Equally safe - challenging men's demand for prostitution: consultation analysis

Analysis of responses to a public consultation seeking views on how best to challenge men’s demand for prostitution in Scotland, reducing the harms associated with prostitution and supporting women involved to exit.

4. Key messages from consultation respondents in Citizen Space

This chapter outlines the key messages expressed by consultation respondents. The consultation asked 9 questions. The questions were broad in nature on a range of issues. We note here that the Scottish Government did not put forward any specific proposals or questions on changes to the criminal law within their consultation materials. In some instances, respondents have incorrectly described the consultation materials as suggesting proposals for the criminalisation of the purchase of sex and therefore within the responses there are respondents who provided their views within the context of responding to criminalisation.

In answering these questions there were a large number of messages that overlapped between questions and a number of key themes emerging from the consultation. Therefore, this chapter is structured primarily by theme to more clearly describe the views of respondents. At the beginning of each section, however, we describe the main consultation question or questions that the themes primarily relate to.

4.1 Views on the Scottish Government's approach to tackling prostitution

The consultation asks respondents if they agree or disagree that the Scottish Government's approach to tackling prostitution is sufficient to prevent violence against women and girls.

Responses that agree with the Scottish Government's approach to tackling prostitution tend to approve of the Scottish Government's Equally Safe strategy and the inclusion of prostitution and commercial sexual exploitation as a form of gender-based violence. These respondents believe that Equally Safe provides a significant framework for enabling the support of women involved in prostitution. Respondents see Equally Safe as an important step in addressing violence against women and girls that could be further enhanced by concerted and coordinated policy and additional investment in support services for women engaged in prostitution.

"Scotland's 'Equally Safe' strategy is impressive in its comprehensiveness and gendered analysis, its overarching aim of eradicating violence against women and girls ('VAWG') and its focus on prevention and holding perpetrators to account, and I agree wholeheartedly with its understanding of commercial sexual exploitation ('CSE'), including prostitution, as a form of gender-based violence. However, that understanding is not reflected in the description of Scotland's current approach to prostitution and CSE set out in the consultation paper. Nor is there recognition that prostitution and other forms of CSE tend to entrench women and girls' disadvantages and to contribute to the culture of male dominance and to make male VAWG more likely. Therefore, I do not agree that the outlined approach is sufficient to prevent VAWG." - Individual response

A number of respondents feel that Equally Safe could adopt additional elements to more effectively prevent violence against women and girls both within prostitution and in society more widely. A proportion of respondents who broadly agreed with the Scottish Government's current approach but thought it could go further preferred the introduction of the Nordic model as described in Chapter 5. Opinions on what could be added to Equally Safe include:

  • The removal of all penalties and prosecution for women engaged in prostitution, on the basis that criminal records and fines make it more difficult for these women to leave prostitution and can cause them to be less likely to seek support services because of stigma.
  • Greater focus on deterring those who buy sex and/or legally holding them to account to send the message that buying sex is not acceptable behaviour. For some, this also includes more comprehensive prohibitions on third parties enabling or profiting from prostitution.
  • Adaptations to policy and support for women that address how prostitution has been affected by technology and the greater use of online platforms.
  • Greater focus on addressing the underlying and systemic disadvantages that women and girls experience, especially economic disadvantage and poverty, but also including issues such as lack of affordable housing and affordable childcare.

Respondents who disagree with the current approach to tackling prostitution do so primarily because they feel that it increases violence against women and girls. Respondents think that the current criminalisation of some elements of prostitution drives the industry into more marginalised and unregulated spaces and platforms that are less safe for women.

The definition of all prostitution as gender-based violence in Equally Safe is also seen as contrary to many women's experiences and as potentially limiting the ability of women involved in prostitution to seek support or redress for specific experiences of harm and exploitation within otherwise consensual activity. A proportion of respondents who disagreed with the Scottish Government's current approach supported a decriminalisation approach as described in Chapter 5.

Elements of the Scottish Government's approach that respondents cite as increasing risk and harm for women include:

  • The prohibitions against brothel-keeping. Respondents feel this results in those involved in prostitution either working alone indoors or working on the street, whereas working with other women indoors is seen as safer. Those who choose to work with others indoors despite the legislation may not report violence and exploitation because of the risk of criminalisation if they contact authorities, with particular risk for migrant women who may also face deportation.
  • Current laws against soliciting making street-based prostitution more dangerous by pushing it into more isolated areas where women are less likely to be able to reach help if they experience violence. Laws against soliciting can also make women feel pressured to rush screening of clients, and potentially accept riskier ones, because of the need to avoid attention from the police.

Those who disagreed with the Scottish Government approach felt that the requirement that women's sector organisations sign up to the Equally Safe strategy which defines prostitution as a form of violence against women to receive funding was felt to exclude a number of peer-led organisations that provide support to women involved in prostitution but are under-resourced.

There is a consensus view that prostitution can lead to harms against women and girls, but respondents have different views on where these harms originate and how to reduce them. There is also consensus both among those who agree and disagree with the Scottish Government's approach to prostitution that criminalisation and fines for women engaged in any aspect of prostitution make it more difficult for women to exit and should be removed. The need for the Scottish Government to further recognise and address the structural and systemic disadvantages experienced by women and girls was also a consensus viewpoint. These responses emphasise that many women engage in prostitution because of poverty and lack of other viable employment options. Consequently, respondents view addressing poverty and improving the social welfare system as lessening men's ability to coercively control women engaged in prostitution, as well as in other contexts. However, it was also recognised that the disadvantages experienced by women and girls are societal issues that cannot be addressed by this area of policy alone.

"As a feminist with lived experience working with sex workers over the past five years in Scotland, I agree that gender inequality and violence against women are systemically connected. - Individual response

4.2 Observations of the impact of coronavirus on women involved in prostitution

The consultation asks respondents for their observations as to the impact of the coronavirus outbreak on women involved in prostitution in Scotland.

There is consensus that the pandemic has adversely affected women involved in prostitution because of perceived or real barriers to accessing public support schemes intended to help mitigate the financial impact of the pandemic, namely the UK Self-Employment Income Support Scheme and furlough. Respondents report that it was difficult for women involved in prostitution to register as self-employed due to:

  • Informal working (unable to prove self-employed status).
  • Fear of criminalisation from making themselves visible to the authorities, including fear of immigration enforcement for migrant women.
  • Fear that stigma about their income source could create personal risks for e.g. their housing situation or child custody arrangements.

These observations and concerns are also observed as barriers for women involved in prostitution receiving other forms of public support provided by the UK government, such as Universal Credit. A number of respondents do not see Universal Credit as sufficient to live on and also note that migrant women would not be eligible for these funds. There is also consensus among respondents that many women involved in prostitution were already experiencing poverty, financial precarity, or housing insecurity before the pandemic, which has been exacerbated by the lack of coronavirus income support for this group.

"As a migrant with no access to public funds, I was ineligible for any of the government support schemes. As someone who can't afford legally rented, stable housing, I couldn't rely on the luxury of eviction moratorium. I have been selling sex, I have received money and food vouchers from sex worker led organisations in Scotland and in England, and I have been given cash by my colleagues and my clients." - Individual response

"Some women continued to be involved in prostitution and had to disregard public health messages, this meant that the men who were buying sex were also ignoring public health messages and therefore put women at risk of contracting COVID-19. These men were also reportedly more likely to demand more risky or dangerous sexual activities (such as without a condom) as they were well aware of the woman's vulnerability and lack of choice." - Organisational response

"As a sex worker, it has made things more challenging like all sectors. Business has dropped massively and I have received very little support. I see very few clients now to reduce the risk. Cancellations and timewasters are really prevalent just now due to all of the uncertainty." - Individual response

"We witnessed a huge amount of panic, anxiety and impoverishment among sex workers due to loss of income during the pandemic. It was a condition of application to our hardship fund that recipients did not have savings to draw on, so the sex workers we spoke to were all at immediate risk of financial crisis and potential destitution. They were extremely worried about how to pay rent and bills, how to buy food for their families and how to buy essential items. We spoke to many sex workers who used top-up prepayment electricity meters and so could not heat their homes or cook when they ran out and didn't have money to top up." - Organisational response

Many respondents report that coronavirus has reduced demand for in-person prostitution, particularly during lockdown periods. Respondents observe that the reduction in demand is correlated with increased risk for women involved in both in-person and online prostitution. Respondents also state that increased risks and harms are likely to be the result of any strategy aiming to reduce demand.

Most respondents feel that the coronavirus pandemic increased the risks to women engaged in prostitution and the harms they experienced. Risks and harms identified include contracting coronavirus, engaging in riskier practices (e.g. unprotected sex), and being less able to be selective about the clients they see, which may increase their risk of experiencing violence. Due to the reduced client base, women are less able to negotiate their rates and conditions if they want to continue to earn income.

Some respondents believe that the coronavirus pandemic has led to an increase of women involved in online prostitution or online commercial sexual exploitation. This includes women new to prostitution because of job loss in other sectors of the economy. Respondents observe that online prostitution is not adequately replacing women's income because of the investment required to build a client base, the conditions set by online platforms, and because of the number of new entrants to online prostitution. Respondents note that many women involved in online prostitution may not be able to adequately safeguard their digital presence and risk content being shared outside of these platforms without their consent.

4.3 Policy approaches for preventing violence against women and girls

The consultation asks respondents to select the policy approach outlined in the discussion paper which they believe is most effective in preventing violence against women and girls.

Four options were provided in the consultation discussion paper; Abolitionism, New abolitionism, Prohibitionism and Regulationism.[1] Both respondents in favour of Decriminalisation and the Nordic Model feel that the table provided in the consultation discussion paper does not accurately reflect the current policy approaches to prostitution internationally.

Prohibitionism. Under Prohibitionism, indoor and outdoor prostitution is prohibited. There is disagreement amongst respondents about whether Prohibitionism includes the 'Nordic Model'. The 'Nordic Model' is where purchasing sex is criminalised and selling sex is decriminalised and requires long term support for women involved in prostitution as a core part of this model. Despite this, a large majority of those selecting Prohibitionism from the options provided in the consultation (75%) referred to this as the Nordic Model and some of these respondents explicitly state that the Prohibitionism policy outlined in the consultation is missing important elements about support for women involved in prostitution that would make it more akin to the 'Nordic Model'.

Respondents who choose Prohibitionism as the most effective approach in preventing violence against women and girls believe that buying sex is an unacceptable and/or violent act. Those that selected Prohibitionism highlight that, in addition to criminalising the purchase of sex and decriminalising selling sex, the model must include funding for high-quality support services for those involved in prostitution, including support to exit prostitution. Under this model, third parties should be restricted from benefiting from prostitution.

Respondents identify a number of reasons why they support this approach:

  • Targeting those who buy sex, rather than those who sell sex, shifts the criminal blame away from those who are vulnerable.
  • It is not possible to make prostitution safe or reduce harm to an acceptable level.
  • Criminalising buying sex will reduce demand.

Some respondents who select Prohibitionism specifically cite the Encompass Network's proposal[2] for preventing and eradicating prostitution in Scotland.

"We believe that women/sellers of sex should be decriminalised, have any previous convictions erased and be signposted to support services… We believe that the Scottish Government should not apply a model from another country but develop one of its own. There has been research undertaken with women directly involved and a model suggested by the Encompass Network" - Individual response

"Criminalising paying for sex is necessary for reducing demand for prostitution, holding perpetrators accountable and disincentivising trafficking and other forms of third-party exploitation." - Individual response

Regulationism. Under Regulationism, indoor and outdoor prostitution are regulated by the state, and therefore not prohibited when exercised in line with regulations. Respondents who choose this approach tend to believe that government regulation could improve protections for women and girls involved in prostitution, making it easier for those being exploited or experiencing violence to report this to the authorities without fear of arrest. Respondents also think that regulation could help improve the relationship of women involved in prostitution with law enforcement and other authorities (as opposed to a model where aspects of prostitution are criminalised and operate more marginalised and less regulated spaces and platforms that are less safe). Respondents think that Regulationism would afford those involved in prostitution the ability to be selective about their clients, increase their autonomy, and would reduce stigma. Respondents describe a range of degrees of government regulation they believe would help to prevent violence against women including:

  • "Sex work is work" and should be regulated like any other form of employment.
  • Regulations should not force medical treatments on women, should not be challenging to adhere to financially, and should not impose strict requirements on where and how prostitution takes place, as this penalises those who are most vulnerable.

"An approach that regulates the exercising of prostitution would best prevent violence against women, but regulation would have to be sure to not make the lives of women working in sex any more difficult i.e. making the regulated work too expensive causing women to move to unregulated work." - Individual response

Many respondents who select Regulationism elaborate on their response with an explicit description of Decriminalisation policy, with a few individuals incorrectly citing the New Zealand policy model as an example of Regulationism. This indicates that respondents selecting Regulationism have a spectrum of viewpoints and that many respondents may not see a distinction between Regulationism and Decriminalisation or chose Regulationism because Decriminalisation wasn't available in the consultation.

Abolitionism and New Abolitionism. Under abolitionism outdoor and indoor prostitution are not prohibited but profiting from another person's prostitution is criminalised. New abolitionism is a development of abolitionism where the existence of brothels is also prohibited. Broadly, respondents stated that they believe that not criminalising either clients or women involved in prostitution makes women safer, but that some forms of prostitution or profiting from it should be penalised. Respondents do not articulate Abolitionism or New Abolitionism as highly distinct from other models. In most responses Abolitionism is described in line with Decriminalisation. However, a few respondents describe Abolitionism as equivalent to the Nordic Model. Other respondents who choose New Abolitionism explicitly support legalising brothels for women's safety, despite the definition of New Abolitionism precluding this.

One of the approaches that was raised through the campaign responses and filtered through into the individual and organisational responses was decriminalisation. Therefore when developing the coding framework decriminalisation was included as a category, as a majority of respondents feel that this is the most effective approach to prevent violence against women and girls (above the options presented). Under decriminalisation, prostitution is a legal form of value-neutral labour (referred to as 'sex work') and is accompanied by appropriate labour protections. Respondents cite a number of reasons for supporting this policy:

  • Fear of arrest for women involved in prostitution enables violent clients who know that they are unlikely to be reported.
  • Fear of arrest results in rushed screening processes, those involved in prostitution taking on riskier clients and necessitates working alone, increasing harm.
  • Criminalisation disproportionately impacts those most marginalised in society, such as people living in poverty and people with disabilities.
  • Recognising prostitution as work gives those involved in prostitution rights and access to services, such as healthcare and financial support.
  • Decriminalisation is supported by international bodies and human rights groups such as the World Health Organisation, UNAIDS and Amnesty International.

"The harms of sex work are inextricably bound up with its criminalisation, including (but not limited to) gender-based violence, criminal records, fines, evictions, deportations, expulsion from communities and barriers to accessing healthcare. Therefore the policy approach most effective in reducing harms against people who sell sex is full decriminalisation." - Individual response

"None of the approaches mentioned in the table are adequately protecting sex workers or reducing violence against women. Decriminalisation is the only way forward, and it is supported by many international organisations such as the World Health Organization and UNAIDS, as well as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women."- Individual response

Some respondents who select decriminalisation specifically cite the policy approach implemented in New Zealand as an effective model for protecting those involved in prostitution from violence. A proportion of respondents who choose Decriminalisation selected Regulationism as a second choice, stating that decriminalisation would be the "ideal approach" but of the options provided Regulationism "comes closest". These respondents highlight that they do not think the state should police women's bodies, emphasise that they do not want regulations to become punitive for those involved in prostitution (e.g. fines for missing medical checks) and that any regulations should be codesigned with the women who would be affected by them.

4.4 Education and changing attitudes

The consultation asks respondents to identify measures that would help shift the attitudes of men relating to the purchase of sex, and to detail any specific examples of good practice. The consultation goes on to ask respondents how the education system can help to raise awareness and promote positive behaviours amongst young people in relation to consent and healthy relationships. Responses to these two questions shared many common messages, therefore the findings are presented concurrently.

Many respondents challenge the validity of the focus on shifting men's attitudes. One of the most routinely cited reasons for this is the suggestion that improving the "material conditions" and safety of those involved in prostitution should be the focus, as opposed to men's attitudes. Respondents observe that poverty and lack of employment opportunity is an underlying driver for prostitution, and interventions should focus on addressing this by increasing re-employment opportunities. Some respondents believe that reducing stigma around prostitution and decriminalising it would positively influence men's attitudes. These respondents note that criminalisation changes the status of those involved in prostitution in society and reduces men's respect for those involved in prostitution.

"It's impossible to completely eradicate sex work – instead we should all work towards making the environment as safe as possible and in order to do this we need to teach boys to respect women, and we need to fight stigma around sex work." - Individual response

An opposing viewpoint expressed by some respondents is that criminalising men who buy sex is necessary to shift their attitudes towards the purchase of sex and challenge their demand for prostitution. These respondents believe that the fear of a criminal record and the stigma associated with buying sex will deter men from engaging with prostitution. They note that the law should send a clear message that the purchase of sex is unacceptable. Another common view held by respondents is that public education campaigns could help raise awareness of the perceived harms of prostitution.

"Education around promotion of healthy relationships, attitudes and behaviours needs to be introduced at a very young age. This should be a golden thread running through all our educational institutions, tailored to appropriate age level. There needs to be an investment in to specialised GBV training for teachers alongside age-appropriate educational programmes from nursery aged children through to University students… By starting conversations appropriately from a young age, you are setting attitudes that prostitution is not acceptable and recognise this as a form of violence, which ultimately impacts on behaviours towards women and how they are viewed within society." - Individual response

Another view commonly raised by respondents was that men's attitudes are the result of wider societal issues, citing misogyny and the objectification of women as underlying factors to attitudes around the purchasing of sex. Respondents tend to feel that challenging these wider attitudes is the primary concern, including better responses to sexual assault and violence against women. Respondents see a need to empower women and girls, increase men's respect towards them, and improve their portrayal in the media. A rise in online pornography is regularly seen as an accompanying issue fuelling misogyny, with respondents recommending education around this, as well as restricting access for young people. In relation to pornography, respondents see a need for education on 'porn vs reality', as well as 'revenge porn'.

Responses to both questions related to education identify a need for better education around sex and relationships in order to prevent violence against women involved in prostitution and promote positive behaviours in young people.

"Issues of power and control are central to GBV and rooted in gender inequality. The general curriculum needs to promote positive and aspirational role models for girls and boys, and this needs to be intersectional across ethnicity, religion, age, ability, etc. It also needs to ensure that it does not explicitly or implicitly collude with existing gender roles and expectations in terms of educational attainment and career opportunities. The mainstreaming of children's human rights is an opportunity to integrate sex based human rights along with other aspects of equality (based on the UN CEDAW Convention and the UK Equalities Act). This needs to become a valued part of the national assessment programme for education." - Organisational response

A broad range of respondents, including those who support prohibitionism and decriminalisation, identify the following elements of good sex and relationships education within relationships, sexual health and parenthood education (RHSP):

  • Strong focus on consent and bodily autonomy, often discussed not just as pertaining to sex, but to all relationships.
  • Focus on healthy relationships and respect, including recognising signs of abuse.
  • Early and age-appropriate RHSP education.
  • Greater emphasis on promoting gender equality at school.

"We would suggest that the education system should adopt a non-stigmatising and sex positive approach, in order to raise awareness and promote positive attitudes and behaviours amongst young people in relation to consent and healthy relationships. This should focus holistically on sexual health and wellbeing, empowering young people to make consensual decisions about the sex they have. We believe that RSHP education that promotes pleasure encourages young people to think about how safety, protection and consent all play a part in them having enjoyable experiences within their relationships." - Organisational response

"Discussion of consent should highlight the question of whether consent is possible in a sexual relationship when one party is paid by the other. Both boys and girls need to understand the very real dangers that prostitution (and other forms of sexual exploitation, including pornography and webcamming) cause to individuals and to be able to discuss these issues in a safe environment." - Individual response

Respondents differ in the types of education they wish to see around prostitution. Some feel that young boys and men should be educated on the harms of prostitution, viewing prostitution as abuse. Respondents suggest this should be done through school-based education and public awareness campaigns. It is common for these respondents to view language as an important element, with respondents wanting the act of selling sex to be referred to as prostitution rather than sex work. Others disagree, with many believing that the stigma attached to prostitution as an activity should be reduced. These respondents observe that stigma has a "profound" negative impact on those involved in prostitution and their families which should be explicitly challenged through education. They note that children of those involved in prostitution will be in classrooms where RHSP is delivered.

Many respondents see value in outsourcing sex and relationship education to external partners, rather than it being delivered by teachers. In the case that this is delivered by teachers, respondents are keen that they receive training and support. A number of separate points are also raised around the need to tackle homophobic and transphobic bullying in schools, which is described as "rife", in order to truly create an environment with positive awareness and attitudes around consent and healthy relationships. Respondents feel that much more needs to be done to address this, as well as anti-LGBTQ+ attitudes.

A few respondents suggest that the Scottish Government should review the available evidence on measures which effectively shift attitudes and behaviours, both within education and more broadly. A few respondents raise other points related to education, including that education alone cannot shift attitudes in society and that the education system is already making an impact on attitudes and behaviours and the Scottish Government's focus should be outwith education.

4.5 Support for women involved in prostitution

The consultation asks three questions about supporting women involved in prostitution: how women's health and wellbeing needs can be better recognised in the provision of mainstream support, what programmes best support women to exit prostitution, and how the needs of women engaged in prostitution throughout Scotland, including in rural areas, can be met. Respondents identified a range of support services that can help meet the needs of women involved in prostitution. This section summarises the different types of support and good practice respondents suggested in response to the consultation.

When sharing their opinions on meeting the needs of women engaged in prostitution, a number of respondents emphasise the need for support services to be accessible to women with a range of needs, who may be engaging in different types of prostitution for different reasons. Respondents mention the following groups who may have accessibility needs when accessing services:

  • Migrant women, who may fear deportation, may not be entitled to public funds, and/or need translators or language support;
  • BAME women;
  • Women from faith communities;
  • LGBTQ+ people;
  • Disabled women, who may face discrimination in mainstream employment; and
  • Women with care experience.

Respondents highlight the importance of both mainstream and targeted support services being confidential, non-stigmatising and non-judgemental about women's different experiences of prostitution. Because of the criminalisation of aspects of prostitution, respondents report that many women are concerned that a disclosure about prostitution will be shared with law enforcement, immigration, social services, or housing providers. Respondents also believe that women who do not experience involvement in prostitution as violence are less likely to engage with support services that subscribe to that view and feel that pressure to exit prostitution may also contribute to lack of engagement.

"I've never told any professionals that I'm involved in Sex Work. When I saw a therapist a few years ago I just edited out that part of my life. My GP doesn't know, and when I was attending the Sandyford Clinic under my real name I didn't tell them either. I don't want the stigma of having "prostitute" on my record. I now go to the Sandyford's Sex Worker clinic (using my work name) which is fantastic […] Due to health issues I've never been able to work full-time or in a "normal" job. Before I started Sex Work I always struggled to earn enough to get by. For all its faults this job has given me financial freedom that I never had before. When I decide to exit I hope to end up in a situation where I'm still able to support myself." - Individual response

"Stigma and judgement in health and other services or a response based on stereotypes associated with sexworkers are equally harmful as women will no longer view this service as a viable route for support... a significant proportion of women who sexwork (in particular those who also are or have been exploited) have significant mental health and substance abuse issues. Few services are able to address both at the same time, in particular crisis services, leaving the onus on specialist services like ourselves or on the police or ambulance to support women although often lack the capacity to address these effectively." - Organisational response

Training for frontline professionals (e.g. healthcare, support workers, law enforcement) is described as one element that would help achieve non-stigmatising support provision. Important elements to include in this training that were mentioned were trauma-informed practice, harm reduction practices, and how to respond to and develop supportive relationships with women who disclose involvement in prostitution. There is a split of opinions about whether questions about involvement in prostitution should be included as part of routine service enquiries, with some respondents feeling that this would help normalise it and others feeling that compulsory questions about involvement in prostitution would create a negative service environment where women feel pressured to disclose.

A proportion of respondents believe that it is important to offer women-only support services. A number of respondents' stress that these services should be inclusive of trans women.

4.5.1 Types of support

Overall, a number of respondents think that support services for women involved in prostitution should be holistic, person-centred, and be able to meet multiple, complex needs. Relatedly, respondents highlight the importance of services being responsive to an individual's self-identified material and emotional support needs. Across the types of support described below, respondents identify the need for committed, long-term funding, as short-term funding can make it difficult for service providers to build relationships with women and assure them of ongoing support. A proportion of respondents say that currently prostitution-worker led organisations are not in receipt of government funding to deliver or expand peer-led services, which are one of the key types of support services respondents raise below.

Financial support: Financial support is felt by a number of respondents to be a necessary base level of provision to address women's health and wellbeing needs. Poverty and adverse experiences due to poverty are described as a main underlying cause of the health and wellbeing needs of women involved in prostitution. Financial hardship is also seen as a driving factor for many women's involvement in prostitution, so individuals may not feel able to exit without adequate income replacement and easy to access hardship grants. A proportion of respondents connect the need for financial support for women involved in prostitution to wider issues such as eradicating women's poverty or a need for a form of universal basic income. Respondents note that addressing these underlying issues could also help to prevent women from entering into prostitution.

"What keeps women in the sex industry is not usually some kind of magnetic pull of the industry itself, but a need to make money, often coupled with an absence of alternatives which would enable them to make the same amounts in the same hours. This may be influenced by additional responsibilities such as childcare or studies, vulnerabilities such as undocumented immigration status or drug dependencies, or disabilities or health conditions which affect their ability to join the mainstream workforce. Unless these issues can be solved - which at minimum would require rehabilitating a punitive welfare system and ideally would involve transforming working conditions across all sectors - it will be a struggle for sex workers and support workers alike to navigate exit." - Individual response

Peer-led support: Services and support organised and led by those who are currently or have formerly been involved in prostitution are described by many respondents as good practice for meeting the needs of women involved in prostitution. Respondents identify that the benefits of peer-led support include that supporters are already familiar with women's needs and challenges can create a trusted, non-stigmatising environment that increases the accessibility and take up of support. A number of respondents also suggest that peer-support networks could be encouraged and funded in different communities to build local support networks.

"We see every day that the services which are most successful in engaging with and supporting sex workers are those which work alongside sex workers to shape provision, respond to their needs and respects their experiences. Our Research and Development Team holds this role here, alongside other members of staff with current or previous lived experience of the sex industry and their wider networks. We have also developed an education programme which explores how services can best meet the needs of sex workers, informed by their knowledge and experiences. It is vital that services seek to understand sex workers in their own terms, through their own voices and respond to their experiences, rather than assumptions or stereotypes." - Organisational response

"What we know best is the work we and other sex worker led organisations do: providing rights information, fighting for safety and against police abuse and criminalisation. What we know doesn't work are crackdowns on sex workers, including those that claim to be targeting clients. From our experience, if the service is judgemental and/or not independent of the police and criminal justice system, then sex workers won't use it." - Organisational response

Access to healthcare: A number of respondents believe that healthcare services need to be more accessible to women involved in prostitution, particularly mental health, sexual health services, and alcohol and drug treatment services. A proportion of respondents are concerned that criminalisation of aspects of prostitution and stigma deter women from seeking appropriate healthcare.

Housing: Respondents report that women engaged in prostitution may need support for a variety of housing issues, from homelessness to insecure tenancies to domestic abuse. Similarly to financial support, these respondents identify the need for stable, secure housing as a baseline need, without which it is difficult for women to focus on other types of wellbeing.

"Housing has also been an area severely affecting women who sell/exchange sex online. Those who were able to sustain themselves in private tenancies or who owned properties have struggled to make rent and mortgage payments, thus risking homelessness. Women who previously were on social housing waiting lists are looking at even longer waiting lists and precarious housing circumstances as the social housing sector ground to a halt. Many have been placed in temporary accommodation, including temporary flats, hotels and bed and breakfast rooms which are frequently in very poor conditions, while those seeking their own tenancy are now unable to provide a source of income or tenancy reference." - Organisational response

Employment, education and training: A proportion of respondents identified employment, education, and training as areas where women involved in prostitution may need specific support if exiting prostitution. For example, to address gaps in their work history, to access job training for careers that offer a liveable wage. A number of these respondents feel that support should continue following the women after attaining new employment to help manage what is potentially a significant transition. Additionally, other respondents argue that any convictions or arrests that women may have accrued through their involvement in prostitution should be expunged in order to facilitate future employment outside of the sex industry.

All of the above service types were mentioned by respondents as support that could help women exit prostitution. A proportion of responses emphasised that support programmes should avoid putting any restrictive conditions (such as agreeing to exit or ceasing the use of drugs) on participants. A number of responses emphasise that women should only be supported to exit prostitution if that is desired by the individual, and state that not all woman involved in prostitution needs or wants to exit.

"Our evening drop in and outreach service seeks to engage with women involved in on street prostitution to provide safety advice and harm reduction items with a focus on discussing and exploring alternatives to being involved in selling sex. Staff consistently offer support from the Case Management Team. Our Case Management Team provides one to one support to women which is led by the needs of the woman. There are no conditions attached to accessing any part of [our service] (i.e. commitment to exit prostitution). The Case Management Worker provides a wide range of practical and emotional support to women which is individual to each woman." - Organisational response

Across the consultation, but particularly in relation to questions about meeting the needs of women involved in prostitution and the provision of support, a number of respondents emphasise that any support or services should be developed through direct engagement with those with lived experience of prostitution.

"Lived experience is expertise, and co-designed services will always work best. Consider that they are stigmatised and criminalised, so they may not feel safe to engage with you. You have to actively create a safe space. Inclusivity isn't something you are, it is something you do. Actively work to overcome stigma, financial barriers, language, internet access, time, and other barriers" - Individual response

A proportion of these respondents think that the Scottish Government's definition of prostitution as violence against women as well as the use of 'prostitution' instead of the term 'sex work' prevents meaningful engagement with some women and peer-led organisations.

4.5.2 Delivering support across Scotland

Respondents were asked to share ways that the needs of women engaged in prostitution throughout Scotland, especially in rural areas, could be addressed. Key aspects proposed are:

  • Distance support, including 24/7 helplines, online resources and online counselling and support casework appointments.
  • Mobile resources, where support workers and/or services can travel to meet women where they are.
  • Creating a first point of contact for support in all local areas and improving the ability of local services such as GPs to refer on to appropriate services.
  • Creating specialised centres and hubs with harm reduction and non-stigmatising support including legal, healthcare, and protective services. Respondents propose a variety of different models for this, with some proposing centralised hubs in urban areas, others proposing a hub and spoke model from urban centres to regions, and others more localised networks that do not centre on urban areas.
  • Greater funding for women's services, prostitution-worker peer-led services, and voluntary organisations so that they can expand their networks and geographic coverage.
  • Non-enforcement of prohibitions against brothel-keeping, so that women involved in prostitution are able to live and/or work together and provide each other with mutual support.

"We recognise that many women from outside of the City Local Authorities will often travel to more densely populated areas to meet the demand for prostitution. We also recognise that prostitution occurs in less densely populated areas and services which are fit for purpose are required. Both NHS and Social Work Services provide a range of universal services which are already experienced at working with service users who are experiencing multiple overlapping vulnerabilities. Where specific health and social care needs are identified which are specific to prostitution and independent of the care which can be provided by universal services, clear care pathways to specialist prostitution support services is required. This will require identifying the regional supports services which can be, addressing any practicalities involved, and planning for the contribution that local universal services can provide in tandem." - Organisational response

"Similar to trafficking, there seems to remain a myth that prostitution is an urban issue and does not occur in rural areas. Action must be taken to raise awareness that prostitution occurs across all of Scotland and as such affects all local authority areas and all of our communities. All VAWPs must prioritise work on the issue and embed specific actions and outcomes in their local strategies, including access to holistic support and services for women." - Organisational response

4.5.3 Examples of good practice in the provision of support

Respondents provided examples of providing support for women involved in prostitution that they considered to be good practice in the UK and internationally. It is important to note that these tables provide a range of examples of what respondents said but not a comprehensive list of all good practice mentioned by respondents.

UK examples of good practice cited by respondents

Organisation / Initiative:

Basis Yorkshire - Leeds, Yorkshire

Carr Gomm - Scotland

CLiCK (Sacro) - Scotland, online

Ipswich Street Prostitution Strategy - Ipswich

National Ugly Mugs - UK-wide, online

NHSGGC (Healthy Relationships guidance) - Greater Glasgow and Clyde

RASAC - Perthshire

Routes Out - Glasgow

Sandyford (NHS specialist sexual health services) - Glasgow

Sex Worker's Alliance Ireland - Ireland

SWARM (Sex Worker Advocacy and Resistance Movement) - UK-wide and online

Umbrella Lane: Sex Worker Wellbeing Project - Glasgow and online

Vice Versa - Dundee

WISHES (NHS Women's Inclusive Sexual Health Extended Service) - Lothian

International examples of good practice cited by respondents


Exit Doors Here - Canada

Demand Forum - International, online

Global Network of Sex Work Projects - International, online

Kompetenscentrum Sexuella Tjänster (Prostitution Centre) - Malmö

Mikamottagningen - Stockholm

Red Umbrella Fund - International, online

Stepping Stone - Canada

Men Breaking Free - Minnesota, USA

Sonke - South Africa

While not an example of a support service or organisation, the New Zealand Prostitution Reform Act (2003) was quoted by respondents as an example of good practice legislation.


Email: vawgconsultations@gov.scot

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