Politics & Policy

Don’t Legalize

The Czech Republic proposes a Dutch solution to sex trafficking.

In the Czech Republic over the last decade, the sex trade has gone from being almost nonexistent to a hundred-million dollar moneymaking industry for organized-crime networks and collaborating corrupt officials. The women and children who are used for the sex acts get to keep little of the money; in fact, most of them are slaves, victims of sex trafficking.

According to a study by the Czech Ministry of Interior, there are over 860 brothels in the Czech Republic, of which 200 are in Prague. The Czech Republic is a destination country for Western European sex tourists. By one estimate, 65 percent of men who buy sex acts there are foreigners. The capital city has the reputation of being a “stag party” capital of Europe, meaning it is a favorite beer and sex party spot for men, mainly from Great Britain and Germany. There are almost 200 websites on the Internet for prostitution services in the Czech Republic, up from 45 in 1997, that enable sex tourists to book their travel and appointments to buy sex acts before they leave home. The Czech police estimate that there are 15,000 women and children in prostitution in the Czech Republic. Thousands of them stand along the roads or wait in roadhouses along the German and Austrian borders. Mafias control most of the victims.

The Czech-German border is a well-known site for child prostitution. German men, in particular, cross the border to buy children for sex acts. Last year, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) released a report claiming there were approximately 500 children sold for sex along the border. The Czech government denounced the report as an exaggeration. Still in late March, the Czech Tourist Authority and police started a campaign aimed at child abusers coming into the Czech Republic. Leaflets in German warning that child prostitution is illegal are being distributed to men crossing the border into the Czech Republic on weekends.

The Czech government recognizes that it has a serious problem. The deputy mayor of Prague Rudolf Blazek said in the Prague Business Journal: “The spread of brothels, peep shows and prostitution in the city is becoming unbearable. Prague is starting to resemble Amsterdam.”

Contrary to that observation, the Czech government is proposing a Dutch solution to the problem: Legalization of prostitution. The Ministry of Interior, which is preparing the bill, believes that it is possible to separate prostitution from crime, register prostitutes, impose health regulations, and collect taxes. And in the process eliminate the involvement of organized-crime groups in the trade and decrease the trafficking of women and children. This is wishful thinking.

Prostitution has been legalized with these positive expected outcomes in Australia, the Netherlands, and Germany. Although legalization has resulted in big legal profits for a few, the other benefits have not materialized. Organized-crime groups continue to traffic women and children and run illegal prostitution operations along side the legal businesses. In Victoria, Australia, legalization of brothels was supposed to eliminate street prostitution. It did not; in fact, last year there were calls for legalizing street prostitution in order to “control it.” Legalization does not reduce prostitution or trafficking; in fact, both activities increase because men can legally buy sex acts and pimps and brothel keepers can legally sell and profit from them. Cities develop reputations as sex-tourist destinations.

When prostitution is illegal, but thriving, government officials often look covetously at all that money being made by criminals, some say over $200 million dollars in the Czech Republic, and jealously think they are not getting their share. The Czech Ministry of Interior estimates that the state and municipalities will earn tens of millions of dollars in tax revenue after legalization of prostitution. They can keep on dreaming.

German lawmakers thought they were going to get hundreds of millions of euros in tax revenue when they legalized prostitution and brothels in 2002. But keeping with criminal nature of prostitution, the newly redefined “business owners” and “freelance staff” in brothels will not pay up. Germany is suffering a budget deficit, and the Federal Audit Office estimates that the government has lost over two billion euros a year in unpaid tax revenue from the sex industry. Last week, lawmakers started to look for ways to increase collection of taxes from prostitutes. Disgustingly, they expect to solve their economic problems, at least in part, off the backs of the some of the most abused and exploited women in the world.

This predatory behavior of the government sharply contrasts to the promised benefits of legalization in Germany, such as government benefits and rights for women. Legalization was supposed to enable women to get health insurance and retirement benefits, and enable them to join unions.

The normalization of prostitution as work has not occurred in Germany, the Netherlands, or Australia, nor will it occur in the Czech Republic. Following legalization, few women have signed up for benefits or for unions. The reason has to do with the basic nature of prostitution. It is not work; it is not a job like any other. It is abuse and exploitation that women only engage in if forced to or when they have no other options. Even where prostitution is legal, a significant proportion of women is trafficked. Women and children controlled by mafias and criminals cannot register with an authority or join a union. Women who are making a more or less free choice to be in prostitution do so out of immediate necessity–debt, unemployment, and poverty. They consider resorting to prostitution as a temporary means of making money, and assume as soon as a debt is paid or a certain sum of money is earned for poverty-stricken families, they will go home. They seldom tell friends or relatives what they are doing to earn money. They do not want to register with authorities and create a permanent record of being a prostitute. And unionization of “sex workers” is a leftist fantasy; it is completely incompatible with the coercive and abusive nature of prostitution.

The legalization of prostitution in the Czech Republic is particularly dangerous because of its central geographical location between Eastern and Western Europe and its membership in the European Union. The Czech Republic is already a transit country for the trafficking of victims from Eastern to Western Europe. Legalization of prostitution will open up a gateway for the flow of women from poorer countries to the east into all of the Europe.

In the Czech Republic, women have not had an effective voice to protest the move to legalize prostitution. There are no civil-society organizations speaking out against the harm of legalization to women, families, and communities. In many countries, NGOs protest attempts to subvert women’s rights and the well being of all of society by making such abuse and exploitation legal. In the Czech Republic, the best-known anti-trafficking organization, La Strada–Czech Republic, is a member of a Dutch founded network of anti-trafficking NGOs. Consequently, this NGO speaks in a Dutch voice and supports its funder’s view that prostitution can be work for women. It supports legalization of prostitution. Effectively, the women have been abandoned to the pimps and sex tourists.

Recently a broad spectrum of international human-rights activists has come together to urge the Czech government to halt the legalization of prostitution. They represent an amazing breadth of political and philosophical positions, ranging from feminist to liberal to conservative, from secular to faith-based, from U.S.-based policy organizations to anti-trafficking organizations in source countries for victims of trafficking, such as Russia, Georgia, and Tajikistan, and from such diverse corners of the world as India, Israel, France, Thailand, Canada, Ireland, and New Zealand. What they have in common is their knowledge that prostitution is harmful and their commitment to abolishing this form of sexual exploitation worldwide.

Last week, 110 signatories for organizations representing millions of members, sent a letter to Czech President Vaclav Klaus and other government officials urging them to reconsider their plan to legalize prostitution.

We are writing to express our profound concern over the prospect that the Czech Republic may be planning to legalize prostitution. … We believe that such action would be a terrible mistake for the country as a whole and, in particular, for the women and children of the Eastern Europe region who will be victims of the Czech Republic sex trade. … We are certain that legalizing prostitution within the Czech Republic will not curb abuses such as child prostitution and enslaving sex trafficking. Organized crime controls the “industry” and, in a legalized regime, it will have an enhanced capacity to do so. … Brothels are sexual gulags for women and girls. … A decision to accommodate traffickers, pimps, and organized crime’s slave trade in girls and women [is] an act unworthy of Czech’s traditions of fighting for their own freedom. It is an act we will resist with every democratic means available to us, and will fight in Congress and our legislatures, through our organized women’s movements and from tens of thousands of church and synagogue pulpits. At a minimum, we are determined that our efforts will in financial terms alone, be more costly to the Republic–and not in terms of tourism alone–than any hypothetical financial gains claimed. We close by urging you to reject the calls for legalization that sully the reputation of the Czech Republic and dishonor its history. Please take a leadership role in resisting the trade in women and children and please, in a manner consistent with your traditions, maintain the Republic as a model for human rights and democracy.

The signers of the letter pointed out that the decision by the Czech Republic will affect all of Europe. The redefinition of prostitution as a form of work for women deeply threatens the rights and status of women everywhere. In the European Union, the Netherlands and Germany have already legalized the sexual commodification and sale of women’s bodies, with none of the social and economic benefits it was supposed to bring. There is no reason to believe that legalization will be any more successful in the Czech Republic.

The Czech Republic will be wise to get tough against crime and corruption instead of selling out women and children.

Donna M. Hughes is a professor and the Carlson Endowed Chair in Women’s Studies at the University of Rhode Island.

Donna M. HughesDonna M. Hughes is a University of Rhode Island professor of women’s studies and an activist against prostitution, human trafficking, and pornography. Hughes has written extensively on the prevalence of ...


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