Prostitution is considered as one of the oldest professions, which always causes conflicting points of view. The sex industry tied to human trafficking, is a billion-dollar industry, second only to the illegal drugs empire. The European Union (EU), as well as many other international organizations, has had trouble in deciding collectively whether to legalize it or abolish it. The controversy behind legalizing prostitution relies mainly in its close link to human trafficking. The most common form of human trafficking within the European Union is for the purpose of sexual exploitation. In 2019, 60% of victims of human trafficking in the EU were trafficked for sexual exploitation. The number of prostitutes across the region ranges between 700,000 and 1.2 million. Thus, human trafficking for sexual exploitation, being one of the most serious security problems of the EU, is linked directly with the legalization of prostitution and the sex market, as a whole.
Prostitution is legal and regulated in Germany, Switzerland, Greece, Austria and many other countries of the European Union. In Germany alone, the industry is estimated to be worth $16.3 billion. However, it is naive to believe that the legalization of prostitution will automatically translate in bettering the economic, social, work and health conditions of those in the field. Nevertheless, this just creates a vicious cycle because the money they earn ends up in the hands of the brothel owners and procurers. In this type of business, no matter the conditions women are always seen as disposable products who are used and discarded, that is why it is inherently linked to male power and control. Under these circumstances, woman working in such atmosphere will always be in a much more vulnerable position.
Furthermore, it is important to take into consideration that trafficking humans for sexual exploitation is clearly a gender-specific phenomenon that happens at the expenses of girls and women. Women are mainly the prostitutes and trafficking victims, while men tend to be the clients or procurers. Over the period 2017-2018, the percentage of women among the victims of trafficking was 92%. For that reason, prostitution cannot be untied from the jaws of human trafficking. Both consist in supplying and delegating women for the objective of male sexual pleasure through exploitation.
Since 2014, Article 2 and 3 of the European Union now mention gender equality and the respect for human dignity as some of their main values. Notwithstanding, having countries that benefit the most out of prostitution is a juxtaposition that still needs to be analyzed. The reality is that every woman faces systematic oppression and most do not enter prostitution because they want to but due to poverty and limited opportunities. The true question remains how much of an act of free will can prostitution be when you live within a system that sees your body as an object for sexual pleasure; this being more important than your human quality.
In legalizing prostitution, the security of sex workers has never been part of the debate, neither has their integral health. Likewise, looking out for prostitutes or fighting the system that perpetually offers the consumption of bodies has never been part of the agenda. The factors that influence the decision of politicians exhibits a strong male gaze of the issue. All politicians care about is the economic benefit and taking prostitution from the streets and into enclosed spaces so everything looks “cleaner”. Furthermore, when prostitution is legalized sex tourism increases and red light districts are institutionalized, which makes the situation altogether worse. Pimps and traffickers are given a free pass to operate and even can hide their victims in plain sight.
In Europe, most sex workers come from other countries and do not have a legal immigration status, hence, if prostitution is legal or not, does not help at all. Another issue is that being a sex worker holds a lot of stigma within society. Illegality frames everything they do, leaving a space wide open for anything to happen to these women. Therefore, multiplying even more the level of vulnerability and causing for women prefer not being branded as sex workers or have it in official record. Thus, if prostitution is as innocent as any other business, as some politicians have declared, why is it so dangerous or why having it in your official record represents such a repercussion.
Overall, in the European Union, member states have a very lenient approach towards prostitution. Only three countries have a strict ban on sex work which criminalizes both buyers and sellers. The countries that possess such a neo-abolitionist approach are France, Sweden and Ireland. Prostitution can be a euphemism for human trafficking and with its legalization it tries to restrict it in accordance with rules imposed by the state, regardless, there is no way of guaranteeing it. Thus, legalizing prostitution is not the right decision done by the governments, neither a way of taking care of prostitutes, rather is just a way of patching up the issue without going to the core.