Equally Safe - challenging men's demand for prostitution: consultation

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.

2. Scotland's Current Approach to Prostitution

Equally Safe

Equally Safe, the Scottish Government's Strategy for preventing and eradicating violence against women and girls, sets out the Scottish Government's definition of gender based violence. The Strategy, originally published in 2014, was developed by the Scottish Government and COSLA in association with a wide range of partners from public and third sector organisations. It has since been refreshed and is intended as a living document through which Scotland's approach to tackling and eradicating violence against women is clearly defined. The strategy makes a clear correlation between systemic gender inequality and violence against women and girls. It takes a strong focus on prevention and requires us to be bold in our approach to this issue. This definition includes commercial sexual exploitation, of which prostitution is one aspect.

Human Trafficking and Prostitution

The Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Scotland) Act 2015[15] strengthens legal protections for survivors and gives police and prosecutors greater powers to detect and prosecute those responsible.

Part 4 of the Act introduces Trafficking and Exploitation Prevention and Risk Orders. These Orders can be imposed on convicted, and suspected traffickers. For a list of offences that include human trafficking for the purposes of prostitution or sexual exploitation and offences under section 22 of the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 2003[16] and sections 57, 58, 58A, 59 or 59A of the Sexual Offences Act 2003.[17]

Women who have been the victims of human trafficking may have been trafficked to Scotland for the purposes of sexual exploitation, of which prostitution is one aspect. As outlined in the Scottish Government's Trafficking and Exploitation Strategy Third Annual Progress Report,[18] the Scottish Government continues to provide funding to TARA and Migrant Help to support adult trafficking victims across Scotland. TARA specifically supports female victims of trafficking for commercial sexual exploitation, reflecting the particular impacts on this group of survivors and upholding the gender equality obligations under the Council of Europe Convention Article 17.[19]

The National Referral Mechanism (NRM) is the UK framework for identifying potential victims of human trafficking and exploitation and ensuring they receive the appropriate support. Figures relating to Scotland in 2019 are provided in table 2.1 below. This shows 113 people being trafficked for the purposes of sexual exploitation. Of those, 4 people identified as male adults and 6 male minors. Female adults accounted for 77 referrals with a further 22 cases relating to female minors. In the case of 4 further females, age was not recorded.

Table 2.1 Referrals to the National Referral Mechanism for human trafficking and exploitation - 2019
Type Male adult Female adult Male Minor Female Minor Male age not recorded Female age not recorded Total
Domestic servitude 4 7 4 4 0 3 22
Labour exploitation 194 23 67 13 6 2 305
Sexual exploitation 4 77 6 22 0 4 113
Criminal exploitation 10 3 14 2 2 1 32
Unknown 6 10 21 3 0 0 40
Total 218 120 112 44 8 10 512

The Scottish Government works with criminal justice agencies and support organisations to tackle human trafficking and all forms of exploitation in Scotland. Any form of human trafficking for the purposes of exploitation, including sexual exploitation and prostitution, is completely unacceptable in 21st century Scotland and is a criminal act.

Scotland's Serious Organised Crime Strategy[20] recognises the links between human trafficking, prostitution and serious organised crime and underpins a joined-up approach to tackling this alongside the Scottish Government's Trafficking and Exploitation Strategy.[21]

The strategy's main themes are to:

1. identify victims and support them to safety and recovery

2. identify perpetrators and disrupt their activity

3. address the conditions, both local and global, that foster trafficking and exploitation.

Legal Context

Certain laws[22] [23] in Scotland prohibit many activities associated with prostitution, including:

  • Running a brothel.
  • Publicly soliciting for the purposes of selling sex.
  • Publicly soliciting for the purposes of purchasing sex.
  • Loitering in a public place for the purposes of selling sex.
  • Loitering in a public place for the purposes or purchasing sex.
  • Illegal to procure someone into becoming a prostitute to have sex with other people.
  • Trafficking persons for the purposes of sexual exploitation.

The law is clear that no one can be forced into sexual activity without their consent, and enables a prosecution where someone seeks to exploit another or others.

Covid-19 Response

The Scottish Government recognises the increased risk to victims of domestic abuse, gender-based violence and commercial sexual exploitation (CSE), including prostitution, as a result of restrictions introduced to respond to the public health emergency, including the need for physical distancing.

In particular the needs of women engaged in prostitution are complex and services across sectors including housing, public health and financial support, were of vital significance during the public health crisis.

In recognition of the disruption caused to support services by the pandemic emergency funding was awarded to organisations to support women involved in prostitution during this period, and to act as a bridge to access mainstream services.[24]

Research which took place over the initial 8 weeks of the COVID-19 "lockdown", with week 1 being considered to commence on 30/03/20 and week 8 commencing 18/05/20 included a number of organisations who support women who are engaged in prostitution.[25] This research found that a number of services reported that the stigma associated with engaging in prostitution during lockdown prevented women in prostitution from safety planning as effectively as usual. Services also reported that women were not accessing sexual/reproductive health services as frequently during lockdown, due to the stigma associated with continuing to offer to see buyers.[26] Some services reported that a significant proportion of women applying for destitution grants were those with insecure immigration status.[27]

Feeling stigmatised was a recurrent theme for lack of engagement with mainstream support services. Concerns were raised through regular multi-agency discussions with Scottish Government that women perceived that their only option was to support themselves and their families through selling or exchanging sex, which poses/posed a public health risk but also put vulnerable women at a risk of harm.

The Scottish Government identified women involved in prostitution as an at-risk (non-shielding) group requiring additional support needs, including around housing, fuel and energy needs and food. Other groups included in this work stream include gypsy travellers, victims of domestic abuse and victims of human trafficking.

Laws prohibiting activities associated with prostitution, the position outlined in Equally Safe and the Coronavirus legislation was reported by some justice and third sector partners to be a difficult route to navigate. This included Police Scotland's statutory duty to uphold the law, including those aspects relating to prostitution which remained unchanged during the management of the pandemic. Some organisations have reported that women engaged in prostitution felt in a precarious economic position in having to follow public health guidelines whilst not receiving any financial support and public messaging did not specifically take account of their individual needs.

Recorded crime data for April 2020 indicated that there was 50% less crimes recorded associated with prostitution than the previous year (2 crimes in total) and the number for May 2020 was also 2. This data appears consistent with the information received from support organisations that demand for street prostitution was reduced during the first 8-10 weeks of lockdown.[28]

Services reported concerns during lockdown that women in prostitution were resorting to higher-risk practices, including increased reports of women offering unprotected sex throughout lockdown. The drivers for higher-risk practices are not immediately apparent but it could be caused by the general reduction in demand due to the restrictions on movement that were in place during lockdown. Services reported significant concerns for those women who continued to work in public and their exposure to coronavirus.[29]


Question 1. Do you agree or disagree that the Scottish Government's approach to tackling prostitution, as outlined in this section, is sufficient to prevent violence against women and girls?

Question 2. What are your observations as to the impact of the coronavirus outbreak on women involved in prostitution in Scotland?


Email: vawgconsultations@gov.scot

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