The labyrinth of sex work regulations: assessing policy approaches in Europe

By Bryan Bayne (Olomouc, Uppsala, 2020–2022) and Carolina Reyes (Uppsala, Olomouc, 2021–2023).

It is hard not to notice the bright neon of the windows in Amsterdam’s Red Light District. And if you are a Latino like us, that comes as a culture shock – throughout Latin America prostitution is deeply frowned upon and mostly relegated to the darkest corners of society. So we naturally asked ourselves: what is the European sex work culture? How does it differ from other places and what are its effects on society?

As we expected, it turns out there is no single Europe-wide attitude to sex work. There are four different policy approaches and our objective with this article is to analyze them and find out which ones are “the best.” When analyzing public policy, the best approach is a cost-benefit analysis applied to whether that policy achieves its stated aims or not. This allows for a greater degree of objectivity and frees us from most of the moral biases stemming from culture and religion. 

In this case, we argue that the primary objective of any law concerning sex work is promoting the welfare of sex workers — the majority of which are women. The secondary objective should be to curb human trafficking; we rank this as the second objective because we believe law enforcement is primarily responsible for that task and sex work policy is merely complimentary. 

So, what are the four European approaches to sex work and how do they compare to our two stated objectives?

Sex work is illegal 

Also known as “criminalization” of sex work, this approach simply does not recognize the occupation as a job and essentially consists in punishing the sex worker. However, even though there are several countries following this model – mainly in eastern Europe – it is hard to fit them all into the same category. While countries like Lithuania or Romania consider selling sex constitutes an administrative penalty that can lead to fines, in Albania prostitutes are considered criminals and can face jail for up to 3 years if caught. 

The heterogeneity of views leads to significant differences when it comes to legal actions. Countries such as Bosnia, Croatia, and Spain punish not only the sex workers but third parties, namely anyone who facilitates their work: managers, brothel keepers, pimps, receptionists, maids, drivers, landlords, or hotels who rent rooms to sex workers. On the other hand, in countries such as Bulgaria or Slovakia prostitution operates in a grey area, neither explicitly illegal nor entirely legal.

The aims of criminalizing laws are also different and not always clear. The focus may vary from controlling venereal diseases to preventing women from engaging in unproductive and ‘immoral’ work, and the outcomes are also not clear. In Albania – which according to The Coalition ‘Sexual and Health Rights of Marginalized Communities’ became one of the traffic routes from ex-Soviet Union countries towards Western Europe – the aim is to diminish human trafficking. Although in the Albanian case it has been said that commercial sex work almost disappeared when this law was strictly enforced, it is also clear that there is no accurate data on the numbers of trafficked girls, nor on the sex workers laboring inside the country.

There is, in fact, one main feature that European countries share about the topic which is the lack of precise and reliable data on almost every aspect of the sex trade,  and this can be because the penal code of some countries does not even clearly define what does the term “sex worker” mean. What is clear is that criminalization does not aim to improve the welfare of sex workers. What little evidence there is suggests that criminalization reduces sex workers’ access to health care and trust in law enforcement, endangering their security. Moreover, this approach leads to sex trade activities going underground, therefore being a fertile ground for human trafficking. 

Sex work is legal, but buying sex is not

Sometimes called the Nordic model, as it originated in Sweden in the late 1990s, it flips around the traditional approach to banning prostitution. The Scandinavian mentality is that no one would willingly choose to do sex work if other career paths are viable, i.e. that even when it is voluntary, sex work still is a product of capitalist exploitation. Moreover, they are suspicious that a substantial amount of sex workers never chose the profession, but were coerced into it.

In sum, Scandinavian feminists see sex workers as either victims of trafficking or of economic inequality and seek to abolish the profession within their countries. After significant debate in the 90s, they concluded that punishing the victims was not only counterproductive – as it did nothing to reduce demand for prostitution – but also immoral, and flipped around the policy of banning prostitution. Nowadays, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, France, and Ireland ban the purchasing of sex work, but not the selling.

This approach has had some success in discouraging prostitution. Scandinavian police report that it has made their work “much easier,” since there are fewer clients and the sellers are not afraid of reporting abuse to the police. It is estimated that prostitution has decreased by around 25% in Norway, for instance. 

However, the Nordic model also has its limitations. What is left of prostitution has moved underground, where sex trafficking is more likely. Moreover, sex workers report that they must take extra steps to protect their clients’ anonymity – otherwise they would have no clients – which they feel also undermine their safety. Anonymous clients are, in their view, more likely to be violent. 

It also seems that the argument that making the purchase of sex illegal would encourage sex workers to report abuse to the police and seek medical care is not entirely true. Many workers are still wary of contacting social services or the police, though this could also be due to the fact that immigrants in Sweden – and nearly all sex workers there are immigrants – generally do not trust government agencies. 

In sum, it seems like this model is successful in reducing the demand for prostitution. But to have the desired effect on increasing women’s welfare and stopping human trafficking, it needs to be complemented with investment in law enforcement and social services – and even then, it is not clear that this is the best approach to achieve those two objectives.

Sex work is legal but unregulated

This is the most common approach in Europe, but the specifics vary widely from country to country. Most countries that take this approach make brothels illegal and make fighting human trafficking their number one priority. Prostitution outside of brothels is legal, but because it is unregulated, it is not taxed and sex workers cannot contribute to their pensions – in some cases, they are also prevented from accessing health care services because the state considers them to be “unemployed.” 

In some countries, like Italy, there seems to be an incoherent mish-mash of regulations regarding sex work. In Italy, prostitution is legal, but pimping and brothels are not – but to add to the complexity, regions and municipalities are allowed to enforce their own regulations, as long as they do not ban the practice. Salerno, for example, decided to fine women who wear “revealing dresses” €500 to attempt to stymie street prostitution. Rome, on the other hand, created a red light district in 2015. Florence adopted the Nordic model and banned the purchase of sexual services, and cracked down hard on brothels. This has helped the city make several arrests related to sex trafficking, according to police officers. Unfortunately, there seems to be very little academic research on these policy experiments, making it impossible to assess which one works best within Italy.

Other countries, like the Czech Republic, take a much more lax approach. Even though the Czechs follow the same principles as the Italians – brothels and pimping are banned – these rules are hardly enforced. Brothels in Prague are simply renamed “clubs,” or “erotic show venues,” and they receive the police’s blessing. Nevertheless, Czech sex workers are wary of contacting law enforcement if they are abused. Many claim that a combination of social stigma and a lack of official recognition by the state makes them mistrust government agencies. Because the activity is unregulated, sex workers are not taxed, but also cannot receive social insurance or pension benefits. Many also lack access to the Czech health care system, as only employed persons get health insurance – but many also choose to contribute to an NGO that provides them with health care and counseling services, much like a labor union would. Most Czech sex workers are in favor of fully legalizing the profession so that they may access these benefits and suffer less social stigma.

Overall, it is difficult to assess the outcomes of this approach, since there is a myriad of policy choices. The outcomes seem highly correlated with how the law is enforced and whether policymakers want to curb prostitution, like those in Salerno, or human trafficking. To make matters more complex, this approach more often than not leaves sex work on the margins of society, resulting in a dearth of attention to the matter. Fewer studies are conducted in these societies; sex workers and their plight are often invisible and find it difficult to voice their concerns.

Sex work is legal and regulated

In countries following this model, the government not only legislates on the sex trade but also seeks to be actively involved and to give structure to the activities. Adopted by The Netherlands in 2000 and Germany in 2002, this approach looks to reduce illegal exploitation and improve sex workers’ conditions by giving them more autonomy. Similar models were eventually adopted in other European countries like Austria and Greece, although every nation has its own view on the topic, its own laws, and enforcement mechanism. Sometimes, practices vary even within a country. 

In the Netherlands, the prohibition on brothels was lifted and mandatory registration for prostitutes started. Sex work became a recognized and taxable occupation. Anyone wanting to start in the business must apply for a permit, and registered sex workers were provided with access to Social Security, unemployment benefits, a state pension, and health care services. In Germany, which removed the legal “immorality” concept from the agreement between the prostitute and customer, sex workers are able to sue clients who do not pay the agreed-upon sum.

The authorities claim that legalization has had positive effects in cities like Amsterdam. According to the Dutch Prostitution and Health Center (Prostitutie & Gezondheidscentrum, PG292), legalizing prostitution has improved the safety of the workers and allowed some control in the industry by providing secure surroundings—with measures like installing cameras in front of the windows, and having the police patrolling the area. Other measures that sex workers consider positive are the alarm systems installed in the brothels, the improvement of hygienic conditions, and having access to unlimited free STD checks. 

However, these laws also have flaws. In Germany, a policy analysis showed that the first laws on the topic legislation did not take into account the particular risks of the sector, nor made regular supervision mandatory, opening up the possibility of a proliferation of criminal structures. Thus several amendments to the law were proposed and discussed in 2015.  Another concern is privacy: many sex workers do not want to be registered because of the stigma that would bring to them.  Even though the Dutch government has brought the option of registration under an alias or a commercial name, most sex workers prefer to maintain their anonymity. 

The matter of human trafficking has been also widely contested. Some of it has to do with the majority of sex workers being considered illegal immigrants, which brings them the need to operate in the darkness and therefore makes them less likely to report illicit activities related to trafficking. Such a condition turns the matter into a topic not just difficult to control but to measure. 

Conclusion

Despite the plurality of approaches and lack of reliable data, we believe we can make an assessment of European sex work policies. Firstly, it seems evident that sex work policy by itself is not sufficient to ensure workers’ welfare and combat prostitution. It needs to be combined with effective law enforcement, social and health care services, and immigration policy. 

Nevertheless, we believe that criminalizing sex work is the worst approach, as it does nothing to reduce demand for these services but tends to punish workers. The best approaches seem to be legalization and regulation, or the Nordic model. Although quite different, they do not punish workers, and also open up the possibility of them receiving governmental assistance. They provide some improvement in worker welfare and the Nordic model seems likely to somewhat reduce human trafficking. That being said, even these approaches need to be complemented with effective policy across several fields to achieve their aims.


Image credits: Not4rthur

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