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A sex purchase ban across Europe?
by Christos Mouzeviris
2014-12-22 13:14:40
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As Ireland is on the way to join the Scandinavian nations in making illegal to purchase the services of a sex worker, could this be an initiative for a pan European effort in eliminating prostitution and one of its main consequences; human trafficking?

On Thursday the 27th of November, the Irish Justice Minster Frances Fitzgerald made the formal announcement of the plan. That will make Ireland, after Sweden, Iceland and Norway, the fourth European state to proceed with the implementation of legislation that criminalizes paying for sex. (The Journal

The law undoubtedly worked in Sweden, but could it be a successful model for the rest of Europe? In Sweden the purchase and brokering of sexual services have been criminalized several years ago, although the selling of sexual services remains legal. The law provides for up to six years in prison for pimps and up to 10 years for traffickers of prostitutes. (Spiegel Online)
As result Sweden has significantly less prostitution than its neighboring countries, even if we take into account the fact that some of it happens underground. Another benefit of the ban is that hardly any country in the European Union has fewer problems with human trafficking.

According to the Swedish police, 400 to 600 foreign women are brought to Sweden each year to be prostitutes. In Finland, which is only half the size of Sweden, that number is between 10,000 and 15,000 women. Illegal trafficking is facilitated in Finland by the country's proximity to Russia and the Baltic states, but now Helsinki is also considering introducing a law based on the Swedish model.

The ban on the purchase of sexual services is also intended to bring about a fundamental change in societal attitudes. Nowadays every schoolchild learns that purchasing sex for money is illegal. The next generation in Sweden will consider this to be much less ordinary than we do today.(Spiegel Online)

The oddity with this law is, that it is going to be legal to practice prostitution, but illegal to buy it. It is like being legal to sell cigarettes, but illegal to buy them. And if this works as we have seen in Sweden, why don't we apply it for other social issues, like drugs and alcohol abuse? We could prosecute drug users on a similar note and leave drug dealers alone. Why is that not ethical?

After all, if drug users are thought to be vulnerable and unstable members of the society, so are the prostitutes and those who seek to have sex with them. Many of the girls that practice this "profession" have had a very turbulent adolescence or childhood. As many of the men who visit them.  

 In a relative article published by the Guardian four years ago, some interviewees explained their reasons to the journalist, of why they visit a brothel. One of them, named "Alex", spoke about his experience of childhood cruelty and neglect and linked this to his inability to form close ­relationships with anyone, particularly women.

He admitted sex with ­prostitutes made him feel empty, but he had no idea how to get to know women "through the usual routes". When asked about his feelings ­towards the women he buys he said that on the one hand, he wants ­prostitutes to get to know and like him and, on the other, he is "not under ­delusions" that the encounters are anything like a real relationship. But to the third person, he would like them to appear as they are "in love".

On a similar note, a German photographer named Bettina Flitner, took portraits of clients at the brothel Paradise in Stuttgart, Germany. The men, aged 21 to 73, told her why they visited brothels. Their answers were quite frank and revealing. (Animal NewYork)

Most of the men said that they visit brothels because they could not attract the women they wanted, or they did not have the patience or confidence to approach them. Others they were simply unable to ask what they liked in a sexual intercourse, from their wives or partners. Some, they felt that they had full control of the act, since they paid and they get what they wanted.

From the above responses it is clear that finding a partner and having sex is not something that comes easy for everybody. And in a capitalist society we are used to be able to buy anything. So some people find it easier to pay for their most intimate moments, than get over their issues and reach out to other people, for a healthy relationship.

But this is nothing new. Prostitution always existed in human societies, since the antiquity. The fact that it is referred as the "oldest profession" in the world, manifests that. Yet it is not something that involves women only. Male prostitutes, the so called gigolos are also common.

These laws do not clarify how the male prostitutes will be affected or even if they are also included. In addition they do not address the profession of escorts, either male or female. Do these laws apply only on the "lower end" prostitutes, those of the streets and brothels?

It is well known that escorts for the rich elite circles are very common too and they often stem out from the modeling profession. If these cases are not included, then it will mean that these laws are solely targeting the prostitutes of the streets, perhaps because in these circles, criminality is more widespread.

As result, the act of purchasing sex will still remain a privilege of the rich. Plus, the success in Sweden has not come without side effects.Prostitutes themselves are for the most part, opposed to the criminalization of their customers. They feel that they are being pushed into the role of victim and that the ban robs them of their livelihood.

The fact that there are fewer customers narrows the prostitutes' choices. When things are bad, they are willing to go with guys who want to have "rougher" sex and don't want to use a condom. Many feel that their "business" has become tougher and more dangerous, with more competition and more violence.

The "nice" customers are afraid of being caught. And so the girls are left to work with the more "troubled" men, those with whom they have to drive far out of the city so that they'll feel safe from the police. Thus putting them at their mercy. (Spiegel Online)

Some sex workers dislike all kinds of projects that focus on portraying their clients as immoral and predatory.They believe that anti-prostitution advocates or “abolitionists” cherry pick the worst examples which put pressure on law enforcement and the state to arrest sex workers and their clients and create laws that create further trouble for them.

Instead of trying to understand these men, they illustrate them as villains them and are not doing sex workers any favors. Sex worker and blogger Caty Simon explains: "They are awful bullshit which is about classing sex workers as victims without agency and pathologizing people’s sexuality.  Obviously, within a patriarchal, whorephobic, transphobic, racist capitalist context clients can be exploitative of sex workers".

Caty made an analogy to McDonald's, to explain how she feels about such laws.  "Customers and employers can treat food service employees like shit in the context of capitalism but that doesn’t mean the act of buying fast food is inherently wrong.  Clients and people in general should be taught to respect sex workers and their labor rights.  Not to be told that transactional sex is wrong. Plus, criminalization of clients, as we see in Sweden, leads to pathologization and marginalization of sex workers as the trade is driven underground, while the state perceives sex workers as victims". (Animal New York).

In other countries like Greece, prostitution is legal and regulated. Brothels are also legal and persons engaged in prostitution must register at the local prefecture and carry a medical card, which is updated every two weeks. It is estimated that fewer than 1,000 women are legally employed as prostitutes and approximately 20,000 women, most of foreign origin, are engaged in illegal prostitution. (Wikipedia)

As we see from the above example, if the laws in Greece prohibited illegal street prostitution, the result would be very favorable. Since fewer than 1000 women are legally employed as prostitutes, with a medical card and health care, then the real issue that contributes to human trafficking and any other illegal activity, is exactly the fact that the corruption in the country allows for illegal, uncontrolled prostitution to flourish.

Another example of a different approach to prostitution can be seen from another wealthy country, Switzerland. Prostitution there is also legal and regulated. Recently the country saw drive-through brothels being established and after a year in operation, the plan was granted as a "success".

The sex workers agreeing to take part in the scheme, have to get permit and pay tax to avail of the drive-in's creature comforts, which include a laundry, showers and a cafe. At the same time, the city of Zurich launched a crackdown on unregulated prostitution and confined the oldest trade to just the drive-thru and two other zones.

The city's officials are pleased with the results. 'The new regulation of street prostitution has attained its objectives of protecting the population and the sex workers,' they said in a statement. Social services said that as well as protecting prostitutes, few neighbors were bothered by the comings and goings at the drive-in in the Altstetten district.

No increase in street walkers had been noticed in the two other districts of the city where prostitution is tolerated, they said. Previously, residents had risen up in protest at the number of prostitutes descending after dark on the Sihlquai, a main street near the city center, and the authorities were worried about human trafficking if the trade was left unregulated.

'The first year of the service has been positive,' Zurich social services said in their statement. The number of prostitutes working in the drive-in averaged 15 a night, half the number who worked the old red-light area before the city stepped in to regulate the business. 

Sex worker rights advocates all over the world along with organizations such as World Health Organization, and UN Women all agree that full decriminalization, rather than Swiss-style regulation and licensing, is the best human-rights based approach to keeping sex workers safe. (The Daily Mail)

These are only but a few arguments for or against the criminalization of purchasing of sex, or how to deal with the issues of prostitution and human trafficking. As Europe has a wide variety not only of cultures, but also temperaments and climates, it will be hard to find a one-size-fits-all solution.

How would people in the Southern, warmer parts of Europe respond to a total sex purchase ban for example? Could they be as easily deterred from buying sex, as the more controlled Swedish men? Or could more culturally conservative nations, follow the example of those who are more liberal, like the Netherlands?

Perhaps it is time to alter our views on sex and sexuality, or even prostitution altogether. If we legalize prostitution and bring it totally under state control, then as we have seen both prostitutes and the men who visit them can be protected in terms of health and working conditions. 

Yet this does not guarantee a solution to the human trafficking problem, as the case of Greece shows. Mainly because while there could be legal prostitution, it must come under a total ban of the illegal one and most states fail to achieve this. Even in the case of Switzerland, violence and other illegal activities among the prostitutes and their circles are still an issue. 

In the case of Sweden on the other hand, while prostitution is almost eliminated-at least from the public eye- the prostitutes themselves are left in a greater danger and more vulnerable. Perhaps if we chose to adopt this model, we could also offer support and help to these women to either start another career, or quit their addiction to drugs, which is often the reason why they become prostitutes in the first place. 

Criminalizing prostitution in effort to eliminate it, but only publicly and the streets where is visible, does not mean that the root of the problem is dealt with: it just goes underground. And though the laws in Sweden have brought definitely results, it is left to be examined how the health of the sex workers is fairing after being forced to work without condoms. Or how their working conditions are being shaped, when they have to put up with more violent clients. 

Sex workers also need to be included in this plan and their needs to be met, or their voices to be heard. Maybe it is time to see their "profession" or contribution in our societies differently and grant them more respect, ending many very old taboos. A number of them are coerced into prostitution, while others are doing it as a necessity or because of drug addiction, poverty, psychological and mental problems or lack of education. 

If we try to understand the issues that push women (or men) to sell sex and men (or women) to buy it from them, then we could find a fairer and more permanent solution that could be applied across Europe. Because apart from the moral issues that arise, prostitution together with drug abuse form two of the main causes of criminality across the continent. 

Yet dealing with this particular problem, that is so intertwined with one of the very basic need of every human being-sexuality- can be tricky. So sometimes banning laws, prohibitions, fines and criminalization can only mask the problem, not solve it effectively.

We should not allow our traditional version of "morality" to get in the way of a solution that will affect millions of sexually dysfunctional individuals, because in some cases, it is this "morality" that makes them dysfunctional in the first place. And a society full with such people, it can't be a healthy one either.

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Emanuel Paparella2014-12-22 15:56:28
It bears mentioning here that "morality" per se and whether it is "modern" or traditional is not the ultimate question, the ultimate question is the nature of human sexuality, and what is its proper use and which are its abuses, and whether or not it is all relative to a society or are there universal natural laws, something we have analyzed at some length in the 41st issue of the Ovi symposium.

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