The Legalisation of Prostitution: Emancipatory or Debasing?

The ancient profession of prostitution had sparked debate throughout the ages, many condemning it whilst others steadfastly assert outlawing it violates the right to ‘self expression’, a value modern underpinning many democracies. In modern day Europe both extremes of the spectrum are present.

Image courtesy of knockoutmedia, © 2009, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of knockoutmedia, © 2013, some rights reserved.

In 2001 Germany boldly enacted a law hoping to socialise prostitution and remove its stigma by offering prostitutes access to health insurance and pensions along with other benefits. Such liberal laws likewise found in countries such as the Netherlands and Switzerland are upheld in the belief that legalisation leads to enhanced safety and health for sex workers: cleaner brothels, no pimps, free choice, higher wages, less trafficking. Some countries, such as Denmark, lie in between the extremes, allowing self-employed prostitution but criminalising brothel operation and pimping. In complete opposition are states, such as Sweden which in 1999 made not just pimping but any circumstance in which sex is paid for illegal. This law was an expression of the belief that prostitution is rarely a profession of choice, and that states should aspire to extinct it.

This argument is simple, but compelling: does a young girl really ever dream of a career as a prostitute for when she grows up? Does free will, given other well-paying career options, lead women to choose a career in prostitution? It is hard to fathom that to be the case; if not forced, prostitution is nearly always a career of last resort in distressing conditions as many interviewed prostitutes have admitted to. Prostitutes working in Western Europe are commonly from extremely poor backgrounds in Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary and other Eastern states. They are either desperate to earn money to send back to their families or illegally trafficked leaving little for their families already living in despair to do to get them back. This leads to the question of whether the legalisation of prostitution promotes itself as a natural career choice for the desperate and poor and thus perpetuates a greater humanitarian injustice.

The effects of legalisation of prostitution on decreasing human trafficking are highly contested, with both sides of the prostitution debate skewing statistics to support their stance—complicated by the fact that gathering statistics on human trafficking will always be a challenge due to its clandestine nature. Germany can boast a decline in human trafficking from 987 reported cases, to 482 from 2001 when the law was enacted to 2011. A study in human trafficking carried out by the European Commission found that the number of cases of human trafficking per 100,000 inhabitants in 2010 was the same for Germany and Sweden, indicating the legalisation of prostitution has little effect on decreasing human trafficking cases proportionately. Meanwhile, a 2012 joint study by LSE and German universities investigating a cross section of 150 countries worldwide concludes legalisation of prostitution does indeed lead to increased human trafficking.

Looking to numbers to support or refute legalisation is often inconclusive, misleading and frustrating; providing proof of human trafficking that would be upheld in court is extraordinarily difficult and women, whose pimps simply threaten to harm their families if they report them to the authorities, are often scared into silence. Yet, illegal trafficking is indisputably still at play in states that have legalised prostitution; in 2010 in Spain an estimated 90% of its 200,000 to 400,000 prostitutes were trafficked, spiked by the European economic downturn and notably most were Eastern European.

If we look towards the true aims of the 2001 German law, to de-stigmatise prostitution and socialise it as a career worthy of a pension, it would seem to have failed. Out of an estimated 400,000 prostitutes working in Germany only a mere 44 have registered for the benefits provided by the 2001 law.  Meanwhile, since criminalising all sex work in 1999, prostitution in Sweden has halved. So what has legalisation really done for German other than make it the largest European Union prostitution market and a hot spot for sex tourism? It would seem that given the lack of enrolment for benefits the law has only subsidised business for pimps, doing little to actually improve working conditions for prostitutes.

Whether intended or not, liberalisation is bound to have a profound impact on gender relations and societal dynamics. In Germany, the Netherlands, and Switzerland where the ‘respectable whore’ is espoused, young boys will grow up with the socialisation that women on the streets or posing in windows have a career worthy of governments benefits and that sex with a woman is a commodity that can easily be bought and paid for. Contrastingly in Sweden, boys will be growing up with the socialisation that paying for sex is criminal. In Spain where prostitution is legal, 39% of Spanish men admitted to a United Nations report to paying a prostitute for services at least once; visiting a brothel after a business meeting and dinner is not an uncommon occurrence there.

While a new wave of feminism constantly being posited in today’s pop culture praises the emancipation of women and the ability to do what they would like, sexually or otherwise, it must be asked if the legalisation of prostitution really empowers women and that just because it is legal and safer that it should morally be allowed. This August in Switzerland, drive-in ‘sex boxes’ were opened: men seeking a quick fix can now drive along a clearly marked route where he can choose from a selection of prostitutes, negotiate a price, and have sex in a partitioned wooden shed. Zurich authorities argue that this regulation improves the lot of its prostitutes: it is they, rather than pimps, negotiating their price. Alarms available for prostitutes to press if they feel unsafe in the sex boxes provide security. Yet, despite increased security, health benefits, and pensions, is a society where sex can be ordered like a burger from the drive-in window at McDonalds really a society that enhances women’s agency or one that should be allowed at all?


“A giant Teutonic brothel: has the liberalisation of the oldest profession gone too far?”, The Economist, November 16th-22nd 2013 issue, pp 39-40

“Unprotected: How Legalizing Prostitution has Failed” Spiegel <>.

European Commission Report “Trafficking in human beings” 2013 edition.

Cho, S., Dreher, A. and Neumayer, E. (2012) “ Does Legalized Prostitution Increase Human Trafficking?” World Development, Vol. 41, pp 67-82

Squires, N. (16 Aug 2013) “Switzerland opens drive in ‘sex boxes’ to make prostitution safer”, The Telegraph. <>.

Daly, S. (6 April 2012). “In Spain, Women Enslaved by a Boom in Brothel Tourism”, The New York Times. <>.

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