The Failure of Legalizing Prostitution: Comparisons across Europe

The Netherlands is well known for a progressive social policy when it comes to prostitution, making it the Las Vegas of Europe.  But has this approach, based on a notion of Dutch pragmatism, reduced the negative social ills such as public health concerns, safety and security for sex workers, crime, as well as human trafficking? A four-part series in SPIEGEL Online traces the failures of this approach:

Pierrette Pape believes that there are consequences to the way prostitution is viewed in various countries. “Nowadays, a little boy in Sweden grows up with the fact that buying sex is a crime. A little boy in the Netherlands grows up with the knowledge that women sit in display windows and can be ordered like mass-produced goods.” Pape is the spokeswoman of the European Women’s Lobby in Brussels, an umbrella group for 2,000 European women’s organizations.

Pape finds it “surprising” that Germany is not seriously reviewing its policies related to human trafficking. “The debate has begun throughout Europe, and we hope that German politicians and aid organizations will pay more attention to human rights in the future than they have until now.”

Several European countries now follow the Swedish model. In Iceland, which has adopted similar legislation, politicians are even considering a ban on online pornography. Since 2009, Norway has also punished the customers of prostitutes. In Barcelona, it is illegal to employ the services of a street prostitute.

via Unprotected: Berlin’s Erroneous Approach – SPIEGEL ONLINE.


12 thoughts on “The Failure of Legalizing Prostitution: Comparisons across Europe”

  1. According to the article, since Sweden tightened prostitution laws the number of street prostitution has gone down to half of what it once was. The key to this was punishing the customers, and not the prostitutes. This idea seems like the obvious solution, but is actually a relatively new practice. I think that it makes the most sense, and other countries should put it into practice, because so many prostitutes do not want to be in the situations they are in, and many of them are victims of human-trafficking. I think Sweden should be commended for its efforts in reducing prostitution, and approve of the other European countries that are considering adopting the “Swedish model.”

  2. I was reading some of the comments for this article and I was so saddened by them. Despite the overwhelming research show that legalizing prostitution does in fact increase human trafficking, some people refuse to remove the wool from over their eyes. Not only does research prove this, but it should be readily apparent if anyone takes even a second to think about legalized prostitution in an economic framework. When there are no penalties for buying sex from a prostitute, then the cost of buying sex is much lower than when there are punishments. Therefore, there will be a higher demand when buying sex is legal than when it is illegal. When human traffickers perceive this higher demand, they will supply more to that country to meet this higher demand than they would if the demand were lower.

  3. This was a great article. I am glad that there are other countries that have decided or are deciding to follow the example of Sweden. I wanted to read this article because it reminded me of what is going on in our own country. We have some of the same problems here in the United States where prostitution has always been illegal but its been the prostitutes who get punished. What is only just now being realized is that most of those prostitutes were coerced or kidnapped when young by men who traffic them. These men make women dependent on drugs and force them to make porn or to do prostitution and then they get rich off of it. But finally in the U.S. we are starting to wake up and realize that if we need to stop prostitution we need to go to the root of the problem, the pimps and the traffickers. Here is an example of what is going on from an article in the New York Times.

  4. Let me play the devil’s advocate.

    I agree that changing the very demand of the problem is ideal. In a utopia, society would not want harmful drugs or prostitutes. In fact, why stop at prostitutes? Let’s punish smokers and drinkers, because prohibiting alcohol definitely stopped anyone from drinking.

    Perhaps the problem here isn’t the legalization of prostitution. Keep in mind, Europe, like the rest of the world, is just now recovering from a large economic downturn. Maybe Germany should try to deal with its apparent human trafficking issues that feed the black market supply of prostitutes. Don’t fall into the trap of post hoc fallacy by assuming legalization is the cause of human trafficking and human rights issues.

    I think we can all agree that, unfortunately, there will always be a demand for prostitution. Maybe it’s better that it can be legalized and regulated. Are there people who will take advantage of prostitutes? Always. But there are also corrupt politicians, lying accountants, and black-hat hackers. There are bad people in all walks of life. At least if prostitution is legalized then prostitutes will feel less inclined to rely on pimps and gangsters for protection.

    Maybe some legalization and regulation is better than trying to change human nature.

  5. I agree with you, simonliuu; human nature is not easily changed (although we could definitely have a religious conversation about that), and there will probably always be a demand for prostitution. However, I think the Swedish model is a good one to follow when it comes to prostitution. If some women are saved by prosecuting those who buy sex, then I think it is worth pursuing that kind of a policy.

    On a more general level though, it is also important to consider the effects that raising the stakes would have on the sex industry itself. I think the Swedish model is good and has proved effective, but we also need to not make the industry even more dangerous and abusive than it already is. I would hate for women to be treated worse by their employers because of the policies enacted in order to end that very cruelty. This idea is expanded on in this article:

    This obviously is a complicated issue; no country has yet to eliminate prostitution, and as simonliuu notes, maybe that’s impossible. But we need to remember to consider all sides of the issue and really try to do what’s best for all parties involved before we act.

  6. Every time I hear about this issue, it truly baffles me. This concept of punishing the johns and not the prostitutes in an effort to cut down prostitution and human trafficking seems like common sense. It goes to show that the cultural norms and beliefs that people grow up with will impact policy and law. In the united states, both prostitutes and johns are punished for prostitution but human trafficking is still one of the biggest social problems that we face in today’s society. It makes me wonder whether there are other policies that are “common sense” that we just can’t recognize yet, like the new laws in Europe. It also made me wonder whether there are policies out there are, specifically in the United States, that are heavily influenced by cultural beliefs, when it is not necessarily the best option for the people.

  7. This is definitely a complex issue and to me is related to a broader debate on the government’s right to make moral laws. If you don’t think they do, then prostitution should be legal. It’s a service exchanged for a price between two consenting people. The fact that it may cause other crimes on the periphery to be committed at a higher rate is another matter. I don’t think a law should be based on the chance there a small percentage of those involved in the industry might engage in illegal activities (which they probably would engage in regardless of the legal status of prostitution). I don’t believe prostitution should be legal, but it has more to do with the general affect it has on the morality of a society. Also, I don’t think ignoring the role that the prostitute plays just to focus on prosecuting the buyer makes sense. We don’t let drug dealers get off and just focus on the users, we go after both parties.

  8. A good counterpoint. After walking the streets of south Chicago for many months, I can tell you that the corruption problem in police departments is very real. No one wants to get the police involved on the citizen side, and the police don’t respond quickly (if at all). Police are volatile and protective of their own; no prostitute would want to call the police if they were wronged.

    That being said; I agree with the points made here about the agency of sex workers. Sometimes academics make it sound like prostitution isn’t a choice for all sex workers. As Trawson’s article points out, we like to think of prostitutes as young people who are forced into the sex trade and are looking for a way out. However, that group is a minority in the sex trade. Perhaps this is controversial to say; but many sex workers choose to be in the sex trade even when other options are presented to them. Sex work is the path of least resistance to those who grow up in poverty and drug-riddled household, but it is NOT an inevitable choice. I met many people in Chicago who had used government and private programs available to get out of the cycle, but to use those programs requires effort. The reason why homeless shelters overflow and young people can’t find beds is because those people were either not aware of these programs, or chose not to take advantage of the state and local charities offered to them to get out before they fell far behind. It’s much more difficult to pull a prostitute off the streets and make them a contributor to society than it is to keep a potential prostitute from dropping out of school in high school.

    You can make laws to attack supply and demand, but ultimately it will not matter as long as participating in the sex industry is still a socially viable choice for pimps and prostitutes.

  9. I think this failure might be a good thing. It is displaying information not only about prostitution in Europe, but also human trafficking. This is a very prevalent issue that is commonly overlooked. It comes into view when human trafficking rings in our own communities are found. However, most people don’t realize the severity in other countries. The reason human trafficking isn’t taken more seriously is because of awareness. Things like this only help people become more educated. is a good website to learn more about human trafficking and what you can do to help.

    Now relating back to The Netherlands….
    I really think they had good intentions doing this. For most new concepts in legislation they take trial and error. This solution didn’t work. Since prostitution is such an issue though, they should try something else. As others have noted on here, Sweden has a good idea. Punishing the customers is probably the most effective solution I have come across. More countries should try legislation like this.

  10. People have different perceptions of whats right and wrong. Some people think its morally right to sell their bodies because its their property to freely control and they will advocate to legalize prostitution. Then there is the majority which see prostitution as morally wrong and want to make it illegal.

    I am with the majority who find it degrading to human nature on both the buyer and the seller. Sweden’s approach to prostitution focuses on just punishing the buyer. This approach seemed to take Europe by surprise especially Germany. The number of prostitutes in Sweden has been cut in half by their revolutionary approach. Other European countries have noticed Sweden’s success in controlling their prostitution and have modeled their prostitution laws after Sweden’s. This is a step in the right direction for much of Europe.

    The point made about little boys growing up in Sweden vs. little boys growing up in the Netherlands is important to note since little boys grow up to become men. A boy who is taught at a young age that prostitution is illegal and wrong will grow up to advocate that it’s wrong verses a boy who grew up knowing it is something he can purchase. Children are future leaders whether they have a position in politics or the ability to vote. Children form opinions from the beginning and influencing children to understand that prostitution is wrong will benefit laws in the future to diminish prostitution through out Europe and eventually through out the world.

  11. I quite enjoyed reading this article as it addresses an issue that I find very important. It’s sad how how countries are just now realizing that punishing the clients versus the prostitute is the real way to help this issue. For a while, I was on the pro-legalization of prostitution for many reasons. However, while in an ideal world there would be perfect regulation of it and everything would be fine, I’ve come to realize that is not the case. There are too many factors that will most likely only lead to the increase of prostitution. I am totally for the protection of prostitutes though. There are a large number of situations that lead a girl to become a prostitute, most of them heartbreaking. Often time they feel there isn’t much else for them to be able to but become a sex-worker. The cracking down on johns and pimps is what will lead to a decrease in prostitution as well as human trafficking. I was in a club in high school that was about raising awareness for sex-trafficking and it is a truly ugly world that is difficult to get out of once you’ve been trapped into it. I hope that more countries will follow this lead and start to make laws and change the culture of how sex workers are treated.

  12. What struck me most powerfully while reading the previous comments is how truly tragic it is that we think of social issues in terms of economics. Yes, I definitely agree that Sweden has the right idea, and, practically speaking, prostitution is a commodity. However, the question of whether something is legal or illegal has always been an inherently moral issue. Societies share common values and determine what they will and will not allow based on those values. Otherwise, we could contend that if we lived in a truly utilitarian system, there is absolutely nothing wrong with stealing or murder as long as it serves the common good. Perhaps sometimes it would. But we, particularly students at BYU, know that people are much more than cogs in a machine acting and reacting to mechanical stimuli around them.
    We have inherent dignity. Prostitution by its very nature strips a prostitute and a john of their self worth and dignity. It reduces them to serving only lower instincts. The prostitute is not a person, but an object. The john is not a soul, but a bundle of lust-laced nerves. And what of the families of the buyers? Prostitution tears families apart–even if it is engaged in before marriage. It leads to false perceptions of sex, of women, and of male-female dynamics. It is the ultimate demonstration of a world without restraint, responsibility, or respect. We all know this, and we know that it is wrong.
    How can any society condone such behavior? Legalization is to condone. Perhaps it is legalized because people don’t want to control the free will of others. But that is taking the concept of “liberty” to a dangerous extreme. Every virtue is a vice when extended too far, even freedom. Of course, if it is illegal, people will still find a way to break their marriages and distort perceptions of women. But at least they do so knowing that society at large condemns their behavior as reprehensible.

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