The Challenging Demand Approach

“Prostitution exists because inequality exists"1

At present prostitution is legal in Scotland and throughout the UK. However particular activities related to prostitution are illegal, such as soliciting in a public place, kerb crawling, pimping, brothel keeping and trafficking for the purposes of prostitution.

First and foremost, prostitution is a gendered issue. The demand to buy sex comes overwhelmingly from men, whilst it is mainly women who 'sell' sex. As with all forms of gender-based violence it stems fundamentally from gender inequality and is created and maintained by the demand from men to buy sexual access to women.2

There is a major power differential between the man who buys sex and the woman he buys, in terms of her poverty, unequal social status and abuse history.3

A 'Challenging Demand' approach does not see prostitution as legitimate employment but instead views it as a form of violence against women and a cause and consequence of gender inequality.

This approach decriminalises and supports those exploited through prostitution and criminalises the buyers of sex by making it an offence to buy sex in any setting.

Challenging demand approaches have been led by Equality and Women's Rights organisations, and are usually supported by prostitution survivors, and 'violence against women' organisations.

Sweden, Norway, Iceland, and Northern Ireland have adopted a challenging demand model whilst countries , currently considering this approach include France, Canada and the Republic of Ireland.

The Challenging Demand approach is formally supported by the European Union and the Council for Europe.

What could work in Scotland?

Given that Scotland's 'Equally Safe' strategy already defines prostitution as a form of violence against women, it would be a logical step for Scotland to adopt a Challenging Demand approach.

In line with Equally Safe, we support the establishment of a legislative framework in Scotland that is founded on addressing the causes of prostitution i.e. gender inequality and the demand for men to buy sexual access to women. Given this, we advocate that the Scottish Government pass legislation to:

  • Decriminalise those selling sex
  • Provide support, harm reduction services and exiting services for those exploited
  • Criminalise the buyers of sex in all settings (on, off street and online)

This should be accompanied by work to address the factors which lead or coerce women into prostitution, such as economic inequality, poverty and violence against women and girls.

Decriminalising those selling sex would mean that they would: through prostitution:

  • No longer be jailed for non-payment of fines
  • No longer have a criminal record thus removing one barrier to employment

Providing service support to those involved in prostitution would:

  • Reduce immediate harm in relation to substance misuse and sexual health
  • Address the complex trauma associated with prostitution
  • Enable those involved to consider their options to move on from prostitution
A map of Scotland.
A man in handcuffs.

Legislation to criminalise the buyers of sex would serve to:

  • Support the implementation of Equally Safe
  • Address the root cause of sexual exploitation and trafficking
  • Help prevent women and vulnerable men becoming involved in prostitution in the first place
  • Act as a lever to deliver a clear message that women, children and vulnerable men in Scotland are not commodities to be bought for sexual gratification
  • Contribute to changing mainstream cultural messages and attitudes that legitimise or glamorise prostitution and other forms of gender-based violence
  • Make Scotland a hostile destination for traffickers – by tackling the cause (demand) as well as the consequences of trafficking.

Criminalising the buying of sex is an effective deterrent

Evidence from countries where the purchase of sex is criminalised shows a shift in public attitudes, a decline in the numbers of men buying sex and a reduced market for traffickers. Evaluations confirm:4

  1. A reduction the demand for prostitution5 (12.7% to 7.6% in Sweden from 1996 -2008.)
  2. A change in attitudes: In 1996, 45% of women and 20% of men in Sweden supported criminalising the purchase of sex. By 2008, support for the law had risen to 79% amongst women and 60% among men.6
  3. A reduction in prostitution markets: Since criminalising the buying of sex in 2009, Norway has seen a 20% decrease in street prostitution, a 16% decrease in indoor prostitution and a 60% decrease in advertisements for sexual activities.7
  4. Street prostitution has halved in Sweden and there is no evidence that it has been displaced. Despite Sweden having almost 4 million more inhabitants than neighbouring Denmark, Sweden’s prostitution population is approximately a tenth of Denmark’s, where buying sex is legal.8
  5. Respective countries become a more hostile destination for traffickers: Since criminalising the buying of sex in 2009, an evaluation of the law in Norway in 2014 found a reduced market for human traffickers.9
  6. Women in prostitution are supported to exit. 5 years after the implementation of the law in Sweden, it was reported that 60% of the women put in touch with social services, successfully exited the sex industry.10

Supply and Demand

Prostitution is underpinned by supply and demand.

The demand is created by a minority of men in Scotland, who currently feel entitled to buy sex, mostly from women but in some cases from children and vulnerable men, including those who have been trafficked.11

The practice of prostitution brands all women as something that can be bought and sold”12

The social acceptability of prostitution feeds into the demand to buy sexual access to vulnerable children and young people, including those who have been trafficked. In 2014, 61 UK girls and 11 UK boys were trafficked internally, an 18% increase from 2013.13

Prostitution is the main driver for trafficking, with evidence indicating that the majority of victims are female, reflecting the fact that the most common purpose uncovered is sexual exploitation.14

“Demand is a pull factor for destination countries. It’s therefore important that trafficking destinations like Scotland recognise that demand is an issue within their control and take steps to tackle it.”15

Simply put, if there was no demand from men to purchase sex, there would be no supply of women, vulnerable men or children.


  • Prostitution is not compatible with gender equality. We cannot achieve a fair and equal Scotland for all so long as women are bought for sex.
  • The single most harmful aspect of prostitution for those involved is to have to repeatedly endure paid for but unwanted sex.16
  • The harm of multiple unwanted sexual acts translates into profound physical and mental trauma for women e.g. depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, sleep difficulties, eating disorders, emotional distress and suicide attempts.17
  • Prostitution, by its very nature, is exploitative, harmful and traumatic for the women involved. Calling it a job won’t make it harmless – as soon as you legalise prostitution as work, the harm is made invisible.18
  • Indoor prostitution is not less harmful for women. Unwanted sex is unwanted sex regardless of the setting. In a BMJ study on client violence, it was reported that in addition to physical violence, women in indoor prostitution report higher levels of coercion and control from pimps and brothel owners.19

Prostitution is incompatible with global and Scottish definitions of good sexual health:

  • The World Health Organisation states that: 'sexual health requires a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships, as well as the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free from coercion, discrimination and violence.20
  • This statement is supported by the Scottish Government's Sexual Health Framework, which has a key outcome to ensure that 'sexual relationships are free from coercion and harm.21

Sex Buyers

  • The demand to buy sex is from ordinary men i.e. study of 258 men who attended a sexual health clinic in Glasgow and reported buying sex found the average age of buyers to be 34, with 43% in a relationship.22
  • Men who buy sex have themselves stated that fines, imprisonment, to be placed on the sex offenders register or have a letter sent to their home would deter them from buying sex.
  • A Scottish study with men who had bought sex in prostitution found that 25% of the men felt ‘significant shame or regret’ about having done so.

Legalisation or Decriminalisation of prostitution

Legalisation involves legalising the buying and selling of sex through applying various specific regulations to the sex industry e.g. licensing brothels and requiring the sellers of sex to sign a national register, undertake mandatory health checks, be employed and pay tax.

The decriminalisation of prostitution includes removing all laws against prostitution, without imposing any regulations specific to the sex industry.

In either case both the buying and selling of sex is legal, and pimping and brothel-keeping constitute legitimate business.

Approaches which seek to legalise or decriminalise prostitution often portray prostitution as a legitimate form of employment, and are supported, or sometimes led, by the sex industry and sex work activists.


1 Prostitution cannot be squared with Human Rights or the equality of Women., Dianne Post, 2013
2 Farley, M, Cotton, A, Lynne, J, Zumbek, S, Spiwak, F, Reyes, M.E., Alvarez, D and Sezgin, U. (2003) Prostitution and Trafficking in nine countries: update on violence and posttraumatic stress Journal of Trauma Practice 2 (3 / 4): 33- 74
3 Elected Member Briefing Note, the Improvement Service, Scotland, 2010
4 Waltman. M. (2011) The Ban against the Purchase of Sexual Services’ an evaluation of the Swedish legislation from 1999 – 2008, published in 2010.
5 Ibid
6 ‘Evaluering av forbudget mot kjop av seksuelle tjnester’ Rapport nummer 2014/30
7 Evaluation of CD law in Norway (2014)
8 Waltman. M (2011) See endnote Iix
9 ibid
10 Raymond J. G., Prostitution on Demand: Legalising the buyers as sexual consumers. Coalition Against Trafficking in Women. Violence Against Women, Vol.10 No. 10, (October 2004)
11 Challenging Men’s Demand for Prostitution in Scotland. Jan Macleod, Melissa Farley, Lynn Anderson, and Jacqueline Golding (2008)
12 Prostitution cannot be squared with Human Rights or the Equality of Women, Dianne Post, 2013
13 UK National Crime Agency - 2014 National Referral Mechanism
14 Inquiry into Trafficking in Scotland, EHRC, 2012
15 ibid
16 Challenging Men’s Demand for Prostitution in Scotland. Jan Macleod, Melissa Farley, Lynn Anderson, and Jacqueline Golding (2008)
17 WHO Fact sheet on VAW No 239 (2014)
18 Fact Sheet on Prostitution, Women’s Support Project, 2008
19 Violence by clients towards female prostitutes in different work settings: questionnaire survey. S Church, M Henderson, M Barnard, G Hart – Bmj 2001
20 WHO Definition of Sexual Health (2006)
21 SG Blood Borne Virus Outcomes Framework 2008, updated 2015
22 A Survey of male Attendees at Sandyford Initiative: Knowledge, Attitudes, Beliefs and Behaviours in Relation to Prostitution. Dr UA Okara, 2004