Street prostitution in Vienna: sexual exploitation and involvement of third parties

by Marta Lidia Dubel

© Marta Dubel

Marta Lidia Dubel is lecturer at the Institute for Social and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Vienna. She has been working on Human Trafficking practically and theoretically for years and was engaged as a legal adviser for victims. In the years 2010, 2011 and 2013 she undertook research concerning sexual exploitation in outdoor prostitution and human trafficking in Austria. This result will soon be published in the volume “Sex Work(s)” that she co-edited with Susanne Kimm.

Austria belongs to one of those countries in Europe where sex work is legal and regulated by law. Although the law legalizes prostitution, this is further amended by each province resulting in regulations that differ across Austria. In Vienna the brothels, sex clubs, sauna clubs and the street prostitution is legal and regulated by guidelines and policy (Viennese Prostitution law 2011). It is important to highlight that there is insufficient research regarding the working conditions of street sex workers in Vienna.
Since 2011 a new law prohibits street prostitution in the residential area of Vienna. Sex workers have been relocated to remote and sparsely inhabited areas such as Prater and Auhof. The latter one is even classified as “too dangerous” by the police. This law which was petitioned by two citizens’ initiatives in the Felberstrasse and in the Stuwerviertel satisfied the people living in residential area but has worsened the working conditions of sex workers and reinforced their dependency and control by third parties.
With the fall of the “iron curtain” and the EU-Enlargement (2004 and 2007) the sociology of sex workers in Austria, particularly in Vienna, became more differentiated: I. e. there is more variety in the type of prostitution. Many women from Central and Eastern Europe have migrated to Austria with the desire to find better jobs. However, the restrictive policy in regard to visa and work permits necessitated the majority of them having to earn their livelihood in the sex industry. Consequently, the EU enlargement opened a new opportunity for traffickers within its borders (Ministry of  the Interior of Austria, UNODC, LEFÖ). However, more studies are needed to support that conclusion.

© Amnesty International

Until November 1, 2011 the street prostitution in the residential area of Vienna was allowed and was particularly concentrated in the fifteenth district along the outer Mariahilferstrasse, Felberstrasse and Linzerstrasse. Furthermore, in the second district, around Prater, there were some spots where sex workers were tolerated. Although it is mandatory for all sex workers to register with the police (§5(1)), many of them employed in the escort services, brothels, massage parlours are not registered. In fact, it is mainly the street sex workers who are registered and have a registration ration card due to the daily and routine controls carried out by the police.
Due to the ease or low barriers of entry to street prostitution – i.e. low cost, German language is not a requirement, no fixed working hours, and no formal employers – migrants are over represented in this segment. As a consequence of the significant inflow of migrant sex workers, the official data is more likely to reflect the state of the street sex industry rather than the entire sex industry.
To better understand the state of street prostitution in Vienna, this research was undertaken within a period of four years. Data was collected between July and October 2010, August and November 2011 and October and December 2013. The main objective of the study is to understand the role of third parties especially pimps, traffickers, and smugglers in street prostitution and the reason for the dependency of sex workers on them. The methodology consisted not only of active observation of the sex workers in their working areas but also of semi-structured interviews with forty-five of these sex workers as well as in-depth interviews with twenty of them.

The result of the study is threefold:

  • Street sex workers have poor working and living conditions characterized by low earnings, work in unsecured locations, no days off, poor hygienic facilities and the use of parking places as “performance locations”.
  • Secondly, there is a high interstate and transnational mobility among sex workers, which is demand driven.
  • Finally, there is a strong dependency by sex workers on third parties who control and exploit them.

Based on the findings from the survey it is clear that the pimps collect the money and then pay “their” sex workers and keep the larger share of the earnings. They also decide on the working hours of “their” sex workers. The street sex workers are compelled to take every client (‘john’) and to work almost every day, regardless of their personal situation and/or weather conditions. Responses from the survey show that most of the interviewees are not aware of their legal rights, also not in possession of their passports while living in the apartments rented by third parties. The third parties use not only physical violence but also emotional and psychological violence to control, manipulate and exploit the sex workers for their own gain. They also do not know where to look for help. To give an example, in the case of abuse or violence it is very unusual that sex workers would look for support from the police. In general, police are not seen as ‘friend and helper’. It is the nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and the volunteers dealing with sex workers and other marginalized groups who provide help and needed support.

© The L.A. Metro Task Force on Human Trafficking

The high concentration of sex workers in limited areas intensified the competition and results in even lower earnings. As a response, sex workers either choose to move to another street, e.g. Brunnerstrasse in the twenty-third district or to another town or country with more flexible street prostitution laws. Another consequence of the law has forced sex workers to operate “underground” by remaining in Vienna but continue to work in hidden and uncontrolled places such as apartments. Subsequently, this has lead to increased dependency and control by third parties. It has also made the accessibility to information more difficult.  
The prostitution law and the resulting regulations from 2011 deprived sex workers of their fundamental rights, in particular the freedom to choose their working space and the type of sex work they wish to engage. This law does not reflect the interests of sex workers. On the contrary, it made them more vulnerable. It is time to consider them as legitimate stakeholders with rights and not only obligations. As a first step, it is crucial to include the sex workers in the discussion and to allow them to participate in the debate about their working conditions and future.
Fortunately, there are also some positive developments initiated by civil society in order to counteract the shutting down of the Stuwerviertel and the Prater – both situated in the second district. Some of the residents, sex workers and supporters initiated a “Stuwerviertelkomitee” to fight together for the rights, working conditions and the end of the stigmatization of sex workers (16th June 2014).


Dubel, Marta Lidia; Kimm, Susanne (ed.) (forthcoming 2014)“Sex Work(s)”, Reihe Junge Wissenschaft, Band 5. HammockTreeRecords, Wien.

UNODC, Global Report on Trafficking in Persons, 2012.

LEFÖ, Jahresbericht 2011, 2012, 2013.

Bericht des Bundesministerium für Inneres über die Innere Sicherheit in Österreich. Sicherheitsbericht 2010, 2011, 2012.

Wiener Prostitutionsgesetz 2011- WPG 201, ausgegeben am 22. September 2011.

Felberstrasse Initiative – Bürgerplattform gegen Strassenprostitution

„Stuwerviertel: Anrainer leiden unter Freier“, Wiener Bezirkszeitung, Wien-02, Leopoldstadt.