Interesting Article on trends in Europe: Bulgaria makes it illegal to buy sex.
Joining Trend, Bulgaria Won’t Allow Prostitution
By NICHOLAS KULISH
October 6, 2007
SOFIA, Bulgaria, Oct. 5 — The Bulgarian government, which had been planning to legalize prostitution, abruptly reversed itself on Friday, part of a broad trend in Europe to impose bans as a way to combat sexual trafficking.
“We should be very definite in saying that selling flesh is a crime,” Rumen Petkov, the interior minister, said at a forum on human trafficking on Friday, also attended by the president, the minister of justice and the United States ambassador to Bulgaria.
Bulgaria is only the latest European country to shift its approach to prostitution. Finland last year made it illegal to buy sex from women brought in by traffickers, and Norway is on the verge of imposing an outright ban on purchasing sex.
Even in Amsterdam, the city government has proposed shutting down more than a quarter of the famed storefront brothels in the red-light district. And in the Czech Republic and the three Baltic republics, attempts at legalization similar to the Bulgarian one have been turned back.
Prostitution now exists in a legal gray area in Bulgaria, a small but important country for the European sex trade. Women are sent abroad by the thousands each year to work as prostitutes, often against their will, and many others are forced into prostitution within the country’s borders.
Opponents of legal prostitution argue that illegal operations flourish in environments where paying for sex is permitted, and that human trafficking follows the demand. The goal of prohibiting sex-for-money is to reduce the demand, and thus curtail trafficking if not stamp it out entirely.
“It has turned around,” said Gunilla Ekberg, formerly a special adviser to the Swedish government on the subject and now a co-executive director of the nonprofit Coalition Against Trafficking in Women-International. “There’s a recognition, both politically and in civil society, that Bulgaria is not going to be a haven for prostitution.”
The fight against legal prostitution has been led by an unusual coalition, including the Bush administration, feminist groups and the Swedish government. Proponents of measures like the Swedish model, which punishes customers rather than the prostitutes, say it has succeeded in Europe precisely because it singles out those who pay for sex without criminalizing those who provide it. The prostitutes, mostly women, are the real victims of the transactions, the proponents say.
While increasingly appealing, the Swedish model is hardly the only one. The Hungarian government announced last month that it would give entrepreneur permits to prostitutes to help bring them into the legal economy and collect tax revenues.
The most common arguments against the Swedish model are those long used in the legalization debate: because prostitution is all but impossible to eradicate, it is better to keep it in the open, with some control.
Even if it is not a crime for the women, critics say, they still must hide to protect their clients. “If they make prostitution illegal, it will go much more underground, more inaccessible for services and help, for police and for protection,” said Nadia Kozhouharova, a psychotherapist who works with abused women, including victims of trafficking, through a Sofia group, the Animus Association.
On the streets of Sofia, several women engaged in prostitution said they took advantage of the distribution of condoms and the free health checkups now available. A 23-year-old woman, who declined to give her name to keep her family from finding out about her occupation, said that she preferred working on the street rather than from a brothel, because she could make a judgment about whether to go with a client.
“If you’re in a club, you go to addresses and you don’t know what will happen,” she said through an interpreter. “They may beat you.”
The woman was working a stretch of Hristo Botev Boulevard populated with a mix of female and transvestite prostitutes. She wore fishnet stockings and a denim jacket, and snapped her bubble gum between drags on her cigarette.
She had worked in Germany, she said, where prostitution is legal, but preferred Bulgaria because, she said, “everything here is with condoms,” whereas men in Germany insisted that she perform unprotected oral sex on them. Asked how she ended up in prostitution, she replied simply, “No one has become a prostitute for a good reason.”
The anti-prostitution movement has received significant support because of the link between prostitution and human trafficking. According to the State Department, an estimated 800,000 people are taken by traffickers across international borders each year, four of five of them women. In December 2002, the United States adopted a foreign-policy position against legalized prostitution, based on the link with trafficking.
“Legalizing prostitution creates a legitimate business front for the most brutal exploitation of women,” said Mark P. Lagon, the United States ambassador at large to combat trafficking. “It is the demand that draws a flow of people and a dark underground sex-trafficking industry.”
Bulgarian officials said the trafficking in women from their country was directed chiefly to places in Western Europe, like Germany and the Netherlands, where prostitution is legal. “The traffickers are very practical businessmen,” said Antoaneta Vassileva, executive secretary of the national antitrafficking commission here. “They are going to the countries where the law is not suppressing them.”
The Bulgarian and Norwegian police said they broke up a trafficking ring in May in Oslo, where 18 Bulgarian women were held in apartments and forced to work as prostitutes. Norway’s government is working on a law to punish people who buy sex; a government official there said it should be in effect by spring.
The Swedish law went into effect on Jan. 1, 1999. While it allows for jail sentences, customers have received only fines so far. Much of the deterrent effect, proponents say, comes from the repercussions of being publicly identified as a john. This, in turn, makes Sweden less appealing for traffickers, officials there say.
When eavesdropping on telephone calls by traffickers and pimps, the police hear them complain that “Sweden is a bad market,” said Kajsa Wahlberg, a detective inspector in the Swedish National Criminal Police. “Buyers are afraid to get caught. You have to have an apartment. You have to move the women around.” She said that unlike brothels in Oslo or Copenhagen, which might have 50 women each, those broken up in Sweden usually had just two or three.
Women’s advocates in Bulgaria hope to duplicate Sweden’s success. One leading voice here, and an organizer of the forum on Friday, is Nadezhda Mihaylova, a member of parliament and former foreign minister. She said the debate in this country of 7.3 million was still affected by the reaction against the totalitarianism of the Communist era.
Under Communism, the state controlled almost all aspects of life. Afterward, she said, the pendulum swung too far in the opposite direction. “A lot of people say the state should not interfere with personal choice,” she said.
While the front-burner issue in Bulgaria is the export of women into forced prostitution abroad, Ms. Vassileva of the antitrafficking commission said that 45 percent of trafficking takes place within the country, often from poor rural villages to the big cities and resorts along the Black Sea coast. The country’s chief prosecutor, Boris Velchev, who was at the forum, described what he called a “double standard” in the treatment of those forced into prostitution abroad and attitudes toward those domestically, who he said receive less attention and are more likely to be blamed than treated as victims.
“I believe the legalization of prostitution would make Bulgaria a destination for sex tourism,” Ms. Mihaylova said. “This is not the future that I see for my country.”