Just how voluntary is prostitution really?

The term “prostitution” refers to the provision of sexual services in exchange for payment. In Austria, there are currently around 8,000 registered sex workers* active in the industry. The motivations for working as a prostitute can vary widely. When looked at more closely, however, it’s actually very rare for such a choice to be anything like a “voluntary action”.

When sexual services are being used, nothing other than fulfilling the desires of the person buying the sex is involved. Some sex workers certainly do offer their services of their own free will. Escort girls, for example, who accompany their clients to business dinners, then upstairs into the hotel room afterwards.

Then there’s the dominatrix, who offers a space in BDSM studios where clients can live out their personal fetish. She seeks out her clients herself, of course. So far, so good. The desires of the client are fulfilled. There’s no question that some people are happy to sell sexual services, and do so voluntarily. 

But what about the clients who buy sex and want to live out their fantasies by using prostitutes? This road leads to bordellos, brothels, or streetwalking. Again, it’s all about the fulfilment of sexual desires. And again, those are the desires of the person buying the sex. Not those of the prostitutes. Clients get whatever they desire. In this sector, therefore, prostitution cannot be equated with sexual freedom! Even the seemingly voluntary nature of sexual services is highly questionable – particularly since it’s often external circumstances that cause people to sell their bodies. 


The motivations for working as a prostitute are wide and diverse. Search the internet for an answer, and you’ll often find the word “money” as the motivating factor. Which is actually pretty obvious; if you work, you earn money for doing so. Prostitutes can use this money to feed their families in their home country. The women, most of whom come from abroad, are offering their bodies for sale out of acute financial need. Looked at against this background, the “voluntary” nature of prostitution is actually highly questionable.

Women who offer prostitution out of financial hardship only want to do so for a certain amount of time. Getting out can turn out to be difficult, however: facts such as low levels of education, a lack of self-esteem, emotional dependency on bordello owners, drug or alcohol dependency, traumatisation, a lack of prospects when it comes to another career and much more can all be reasons for continuing to work in the sexual services sector. But just how voluntary is it to provide sexual services if it’s practically impossible for prostitutes to escape the red light environment?

In general, it’s difficult to distinguish supposedly “voluntary” prostitution from forced prostitution. This is first and foremost the case because both varieties happen in the same environment. 


It’s not just due to financial need that women (and a small number of men), the majority of whom come from abroad, prostitute themselves. They may also be lured to Austria on the basis of false promises, or sold to people traffickers and smuggled across the border. Without any official identification or documents, they find themselves back in illegal, forced prostitution.

For prostitutes, pimping, discrimination and abuse are part and parcel of everyday life. They are told what to do, and how they must behave. This has nothing to do with voluntary action!

Shockingly, the clients often think the prostitute is not doing her work voluntarily too – but choose to immediately ignore the fact. The sex workers themselves endure anything and everything the client wants – no matter how degrading. To deal with this, they cut themselves off mentally during the act, disengaging their feelings. Technically, this condition is known as “dissociation”. When experienced over the long term, such a reaction, a defence mechanism, can produce serious psychological problems. On top of this, alcohol and drug abuse are rife, completing the vicious circle. Prostitutes need money to finance their addiction. To get that money, they sell their bodies – again and again. Even if they do manage to escape illegal prostitution, prostitutes continue to work in the red light environment.


Prostitution is officially recognised as work, a profession in the eyes of the law. The sexual service, too, is being provided legally – or so it would seem. So is prostitution really just a job like any other? Often not. This job is not satisfying, and is rarely done voluntarily. Many prostitutes live in permanent fear. Fear of earning too little money. Fear of violent clients. Fear of pimps, or of being deported. As well as low or non-existent levels of self-esteem, there are the physical complaints, drug use, and abuse of alcohol and medication. If prostitutes do succeed in getting out of forced work, however, they usually continue working in the industry. They are then “self-employed” – even if in this case too, it is questionable just how voluntary prostitution really is if it is determined by external factors – such as the fact that it is done out of dire poverty, or due to an addiction. 

“She could have done something else if she’d wanted”, is an inconsiderate statement one often hears with regard to sex workers. But prostitutes, often traumatised and homeless, have no other choice than simply to keep working in the same way. This is particularly the case for illegal prostitutes, most of whom do not have their own home, have only rudimentary German (or none at all), and have no contacts outside the world of prostitution. They also lack even the small change needed to make a new start. Getting out of prostitution just seems impossible – and without help from the outside world, it almost certainly is. This is where HOPE FOR THE FUTURE comes in, as it helps those affected to find a way out through a range of programmes.


HOPE FOR THE FUTURE supports those attempting to escape prostitution and victims of human trafficking. Working together with them, the group works out the steps needed for them to restart their career. By attending language courses and work training sessions, and learning the basic principles of word processing, those affected can prepare to enter the job market. For further details, see https://www.hopeforthefuture.at/de/angebote-fur-betroffene/

Translated by Tim Martinz-Lywood M.A.

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