A transnational research project, funded by the EU and based on interviews in five countries, reveals who are the buyers of paid sex 

Who are the buyers
of paid sex in Europe?

7 min read
foto Flickr/kellerabteil

Human trafficking is often referred to as the modern-day slavery. Unlike human smuggling, which is a crime against the State, human trafficking is a crime against a person, which involves severe human rights violations. The main distinction between human trafficking and human smuggling remains the coercion and exploitation the victim is subjected to, on the one hand, and the crossing of international borders, on the other hand, with the latter being irrelevant for trafficking crimes but essential for smuggling. Exploitation not only could involve practices such as forced labour, domestic services, forced begging but also more serious personal violations such as sexual abuse, forced pornography, and prostitution. Human trafficking is a growing problem. It is estimated to have only been superseded by trafficking in drugs and arms. Europe is not immune to this crime and the European Union (EU) member states are adopting laws and strategies to curb this crime. 

Human trafficking is also a highly gendered crime. The most prevalent type of human trafficking, in Europe, is trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation. According to the latest European statistical report , sex trafficking takes up 69% of all human trafficking crimes in the EU and is three times more common than trafficking for labour exploitation. Trafficking disproportionally affects women and girls, who make up 80% of all victims in the EU. Among the types of trafficking with most devastating consequences, such as trafficking for sexual exploitation, the number of women and girls affected are up to 95%.  These statistics give mandate to the EU to act and support initiatives preventing the sexual exploitation of women and girls. Addressing and discouraging the demand that fosters human trafficking, especially of women and children, is recognised as an efficient prevention strategy in all major international treaties dealing with trafficking in human beings. 

In the context of the most prominent form of human trafficking in Europe - trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation – the preferred approach to demand reduction is to discourage buyers to knowingly purchase services from trafficked persons. In 2012, the EU[2] funded a transnational research project investigating demand reduction by interviewing buyers of paid sex called Stop Traffick! Tackling Demand for Sexual Service of Trafficked Women and Girls. The resulting report, published in 2014, intended to inform awareness campaigns and future policies focused on reduction of demand for sexual services of victims of trafficking by exploring the attitudes of buyers and potential buyers towards human trafficking. The transnational research took place in a diverse selection of European countries both in terms of geo-political and prevalent trafficking characteristics. Whereby Ireland, Finland and Cyprus are destination countries for trafficked victims, Bulgaria and Lithuania are primarily source countries. 

The research was based on mixed research methodologies. This was necessary to build a good level of understanding of this private and relatively difficult issue to research, notably the purchase of sexual services from another individual. The methods included a review of relevant international research, a review of the legal and policy context in the selected countries, an online survey and face-to-face interviews with buyers of sex.  The data collection combined quantitative and qualitative methods. In total 763 buyers of sex participated in either in-depth interviews or an on-line survey in the five countries (71 face-to-face interviews in two countries and 692 qualified online survey responses out of a total of 2,004 responses received in the rest of the countries). A Research Ethics Framework was drawn up to protect the anonymity of interviewees and to ensure that no safety or security risks existed for interviewers or respondents.

The research, which received European Commissions’ commendations, produced rich findings and recommendations. In general, the recommendations referred to the need for demand reduction strategies to target specifically men due to the fact that buyers of sex are overwhelmingly male. The results indicated that the average buyer is a man, most likely in a relationship or married, of relatively high social standing with middle to high income, most likely employed and with high level of education. 

In contrast, the overwhelming majority of the sellers of sex were reported as female. First-time experiences of purchasing sex took place at a relatively young age and in a spontaneous and unplanned way, often with a group of friends and, in some cases, under the influence of alcohol and drugs. The vast majority of buyers purchased sex on-line and in indoors as opposed to street prostitution. The use of internet was especially utilised in Finland and Ireland. The in-depth interviews showed that, when practised over a long time, purchasing of sex largely becomes a planned activity for the buyers, compared to first-time experiences.

Buyers who were interviewed seemed to have a complex view of the act of purchasing sex and those involved in the sale of sex. On the one hand, they overwhelmingly believed that the sale of sex is a transaction between two consenting adults and on the other hand they would not want to see any close friend or family member to become involved in this practice. Most buyers reported viewing sellers of sex as being different from other women. Nearly one third of the buyers reported that they had encountered exploitation in prostitution or sellers who are minors but a markedly lower number considered reporting this to the police. Overall, a large proportion of respondents avoided answering the question of whether they had reported suspicions of trafficking to the authorities or they answered that they had not considered reporting suspicions to the police.

Significant number of buyers demonstrated some knowledge of human trafficking as a crime and as a phenomenon. Irrespective of this knowledge, the research showed that it is unlikely they will consider the possibility that a seller may be a victim of trafficking when purchasing sex. Similarly, knowledge of existing laws specifically targeting buyers of sexual services from trafficking victims appear to have no impact on buyers’ consideration of human trafficking in the act of purchasing of sex.

Finally, the research examined buyers’ views about what would act as efficient deterrents to the purchasing of sex. These views varied from country to country but some trends were very clearly identifiable across all countries. Apart from fears about their personal safety, which appears very important, other strong deterrents identified by the buyers in all countries were publicity in the local media or on the internet, letters of disclosure sent to the family and imprisonment. At the same time, educational classes and community service were of least significance for buyers as possible deterrents.

The rich data collected as part of the research is available at the designated webpage of this transnational initiative along with widely applicable and practical recommendations. The report pointed out that awareness and educational initiatives, specifically targeting younger men who could be potential future buyers, should be urgently developed as the purchase of sex becomes more entrenched over time, with more frequent buyers exhibiting an increased sense of entitlement, dehumanisation of the seller and desire for control.

Other important recommendations referred to the need to challenge the perception of women in prostitution as a “different type of women”, and the fact that a significant proportion of buyers of sex witness serious exploitation, including of minors. The research revealed that laws specifically criminalising the purchase of services of victims of trafficking are not serving as a deterrent on the buyers at present. Strategies have to reconsider measures that exclusively focus on victims of trafficking, in particular those that involve knowledge on the part of the buyer, which is the agreed minimum standard in the EU law at the moment. 

Maybe the most important contribution of the research lies in the strong evidence of the buyers’ assessments of what actually constitute effective deterrents against demand. Public exposure in the local media or internet, letters of disclosure sent to a buyer’s family and imprisonment are all identified by buyers as having a strong deterrent force. Educational classes and community work, on the other hand, showed to have no deterrent value and, as a result, will hardly help to decrease demand.  National strategies should also be informed by the specific deterrents identified in national contexts – such as the high importance of local media in Ireland, the fear of criminal records in Lithuania and Bulgaria, and the overall fear of embarrassment and loss of social capital in all participating countries.


[1] EUROSTAT, Trafficking in Human Beings, 2014

[2] European Commission Programme for Prevention of and Fight Against Crime (ISEC)

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