A different take on prostitution could improve policy effects locally

Taking a closer look at prostitution could improve the real-life impact of European policies on sex work, a network of researchers points out.

Research has shown that prostitution policies do not always take into account valuable contexts, and that academic and political debates often tend to disregard the actual effects that prostitution policies have in real life. 

Over the past three years, the international network of researchers ProsPol has been organising open discussions on prostitution in order to shine a light on the often-ignored aspects defining it. The debates saw politicians, local administrators, experts, NGOs, sex workers and representatives of sex workers’ organisations share views on gender and sexuality, informal local economies, public health, power relations in public spaces, social inequalities, identity, exclusion and citizenship.

The events also served to discuss and compare local realities in certain European countries for the first time. “ We wanted to organise open debates in these countries, so we could better understand and communicate how complex sex work really is ”, says Dr Isabel Crowhurst, the network’s leader. Such a country was Slovenia, where the network recently organised an open debate on public health issues. A starting point was the way public perceptions tend to pathologise public health issues when it comes to those involved in prostitution.

What is more, the conference held last year in Vienna attracted over 200 participants, turning out to be one of the largest events discussing prostitution in years. Aware of the media bias surrounding prostitution, ProsPol members have also been regularly inviting media and communications professionals to join in their events, alongside human rights groups such as Amnesty International.

The fact that we managed to gather such a diverse group of people from different backgrounds and get the conversation going around this topic is already a huge achievement ”, Dr Crowhurst adds.


Policy makers need to understand there is more to sex work than street prostitution, so that they make better, informed decisions , Isabel Crowhurst, lecturer at the University of Essex.


We need to avoid making false claims about prostitution, especially because we know so little about it ”, Dr Crowhurst insists. One such claim is one that commonly presents prostitution as an act of violence of men against women. ProsPol network members consistently raise the point that this take on prostitution excludes from policy and political discussions other crucial factors – poverty, social exclusion, punitive immigration laws – as well as actors: men and transgender sex workers.

ProsPol members Giulia Garofalo Geymonat and P.G. Macioti also set up Sex Workers Speak: Who Listens? , an edited series published on the Open Democracy global platform. The initiative presents the views and experiences of sex workers across the globe, giving voice to a stigmatised audience usually excluded from conversations and decision-making processes on prostitution and its regulation. The series, coming out as an e-book in summer, is also meant to inform human rights groups, policy makers, students, researchers, and the public.

The Action has also been the starting platform for Interdisciplinary Studies on Sex for Sale , a series featuring edited collections and monographs for academic and other interested audiences.

Having identified the various topics to be considered when comparing policy models in Europe and beyond, the Action is now working on a set of 10 points for policy makers, to be presented at the network’s final conference in Copenhagen next year.  “ We don’t intend to come up with recommendations, but bring out findings that we think would significantly improve policy effects locally ”, Dr Crowhurst points out.

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Last updated: 04 April 2018 top of page