Policing Prostitution: A comparative perspective on Austria and the Netherlands

von Birgit Sauer

© Birgit Sauer

Birgit Sauer is full professor at the Institute of Political Science of the University of Vienna. Her research interests are among others Governance and Gender, Politics of Gender Relations, State Theory and Theory of Institutions. As a researcher she is currently involved in the European Cooperation in Science and Technology (COST) Action “Comparing European Prostitution Policies: Understanding Scales and Cultures of Governance”.

By commenting on the „Final Report of the International Comparative Study of Prostitution Policy: Austria and the Netherlands” by Hendrik Wagenaar, Sietske Altink and Helga Amesberger the following text generally reflects on sex-work and on prostitution policies. My arguments are grouped around seven dimensions, addressed in the report.
The report first past applies a ‘post-adoption approach’, focusing less on the process of policy-formulation, on the amendments of laws and the creation of new policy measures but on the implementation of laws and regulations. It is important to ask why ‘good’ laws and instruments have un-intended and harmful effects on sex-workers rights and why ‘bad’ or ambiguous laws and regulations make the work of stakeholders – for instance the police, civil servants and NGOs – difficult. Such a research focus is able to generate sound insights into how the policing, the regulating of prostitution works on the ground in Austria and the Netherlands.


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Second, the study argues that policies should protect and safeguard the rights of the most vulnerable group in the sex-market – the sex-workers. This normative perspective is based on empirical research about the implementation of prostitution policies in the two countries. While the controversial ideological and moral debates on prostitution range from a sex work-approach to an abolitionist approach which suggests to prohibit prostitution for instance by fining clients, this study avoids such moral standpoints and argues with empirical evidence. The authors, hence, argue that sex-work is organized as a capitalist market, which therefore needs some state regulation in order to protect the rights of all actors in this market – and again, it should protect the most vulnerable group of sex-workers. Protecting the social rights and work rights of sex-workers cannot be achieved by creating precarious or black markets through criminalizing sex-workers or their clients. The report suggests to the contrary that effective prostitution policies need a clear commitment to the rights of sex-workers.
This brings me to a third important point to reflect on in prostitution policy – evidence based policy-making. Debates in political science stress the necessity to base policies on evidence – not on assumptions, on fear, on prejudice or on ambiguous emotions towards the issue at stake. The latter is often the case in all gender policies and especially in prostitution policies. The study convincingly argues that prostitution policy differs from other policy fields as it is constructed as ‘moral policy’. Moral policies are characterized by the fact that morally charged frames and assumptions guide the creation and implementation of measures. Such frames and assumptions often disguise reality, the everyday life, the needs of sex-workers. This is on one hand an explanation for unintended policy outcomes and on the other for the fact, that sex-workers still suffer from insufficient regulations of their working conditions – be it in terms of working hours, wages and rights against clients. To protect the rights of sex-workers policy implementation needs a critical reflection and monitoring to ‘rationalize’ policy measures.
A fourth important result of the report reflects that prostitution policies in Vienna run the danger to produce forced mobility of sex-workers through the registration process. Moreover, registration might build an opportunity structure for further exploitation of sex-workers by forcing them to change places, to travel – and hence, to get victims of trafficking.


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Fifth, the report perceives prostitution politics as a process of negotiating contradicting interests of citizens – as for example between the neighborhood of the 15th city district in Vienna which lobbied to stop street prostitution and sex-workers claiming their work-place on the street. The study reveals that sex-workers have been deprived of basic rights to participate in these policy processes, namely the right to organize, to get voice, and to be heard. Hence, policies in Vienna should aim at encouraging and supporting sex-workers to organize, to form a public voice and to create organizational power for negotiating with employers and proprietors of bars, brothels and “Laufhäuser”.
Six: While there have been some weak attempts to include the voices of sex-workers and of NGOs representing sex-workers in Vienna in the process of policy formulation it is also necessary to include these groups in the implementation and monitoring process to democratize prostitution policies. Here, Austria could learn form the Dutch monitoring system.
Seventh, prostitution policy is a multi-level policy, interacting with different policy fields such as migration, health, and public security. Prostitution policy is trapped in this complexity. Therefore the report suggests to sorting out clear aims for the different policy fields and not to use prostitution policy as a means to manage migration. Also, to mix up prostitution with trafficking in persons runs the danger to perceive sex-workers as victims of trafficking and thus to disguise exploitation which stems from non-regulation and precarity in the prostitution field.
To conclude: Like the authors of the report I am convinced that a prohibitive approach to prostitution is detrimental for sex-workers and moreover, such an approach will not help to abolish prostitution. Prostitution is not the oldest profession in the world – prostitution to the contrary is part of modern bourgeois heteronormative arrangements of capitalist societies, codified in marriage and family laws and institutionalized in the bourgeois notion of heterosexual, monogamous love. In order to abolish prostitution ‘as we know it’, fundamental changes in these institutions are necessary. This might revolutionize not only sex-work but also our Western notions and institutions of gender (in-)equality (27th August 2014).

Further reading

Sauer, B., Rosenberger, S., (2011) Politics, Religion and Gender. Framing and regulating the veil. Routledge, London/New York.

Sauer, B., Ludwig, G., Wöhl, S. (2009) Staat und Geschlecht. Grundlagen und aktuelle Herausforderungen feministischer Staatstheorie. Nomos, Baden-Baden.

Sauer, B. (2008) Gewalt, Geschlecht, Kultur. Fallstricke aktueller Debatten um „traditionsbedingte“ Gewalt, in: Sauer, B.; Strasser, S. (Hg.) (2008) Zwangsfreiheiten. Multikulturalität und Feminismus. Promedia, Wien.

Sauer, B. (2008) An der Front des westlichen Patriacharts. Sexarbeit, Frauenhandel und politische Regulierungen in Wien, in: Nautz, J., Sauer, B. (Hg.) (2008) Frauenhandel. Diskurse und Praktiken. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen.