Prostitution and human trafficking in the EU Member States: between state policies and the demand side

by Andrea Di Nicola and Andrea Cauduro

© Andrea Di Nicola

Andrea Di Nicola is assistant professor of criminology and coordinator of eCrime, Faculty of Law, University of Trento, Italy. For over 15 years, he has been dealing with economic and organized criminality, human trafficking, urban security, environmental criminology and with the links between crime and the Internet.


© Andrea Cauduro

Andrea Cauduro holds a Post Doc in criminology and is researcher at eCrime, Faculty of Law, University of Trento, Italy. In the past 10 years he has been dealing with organized crime, human trafficking, policy evaluation and urban security. He has been focusing also on the link between these forms of criminality and the Web.

Human trafficking in the EU Member States and elsewhere is an overwhelming problem that has become wider and wider in the past few years. As estimates suggest, more than 2.4 million persons suffer deprivation of their basic human rights and their lives are often at risk as victims.
In the EU Member States national policies on prostitution differ greatly: from criminalization of prostitution (and/or of clients) to its regulation. It is likely that specific approaches to prostitution have an impact both on the quantitative dimension (i.e. the number of victims) and the qualitative dimension of human trafficking for sexual exploitation (i.e. how recruitment, transportation and exploitation are performed). National prostitution policies can be grouped as follows:

  • Abolitionism: Outdoor and indoor prostitution are not prohibited. The State decides to tolerate prostitution and not to intervene on it. Prostitution by adults is not subject to punishment, but profiting from another person’s prostitution is, however, criminalised.
  • New Abolitionism: Outdoor prostitution (i.e. streets, parks, etc.) and indoor prostitution (i.e. saunas, massage parlours, etc.) are not prohibited. Compared to the abolitionist model, in such an approach national legislation takes a more precise stand as for indoor prostitution, since it explicitly prohibits the creation or management of brothels (in the abolitionism, such a prohibition can be only drawn from the general legislative pattern).
  • Criminalization: A country falls under this model if outdoor and indoor prostitution are prohibited. Parties involved in prostitution can be liable to penalties, including, in some cases, the clients.
  • Regulation: Outdoor and indoor prostitution are regulated by the State. Prostitutes are often registered by local authorities and are in some cases obliged to undergo medical controls.

As for the EU, after the recent enlargement to Croatia, Member States are equally distributed into the four above models:

  • Abolitionism: Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Poland, Portugal, Slovak Republic, Slovenia, Spain.
  • New abolitionism: Belgium, Cyprus, Denmark, Estonia, France, Italy, Luxembourg.
  • Criminalization: Croatia, Finland, Ireland, Lithuania, Malta, Romania, Sweden.
  • Regulation: Austria, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Latvia, Netherlands, United Kingdom.


© Stop the Traffik

Given this fragmented legislative scenario, a debate has risen on the best policy on prostitution to tackle human trafficking for sexual exploitation: is it better to regulate, prohibit or tolerate prostitution in order to reduce sex human trafficking?
The answer is not that easy. Some pieces of research by the authors of this article highlight that the countries in which prostitution is criminalised present a lower number of arrested persons involved in human trafficking; this however seems to be a consequence of a displacement effect from outdoor to indoor prostitution, which becomes invisible and therefore very difficult to discover.
Also the regulation model shows limits, since sexual exploitation of victims often occurs in legal brothels, where controls of authorities are frequently aimed at checking the fulfilment of administrative issues (e.g. hygienic rules), rather than identifying cases of human trafficking.
Finally, abolitionist and new abolitionist countries (the majority in the EU) present the most critical situation. In such States prostitution is neither prohibited nor regulated, thus it lies into a “grey area” of legislative uncertainty that hinders effective interventions by Law Enforcement Agencies and/or other authorities. In this scenario, many criminal groups compete to dominate the sex market and violence and trafficking seem to be more rooted.
Besides the policy approach, many other factors play crucial roles in shaping the sex market and its “trafficked” dimension. Attention shall be paid to clients (i.e. the demand side), since their features strongly affect the sex market independently from prostitution policies.
Another study, carried out by the authors, focused on johns of trafficked women in Italy, Netherlands, Romania and Sweden. It investigated features and motivations of customers who purchase sex in countries with such different (even opposite) prostitution models. Results show how johns’ motivations are very similar in all nations and how these men are indifferent to legislation on prostitution: also in front of restrictive measures they would continue to be johns.


© Stop the Traffik

In detail, clients exhibit a very common view in the four countries. They claim a physiological need for sex because of their nature (high level of testosterone) and that female emancipation over the past 50 years has brought about a kind “sexual blackmail”. In their view wives/fiancés provide sex only in front of gifts, money, etc. and this pushes men to look for prostitutes, in any country, at any time.
Furthermore, they affirm that they look precisely for the exploited/trafficked foreign women because they show more affection than their regular partners. Surprisingly it is not the lower price to drive their choice, but rather their belief that such girls come from countries in which there is a culture of “due respect” to men.
This study shows that the level of human trafficking in a country is not only affected by national policies on prostitution; cultural and social factors surrounding the demand side play a great role too. More studies focused on the demand side are therefore crucial. For the time being, the lack of knowledge on the demand produces a partial picture of the phenomenon and hinders effective State interventions. (18 September 2013)

Further Reading

Anderson, B., O’Connell Davidson Julia (2003): Is Trafficking in Human Beings Demand Driven?: A Multi-Country Pilot Study, IOM Migration Research Series No. 15.

Belser, P., de Cock, M., Mehran, F. (2005): ILO minimum estimate of forced labour in the world, Geneva, International Labour Office.

Report of the Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons, especially women and children (2013), Joy Ngozi Ezeilo, UN Human Rights Council, UN Doc A/HRC/23/48.

Marshall, P. (2012): Addressing the Demand Side of Trafficking, Research Communications Groups.

Raymond, J. G. (2004): Prostitution on Demand: Legalizing the Buyers as Sexual Consumers, Violence Against Women October 2004 10: 1156-1186.

Raymond, Hughes and Gomez (2001): Sex Trafficking of Women in the United States. International and Domestic Trends, Coalition Against Trafficking in Women.

UNODC (2012): Global report on trafficking in persons 2012, Vienna, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

Viuhko, M. (2010): Human Trafficking for Sexual Exploitation and Organized Procuring in Finland, European Journal of Criminology, 7(1): 61-75.