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Hungary: Turning Clients Into Criminals

In Hungary, a collection of charitable organisations claiming to be concerned with human trafficking have been discussing legislation which, if ever approved by the government, would criminalize the clients of sex workers. The proposed legislation is similar to that in Sweden, and also akin to that recently discussed in England.

Hungary lies to the east of Austria, and is roughly the size of Indiana. A major power in Europe until the end of World War I, it was Communist from 1947 until 1989. It is now a parliamentary republic (as are many other countries in Europe) and joined the European Union in 2004.

There have been no official announcements that the government of Hungary, where prostitution has been legal for ten years, is actually considering the proposed legislation; it is simply being debated by civil groups at the moment. However, as is often the case in situations like this, there has been no official consultation with any of Hungary's 10,000 prostitutes.

"The vast majority of the Hungarian sex workers do not know anything about the proposed legislation, because there is no contact between the organizations specialized in this field and the law makers," says Ágnes Földi, founder of the Association of Hungarian Prostitutes (or Magyarországi Prostituáltak Érdekvédelmi Egyesülete, if you want the Hungarian).

If such legislation were to become law, though, what effects would it have on people working in the sex industry?

"If the legislation prosecutes the sex workers and their clients, instead of controlling the sex industry, sex workers would have to work illegally," says Ms. Földi. "As a consequence of this, prostitutes would have to face defenselessness and international human trafficking, as well as a growing migration of Hungarian sex workers, which is already remarkable."

Aliya Rakhmetova, project coordinator at the Sex Workers Rights Advocacy Network (SWAN), based in the Hungarian capitol of Budapest, concurs. "So far, Hungary has been a kind of exemplary country in terms of legislation around prostitution," she says. "It is not perfect, of course, but it has still been more 'prostitution friendly'—if I may say so—than other countries.

"Criminalizing clients will force sex workers underground in search of clients, and this will definitely put sex workers in a more dangerous position health-wise and safety-wise. Taking away or scaring away clients would mean that in a time of economic crisis the street sex workers, most of whom are women, would lose their means of earning money—earning money which they do legally!"

Apart from illegality and the subsequent increase in vulnerability, Ms. Rakhmetova believes that the proposed legislation would have other consequences. "Like in any business, as the interest shrinks or moves to another location, the suppliers look for other ways of selling and promoting their products and services," she says.

"This will mean that, with a reduced number of clients, sex workers would probably have to lower their prices and/or provide services which they had not agreed to provide before, e.g. unsafe sex or types of sex which are physically less pleasant. Also, in search of clients, sex workers might end up depending on mediators, who would find clients and provide space for sex services so the clients don't get busted.

"The police," she adds, "should put effort into hunting down traffickers and leave grown-up, average citizens alone to decide with whom and when they want to have consensual sex!"

Meanwhile, Ms. Földi also argues that, if it came into effect, the legislation would actually change little about the trade. "Prostitution as such and its structure would remain the same—only the name of it would change," she says. "Their web servers would use '.com' instead of '.hu' and they would advertise themselves, for example, as 'erotic masseurs' and 'partner seekers'."

Also, she adds, prohibiting clients is difficult because after all, doing so is not in the interest of the prostitutes.

As you may have read one of my previous articles on migrant sex workers in the UK, England has also been considering similar end-demand legislation, which would criminalize some clients. Even Amsterdam, famous for its booming Red Light District, is facing changes in the industry. Why does SWAN think that attitudes throughout Europe are becoming harsher?

"Off the top of my head, I could name a number of reasons," says Ms. Rakhmetova. "For instance, there is this great mission in the USA and Europe to combat trafficking for sexual purposes. It seems that one of the easiest ways is to combat and get rid of sex workers and clients, instead of investigating and arresting suspects in organized trafficking rings.

"Also, the discussion of morals and religion comes and goes like a tide in every country every time there is a change in government, election campaigns, etc. Sex workers, like other vulnerable and underprivileged groups, are blamed for all faults of the State and sins of society.

"My personal opinion is that it also might be an attempt at controlling the sexuality and sexual activeness of the population in each country. If I play with an idea which some feminists use—that prostitution or sex work in general promotes male domination—I can turn it around and say that, actually, prostitution might as well be a liberating factor for women: by earning money the way they can or like or enjoy, women are less dependent on male strength and income. This way, they might have more choices in a relationship, and putting up with a violent, brutal, alcoholic husband can be no longer the only option of survival.

"Finally, the countries might be trying to interfere in the private lives of their citizens. Today, they don't allow you to have sex with whomever you chose and outlaw sex services. Tomorrow, they might proclaim some positions for sexual intercourse as perverse or claim that it is sexual exploitation to have sex more that two times a week, no matter who you are having sex with. I'm just joking, but you never know…"

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The "Swedish Model" and its Discontents

The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, which works closely with SWAN, has produced a couple of interesting videos critical of the Sweden's approach to prostitution and also to drugs. I wasn't aware of this, but Sweden is also moving toward a hard-line policy on criminalizing drug use, once again defining themselves against the Dutch model. As a result, Stockholm is one of the few European cities without a needle-exchange program. The videos are up on YouTube and can found here: (link) and (link).

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Liz Farsaci
September 1st, 2009
Liz Farsaci's picture
Liz Farsaci is a journalist, model and general gun for hire. Having returned to the States after years of living in Europe, she is still awed by the amount of stuff one can buy in Walgreens, and is...