Womens Support Project


"Adult entertainment" / Lap Dancing | Prostitution | Pornography |

The Women’s Support Project views prostitution as part of the spectrum of men’s violence against women and is committed to raising awareness of its root causes and harmful impacts, both on those directly involved and on our wider culture.

Women become involved in prostitution for a variety of reasons such as homelessness, child sexual abuse, mental ill health, trauma, previous sexual violence, drug and alcohol misuse, money pressures and poverty.  These factors, which serve to lead or force women into prostitution, should not be mistaken for the cause of prostitution itself, which is the demand from men to buy sex.  If men were not prepared to buy sex, then prostitution would not work as a survival behaviour.

Once the factors behind women’s involvement in prostitution are understood it makes no sense to label prostitution as work or legitimate employment – to do so would legitimise exploitation.  Neither, if we accept prostitution as exploitation, is it fair to criminalise those who are abused and exploited – in what other area of ‘violence against women’ would we criminalise the victims?

We do not view prostitution as a choice for women, irrespective of age, and believe that it is contradictory to condemn child prostitution whilst condoning or ignoring adult prostitution. Neither do we recognise the false distinctions between forced and so-called ‘free’ prostitution. All prostitution is exploitative of the person prostituted, regardless of the context, or whether that person is said to have consented to the prostitution.

Money and Power
Women`s Support Project and Zero Tolerance, 2010, 7 minutes

Demand and Supply

The below extracts are from a helpful article, ‘Men Create the Demand: Women are the Supply’  by Donna M. Hughes, University of Rhode Island. 2000 www.uri.edu/artsci/wms/hughes/demand.htm

“Prostitution is not natural or inevitable; it is abuse and exploitation of women and girls that results from structural inequality between women and men on a world scale.

Sexual exploitation eroticises women`s inequality and is a vehicle for racism. Black women, minority ethnic women and indigenous women suffer disproportionately.

The global sexual exploitation of women and girls is a supply and demand market. Men create the demand and women are the supply. Cities and countries where men’s demand for women in prostitution is legalized or tolerated are the receiving sites, while countries and areas where traffickers easily recruit women are the sending regions.

In the case of prostitution, the challenge is to end the discrimination for being in prostitution, while at the same time, ending the oppression of being used in prostitution. To do this we need to decriminalize prostitution for women, so the state is no longer punishing women for being exploited and abused. We need services that assist victims who are suffering from trauma, poor health, and physical injuries. States need to provide assistance to women and girls in the form of shelters, hotlines and advocates.

At the same time, we have to oppose the legalization and regulation of prostitution and trafficking, which allow women to be exploited and abused under state determined conditions, and the decriminalization of pimping, trafficking and buying women in prostitution. We must focus more attention on the legitimacy of the demand by men to sexually exploit women and girls. We have to hold the criminals and perpetrators accountable for the harm they do.”

The 2009 report `Tackling Demand` provides a rapid evidence assessment of the published research literature.


The Oxford dictionary definition of prostitute is  “a person, typically a woman, who engages in sexual activity for payment”, or “to offer (someone) as a prostitute, or put to an unworthy or corrupt use for the sake of gain.”  Prostitution is described as “the art or practice of engaging in sexual intercourse for money.”  In terms of support services for people abused in prostitution, organisations tend to use a broader definition, for example,  “Engaging in sexual activity in exchange for some form of payment such as: money, drinks, drugs, consumer goods or a bed or roof over their head for a night.”


In Scotland, prostitution itself is not illegal but there is legislation covering activities surrounding prostitution, such as soliciting, living off immoral earnings and trafficking.

For a comparison of prostitution regimes across nine countries see the 2009 report `Shifting Sands`

Buying Sex
The first piece of Scottish legislation to tackle the purchase of sex was introduced in October 2007.  This made it an offence to solicit or loiter in a public place for the purpose of obtaining the services of a person engaged in prostitution.  Prostitution Public Places (Scotland) Act 2007

Currently it is not an offence in Scotland to buy sex, other than "in a public place". There have been a number of proposals to criminalise buying sex the latest being Rhoda Grant MSP consultation on the proposed Criminalisation of the Purchase of Sex (Scotland) Bill www.scottish.parliament.uk/S4_MembersBills/FINAL_consultation_summary.pdf

Selling Sex                                                                                                                                                                                                
Although the Scottish Government has recognised prostitution as exploitation and as part of the spectrum of gender based violence, those selling sex on the street continue to be criminalised.  Women and men selling sex can be charged with soliciting under Section 46 of the Civic Government (Scotland) Act 1982

The impact of prostitution

There is much evidence to show that prostitution is harmful to women directly involved, women in general, to men who buy women in prostitution to families and to communities:

  • Women and children abused in prostitution experience severe and long lasting physical and mental health problems.
  • Prostitution is harmful in and of itself, i.e. the constantly repeated experience of submitting to unwanted sex is very damaging to women’s mental health, self-esteem and sexuality.
  • Having to endure unwanted sex leads to the need to dissociate – often using drugs and/or alcohol.  Whatever the reason for women entering prostitution, her drug and alcohol use is likely to hugely increase.
  • Many women involved in street prostitution do not have care of their children (usually as a consequence of drug and alcohol misuse). This has a strong impact on the women themselves and is a common issue they need support on through services.   It also has an impact on the children, the extended family, for example grandparents bringing up grandchildren, and on child protection services.
  • Impact on family life, for families where women become involved, and also families of men who buy sex: e.g. health risks, loss of income.
  • Impact on communities, especially in areas where street prostitution takes place: debris, noise, increased traffic from kerb crawlers, harassment of local residents, witnessing sexual activity. 
  • Only 19% of women working as prostitutes in flats, parlours and saunas are originally from the UK www.eaves4women.co.uk/POPPY_Project/POPPY_Project.php
  • 3 out of 4 women in prostitution become involved aged 21 or younger, and 1 in 2 aged 18 or younger www.cwasu.org/
  • 25% of men who had bought sex in prostitution expressed “significant or shame” about having done so (Challenging Demand 2008)
  •  A Survey of Male Attendees at Sandyford Initiative: Knowledge, Attitudes, Beliefs and Behaviours in Relation to Prostitution. (Word 5.90MB)

The following figures are from the Home Office report ‘Paying the Price’: webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/+/http:/www.homeoffice.gov.uk/documents/paying_the_price.pdf 

  • 8.9% of men in London aged 16-44 reported having paid for sex in the past 5 years
  • 75% of children abused through prostitution had been missing from school
  • As many as 85% women in prostitution report physical abuse in the family, with 45% reporting familial sexual abuse
  • In the UK as many as 60 women involved in prostitution have been murdered in the last 10 years 80,000 women work in ‘on-street’ prostitution in the UK. The average age women become involved being just 12yrs old 

The Women’s Support Project believes that condoning or accepting prostitution undermines work on gender equality and on violence against women: what sense could we make of work against rape, sexual harassment at work, stalking and underage sex if men can simply buy these activities through prostitution?

Options for responding

The three main approaches for responding to prostitution are harm reduction, legalisation and decriminalisation.

1. Harm reduction

Harm reduction involves the ongoing support of women and men who are involved in prostitution, dealing with more short term issues such as safety, drug and substance use / addiction, safer sex and HIV prevention work. Work with women currently involved in prostitution needs to include harm reduction as a necessary response for the short term - but we also should be working to end prostitution forever.

Harm reduction must be coupled with interventions to support women leave prostitution, which can often take many years.  These interventions need to offer safe accommodation, drug treatment, robust counseling and support services, opportunities for women to develop their confidence and self esteem, learn new skills and training for future employment.

Some people take the view that it is naïve or unrealistic to aim to end prostitution.  Prostitution is sometimes called the “oldest profession”. In fact slavery is older and it can be argued that prostitution originally stemmed from slavery.  Many people said that it would be impossible to end slavery but we now have a situation where slavery is illegal throughout the world. Although people are still living in conditions of slavery, this is no longer legal slavery and there are rights and legal protection, which can be applied to the situation. The same can happen with prostitution.

The idea of  ‘prostitution tolerance zones’ has been debated in Scotland for many years, often to a heated degree. To legislate for a permanent official ‘zone’ is to take an “out of sight, out of mind” approach, which effectively abandons the women already caught up in prostitution. Neither does this approach challenge the lasting harm caused through prostitution or address the issues around inequality and men’s demand to buy women’s and children’s bodies for their own pleasure. Furthermore it has been found that violence and crime can thrive in tolerance zones, including tension between different groups over territory and profit.

2. Legalisation

If any activity is harmful, then we will not remove that harm by legalising the activity.  There are contradictions between opposing prostitution of under 18 year olds and trafficking, whilst supporting prostitution as legitimate work. If you take this view, how do you respond to the almost fifty per cent of women who enter prostitution under age 18? www.prostitutionresearch.com

The Women’s Support Project makes no distinction between forced and free prostitution, viewing it all as exploitation.  It is a distraction to say that women who have been forced into it are victims whilst those who enter it through limited choices or economic pressures have made an informed choice.

The hazards associated with prostitution include risk of pregnancy, high abortion rate, HIV, sexually transmitted diseases, sexual assault, abduction, rape and murder. These would not disappear if prostitution were legalised.

Many people hold the view that legalisation would improve conditions for women in the sex industry.  This claim has been made repeatedly by the sex industry  - however evidence from the Netherlands and from states in Australia that have legalised some areas of prostitution shows that legalisation does nothing to reduce harm. Furthermore there are many contradictions around legislating prostitution as legitimate employment, such as the prospect of unemployed women being threatened with reduction of benefit if they refuse to accept a job in prostitution.  If prostitution was recognised as legitimate work would brothels and escort agencies be welcome to come along to the school or college careers night?

The arguments for legalisation relate to men’s comfort and ease of conscience.  Legalisation of prostitution makes money for men and women involved in running escort agencies and brothels and for the state through supposed taxation but it does not improve the situation of prostituted women and children.

3.  Decriminalisation

It is important that any move to decriminalise prostitution comes from the principle that prostitution is harmful and therefore must be ended. All forms of prostitution should be included, especially street prostitution as this is where many of the most vulnerable women are exploited. 

In order to be effective, the decriminalisation of prostituted women must be accompanied by:

  • criminalisation of third parties profiting from prostitution.
  • criminalisation of buyers of sexual services.
  • Pro-active services to help women get out of prostitution, including access to safe accommodation, education, training, drug rehabilitation, and to ongoing support.
  • Prevention work to reduce demand from men to buy sex.

The Women’s Support Project views the most appropriate approach for Scotland as one that states that is not acceptable in our culture, which strives towards equality and human rights, to condone or ignore the exploitation of women in prostitution.

We therefore support -

  • Decriminalising “selling sex”
  • Extending current legislation on buying sex to all venues and settings including brothels, saunas, lap dance clubs and massage parlours
  • Actively enforcing the law and target those who buy sex and those who profit through the sale of women – e.g. landlords, escort agency websites, newspapers and magazines advertising prostitution
  • Provision of adequate resources for prevention work, harm reduction and support to exit prostitution.

What can I do about it?

We need widespread awareness raising and education on the realities of prostitution and other forms of commercial sexual exploitation. A few things that will help make a difference:

  • Learn more  - see our leaflet on Prostitution: Fact or Fiction and see below for recommended reading and useful contacts.
  • Speak to family, friends and colleagues. Challenge acceptance of abuse.
  • Write to newspapers and other forms of media if you are offended by their coverage of prostitution or other forms of commercial sexual exploitation
  • Object to newspapers and magazines carrying adverts for the sex industry
  • Refuse to stay in hotels who supply pornography channels
  • Join the Scottish Coalition against Sexual Exploitation on Facebook
  • Lobby for organisational policies on prostitution, e.g. in terms of approach, recruitment of staff and volunteers
  • Make links with organisations offering specialist support and / or working directly with women in prostitution
  • Call for adequate legislation to challenge demand
  • Contact local, national and European elected representatives to make your views known. 

Further information & support

For further information on helpful reading please see: WSP resource list  - Commercial Sexual Explotation

For information on support services in the Greater Glasgow area please see: WSP Directory of support services

The following websites provide helpful information on prostitution and other forms of commercial sexual exploitation.

This site offers information and research on women abused through prostitution.
Highly recommended

A mutual support organisation and campaigning organisation for women who have previously been involved in prostitution.

Website of End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and the Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes.

A selection of Andrea Dworkin’s writing.

Training, consultancy and research from a feminist perspective.

Information on prostitution and trafficking.

Website ofMyrna Balk, artist and campaigner against sexual exploitation.

Standing Against Global Exploitation Project – or the SAGE Project – is a non profit organisation aiming to end the commercial sexual exploitation of children and adults. SAGE is a unique collaboration between law enforcement, public health, social services, and private agencies. SAGE is also unique in that it is one of the few organisations created by and for CSE survivors.

Human Trafficking: making the links (pdf 1.01MB)
A useful briefing document, by Karen Macmillan, 2010

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