Women forced to work in Perth’s sex trade could be offered an escape route, thanks to the launch of a new task force.
Prostitutes, lap dancers and online sex workers will be the focus of a new group set up to tackle commercial sexual exploitation (CSE) in and around the city.
The campaign, which aims to stamp out demand for sex services, is being spearheaded by the Perth-based Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre (RASAC).
It is supported by Police Scotland and other agencies, including Perth and Kinross Council and NHS Tayside.
A spokeswoman for RASAC said the need for a group to address exploitation was identified at a meeting of the area’s Violence Against Women partnership.
She said: “This strategy calls for work to be carried out which ensures that we proactively reduce the demand for CSE and ensure that appropriate services are accessible to those who seek them.
“Currently those involved in CSE may be accessing a range of services but, at present, no clear, robust multi-agency local protocol exists for supporting those affected.
“Additionally, they are often fearful about disclosing, something which results in this remaining a particularly hidden issue within Perth and Kinross.”
The group is inspired by the Vice Versa project, which supports women working in prostitution to address drug, alcohol, mental health and offending issues.
“CSE is a serious issue and one which is often misconstrued as a choice made in return for financial or other gain,” said the RASAC spokeswoman.
“However, we know that this is not the case, with support services currently working with women groomed or exploited for the gratification of others.”
She added: “It is a complex matter and one which often involves a range of additional vulnerabilities, including poverty, substance misuse and debt.
“The impact upon those affected can be devastating and can include flashbacks, fear, anxiety, as well as poor mental, sexual and physical health.”
She added: “Our work to date has evidenced that as a starting point the group should initially focus on those involved in off-street prostitution.
“However, CSE is a broad term and includes many activities, such as lapdancing, escort agencies and internet sex chat rooms.”
Last year, drug addict Graeme Bell was jailed for a series of sexual assaults on prostitutes at flats across Perth.
A High Court jury heard that the 32-year-old assaulted and raped one of his victims, before telling her: “Why are you crying? You’re a prostitute.”
The group was welcomed by Perthshire South and Kinross-shire MSP Roseanna Cunningham, who said some people might be surprised by the need for such a scheme in the area, “but that simply emphasises the invisible nature of the crimes that are being addressed by this very welcome move”.
She added that the Scottish Government is committed to the prevention of violence against women and girls.
The group, which is also supported by the Minority Ethnic Access Development Project and Churches Action for the Homeless, was also welcomed at a recent meeting of the council’s community safety committee.