The oldest conundrum

Policing prostitution

The red lights are going out all over Europe—but not elsewhere

From The Economist print edition


WHEN the Netherlands legalised brothels eight years ago, the mood was upbeat. Politicians thought they were well on the way to solving one of the world’s perpetual policy dilemmas: how to stop all the bad things that are associated with the sex trade (coercion, violence, infectious diseases) while putting a proper, and realistic, limit to the role of the state.

The Dutch were hoping that links between prostitution and multiple forms of crime, from money laundering to smuggling, could finally be severed. Ultimately, they believed, the buying and selling of sexual services would become a freely undertaken transaction, in which the state would only be involved as a regulator and tax-collector. The police could then concentrate on criminals, instead of harassing people engaged in exchanges that were nobody’s business but their own.


While the Dutch experiment was beginning, another European country was trying out a different approach. From 1999 onwards, Sweden began penalising people who patronise prostitutes (through fines, jail terms of up to six months, and “naming and shaming”), while treating people who sell their bodies as victims.

All over the world—especially in rich democracies—policymakers have been watching the two places to see which philosophy works best. In reality, neither is a silver bullet; neither country has found a perfect way of shielding prostitutes from exploitation and violence, while avoiding a nanny-state. So the arguments rage on, from liberal New Zealand to San Francisco, where people will vote on November 4th on virtually decriminalising the sex trade.

In Amsterdam—where the spectacle of half-naked women pouting behind shopfront windows is a city trademark—the link between prostitution and organised crime has proved durable. Efforts to break it have been a “complete failure”, says Lodewijk Asscher, a deputy mayor who has led the city hall’s effort to buy up and transform much of the red-light district.

Fresh arguments in favour of his campaign emerged from a report published in July by Dutch police and prosecutors. It drew heavily on the case of three Turkish-German vice barons who were sentenced recently to long prison terms for running a ring of 120 prostitutes in three Dutch cities. Their operation included many of the ghastly practices that the liberal law was supposed to stamp out.

Saddled with fictitious debts, the women under the barons’ control were made to take 20 clients a day, subjected to forcible breast enlargements and tattooed with the names of their “owners”. Such exploitation is not exceptional: the policemen who patrol Amsterdam’s red-light district reckon that more than half the ladies posing in windows are there against their will.

All that helps to explain why the Swedish experience is finding imitators in several countries—including England and Wales where people will soon be liable to prosecution for “paying for sex with someone forced into prostitution…or controlled for another’s gain”. It is also becoming easier for English and Welsh police to prosecute people (either pedestrians or motorists) who solicit sex on the street. In Scotland, kerb-crawling was banned a year ago. The British moves were made after studying the Dutch and Swedish experience.

But what is really happening in Sweden? The policy of penalising clients or “johns” enjoys widespread consent. It was introduced by a centre-left administration, despite opposition from the centre-right. Now it is accepted by all Sweden’s main parties. The authorities say the number of streetwalking prostitutes fell about by 40% during the first four years of the new regime. Swedish politicians say they have made their country a bad destination for traffickers. But a sceptic might retort that by driving prostitution away from Sweden, the authorities have simply exported it, sending sex-hungry Swedes to nearby countries or else to Thailand.


It’s dark underground

Moreover, a sex-workers’ association in Sweden says the law makes life dangerous for those who ply their trade secretly. A life of dodging between apartments and exchanging furtive texts can leave women more reliant on pimps. Another argument is that fear of prosecution reduces the chances that clients will report the exploitation of under-age girls or boys.

Some drawbacks of doing things the Swedish way have been noted in more established quarters. A report by Norway’s justice ministry, in 2004, cited evidence of an “increased fear of attack” among Swedish prostitutes, who found it harder to assess their clients because transactions had to be agreed hastily or on the telephone. But for Norway, it seems, these considerations have been trumped by others, including a sense that prostitution is getting out of control after an influx from Africa, South America and eastern Europe. The Norwegian parliament is on the verge of mandating Swedish-style penalties for buying sex. In a similar spirit, Italy’s cabinet has agreed to outlaw prostitution in public and make penalties harsher.

In Europe, then, things are moving towards tighter regulation—in part because many of the continent’s richer countries feel inundated by a wave of newcomers to the trade, some of whom are trafficked. But there are other places where more liberal voices seem to be gaining the upper hand.

In the United States, trading in sex is a misdemeanour, at least, almost everywhere, with the exceptions of Rhode Island (where it can take place only indoors, but not in brothels); and, most famously and brashly, in parts of Nevada. So if residents of San Francisco vote for “Proposition K”—which would bar police from taking action against sex workers—it will be a landmark in American history.

Supporters of the change (including sex-workers’ unions) say it will transform the role of the police. Instead of pointlessly arresting prostitutes, the police can help them stay healthy and protect them from violence. Advocates of a “no” vote say that if the hands of the police are tied, they will be unable to deal even with obvious cases of abuse. Some say the Dutch experience has made nonsense of the case for liberalisation. Others say Proposition K could lead to a worse situation than the Netherlands’: a free-for-all without the Dutch level of regulation and social security.

But for liberals in search of success stories, New Zealand appears to provide more promising evidence. In 2003, that country decriminalised the sex trade with a boldness that exceeded that of the Dutch. Sex workers were allowed to ply their trade more or less freely, either at home, in brothels or on the street.

A study published by the government in May, measuring the impact of the new law, was encouraging. More than 60% of prostitutes felt they had more power to refuse clients than they did before. The report reckoned that only about 1% of women in the business were under the legal age of 18. And only 4% said they had been pressured into working by someone else.

The report also acknowledges one distinct advantage enjoyed by New Zealand. Although some illegal immigrants are engaged in the sex trade, the country’s isolation and robust legal system make it relatively free from the problem of trafficking, at least by European standards.

But there is also a big difference between the policy of New Zealand and that of other places where prostitution is legal. In the Netherlands and Nevada, the business is confined to brothels, which are usually run by businessmen rather than the sex workers themselves.

Clearly, the brothel-masters’ status as the sole legal providers of commercial sex enhances their grip on the women who work for them. In New Zealand, prostitutes can fend for themselves. As well as letting them keep all their earnings, this independence gives them freedom to reject nasty clients and unsafe practices. “They feel better protected by the law and much more able to stand up to clients and pushy brothel operators,” says Catherine Healy, head of the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective.

Unsurprisingly, the New Zealand system’s critics include brothel owners, both in that country and elsewhere. Going with a girl outside a licensed establishment is like “Russian roulette”, says the website of the Chicken Ranch, a brothel that serves the Las Vegas crowd. In New Zealand, one brothel keeper fumes that the earnings of independent sex workers are “tax-free money, which is not benefiting the Inland Revenue Department”.

What about other interested parties—such as respectable Kiwis who resent kerb-crawlers? According to polls, people are sure the number of prostitutes has risen—although the government says this is not true. Auckland city council is trying to allay public concerns by restricting brothels to commercial and industrial areas. Something similar happens in Nevada, where only the smaller counties may host brothels, and they are kept away from town centres. (Such curbs have some bad effects; prostitutes say they are stranded in the desert, totally reliant on brothel owners.)

In any case, one unusual investigation concluded that from the prostitutes’ point of view, the New Zealand system was the fairest. A pair of British grandmothers from the Women’s Institute—a homely club that is more often associated with cooking tips—made a tour of brothels in the Netherlands, America and the Antipodes: their aim was to find which system was best for the women who worked in the business. Their top marks went to a discreet house in a suburb of Wellington—classed in New Zealand as a “small owner-operated brothel”—where two women offered their services from Mondays to Fridays. “Just like a regular job,” one of the grannies noted.


The number of foreign prostitutes in Pattaya is increasing Surasak Tumcharoen

Pattaya, one of the world’s most renowned seaside resorts, thrives on tourism in general and prostitution in particular, even though the flesh trade is illegal in Thailand. Known for its notorious and flourishing sex trade, the tourist resort does not only have Thai women offering their bodies for sale, but others who come from the far corners of the globe and who are, ironically, given a one-year tourist visa when they arrive.


Authorities reluctantly admit the number of foreign prostitutes in Pattaya is increasing every year. Although crimes related to prostitution have not caused any alarm bells to ring in the tourist resort, Pattaya’s police chief Pol Col Noppadol Wongnom is getting concerned.


Pol Col Noppadol, as well as local Mayor Itthipol Khunpluem, are both worried that the number of foreign tourists visiting Pattaya might gradually decline if they no longer feel safe in the world-renowned resort.


They have good reason to worry _ there is a lot of money at stake.


Many tourists and expats call it ”Paradise on Earth”, while others know it as ”Sin City”, a place where worldly bliss for many is available at a small hotel just around the corner. One of Pattaya’s main businesses is the flesh trade, run either on a voluntary or forced basis, with many poor local women seeing it as a place to make some quick money. Pattaya attracts a large number of ”customers” from abroad, who come into the country as tourists, businesspeople, retirees and include residing expats, and these ”customers” generate a colossal cash flow in and around the town.


As much as 60 billion baht in cash was spent in Sin City by an estimated six million tourists, including Thais, in one year, according to Charnyut Hengtrakul, a former counsel attached to the Ministry of Tourism and Sports. Of that huge sum of money, a large portion is spent on sex for sale.


The authorities apparently choose to turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to prostitution, which is not considered a real crime there. They have said that nothing could be done as long as the flesh trade was carried out in a ”voluntary and hidden” fashion and money changed hands in secrecy.


Authorities have cracked down on drugs and burglaries throughout the tourist city, but prostitution has prospered alongside money-laundering businesses mostly run by foreigners, said one local source who did not want to be named.


Gone are the days when Pattaya was a popular destination for American GIs on R&R in the ’60s and early ’70s, who loved it for its beaches and booze. Today, only the foolish would bother to swim or dive in the dirty water in the bay. Many now choose to take a boat to Koh Larn, a nearby island, to enjoy the sun, sand and sea.


Both Thai and foreign visitors admit Pattaya has thrived because of its night-time entertainment, and there are about 70 go-go bars and 800 beer bars in the city, and at the majority of these establishments the biggest money-spinner is often sex for sale.


In every nook and cranny of the city there are hundreds of first-class, second-class or no-class hotels, high-rise condominiums, foreign-owned beer bars run by Thai women and glitzy go-go bars where there are ample opportunities for prostitutes to ply their trade day in, day out.


The women in Pattaya’s sex-for-sale business cater to a wide range of clients, and while most prefer farang (Western) customers or Arabs, there are also the boisterous tourists who party day and night, affluent businessmen and even grumpy old retirees.


Among Pattaya’s foreign prostitutes are some from Russia, followed by Ukraine and Uzbekistan. Very few, if any, are believed to be running their own sex businesses independently.


Under the guise of running various vaguely-defined businesses in town, Russian pimps, both male and female, collect their share of the profits directly from these young foreign prostitutes on a daily or regular basis.


The number of Russian prostitutes and those from the former satellite states of the Soviet Union was thought to be only a few hundreds during Pattaya’s low season, but their numbers increase dramatically during the high season, which runs from October until March.


So how much does it cost for a one night stand? It depends.


If you’re a regular, farang client, you’d pay at least 1,500 baht for a single activity known locally as a ”private dance” or a ”short time”, which lasts no longer than one and a half hours.


The price asked for a short time can sometimes double, and it does not depend on the prostitute’s looks or abilities, but simply on the possibility that the customer is new in town and ignorant of the going rate.


For farang customers, a full night of sex, known locally as a ”long time”, with a Russian prostitute can cost 4,000 to 5,000 baht.


For Arab customers, the going rate is 2,000 baht for a short time late in the afternoon, while the rate may double for an overnight session.


For Thai customers, spending some time with a foreign girl is more expensive. They pay at least 2,500 baht for a private dance late in the afternoon or early evening, and at least 2,000 baht for late night, short-time sex.


In only a few cases were long-time private dances offered by Russian prostitutes to Thai men. But for Thai men who insist on staying overnight with working girls from Russia, they have to shell out the hefty sum of 10,000 baht or more.


Russian pimps are said to collect roughly more than half of the money earned by their prostitutes, and in some cases as much as 70% is taken from women who have only recently arrived.


In most cases, the air tickets that bring young Russian women from Moscow to Bangkok, which cost up to 70,000 baht, are paid not by the prostitutes but by their pimps. The pimps get their investment back quickly in this illicit, yet highly-profitable business.


At times the pimps and girls get an opportunity to make more than the regular hourly rate when a customer asks a Russian prostitute to stay with them for a number of weeks, or sometimes months. The customers, mostly foreigners or Arabs, have to pay a lump sum, which amounts to much more than the hourly or nightly rates.

Russia: Police officers managed to trace an international organization that was trafficking beautiful Russian girl to Arab Emirates

Woman named Lyusa was wearing gorgeous clothes. She was talking to the girls, boasting of her working experience in Arab Emirates: “I was working there as a waitress, it was a thousand dollars a month.” Lyusa was playing a hoax on them – she was given a thousand rubles for her story. When surprised provincial girls started wondering, if they could get such a good job, Lyusa said that there was such an opportunity. She said they should call Zurab Aliyev – he was playing the role of an “employment agency.”

“My mother, – Zurab was saying, – owns a restaurant in Dubai. The restaurant serves Russian meals, that is why they hire the Russian personnel. The work is not hard – there are many clients, but it takes them long to eat. You serve a table and then you may take a break. At times, clients invite a waitress to eat with them, which is not prohibited. However, if a hot-blooded Arab man starts flirting, the security kick him out of the restaurant. There is no risk. Accommodation and food is free. The salary is $1,000 a month.”

Needless to mention, it is very hard for a young, inexperienced, provincial girl not to agree to have such an attractive job. Of course, Aliyev did not tell anyone that it was not actually a restaurant, but a brothel.

Natasha Rakhimbayeva came to Russia from Uzbekistan with her distant relative, who was like a mother to her. They were rather poor. Natasha decided to improve her financial position. At the Rostov airport, she managed to steal a passport, who belonged to a woman named Natasha Zakharova (born in 1970). She changed the owner’s photograph to the one of her distant relative, who was in her late forties. It is not clear why the people, who Natasha was dealing with, did not notice the difference. With the help of the forged passport, Natasha managed to borrow some money from her neighbors and friends.

Natasha Rakhimbayeva used to go to dancing and photographing classes. When she came to the city of Novocherkassk, the fraudster decided to use that knowledge. She rented several offices in the city and published advertisements to hire young girls to work for a modeling company. There were a lot of volunteers. Natasha was photographing them, she was teaching them how to dance and how to walk like a model. Her services were not free of charge, of course. Having finished in one part of the city, she moved over to another one, without paying the office rent.

Rakhimbayeva and Aliyev got acquainted with each other in the city of Shakhty. Zubab suggested a partnership. Natasha was supposed to advertise the work in the United Arab Emirates.

“Working” in Novocherkassk, Natasha met a young man named Nikolay. They started dating. Rakhimbayeva was interested in Nikolay’s 16-year-old sister, Nadya. She was a very pretty girl, a straight-A student at school. However, there was no future for her – she was a perfect candidacy to “work as a waitress.” Nikolay and Natasha split up very soon and the man went to a monastery to pray for forgiveness of his sins.

At first, Natasha offered Nadya to go to the United Arab Emirates to purchase a large batch of cellular phones. She promised, the trip would be absolutely free. When Nadya was preparing to travel, the trip was suddenly cancelled. Natasha said, there was a better variant – to work at Zurab Aliyev’s restaurant in Dubai. The two fraudsters obtained a forged passport for the girl, and she finally left for Dubai in March of the current year. There is a law in the United Arab Emirates: women under 30 years of age are allowed to come to the country only if they are accompanied by a man (a husband, a brother, or any other relative). Nadya was travelling alone – apparently, one may come to consent with Arabs too.

Nadya’s mother personally agreed to let her daughter travel to the Emirates. However, Nadya simply disappeared in Dubai – she did not make any calls, she did not write any letters. The woman went to police. Alexander Grushev, spokesman for the local police department said, Zurab was detained in the town of Shakhty. Nadya’s mother remembered Natasha Rakhimbayeva was saying he had a shop there. Rakhimbayeva herself was nabbed in the settlement of Melikhovskaya, where she was hiding from numerous creditors. Interpol is currently searching for Nadya in the Emirates, her whereabouts are not known yet.

They allow Nadya to call home every Friday for about a month. To all appearance, she talks in someone else’s presence. The under age girl begs her mother to take her home. It is not known, how many girls have suffered from the fraudsters. Police officers say, several girls were lucky to return to Russia from the Emirates. One of the women arrived wearing just a dress, she did not have her underwear on – Arabs punished her for bad services. The woman told the police, she had been sold to Arab brothels twice – for seven and eleven thousand dollars. The woman is not willing to talk to the police – she does not want her mother to learn about what happened. About a dozen of female residents of Novocherkassk were going to become “waitresses” – they were lucky to avoid that experience.

Olga Sidorova

Russia: The ancient profession is far from being nice and easy


All the information about the job was available on the telephone: the wages would be about $1,000, the first three days would be given as a probation period, so that a girl could see, if it was a good job or not. If a girl was coming from another town, the firm would pay her trip to the capital and back.

“I arrived in Kiev, Ukraine. A man of 30 years old met me at the central railway station. He turned out to be a driver. There was another girl sitting in his car, she came from the city of Kharkov. She was a 25-year-old blond, a pretty one. The man was driving very fast.  When I saw his old car, I was disappointed. I did not understand, that it was just a driver, not the boss. We were driving in Kiev, there were a lot of cars around us. Then we finally approached an old apartment building and went up to the third storey. A man with an ugly belly opened the door. As I found out later, he was one of the main pimps. He was looking at us for quite a while, kept the blond for himself and told the driver to take me to another place.

“The driver took me to another apartment, where I was introduced to a tall man, he was younger than the previous one. It was a three-room apartment, there were two other people in there  – another young man and a very young girl. The tall man asked me to go to his bedroom. In the evening, they took us to the place of our work, somewhere in the center of the city. We stopped somewhere in a nook, near a kindergarten. They left us in the car with the young girl. I was 30 years old, but I looked 25. Other cars were coming too – girls were stepping out of them and then getting in the UAZ vehicle that was parked nearby. It was stuffy in the car, but we were not allowed to get out.

“A woman of 36 years old wearing a track suit came up to our car soon – she was a “madam.” As it turned out later, she was supposed to get girls out of various difficult situations and solve problems with the police. She looked us over and asked us to give our passports to her. I was promised that passports would not be taken away from us, but the madam said that she needed our IDs to solve problems with cops. I did not really believe her. Cars were coming and coming, girls were getting out of them – a lot of them were not pretty at all. Soon they gave us the address where we would live and work. When it got dark, they took everyone to a narrow side street between an administrative building and the kindergarten fence. Clients were driving in the side street one by one. It smelled awful, everybody was smoking. I was very nervous, I wanted to drink something, but it was impossible. I was not supposed to go anywhere.

“Girls were divided into three categories according to their prices: $100, $70 and $50. I found myself in the group of $70-girls. When a client was driving up, the madam screamed out the price that a client was able to pay. Girls were supposed to get in line in front of his car. That process seemed absolutely wild to me, so I started thinking of getting out of the place. I have not had an experience of working with pimps, lining up in front of clients’ cars. Nobody told me such details, I thought everything would be happening in a more decent way. I was struck to see that with my own eyes. Other girls told me, emergent situations were rather frequent. I learnt that clients would often keep girls for several hours, although they paid only for one or two. In addition to it, I learnt that girls had to work a certain sum of $400 or $500 to get their passports back. The first money would come only in a week. Stories were rather messy, maybe they did not want to tell me the whole truth. I did not believe that I would be earning a thousand bucks a month.

“I did not know, why I decided to do that. Nobody was keeping me in my hometown – I had no husband, no children, no job there. I wanted easy money, an adventure, taking into consideration the fact that I have never been indifferent to sex. I decided to take a risk, but the reality turned out to be disgusting. I had to be there in the line of girls three times that night, but clients would not pick me up for some reason. I was very tired, I could not stand that tobacco smell any longer. I decided to get out of that place. A guy came up to me and asked me if I was a new girl or not. I told him that I would not be able to work under such conditions. He started asking me to stay, but I was persistent. The guy brought me to the madam. She started yelling at me, called me a fool, and then she wondered, which girl had frightened me with silly chatting. I just said that I was not willing to work there. The madam finally gave me my passport back. I have to give credit to pimps – they took me to the railway station with all my stuff. That was the end of my unsuccessful career in the Ukrainian capital.

“I would like to warn the girls, who dream of easy money. The ancient profession is not easy , it is far from being nice.  They treat you like cheap goods that have absolutely no rights. I would advise to think a lot before making such a decision.”