Evidence assessment of the impacts of the criminalisation of the purchase of sex: a review

Review of evidence on the impact of the criminalisation of the purchase of sex.

Concluding Points

This review has served to emphasise the challenges and frustrations outlined in previous attempts to assess the evidence on the impacts of the criminalisation of the purchase of sex. The available evidence is variable in quality and focus, highlighting that evidence can only provide so much 'scientific' knowledge in this area. All evidence is partial and open to dispute and challenge. Assessing the evidence available illuminates the challenging nature of conducting research in the area of prostitution and the difficulties of evidencing legislative changes which are likely to be located within wider social and political contexts. An overview of current legislation and policy in Scotland raises a number of issues regarding how prostitution is viewed (current policy would appear to locate it in relation to gendered violence and gender inequality) which therefore requires a response that combines prevention, minimising 'harm' and 'risk', supporting individuals to exit prostitution and challenging demand [52] . It is clear that the criminalisation of individuals involved in prostitution has both immediate and longer-term effects on their life-opportunities and experiences of stigmatization. There is wide agreement on the need to find an approach that does not criminalise individuals who sell sex; however, implementing this in law would effectively move towards a decriminalised regime - unless, as many other countries appear to have conceded, the purchase of sex is criminalised. This highlights the underlying political, rather than evidence-based, expectations on decision-making in this area.

The broader economic context is also one that requires some consideration. As noted previously, claims of increases in the numbers involved in prostitution in 2008 has been linked to the global financial crisis, with Rasmussen et al. (2014) suggesting that increases in Sweden and Norway reflected this wider economic change, rather than the impact of legislative models.

The available evidence points to areas where changes have taken place, and significantly, highlights that legislation does not take place in a vacuum, and that research and policies need to reflect this. This is something that was well recognised in Sweden in relation to the implementation of the legislation which was located within a context of existing services to support women to exit prostitution, wide-ranging campaigns to educate the public about the law change and the wider issues of prostitution, linking it to human trafficking; and additional funds to support the police to develop surveillance and targeting measures as well as ongoing training and awareness-raising.

It would appear that while acknowledging the limitations of the available evidence, there appears to have been a decline in street prostitution in Sweden with some evidence to suggest that the number involved in prostitution overall has reduced. There also appears to be a continued but decreased demand for prostitution in countries where the purchase of sex has been criminalised. Contextualising all of these points, is the growth in online advertising and the apparent changes in the way in which prostitution is organised which have seen a shift from on-street prostitution to the increasing use of the internet and mobile technology; the overall effects of which are currently unclear [53] .

Outwith the available evidence, there would appear to be considerable scope for improving the opportunities for individuals to exit prostitution should they so wish, and this is likely to be enhanced by moves away from criminalising sellers. Ultimately, decisions to introduce legislation in this area are likely to be informed by current legislative focus and policy priorities as well as resourcing issues and political sympathies. In order to utilise the evidence presented here, it is important that clear aims and objectives of any legislative considerations are set out and the limitations of available data are acceptable enough in securing the main aspirational goals.


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