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The challenges of supporting women who want to exit prostitution

Senior Lecturer in Criminology Helen Easton has been working with charities in Glasgow to establish best practice for helping women to exit prostitution

The harms of prostitution

The wide-ranging debate about the harms of prostitution suggests that it generally involves women selling sex to men and that those involved frequently experience violence, coercion and control. Nearly 95 per cent of those involved in prostitution report wanting to leave but feel they have no other option for survival.

Among those who do leave, trauma rates are very high. Using these shocking findings as a starting point, Senior Lecturer in Criminology, Helen Easton, has been working on a study to investigate exiting prostitution in the UK.

For women who do want to leave prostitution, the process of exit is rarely easy and there is little academic research or specialist support in this area. Our study emerged from the need to investigate exiting within the UK setting.

- Helen Easton

Approaching the regulation of prostitution – the Nordic Model

“It is generally agreed that the best approach to the regulation of prostitution is to decriminalise those selling sex in order to avoid their criminalisation and further marginalisation. However, there is disagreement about the need to control the demand for prostitution,” says Helen. “Countries such as Sweden, Norway and Iceland have adopted a model of regulation that decriminalises those selling sex while criminalising those who buy it, central to which is the idea that commercial sexual transactions are unacceptable in a modern society that values gender equality.”

This approach has become known as the Nordic Model, and interest in it is spreading internationally. Campaigns in England, Scotland and Ireland are calling for the adoption of a similar approach.

Supporting women to exit prostitution

“A key tenet of the approach is supporting women to exit prostitution, but little is known about this process of change, and how best to support women to leave,” adds Helen. “For women who do want to leave, the process of exit is rarely easy and there is little academic research or specialist support in this area.

"Our study emerged from the need to investigate exiting within the UK setting. Areas such as Glasgow and Ipswich have been grappling with the task of devising a solution to the societal challenges posed by prostitution, with a focus on helping those who sell sex to exit prostitution and transition into other roles. However, there has been little evaluation of exiting work and little academic investigation into the process of exiting as a form of gendered desistance. This project was designed with this in mind.”

Working with Eaves Housing for Women, a charity that has undertaken work on human trafficking and women experiencing violence, and a number of services providing exiting support across the country, interviews were conducted with more than 100 women, with a further 50 repeat interviews with women to look at their post-change pathways.

Developing good practice

“As the UK doesn’t have the social support being provided by Nordic countries, I have been working with Glasgow on how to develop good practice. Our research is producing evidence that supports the Nordic Model, where the buyer rather than the seller is prosecuted and women are supported to leave.” says Helen.

“With this in mind, going forward we plan to continue to inform the work of the Home Affairs Select Committee, which had planned to recommend the decriminalisation of those selling sex but not the prosecution of buyers. I am also a member of the campaign group CAST (Coalition Against The Sex Trade) and have set up a charity called Stand Against Sexual Exploitation, which is pushing to share good practice with practitioners and campaign for the adoption of the Nordic Model of prostitution regulation in the UK.”

Research impacts:

  • Helen Easton has been called to give evidence on women’s involvement in prostitution and exiting prostitution to the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade. She is cited in the 2014 report produced by the APPG on Prostitution: Shifting the Burden.
  • Helen has provided written evidence in support of Lord Morrow’s Bill to criminalise the purchase of sex in Northern Ireland, which was adopted on 1 June 2015. Lord Morrow read the book Exiting Prostitution and Helen supported him by providing an academic critique of online research conducted on prostitution in Northern Ireland.
  • In light of the recent Home Affairs Committee interim report on prostitution, which recommended the commissioning of an “in-depth research study to help develop a better understanding of the current extent and nature of prostitution in England and Wales”, Helen has been invited to help the Home Office develop their research in this area. She will provide guidance about the feasibility of researching prostitution and which methods are likely to yield the best results.
  • Helen signed MEP Mary Honeyball’s recommendation made to the European Parliament in 2014 about prostitution regulation.
  • Helen is part of an international group of academics and researchers called Nordic Model International.