Prostitution in Scotland

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Prostitution in Scotland has been similar to that in England under the State of Union, but since devolution, the new Scottish Parliament has pursued its own policies.

In Scotland, prostitution itself (the exchange of sexual services for money) is legal, but associated activities (such as public solicitation, operating a brothel, or other forms of pimping) are criminal offences.


In 1982, the Civic Government (Scotland) Act 1982 came into force. This prohibited soliciting, but also gave local councils the power to license places of entertainment. Edinburgh Council issued licenses to Massage parlours and saunas, effectively allowing brothels.[1]

The council came under pressure not to renew the licences in 2012,[2] but renewed the licences.[3]

In 2013, the Scottish police forces were merged to form Police Scotland. Previously each local force had had its own policy regarding prostitution. Police Scotland applied one policy to all of Scotland.[4] This resulted in raids on the saunas in June 2013.[5] Many of the saunas were forced to close.[6]

In 1985, Lothian and Borders Police negotiated with Edinburgh's prostitutes to form a tolerance zone in Leith's Coburg Street area. In return for the police 'turning a blind eye', the prostitutes would stay within this area.[1] Gentrification was happening in the Coburg Street area and in August 2001 the toleration zone was moved to an industrial estate in Salamander Street.[7] Following protests from local residents the toleration zone was closed in November 2001.[8]

Aberdeen set up a tolerance zone in the dock area in 2001. The Prostitution (Public Places) (Scotland) Act 2007 came into force in October 2007. This act criminalised kerb crawling and as result the tolerance zone was closed.[9]

Scottish National Party MSP Margo MacDonald introduced the Prostitution Tolerance Zones Bill to the Scottish Parliament in 2002. This would have allowed tolerance zones to be set up.[10] Following an enquiry by an expert group into prostitution, the Bill was withdrawn in November 2005.[11]

In April 2019, some sex work charities called for lawmakers in Scotland to reject a sex work policy, after statistics showed that violent crime against sex workers almost doubled after it was introduced in Ireland. The increase in Ireland was associated with the introduction of the "Nordic Model", a Swedish law which criminalises people who buy sex, rather than those who sell it. The stats originated from UglyMugs, an app where sex workers can report incidents of abuse and crime, and receive alerts about dangerous clients.[12]

Legislative framework[edit]

Street prostitution is dealt with under the Civic Government (Scotland) Act 1982, section 46(1), which states:

a prostitute (whether male or female) who for the purposes of prostitution -
  1. loiters in a public place
  2. solicits in a public place or in any other place so as to be seen from a public place or
  3. importunes any person in a public place
shall be guilty of an offence

Kerb crawling, soliciting a prostitute for sex in a public place, and loitering for the same purpose are also criminal offences, with a maximum penalty of a £1000 fine, under the Prostitution (Public Places) (Scotland) Act 2007 (in force 15 October 2007), as follows:[13][14]

  1. A person (“A”) who, for the purpose of obtaining the services of a person engaged in prostitution, solicits in a relevant place commits an offence.
  2. For the purposes of subsection (1) it is immaterial whether or not—
(a) A is in or on public transport,
(b) A is in a motor vehicle which is not public transport,
(c) a person solicited by A for the purpose mentioned in that subsection is a person engaged in prostitution.
3. A person (“B”) who loiters in a relevant place so that in all the circumstances it may reasonably be inferred that B was doing so for the purpose of obtaining the services of a person engaged in prostitution commits an offence.
4. For the purposes of subsection (3) it is immaterial whether or not—
(a) B is in or on public transport,
(b) B is in a motor vehicle which is not public transport.
5. A person guilty of an offence under subsection (1) or (3) is liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 3 on the standard scale.
6. In this section— ...
“motor vehicle” has the meaning given by section 185(1) of the Road Traffic Act 1988 (c. 52),
“public transport” means a vehicle, train, tram, ship, hovercraft, aircraft or other thing designed, adapted or used for the carriage of persons provided in connection with any of those services on which members of the public rely for getting from place to place when not relying on facilities of their own,
"relevant place" means—
(a) a public place within the meaning of section 133 of the Civic Government (Scotland) Act 1982 (c. 45),
(b) a place to which at the material time the public are permitted to have access (whether on payment or otherwise),
and in subsection (1) includes a place which is visible from a place mentioned in paragraph (a) or (b).

Operating a brothel is illegal under the Criminal Law (Consolidation) (Scotland) Act 1995, as follows:[15]

11 Trading in prostitution and brothel-keeping.

(5) Any person who—
(a) keeps or manages or acts or assists in the management of a brothel; or
(b) being the tenant, lessee, occupier or person in charge of any premises, knowingly permits such premises or any part thereof to be used as a brothel or for the purposes of habitual prostitution; or
(c) being the lessor or landlord of any premises, or the agent of such lessor or landlord, lets the same or any part thereof with the knowledge that such premises or some part thereof are or is to be used as a brothel, or is willfully a party to the continued use of such premises or any part thereof as a brothel,

shall be guilty of an offence.

Section 13 makes provision about male prostitution. Third-party activities, such as pimping, procuring, and living off the avails, are illegal under section 7 (Procuring) and section 11 of the Act. .[15]

Previous reforms to prostitution laws[edit]

An expert group was assembled in 2003, and produced a report in 2004 entitled Being Outside - Constructing a Response to Street Prostitution. The key proposals included replacing soliciting laws with "offensive behaviour or conduct", applicable to both buyer or seller (obviating pressure to criminalise kerb crawling), and "managed areas" in which the activity would take place. They also recommended a national framework to guide local authorities, a requirement for local implementation plans, and public education. [16]

A Prostitution Tolerance Zones Bill was introduced into the Scottish Parliament, but failed to become law. Instead, the Parliament passed the Prostitution (Public Places) (Scotland) Act 2007, which leaves the law relating to prostitutes unchanged, but introduces a new offence committed by their clients.

In April 2010, a plan to criminalize the customers, which had been introduced by Labour politicians, was rejected.[17][18] A further attempt by Marlyn Glen (Labour) to introduce this (amendment 6) at Stage 3 was also voted down 78: 44 on 30 June 2010. [19]

A further attempt by Trish Godman (Labour) was made in 2011, but fell at dissolution. Yet another attempt was made by Rhoda Grant (Labour) was made in 2013, but was only supported by Labour MSPs, and therefore, did not receive cross-party support.

In September 2015, independent MSP Jean Urquhart lodged a proposal with the Scottish Parliament for a Prostitution Law Reform Bill that would decriminalise sex work in Scotland, in line with the New Zealand model.[20] Jean Urquhart worked closely with SCOT-PEP, a Scottish charity that advocates for the safety, rights, and health of everyone who sells sex in Scotland, in developing the proposals.[21] The proposals included the repeal of soliciting and kerb-crawling laws, changes to brothel-keeping laws to allow up to four sex workers to work collectively from the same indoor premises, and a proposal for larger commercial brothels. The proposed Bill also sought to repeal laws on living on the earnings of sex work, which criminalise family members, friends, and flatmates of sex workers. The consultation period ran for a period of 3 months, and results showed that 70% of the respondents were in favour of the aims of the proposed Bill.[22] An event was held in the Scottish Parliament on Tuesday, 10 November 2015, to present the proposals contained in the Bill with speakers from SCOT-PEP, the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective, the English Collective of Prostitutes, the National Ugly Mugs, the National Union of Students, as well as academics experienced in researching sex work.[23]

Advocacy for law reform[edit]

In March 2017, the Scottish National Party backed changes to prostitution laws to criminalise those paying for sex, but not those who sell it. The decision drew criticism from sex workers and sex worker organisations, who said that full decriminalisation was the only way to the ensure the safety of sex workers.[24]

The Scottish Green Party support the decriminalisation of sex work along with full legal protection from exploitation, trafficking and violence, and access to better support and healthcare for sex workers.[25]


Ranger’s Impartial List of Ladies of Pleasure[edit]

Published anonymously in 1775, Ranger’s Impartial List of Ladies of Pleasure was a review of 66 of Edinburgh's prostitutes.[26] The author was later revealed to be James Tytler, editor of the Encyclopædia Britannica.[27]

A typical entry

Miss Sutherland, Back of Bell’s Wynd

This Lady is an old veteran in the service, about 30 years of age, middle sized, black hair and complexion and very good teeth, but not altogether good-natured.

She is a firm votary to the wanton Goddess, and would willingly play morning, noon, and night.

As a friend, we will give a caution to this Lady, as she has a habit to make free with a gentleman’s pocket, especially when he is in liquor.

The book was republished in 1978 by Paul Harris, as 'Ranger's Impartial List of Ladies of Pleasure in Edinburgh'.[28]

Edinburgh and Glasgow[edit]

A survey in 1842 found that when the General Assembly met in Edinburgh that the brothels were particularly busy.[29] In 2004 a committee of the Scottish Parliament were debating zones of tolerance for prostitution and Margo MacDonald referred to Blythswood Square in Glasgow as having been in the past a haunt of prostitutes.[30]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "A History of Sex Work in Edinburgh" (PDF). Scot-PEP.
  2. ^ Pooran, Neil (23 April 2012). "'Blind eye' policy for Edinburgh brothels should end, councillor says". Deadline News.
  3. ^ Rose, Gareth (7 November 2012). "Edinburgh saunas win reprieve from city council to carry on trading". The Scotsman.
  4. ^ "Police told to beware of single stance on sex trade". Herald Scotland. 10 June 2013.
  5. ^ Donnelly, Brian (8 June 2013). "Clampdown on brothels as Police Scotland raid saunas". Herald Scotland.
  6. ^ "Six Edinburgh saunas to close after losing licences". BBC. 23 October 2013.
  7. ^ "Capital vice girls on the move". BBC. 3 August 2001.
  8. ^ "Talks over prostitution zone". BBC. 15 November 2001.
  9. ^ "Kerb-crawler law comes into force". BBC. 15 October 2007.
  10. ^ Peterkin, Tom (30 October 2002). "MSP launches Bill for prostitute zones". Daily Telegraph.
  11. ^ "Prostitution Tolerance Zones (Scotland) Bill" (PDF). Scottish Parliament Information Centre.
  12. ^ Mann, Jamie (21 April 2019). "Scotland urged to reject sex work policy linked to violent crime increase in Ireland". The Ferret. Retrieved 23 April 2019.
  13. ^ Prostitution (Public Places) (Scotland) Act 2007 Retrieved 15 April 2009
  14. ^ BBC News 15 October 2007 Retrieved 15 April 2009
  15. ^ a b "Criminal Law (Consolidation) (Scotland) Act 1995". Retrieved 10 February 2013.
  16. ^ "Expert Group on Prostitution". Scottish Government. April 2003. Retrieved 28 November 2016.
  17. ^ Johnson, Simon (20 April 2010). "Plan to criminalise buying sex from prostitutes rejected". The Daily Telegraph. London. Archived from the original on 12 September 2012.
  18. ^ "Plan to criminalise prostitute users thrown out | Scotland | News | STV". News. 20 April 2010. Retrieved 10 February 2013.
  19. ^ "Scottish Parliament Official Report June 30 2010 Cls 27902-27910"
  20. ^ "Prostitution Law Reform Bill Consultation Document, Scottish Parliament" (PDF).
  21. ^ "Sex Work Law Reform: Bringing the New Zealand model to Scotland, SCOT-PEP".
  22. ^ "Prostitution Law Reform Bill Summary of Responses to Consultation, Scottish Parliament" (PDF).
  23. ^ "Prostitution Law Reform Scotland Bill, footage shot at Parliamentary Event 10th November 2015". YouTube. Archived from the original on 20 December 2021.
  24. ^ McIntyre, Niamh (18 March 2017). "SNP back prostitution law changes condemned by sex workers". The Independent. Retrieved 23 April 2019.
  25. ^ "Scotland can fight for justice". Scottish Green Party. Retrieved 23 April 2019.
  26. ^ McLean, David (12 June 2013). "Edinburgh and sex: city's seedy history laid bare". The Scotsman.
  27. ^ Dick, Sandra (6 February 2017). "The secret guide to 18th century Edinburgh's working girls". The Scotsman.
  28. ^ Tytler, James (1978). Ranger's impartial list of the ladies of pleasure in Edinburgh. ISBN 9780904505443.
  29. ^ Crofton, Ian (2012). A Dictionary of Scottish Phrase and Fable. Edinburgh: Birlinn; p. 202. ISBN 9781841589770.
  30. ^ Crofton, Ian (2012). A Dictionary of Scottish Phrase and Fable. Edinburgh: Birlinn; p. 58. ISBN 9781841589770.

External links[edit]