Equally safe - challenging men's demand for prostitution: Scottish Government response

Our response to the findings of 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.


The Scottish Government considers prostitution as a form of commercial sexual exploitation and is part of what we define to be violence against women. The consultation was brought forward under our Equally Safe strategy, Scotland's strategy for preventing and eradicating violence against women and girls. The Strategy is ambitious and encourages us all to be bold in prioritising actions which will eliminate systemic gender inequality that lies at the root of violence against women and girls.

Prostitution has wide reaching impacts both on the individuals involved and across Scotland's communities. It is often hidden from public view and can be very harmful. Harms can vary from threats, rape, sexual assault, poor mental health and addiction. In order to tackle the harms from this behaviour and the attitudes that help perpetuate it, there remains a need to look at the dynamics in society which allow this harmful and exploitative behaviour to persist.

Prostitution is a highly gendered behaviour where the demand is almost entirely from men. The approach has therefore been to consider the issue through the lens of inequality because we know that the majority of those selling sex are women and those buying are men. That was why the focus of the consultation was on challenging men's demand for prostitution. We are aware however, that prostitution is an issue which has a wide impact and it is not just women who sell sex. This issue was highlighted by some respondents who said that any policy approaches developed about women involved in prostitution will affect all people engaged in prostitution. It is intended that any policy approaches progressed will be of benefit to society as a whole and will be subject to the requirement to complete a full equality impact assessment.

The consultation offered the first opportunity to have a national discussion about how prostitution is addressed in Scotland, to protect the dignity and human rights of women and improve outcomes for them. Prior to the consultation, it was evident through stakeholder discussions and events held that there were a range of views on the approach to tackling prostitution. The consultation offered a mechanism for people to make their views known and we were pleased that so many individuals felt able to come forward to help support further development of policy in this area.

A total of 4,003 responses were received. 1164 public consultation responses were submitted to the Scottish Government's 'Citizen Space' online portal or were uploaded by Scottish Government to Citizen Space, which included responses from individuals and organisations. Of the 1164, 125 were from organisations or organisational partnerships from a wide range working across VAWG (violence against women and girls) and other areas including grassroots peer support led groups, faith organisations, and international human rights organisations. As well as organisations from within Scotland, organisations from the EU (Romania, Italy, Germany), South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Switzerland, and Canada contributed. In addition, 2839 campaign responses were submitted to the consultation inbox through online tools created by the two main campaigns (Scot-pep and Nordic Model Now!).

The consultation drew out a range of key issues, which are covered in more detail below. However, a key theme highlighted was around the fact that the economic impact of lockdown and the subsequent phases of restrictions of people's movements to control the virus has had a significant impact on women involved in prostitution.

Research conducted in 2020 demonstrated that the COVID-19 pandemic has had, and continues to have, a significant detrimental impact on the lives of women who sell and exchange sex.[1] The women involved have faced the same challenges as many other women such as housing, no money, lack of access to services and caring responsibilities but also faced additional challenges in accessing support due to stigma, fear of disclosing their specific circumstances and concerns around confidentiality.

The risk to women's health and safety remains an on-going concern during the COVID-19 pandemic and the research suggests that women will have turned to prostitution or other forms of commercial sexual exploitation or have had to return to it out of desperation. There was no comparative analysis on men selling sex during the pandemic or of their return to prostitution but there were male respondents to the consultation who provided their experience. In 2020, the majority of people trafficked for the purposes of sexual exploitation were female, this supports that demand for prostitution is mainly men purchasing sex from women.[2] The pandemic is unlikely to have changed this dynamic. The pandemic has therefore exacerbated the range of harms experienced by women involved in prostitution including increasing vulnerability to exploitative practices and to COVID-19. This has strengthened the case for the need to pursue an approach which tackles this issue against a context of how women and girls should be viewed in an equal society.

The Scottish Government is therefore committed to developing a model for Scotland to tackle this form of violence against women and girls, and consider how aspects of international approaches which seek to challenge men's demand for prostitution would best be applied in Scotland. In addition to a focus on challenging men's attitudes towards the purchase of sex, we will engage with those with direct or lived experience to shape services and design measures which will protect them from harm and provide the support they need, including helping them exit prostitution where they are ready to do so.

We are grateful for all the views expressed in the responses to the consultation and will reflect further on these contributions as we develop the approach outlined.


Email: vawgconsultations@gov.scot

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