Should the purchase of bodies be legal?

In Austria prostitution, if it meets certain conditions, is legal. But is it ethically permissible for a society to allow the purchasing or renting of human bodies/love in this way? Some European countries already prohibit the purchase of sexual services. Is a law like this something Austria should aspire to? What would it mean for those affected? Here are some thoughts on the pros and cons.


What would happen in Austria if the so-called “world’s oldest profession” (prostitution) were to be outlawed in Austria? In Sweden, this has been the case since 1998. France also criminalised prostitution in 2016. In both countries it is not the sex workers that are criminalised, but their customers. On the website of the Austrian federal chancellery, it is however said that: “Foreign examples show […] that demand cannot be effectively prevented by a ban. On the contrary, a ban pushes sex service providers into illegality, where they are exposed to an even greater risk of exploitation.”

A small hint: HFTF has already worked to clarify some of the myths around sex work in previous articles. These articles are a great complement to this text.


Neither Sweden nor France have been able to end prostitution with the introductions of these laws. People (mainly men) want sex and they want to decide when, where and with whom. Many are not afraid of possible legal sanctions and find other ways to organise themselves a sex partner in exchange for money. With this law prostitution was banished to the underworld. The stigmatisation of sex workers as well as their customers has increased. Prostitution has been pushed away from the main stream and to the fringes of society says Pye Jakobsson, a swede who is herself involved in sex work. Fewer and fewer locals are deciding to participate in sex work. But is the decision to become a sex worker even made freely? We will get to this soon.


It is well known that in the western European context the bulk of sex workers is of eastern European origin. Many of them are victims of human trafficking. Studies show that countries where prostitution is partially or fully criminalised, fewer people become victims of human trafficking. It is easier and more lucrative for criminal organisations to bring victims to places like Germany and Austria where they can then legally be used in sex work. The incidence of street prostitution is also reduced in countries that have a ban in place. What happens instead, according to one Swedish social worker, is that the trade is facilitated via the internet and is then no longer visible. 


It is interesting that not even feminists are set on whether a prohibition on the purchase of sex is good for women. Some argue that prostitution is a form of violence perpetrated by men while others point out that it is a form of self-determination. They say that a woman has the right to decide what she wants to do with her body. There are however no numbers on what percentage of sex workers participate in the profession voluntarily though based on experience it seems that it is very few. Most of those that are renting out their bodies are exposed to some sort of coercion. Many are lured with the promise of a better life and are then forced into prostitution to pay back visa and travel costs. Others come with the hope of wealth, though with limited language abilities are not able to find other forms of work. Many prostitutes also fall into this profession from a young age and do not know any different. There are many reasons for entering prostitution but it often comes back to poverty, desperation and lack of alternatives. But there are women out there who voluntarily pursue a career in sex work. An example is Josefa Nereus who speaks openly about her choice of career. She describes prostitution as being “fundamentally feminist”.

One needs to ask themselves: Does the right of the few who voluntarily engage in this business of their own free will allow us to accept that millions of people are taken advantage of and coerced on a daily basis? In general the state has the responsibility to act where the freedom of the individual harms the population more broadly. The entire sex work industry is built on the financial and social desperation of some members of our community. In addition to this, this line of work is not immune to the pressures of the free market. The result: rock bottom pricing. In some cities where demand is large, sex is offered at a dumping price of 40 Euro


The Austrian federal chancellery writes that as long as there is a legal market, it is possible to influence the working conditions, and therefore more easily detect and stop violence and exploitation. But to what degree are the measures for the protection of sex workers actually followed through on? Prostitution is legal in Austria but many conditions must be met. Sex workers are only permitted to work as sole traders and have no right to employment contracts, unemployment insurance, sick leave or maternity leave. If a customer leaves without paying – that is too bad. In practice it is not possible for the state to stop violence like rape against sex workers. The people affected can lay a complaint but in practice often nothing happens. A few years ago there were discussions of mandatory condoms in order to protect health. This example shows the absurdity of these discussions. Something like this would not really be practical to enforce. It would really require the enforcer to catch the rule breakers in the act. All in all laws on prostitution really only mean more bureaucracy that real protection for the victims. 


As with many topics there is no simple solutions. Even if many want a society without prostitution, it is not that easy. A ban would likely have desirable as well as undesirable effects. When we talk about prostitution we also need to talk about honour and respect. Do customers really see sex workers as humans or just as objects? Anyone who has been on the website of a brothel knows horrible the language is with which customers speak about the sex workers. But it is not just perverted misogynists that seek the services of sex workers. It is also lost and lonely souls as well as people with physical and intellectual disabilities that may otherwise not be able to have sexual experiences.

Despite this fact it should not be considered normal or a right to be able to buy sex for money. Every body also contains a human, often a vulnerable human that has been thorough a lot. A respectful interaction between two humans occurs when people are on equal footing and give full and free consent.