locations and/or spend time in waiting rooms for long periods. The service has utilised conference calls to advocate on clients' behalf and found this to be more conducive to achieving desired outcomes for women. Some clients had also communicated that they preferred engagement with support workers by phone because it was more anonymous, less time consuming, and, if they missed an appointment, they felt less pressure and guilt than when they did not attend a face-to-face meeting.
There continued to be a small number of online posts making reference to Coronavirus and women's challenging financial situation as the justification for engaging in online work, although this was lower than the period of lockdown and earlier Phases. Services continued to report online platforms to sell images were saturated with images, resulting in high levels of competition among women to generate income. Of the online sites that were advertising face-to-face contact with women, very few posts were identified that offered virtual alternatives to direct contact. Services that monitor online activity reported emerging trends relating to more extreme offers from women, such as allowing men to "take control of their entire life" for 24 hours for a fixed price. There were also continued reports of men stealing women's images or putting collective pressure on women to send images. Service managers identified there was very little legal recourse for women in these circumstances and this was an ongoing challenge in deterring abusive behaviours and supporting women.