The Demand for Prostitution is NOT Inevitable

International Human Rights Day is on the 10 of December every year – commemorating the day in 1948 the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and this year the United Nations kicks off a year-long campaign to mark the up-coming 70th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – the most translated document in the world. 

The gravest human right violation in our world today is slavery – and the most abhorrent form of slavery is sexual exploitation – where its victims experience not only slavery, trafficking and abuse but also daily rape. 

The majority of the world’s slaves today are women and children, and can be found predominantly in brothels across the world. Sexual exploitation is a reality in every country across the globe – including Australia. 

Sexual exploitation is facilitated in Australia by the growing demand to buy and commodify the flesh of women and girls – so that predominantly men can pay to rape them.

The demand to buy and rent a woman’s body is not inevitable.

Prostitution can be viewed on a continuum of violence against women and girls because as with other practices such as domestic violence, rape, sexual assault, childhood sexual abuse, stalking, sexual harassment and crimes in the name of honour, there is a gender asymmetry and hierarchy. 

Prostitution reinforces intersecting inequalities of race, ethnicity, class, nationality, sexuality and other markers of social hierarchies as well as gender. 

Prostitution overwhelmingly involves the abuse of women and girls’ bodies by men. This pattern reflects persistent inequalities between the sexes. 

Prostitution is often the expression of men’s sexual entitlement to women’s bodies, and legal impunity for sex purchase, normalises the practice of paying for sex, which perpetuates the idea that men ‘need’ sexual release in a woman’s body. 

Sexual intimacy is a privilege – and should never be seen as a right that can be taken or bought.

Prostitution is a cause and consequence of demand for the commodification of flesh.

Demand in prostitution fuels gender inequality.

Prostitution and trafficking for sexual exploitation cannot be separated – women are trafficked into prostitution because the market of selling and renting the bodies of predominantly women and girls is legalised, accepted as a social norm, and at times celebrated as women’s empowerment. 

It is predominantly men who seek out this service – and their growing demand for prostitution is leading to a rise in human trafficking globally, to criminal enterprise within these legalised industries, and to gender based violence. 

Although men are the driving force of these human right violations and crimes – both internationally and within Australia, men are also part of the solution – if they choose to be. 

Men drive demand – they can also drive abolition. Fewer buyers and smaller prostitution markets are two sides of the same impact.

There are several facilitating factors that fuel the exploitation, slavery, trafficking and gender based violence against women and girls in prostitution, including: government legalisation of such abhorrent abuses through legalising brothels as legitimate businesses, criminal enterprise that thrives in the industry, the traffickers who transport the women and girls to meet demand, the men who fuel the market and the media outlets who advertise the purchase of flesh. 

As Swedish political scientist Max Waltman has pointed out, women must be visible and advertised to buyers for any significant sex trade to occur.

The UN recognises violence against women and girls as ‘cause and consequence of gender inequality.  

The legacies of prostitution that many women describe mirror those of sexual violence such as the need for the woman to dissociate from her own body to be able to provide the ‘service’, which inevitably has negative impacts on the emotional and psychological health of the woman, including those that would fit the diagnostic criteria for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which often leads to substance abuse as a coping mechanism.

Understanding prostitution as violence against women is understanding that less prostitution is less violence.

Just as demand has the capacity to grow, demand can also shrink.

The facts are: 

  • The overwhelming majority of women in prostitution are highly vulnerable
  • Prostitution is commercial sexual exploitation and a form of violence against women 
  • Prostitution law reform is urgently needed in order to tackle the demand that drives prostitution and sex trafficking 
  • Criminalising demand has proven to reduce demand, reduce human trafficking, criminality and violence against women in the industry, and  
  • The ‘Sex Buyer Law’ or the Nordic Model is known to reduce demand, change public attitudes and creates a more hostile destination for traffickers. 

The criminalisation of the purchase of sex was pioneered in Sweden, where prostitution is recognised as incompatible with equality between women and men, and the countries with the highest levels of gender equality in the world have subsequently adopted this approach.

Prostitution is commercial sexual exploitation and a form of violence against women – recognised by at least eight other countries who have implemented this legislative reform approach.

The most human right compliant and gender equal nations have implemented, or are considering implementing ‘sex buyer laws’, which criminalise demand – acknowledging that demand leads to a rise in human trafficking, in criminality, and in gender based violence – and recognise that criminalising demand is the only way to reverse this abhorrent human right violation on the most vulnerable in our communities. 

International precedent: 

Criminal sanctions should not fall on those who are exploited, but should fall on those who exploit: the sex buyers. 

The Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children (The Trafficking Protocol) requires States Parties to: ‘adopt or strengthen legislative or other measures, such as educational, social or cultural measures, including through bilateral and multilateral cooperation, to discourage the demand that fosters all forms of exploitation of persons, especially women and children, that leads to trafficking’

The UN Recommended Principles on Human Rights and Human Trafficking (2002) specifies that ‘strategies aimed at preventing trafficking shall address demand as a root cause of trafficking’. 

In 2014, the European Parliament, following a vote overwhelmingly in favour of Mary Honeyball’s motion to recognise prostitution and sexual exploitation as cause and consequence of gender inequality, called upon Member States to reduce demand as part of ‘an integrated strategy against trafficking’.

A more explicit recognition of the link between trafficking and prostitution by the European Parliament in 2014 called upon Member States to reduce demand as part of ‘an integrated strategy against trafficking’, and set out that one way to do so is to criminalise the purchase of sex as in Sweden, Norway and Iceland. 

The Council of Europe Report:Prostitution, trafficking and modern slavery in Europe”, on which Resolution 1983 was based, endorses the Nordic Model as the best legislative practice across Council of Europe members.

Resolution 1983 adopted by the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly in April 2014 requires States to consider criminalising the purchase of sex as a means to address trafficking.


The ‘Sex Purchase Laws’ – or the Nordic Model as it is now called were originally part of a raft of laws that addressed violence against women, committing to end violations of a woman’s integrity. 

Chapter 6.8 of the Swedish Penal Code, which was introduced in 1999 and was amended in 2009 states: “A person who promotes or improperly financially exploits the casual sexual relations for payment of another person shall be sentenced for procuring to imprisonment for at most four years.

Because of this law, the size of the sex industry in Sweden significantly decreased in Sweden following the introduction of the law, compared to neighbouring countries. Evidence on the impact of the criminalisation of paying for sex in Sweden shows that prostitution markets and the proportion of men who buy sex was reduced, and support for the law in Sweden increased.

The implication for demand-related offences is that sanctions should be directed at tackling men’s sense of entitlement to the bodies of women and girls, a sense of entitlement that also underpins other forms of violence against women and girls – such as domestic violence. 

A smaller commercial sex market means fewer buyers, and therefore fewer harms and less gender based violence in prostitution.

Since the sex purchase prohibition was introduced in Sweden, there has been no lethal violence against women in prostitution. In contrast, jurisdictions such as Victoria that legalised prostitution have common assault, rape, bashings and even the murder of prostitutes occurring on a regular basis. 

Since the sex purchase law was enacted in Sweden in 1999, independent evaluations have found significant decreases in the size of prostitution markets.  

On the other hand, Prostitution increased in Denmark and Norway during the same period.  In Denmark, where purchase of sex is legal, an increase was observed from 3,886 persons being prostituted in 2002 to 5,567 visibly prostituted persons in 2007.

Swedish police noted that under the new laws, women are more likely to seek support after violence, given that sex buyers commit a crime in buying, and buyers were more careful not to cross agreed boundaries.

The UK: 

It is estimated that 80,000 people are involved in prostitution in the UK

The majority of people exploited through prostitution are women and girls, and the majority of those who pay for sex are men. 

Approximately 50% of women in prostitution in the UK started being paid for sex acts before they were eighteen years old, and up to 95% of women in street prostitution are problematic drug users

The physical and psychological consequences for women in prostitution can be severe: 

  • A nine country study found that 68% of people in prostitution have post-traumatic stress disorder
  • 50% of women in street prostitution in the UK have been raped and/or seriously sexually assaulted, mostly by sex buyers.
  • Once in prostitution, 9 out of 10 women report wanting to exit but feel unable to do so.

Current prostitution laws do not adequately recognise prostitution as violence against women.

The UK Home Affairs Select Committee recognises the need to criminalise the purchase of sex in England, Wales and Scotland, catching up with the human right compliant and gender equal reform approaches of: Ireland, France, Canada, Sweden, Norway, Iceland and Korea. 

The Modern Slavery Act in the UK has been recognised as failing to tackle the demand from sex buyers that drives the trafficking of women into the prostitution trade.

As Lord McColl of Dulwich CBE has said; the failure of the UK Modern Slavery Act to address demand for sex trafficking was "a very serious oversight given that, according to the National Referral Mechanism figures, sexual exploitation is consistently the most prevalent form of human trafficking in England and Wales"

When paying for sex is legalised, it directly increases the rate of sex trafficking.

 An empirical analysis of a cross-section of up to 150 countries found that reported human trafficking inflows were larger in countries where prostitution is legal

International research suggests that “slacker prostitution laws make it more profitable to traffick persons to a country

Oral evidence given to the UK Home Affairs Select Committee as part of its prostitution inquiry included information in relation to legalisation, or 'full decriminalisation' of the prostitution trade as a fatalistic approach that: ‘sanctions commercial sexual exploitation; encourages expansion of the prostitution trade; provides a conducive environment for sex trafficking; fails on its own terms of ensuring rights and protections; legitimises pimping; and fails to provide a mandate for the provision of exiting services’.

There is evidence to suggest that drug and alcohol addiction can be both a cause and a consequence of involvement in prostitution. A study on the lifetime costs of involvement in prostitution conducted by Linda DeRiviere, published in the Journal Feminist Economics, found that over two thirds of women in this sample did not use alcohol or drugs, or were not addicted to substances - prior to their involvement in prostitution. Once in prostitution, 95% of the women reported developing a serious addiction to substances - with the study concluding that drugs were being used as a coping mechanism. 

The Sex Buyer Law is designed to discourage demand for prostitution by criminalising paying for sex, decriminalising selling sex, and providing support and exiting services for people exploited through prostitution.

New Zealand: 

New Zealand is a country frequently cited as an example of a fully decriminalised prostitution model, however,  specific restrictions are placed on "how, when and where" the prostitution trade operates in New Zealand. 

This includes the ability for local authorities to place restrictions on advertising and where brothels are located. Under this regime, profiting from someone else's prostitution - via brothel-keeping, pimping, advertising and so on - is designated a legitimate business activity. 

In New Zealand, paying to sexually access a person is sanctioned as a legitimate consumer transaction.

The findings of New Zealand's Prostitution Law Review Committee in 2008 revealed that full decriminalisation failed on multiple counts to prevent harms in prostitution in addition to the inherent harm of prostitution as a form of violence against women, which the law did not prevent. 

The NZ Committee found:

  • the majority of sex workers interviewed felt that the Prostitution Reform Act could do little about the violence that occurred
  • brothels which had treated their workers fairly prior to the enactment of the Prostitution Reform Act continued to do so, and those which had unfair management practices continued with them
  • the sex industry remained discreet and to a large extent difficult to study
  • the Crime and Justice Research Centre key informants were not aware of any substantial change in the use of safer sex practices by sex workers as a result of the enactment of the Prostitution Reform Act
  • few of the sex workers whom were interviewed by the Christchurch School of Medicine, regardless of the sector they worked in, said they had not reported any of the incidents of violence or crimes against them to the Police
  • although it was hoped decriminalisation would make it easier for sex workers to access health services, the Christchurch School of Medicine study found that there were no significant differences in access to health services between Christchurch participants in 1999 and 2006, and 
  • the purpose of the Prostitution Reform Act “cannot be fully realised in the street-based sector" .

The Committee also reported that the "standard position" in the trade was that women who sold sex in brothels were not employed by brothel owners. Instead, they were classified as "independent contractors". This meant women were not guaranteed basic employment protections such as sick pay or the ability to pursue a grievance through the court system.

New Zealand's Prostitution Law Review Committee also found that in the 12 months prior to questioning, 37.5% of those who sold sex in 'managed' brothels: "felt they had to accept a client when they didn't want to"

New Zealand's Prostitution Law Review Committee surveyed local authorities to ascertain "whether they had done anything to assist sex workers to exit the industry", and found that just two out of 84 local authorities responded affirmatively. 

Since decriminalisation of the sex industry in New Zealand in 2003, at least four women involved in prostitution are known to have been murdered by sex buyers. 


When Germany lifted its ban on pimping in 2001, the rationale underpinning it was that a state-regulated prostitution trade, in which brothels could issue employment contracts, would "reduce [women's] dependency on, for example, pimps".

The German Federal Government concluded in their 2007 Report: "The Prostitution Act has not recognisably improved the prostitutes' means for leaving prostitution" and that its assessment of the availability of exiting services provided a "rather sobering picture"

In Germany, at least 55 prostituted women have been murdered since 2002, when prostitution was legalised.

The Nordic Model Information Network:

The Nordic Model Information Network call for the criminalisation of buying and selling of others for sex and the decriminalisation of those who are bought and sold for sex.

The Network unequivocally support the removal of criminal sanctions for all those who are bought and sold for sex and support criminal sanctions for those who buy and sell others for sex, including pimping and sex trafficking. 

In view of the fact that men are overwhelmingly the majority of those who buy sex, and women and girls those whose bodies are bought and sold, the Network believes that criminal sanctions are a punishment for being coerced, or making a decision to survive where there are no meaningful alternatives for vulnerable women. 

The Network believes that further measures to hold exploiters, including pimps and traffickers as well as buyers, to account are needed. 

Measures to hold exploiters, pimps, traffickers and buyers to account is imperative if we are going to eradicate modern day slavery.

The Network supports initiatives such as funding for outreach services to all victims of commercial sexual exploitation. Recognising prostitution as a condition of gender inequality and a form of violence against women and girls automatically shifts attention to on exploiters, pimps, brothel owners, operators and buyers. 

Addressing men’s demand for commercial sex is crucial to policing sexual exploitation of children.

Men who pay for sex from girls are buying female bodies in commercial sex markets where youth is eroticised and prized.

Challenging men’s entitlement through criminalising the purchase of sex offers a transformative approach to tackling sexual exploitation of children.

A recent international comparative study concluded that Sweden was unique in acknowledging that preventing sexual exploitation of children requires a dual focus on enabling young people to protect themselves and interventions with perpetrators.

This reflects a deep understanding of how sexual exploitation develops and is experienced as cause and consequence of unequal power and respect between women and men, enacted on the bodies of women and girls. 

 If Australia is serious about eradicating modern day slavery and achieving its aims under the Sustainable Development Goals to end human trafficking and sexual exploitation, law enforcement focus should be on the practices of those who commodify bodies in the act of buying sex. 

Evidence suggests that reducing demand for paid sex through criminalising purchase discourages trafficking, and legalisation encourages demand and cultivates trafficking to meet that demand.

Studies in different countries, including Sweden and Norway show strong correlations between attitudes supporting gender equality and a critical view of the prostitution system.

Sweden has shown us the way forward in relation to how laws on prostitution can align with both public opinion and international obligations on equality and human rights to promote the safety and dignity of women and to recognise prostitution as cause and consequence of gender inequality.

Australia needs to follow suit. We need to practice human right gender equal compliance in all of our laws – especially in relation to the safety of vulnerable women and girls in an industry fraught with violence, sexual violence and abuse. 

Men drive demand – they can also drive abolition.

Smaller prostitution markets and fewer buyers are two sides of the same impact.

Stand against gender based violence and rape. Sign our petition. Come to our event.  

Take part in fighting for Justice Foundation’s Demand an End to Demand Campaign on 10 December – International Human Rights Day. For more info:

Come be a part of our Campaign to #endthedemandfor #prostitution and #genderebasedviolence in #Australia! #StandUp4HumanRights #EndDemand #DemandanEndtoDemand

 "Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home - so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. [...] Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world." - Eleanor Roosevelt

Andrea Tokaji is the Founder of Fighting for Justice Foundation and a PhD Researcher.

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