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.

5. Supporting Women to Exit Prostitution


The shift from women working on-street to off-street has had an impact on several services. With women becoming less visible to support services, it can be more difficult for support services to identify women and make an offer of support. Some services have been closed or their hours reduced due to a decrease in users. It has also been suggested that the more hidden nature of prostitution made it more difficult to raise awareness of the support available and to encourage people to engage with services. This was encapsulated by one respondent to the 2017 research who highlighted how: "if you've got somebody that's physically in front of you, you can say look there's these services if you want them".[44]

The majority of services are aimed at supporting women, with the known exceptions of Roam in Edinburgh and the Steve Retson Project in Glasgow who provide support to men involved in prostitution.

Support Services

Organisations generally value the importance of partnership working and actively pursue this through individual collaboration and engagement in multi-agency forums such as local violence against women partnerships. Effective collaboration can include signposting to other relevant specialised support services, as well as to statutory bodies and public services, including the police and social work, where appropriate, as well as working closely with agencies in a holistic way to support individuals and communities and resolve shared challenges

Support services, located primarily in four of Scotland's main cities - Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow - offer specialised support to women involved in prostitution, usually with a support to reducing harm to women still involved in prostitution, whilst some do offer support for women looking to exit. It is acknowledged that varying degrees of emphasis are placed on the latter aspect depending on the organization.[45]

Specialist support focussing on exit can be a lengthy process. Respondents to the Scottish Government's research noted that viewing exit as a "fixed" event was not always realistic and that women may become involved in prostitution again. For example, this could happen during periods of financial hardship in a woman's life.

Third sector respondents to the Scottish Government's research highlighted trust as a key component of any support work. This was key in building relationships and encouraging women to engage. Women may choose not to engage with services if they feel they are being stigmatised or through fear of a lack of confidentiality. This theme was also identified in research associated with the COVID-19 lockdown.[46]

Organisations acknowledge that the level of support required will vary from woman to woman. Often support will include a needs assessment, with follow up support tailored as a result. This support may include services such as employability, housing, finance and health - physical, mental and sexual.

Barriers to Exit

The needs of women seeking to exit prostitution can be complex and varied.

From the 2017 Scottish Government Research,[47] the main reasons given as barriers to women exiting prostitution, as told by support services, were financial reasons and a lack of choice, with poverty being the main driver. The lack of alternatives with a similar perceived earning potential as prostitution can make the cycle for women particularly difficult to break.

An extended period of involvement in prostitution was also cited during research, as a barrier to exit. Exiting would involve leaving networks and friendships and resulting in a possible feeling of isolation.

Mental health problems, including pre-existing conditions, were also noted as posing a barrier to exit for women involved in prostitution. "Self-medication" through drugs alcohol or a combination of both in relation to mental health problems could lead to chaotic substance use and riskier sexual practices. This combination was identified by interviewees as having the potential to lead to more trauma and deterioration in mental health, which could be difficult to recover from and to exit.

Disclosure of Convictions

A criminal record and previous convictions, often for minor offences, can also pose as a barrier to exit by restricting forms of alternative employment. This may be due to concerns about disclosure, fear of exposure and worry as to how to explain employment gaps.

The National Strategy for Community Justice firmly supports the view that people with convictions can turn their lives around, and recognises that to do so they often need opportunities and support.

It is also known that employment is one of the essential components for an individual's reintegration back into society. However, employers are often apprehensive about employing someone with a previous conviction and as such, many people face difficulties in having to disclose a previous conviction when looking for a job.

The consequences of having to self-disclose previous offending behaviour for long periods of time and for such information to be included on a basic disclosure certificate can have an on-going impact on people's ability to gain employment, attend university or college, volunteer, secure an apprenticeship or get insurance or a bank account, etc.

It is the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974, ("the 1974 Act"), which provides certain rules governing whether people with convictions are required to tell others about those convictions.

It has been argued for some time that the disclosure periods under the 1974 Act were too long, the legislation was too complicated and therefore poorly understood and, as a result, not properly applied in practice.

Part 2 of the Management of Offenders (Scotland) Act 2019, ("the 2019 Act"), reforms the 1974 Act so that it achieves a more appropriate balance between the rights of people not to disclose their previous offending behaviour and to move on with their lives while ensuring the rights of the public to be protected are effectively maintained (e.g. the disclosure period for a fine will be reduced from 5 years to 12 months and the disclosure period for an admonishment will be reduced from 5 years to zero).

The provisions also increase clarity and make the legislation more accessible to those required to understand it. Part 2 of the 2019 Act will:

  • reduce the period of disclosure for the majority of sentences,
  • bring more people within the scope of the protections under the 1974 Act,
  • provide an enabling power to bring forward regulations to create an independent review mechanism for certain sentences greater than 48 months,
  • increase the clarity and accessibility of the legislation, and
  • change the terminology used within the legislation to reduce confusion about the purpose of disclosure.

In relation to higher level disclosures, a prostitution offence under section 46 of the Civic Government (Scotland) Act 1982 ("the 1982 Act") is not included in either schedule A1 or B1 of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 (Exclusions and Exceptions)(Scotland) Order 2013 or the equivalent schedule 8A or 8B of the Police Act 1997. This means that if a woman is convicted of such an offence under section 46 of the 1982 Act it will become a protected conviction as soon as it is spent. A protected conviction will not be disclosed in a higher level Disclosure certificate issued by Disclosure Scotland and will not be required to be self-disclosed if asked.

This will be an aid for those convicted of such an offence to gain employment and help them move away from prostitution without having to worry about the stigma of having to disclose their previous conviction(s). It will also allow those individuals, who wish to undertake roles in the caring profession to be able to, without having to disclose any convictions under section 46 of the 1982 Act.

Supporting Women to Exit

A longer term approach is adopted by many support services, acknowledging the complex journeys women face when exiting prostitution, including the possibility of returning to prostitution at times of financial hardship or relapses into drug dependency.

Evidence of success offered by third sector support organisations included giving women the opportunities to make informed choices, improvements in safety, quality of life more generally, and to increase options available, enabling them to eventually move out of prostitution.

For some women involved in prostitution, support services are key to their exit but for others, exit is driven by other events. The Scottish Government Research published in 2017, heard from a number of respondents in the NHS and third sector, who described the positive and negative life events that lead to women exiting. Some of these were identified as:

  • Rape or sexual assault or other traumatic event
  • General poor health and exhaustion, for women with complex needs
  • Seeing peers moving on and having a positive example
  • Meeting a partner and settling in a relationship
  • Pregnancy and or child protection issues

Availability of Services

Services vary by area. The 2017 Scottish Government research heard from respondents that more could be done in regards to preventing women becoming involved in prostitution, as well as halting an escalation of problems.

Some local authority respondents who were interviewed detailed specific gaps in provision including in mental health services and specialist psychological support. It was also suggested that more could be done in relation to employability services and in terms of the extension and greater use of diversionary criminal justice approaches.

The need for a holistic service to address the complex needs of women involved in prostitution, is necessary to reduce harms and support them to exit.

Support organisations emphasis the multiple needs of support for women involved in prostitution, consider prostitution to be a symptom of wider issues as opposed to the cause. Support services or pathways for referral can be necessary for trauma, mental health needs, economic hardship and addictions.

The stigma of disclosing involvement in general or mainstream organisations has been reported to be significant and may lead to women choosing not to disclose their involvement in prostitution. This presents a barrier for women engaging with required support services.

When registering with specialist support services, there can also be a reluctance from women due to privacy concerns to engage with services were they are required to provide personal information, including their name, address or date of birth.

For women involved in prostitution, flexibility of support is essential, including provision of out of hours and weekend support.

A trauma informed service would also benefit the support offered to women, allowing for empathy and understanding of potential trauma experienced and complex needs.

Some respondents to the 2017 Scottish Government research noted that women involved in prostitution often accessed non-specialist services first, including those supporting women experiencing domestic abuse and alcohol problems. Women may choose to engage with non-specialist support services to prevent disclosure of their involvement in prostitution due to stigma. It was suggested that improved opportunities could be created in terms of women involved in prostitution who are accessing non-specialised support services.

There was also concern raised by interviewees about women not being offered appropriate support, often due to non-disclosure, or possibly due to questions not being asked by those administering mainstream services, including GPs and social work departments.

Some respondents suggested that a more consistent approach to asking the question of "are you involved in prostitution?" in appropriate settings, would allow for better provision of support, as well as increased understanding of the scale and nature of prostitution in Scotland.

In relation to offering services, a number of organisations voiced concerns around short-term funding cycles. It was viewed as problematic, due to organisations inability to complete long-term planning and the time and resources that are allocated to securing funding.

Short-term funding also proved a barrier to women trying to exit prostitution, as it made it difficult for service providers to assure them of longer term support.


Question 6. How can the different needs of women involved in prostitution (in terms of their health and wellbeing) be better recognised in the provision of mainstream support?

Question 7. In your opinion, drawing on any international or domestic examples, what programmes or initiatives best supports women to safely exit prostitution?

Question 8. Support services are primarily focussed within four of Scotland's main cities - Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow - how can the needs of women throughout Scotland who are engaged in prostitution be met, noting that prostitution is not solely an urban issue?

Question 9. If there are any further comments you would like to make, which have not been addressed in the questions above, please use the space below to provide more detail.


Email: vawgconsultations@gov.scot

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