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.


This research project explored the scale and nature of prostitution, focussing predominantly though not exclusively on women. It gathered evidence and views from professionals with knowledge of prostitution. The focus on interviews with professionals/service providers who regularly engage with women and men involved in prostitution, while useful in providing an overview of current knowledge regarding the scale and nature and identifying a number of gaps, means the findings are subject to a number of limitations. Service providers may only deal with a small section of the overall population involved in prostitution in a particular area and there is a lack of systematic and consistent data sharing and analysis across areas. In addition, there are inherent difficulties in estimating the nature and extent of prostitution, partly due to its hidden, quasi-legal and stigmatised nature. Furthermore, the decline in on-street prostitution and growth in indoor prostitution organised by mobile phone and online technology has made estimating numbers more difficult as it is now less visible.

Bearing in mind these limitations and the challenges involved in researching prostitution, summarised key findings from the analysis and collation of existing evidence and views are set out below. A number of key gaps in knowledge are highlighted.

Estimated numbers of women and men involved in prostitution Scotland-wide and broken down by the largest 4 cities

  • There is a lack of robust data on women and men involved in prostitution, who sell sex, in terms of their backgrounds, different prostitution markets and the impact on health and wellbeing. There are however some limited data sources and reflections of professional support organisations and groups that provided us with views on our questions and perceived changes in trends, and evidence gaps.

Composition of the 'sex industry' in terms of indoor and outdoor prostitution

  • Police data has shown a reduction in prostitution related crimes and public complaints about prostitution, in the 4 main cities over the last ten years. Police interviewees also confirmed that these statistical changes reflected their experiences of policing prostitution. They said prostitution in public settings had reduced considerably in the last 10-15 years. This may have been because of a growth in off-street prostitution driven by the internet, and smartphone apps, that have enabled more discreet methods for arranging the purchase of sex, with less risk of police contact and possible prosecution. The people who used to work 'on-street' therefore may now be working 'off-street' and setting up meetings online or via mobile phone.
  • It was also suggested by specialist support services in Aberdeen that there is strong evidence that the reduction in on-street prostitution there may also partly be attributed to improved access to drug treatment services, reducing many women's need to engage in street prostitution on a daily basis to finance a drug dependency [103] .
  • Research in 4 main city locations has shown that police, local authority, health, third sector and campaigning organisations also recognised this general trend in the reduction in on-street prostitution However, some fluctuation in on-street numbers was also highlighted ( i.e. in Dundee there had been a recent slight increase involving women who had previously reduced involvement, or had exited prostitution and were impelled to engage in street prostitution again due to hardship caused by benefits sanctions [104] ). Further complexity was recognised in Edinburgh and Aberdeen where limited evidence suggested that there may have been a degree of dispersal or shift in the location on-street prostitution activity resulting in lower visibility. The police also recognised that as well as this, there is a large group of people involved in prostitution, possibly with different backgrounds, who work indoors ( i.e. within private flats, saunas or hotels - currently estimated to constitute approximately 90% of the market) and may have never been involved in on-street prostitution.
  • A number of respondents identified the importance of developing better knowledge and understanding of the scale of the indoor prostitution market and the support needs of those within it, given the lack of robust and reliable information.

Profiles, pathways and circumstances of those who enter prostitution

  • People who continue to sell sex 'on-street' were perceived by organisations to have a range of vulnerabilities and complex needs, commonly including alcohol and substance misuse problems, lack of secure accommodation, mental health problems and often backgrounds of deprivation and abuse. Some organisations referred to on-street prostitution as 'survival behaviour'.
  • Research participants had less information about people involved in prostitution in 'indoor' settings. However, there was some evidence that a higher proportion of foreign nationals are involved. Some respondents said they believed there were fewer alcohol and drug problems within this group, while others suggested that drug use, although prevalent and often concerning, is less likely to involve intravenous use. It was also suggested that people involved are drawn from a wider range of socio-economic backgrounds. However, other research participants contested the distinction between two distinct profiles of 'chaotic' on-street and 'more stable' off-street workers, and said there was a diverse, shifting and overlapping continuum of reasons and vulnerabilities explaining why people might have been involved in different settings. Indeed a few respondents highlighted how women may move to indoor prostitution as their lives become more stable, and depending on personal circumstances ( i.e. receiving treatment for addiction, having secure accommodation, access to a phone/internet access, all factors which may reduce the need to engage in on-street prostitution).
  • Overall, there was concern from police and health workers that health and safety support services are less available for those involved in indoor prostitution, because they do not often use 'drop-in' services and are less easy to identify and promote/offer services to.
  • Views on the pathways, reasons and circumstances cited by key agencies for women's involvement in prostitution are by no means comprehensive or definitive. Reflections are necessarily limited in that they are based on women who have contacted agencies for support and have disclosed some of the reasons behind their involvement. However, they do echo many of the key processes cited within the wider literature which lead to involvement in prostitution [105] . Overall, financial pressure for a range of reasons, and inadequate income [106] , commonly combined with having a history of vulnerabilities (with a range of causes including substance and/or alcohol misuse, mental health problems and a past history of trauma/abuse/gender-based violence) were cited by a range of third sector and NHS respondents as key in understanding why many seek to generate an income through involvement in prostitution.

Impact of involvement in prostitution on risk and wellbeing

  • Information about personal health and wellbeing impact was based on the professional insights of those that come into contact with people involved in prostitution through the criminal justice system (police and social work) or through the provision of support and key services (third sector specialist and NHS). This may therefore only present a partial picture of those who require or have sought particular kinds of support or assistance.
  • On the whole however, most respondents who provide services and support to those involved in prostitution emphasised a range of risks and adverse impacts associated with prostitution in the short and longer term in relation to general and mental health, safety and wellbeing and sexual health.

Support for women and men involved in prostitution and help to exit

  • In the 4 cities there are a range of specialist support services working in partnership with other key agencies including health, social work, housing advice, employability services etc. to assist people involved in prostitution.
  • The majority of services contacted are aimed at supporting women, with the exceptions of Roam in Edinburgh and the Steve Retson project in Glasgow which provide support and assistance to men involved in prostitution (who sell sex).
  • The approach of specialist support providers includes a 'harm reduction' aspect, providing health and safety support for people at immediate risk as well as services to help people exit prostitution. There was some variation on the degree of emphasis on pro-active 'exit' focused element across locations.
  • The shift from outdoor to indoor prostitution has posed a number of challenges for service delivery. In some locations this has led to the reduction or closure of night time 'drop-in' services, and new ways of working. This has also led to the need for promotion of services to a potentially new group of service users, for example through pro-active engagement with the people who advertise services online.
  • Many respondents identified the importance of developing better knowledge and understanding of the people involved in indoor prostitution and their support needs.

Organised crime and trafficking

  • National figures from the 'National Referral Mechanism' showed 40 referrals for adult sexual exploitation in 2015. For a number of reasons these statistics are thought to only reflect a small proportion of the trafficking markets.
  • TARA (the Trafficking Awareness Raising Alliance) in Glasgow supports trafficking survivors, including people exploited and working in lap-dancing and pornography as well as prostitution. From 01.04.2011 until 24.10.2016 a total of 175 women have been supported . These figures are likely to under-estimate the number of people who have been trafficked. Trafficked women were seen to be found mainly in off-street prostitution markets, and the most common country of origin was Nigeria.
  • In Scotland there is evidence of links between prostitution and serious organised crime, and trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation (National Strategic Assessment of Serious and Organised Crime 2015). In 2009 the Scottish Crime and Drugs Enforcement Agency reported 19 serious organised crime groups (5% of all the crime groups known at the time) to have been involved in prostitution.
  • The National Human Trafficking Unit of Police Scotland have responsibility for the development of intelligence in relation to prostitution linked with Human Trafficking and Exploitation and the involvement of Organised Crime Groups. This has led to the creation of Joint Investigation Teams with other EU states targeting crime groups in Romania, Slovakia and other areas of Europe. The structure allows the National Unit to support local police who are encountering prostitution in different areas by continuing to develop the links between separate premises being used for prostitution.
  • There were some differences at a local level in the police interviewees' perception of the availability of evidence on any links with organised crime, with 2 of the areas reporting either definite or 'suspected' links to organised crime (although the more definite links were seen to be at a national level), while for other areas no known links were reported, or intelligence gaps were identified around the area. This issue was followed up with Police Scotland Executive at a later stage in the research, and they reported they were aware of intelligence around local links with organised crime. There may be operational reasons for this, for example in situations where police have contact with people involved in prostitution through dealing with incidents that have prevalent antisocial behaviour elements, and they may not always be immediately aware of the links to organised crime.

Impact of prostitution on local communities

  • The main source of information about the impact of prostitution on communities was from the police about public complaints. There have been reductions in the number of public complaints that might reflect the fact that a greater proportion of it now takes place in indoor settings and tends to be less focussed on a particular local area [107] . and therefore it has become less visible to the public and the police and there may be fewer complaints related to noise, litter, and violence.
  • The change from outdoor to indoor prostitution was perceived by some to have introduced prostitution activities into a wider number of communities - away from the traditional 'red light areas' of the past. This might have raised concern for residents in some areas, for example where prostitution takes place in short-term rented accommodation or 'party flats'.
  • Some support services noted perceptions about prostitution-associated risks, the customers and the people involved in selling sex, that might not be accurate reflections of real risks.
  • Some areas reported continuing community concerns about prostitution in their locations.


  • There was little consistent or reliable information about men who purchase sex - their backgrounds and reasons for buying it.
  • Police data is limited to information about 'kerb crawling' and other prostitution related offending and is therefore a limited and partial picture of the numbers of men who come into contact with the criminal justice system.
  • This evidence gap was particularly notable within the selling of indoor prostitution. In previous times support services might come into contact with the buyers, but the change to indoor prostitution has led to a greater amount of personal discretion and buyers can arrange meetings from smartphone apps and the internet, without needing to go into red light areas.
  • The police have made recent estimates (January 2016), from online advertisement websites of around 1,800 adverts for sexual services across 4 main websites, the majority of whom involved women. Although estimates of supply may in theory provide indications of demand, these numbers are very rough approximations and may not include all of the methods people use for advertising services.
  • Questions about the scale and nature of demand therefore require more detailed research.

Overall then, available evidence on prostitution is patchy and characterised by a number of gaps in knowledge, particularly in terms of the scale and nature of the indoor market and the support needs of those within it. Information on profiles, pathways and circumstances as well as personal health and wellbeing impact is based on the professional insights of those that come into contact with people involved in prostitution through the criminal justice system (police and social work) or through the provision of support and key services (third sector specialist and NHS). This presents a partial picture of those who require or have sought particular kinds of support or assistance. Information on men involved in prostitution, who sell sex, as well as those who are transgender was less readily available. Further gaps were identified in terms of evidence on links to organised crime and trafficking. There was also little consistent or reliable evidence in terms of demand for the purchase of sex and the (mainly) men who do so.


Email: Justice Analytical Services

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