Exploring available knowledge and evidence on prostitution in Scotland via practitioner-based interviews

Exploration of available knowledge and evidence on the scale and nature of prostitution in Scotland based on practitioner-based interviews.


Key Stakeholder Interviews

Semi-structured qualitative interviews (individual and small group) were conducted with a range of professionals who have knowledge and expertise in dealing with prostitution, to gather and assess evidence available to answer the key research questions. This included police, local authority, NHS and third sector contacts (providing support and key services to those involved in prostitution). In addition, a number of interviews were conducted with organisations which campaign for legislative change/raise awareness in relation to prostitution.

Due to timescales, a pragmatic approach was taken to identifying key interviewees, with a 'snowball' approach adopted (whereby initial interviewees were asked to identify other 'experts' or those working in the area).

Knowledge and information from interviewees may only present a partial picture, i.e. based on the operational approach within the police (with official crime statistics only shedding light on illegal aspects which have been picked up), or the particular service support design in the local area. Services may therefore only deal with a small section of the overall population of those involved in prostitution who have accessed particular types of services or sought support. However, a wide range of interviews were conducted (as outlined below), with broadly similar themes and gaps in knowledge identified across different areas.

Overview of interviews conducted:

The mainstay of the fieldwork was conducted between October 2015 and January 2016. In addition, updates were sought from key service providers and police in late 2016. A number of interviews were conducted with respondents from Police Scotland. Informants involved a range of specialisms, including prostitute liaison officers, as well as leads on human trafficking and violence against women:

  • Police Scotland - national leads on prostitution (2 interviewees)
  • Police Scotland Aberdeen - violence against women, prostitution leads
    (2 interviewees)
  • Police Scotland Glasgow - domestic abuse, trafficking, prostitution leads
    (3 interviewees)
  • Police Scotland Dundee - prostitution leads; prevention and interventions
    (3 interviews)
  • Police Scotland Edinburgh - prostitution, serious organised crime leads;
    one street liaison officer (3 interviews)
  • Crown Office, Policy division, COPFS.

NHS interviews included strategic leads and clinicians who specialise in public/sexual health:

  • NHS - gender based violence lead - National
  • NHS - sexual health clinicians- Glasgow (4 interviewees)
  • NHS - sexual health clinicians/practitioners - Lothian (2 interviews)
  • NHS - public health practitioner - Lothian.

Local Authority contacts included:

  • Glasgow Community Safety Services- (Routes Out) (2 interviewees)
  • Glasgow Council Social Work
  • Aberdeen city council criminal justice social work
  • Dundee City Council/ Violence Against Women
  • Edinburgh Willow project (partnership between Edinburgh City Council, NHS Lothian and Sacro to address the needs of women in the criminal justice system).

Third sector support/charitable organisations involved in the provision of support to those involved in prostitution are as follows:

  • Alcohol and Drugs Action (2 interviewees)
  • Vice Versa
  • Cyrenians
  • Sacro - Another Way
  • Streetwork women's project
  • Salvation Army
  • Trafficking Awareness Raising Alliance ( TARA)

Views and evidence were also sought from feminist voluntary organisation:

  • The Women's Support Project [16]

As well as campaigning and advocacy organisations:

And new Glasgow-based organisation 'Umbrella Lane' [19] described as a 'sex worker community project' which aims to develop networks, share information and resources as well as offer services based on the needs of those who sell sexual services.

Semi-structured topic guides were used, with questions tailored to cover police, local authority and third sector/ NHS interviewees [20] . These were used flexibly to allow key questions to be covered within interviews and to allow exploration of salient issues as they arose. Interview material was broadly analysed under the key policy question headings (as identified above) with key topics and issues identified, as well as any exceptions/caveats noted, to provide nuanced findings. These were organised into key themes and sub-themes with different respondent perspectives highlighted as relevant ( i.e. police, local authority, third sector). The qualitative nature of the research means that it is impossible to attribute comparative weight to findings or views that are expressed, however, where relevant and where views and evidence were expressed by a number of interviewees this is highlighted. Interviewees responses were analysed as 'key informant [21] ' content, where the authority of information is derived from the respondent's professional position and their expertise and experience.

Limitations of the research and key challenges involved in researching prostitution

A key gap recognised within the research at this stage is the lack of inclusion of interviews with women and men currently or previously involved in prostitution. This was highlighted by a number of interviewees who cited the importance of hearing the testimony and voices of those involved. However the main focus of the project was understanding the scale and nature of prostitution in Scotland, with a particular focus on the four cities. Research was therefore focussed on the main data sources for these geographies, which was found to provide a partial picture, partly due to the inherent difficulties in researching prostitution but also due to variation in approaches to evidence gathering and record keeping across different service providers. In addition, challenging timescales for conducting the research, as well as some of the practical and ethical difficulties inherent in conducting research with those involved in prostitution meant that it was considered inadvisable to attempt to do this within a short space of time. It was therefore considered that the research should focus on investigating up to date expert knowledge and evidence available around the key research questions, to identify key issues, and gaps in knowledge.

It is widely acknowledged that providing accurate estimates of the nature and extent of prostitution is difficult. This is partly due to the hidden, quasi-legal and stigmatised nature of prostitution. However, the recent growth in off-street prostitution and the decrease in street based activity has made estimating numbers more difficult, as it is now less visible. While advertisements on the internet ( e.g. through websites which are specifically for advertising the sale of sex or on escort agencies), provide some indication of scale, there are inherent difficulties with an open-source approach, due to duplication of profiles and accuracy of descriptions ( i.e. nationalities may be different to those cited). Furthermore, it was often highlighted that many who sell sex and have moved off-street may not necessarily advertise online (often operating instead via mobile phone).

A further layer of difficulty is encountered in providing estimates of the numbers of people trafficked for the purposes of Commercial Sexual Exploitation ( CSE), due to its illicit and hidden nature.

Geographical focus

The research focussed on the key cities of Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee and Aberdeen, as these are recognised as the key 'hubs' for prostitution activity. This is reflected in the official crime statistics which show that the vast majority of crimes associated with prostitution (97%) are recorded in the city based local authority areas (with considerable levels of variation across the 4 cities) [22] . Prostitution also takes place in smaller towns and more remote areas, albeit at a lower level. Indeed, Police Scotland said that online and mobile phone technology had enabled arrangements for the sale and purchase of sex to take place in a more geographically dispersed way than ever before.

Area based approach and common themes

While each area is distinctive in terms of service provision and how these have developed in line with local priorities and to meet local needs and problems, there are also common themes across all areas. In addition, a number of 'strategic' interviews were undertaken with individuals whose professional remit is Scotland-wide ( i.e. police strategy and policy lead on prostitution, as well the Women's Support Project whose role involves development and capacity building across Scotland).

Structure of the report

To reflect the distinctiveness of local areas an overview of the particular dimensions/characteristics in each of the four cities is first provided ( i.e. estimated numbers involved in indoor and outdoor prostitution, change over time, structure of service provision and key profiles of those involved). This is followed by discussion and identification of common themes across all areas in general terms and specifically in relation to pathways and personal circumstances of those involved, the impacts of involvement in prostitution, support provision, trafficking and organised crime, community impact, and demand.

Police recorded crime, criminal convictions, prosecutions data and data collected by support services to those involved in prostitution

While police recorded crime, convictions and prosecutions data is useful in providing a sense of the scale of criminal-related prostitution activity in different local authorities and across Scotland as a whole, there are limitations as to how far this data provides a true picture. Differences in operational approaches, prosecutions and sentencing across different areas influence numbers. Furthermore, it cannot be used as an estimate of the scale of prostitution in Scotland as police commonly acknowledged that intelligence shows a much wider scale in terms of prostitution activity than is captured in recorded crime data.

NHS and third sector service user data provides a useful insight into numbers of people accessing services, their particular support needs and circumstances, as well as insights into key demographic factors. However, this provides only part of the picture as not all those involved in prostitution may currently be accessing services. In addition the numbers and types of people accessing services are strongly influenced by the overall approach, organisation and design of services ( i.e. support services for those involved in on-street prostitution with their focus on tackling substance misuse are tailored to meet the needs of particularly vulnerable women, often with chaotic lifestyles).


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