Austrian NGO: “After more than a decade of working with people in prostitution in a country where prostitution is regulated, we find it very difficult to find reasons to recommend legalization”

After Traian Băsescu, former president of Romania, suggested that legalizing prostitution would put an end to violence and trafficking of women for sexual exploitation, an Austrian organization working with many Romanians who practice prostitution in Austria testifies to the reality of prostitution in this country. The fact that Austria has regulated this practice, the effects on women are just as traumatic, while police is even more impotent than before, they warn. The authors of the testimony wished to remain anonymous for their own protection and for the protection of their beneficiaries.

This testimony has been offered to be published on, the only daily updated pro-life and pro-family website in Romania.

The illusion of „clean“ prostitution

In Austria, where prostitution is legal and regulated, there are over 7.000 people, mostly women, officially registered for this so-called profession. 95% of these persons are migrants, Romania being the main country of origin – over 50% of the women come from Romania.

In our daily work as a non-profit organization that weekly reaches out to people in prostitution working on the streets or in one of the over 350 different brothels, night clubs etc. all over Vienna, we encounter many Romanian girls and women of all different ages. Many young women come – or are brought – to Vienna when they are barely 18. We have met girls on their first day of working which was their actual birthday. From partners in Romania we have heard that oftentimes, so-called loverboys are preying on young women who are leaving orphanages and have no place to go, feeding them with promises of a “prosperous life abroad”. Other women are driven to believe in the false promises of someone already living abroad due to difficult live situations they face, like a sick mother at home, children or whole families depending on them to send money home.

The reality of prostitution oftentimes looks very different than what they had imagined: Even in countries like Austria and Germany where prostitution is legalized, women suffer a lot of violence in prostitution – be it from their pimp or from clients who press limits. Clients come with ideas taken from pornography and want to act out practices their spouse or partner does not consent to. Many of these practices are hurtful to women, but out of pressure by pimps or lack of money, they still accept crossing limits they initially had, sometimes even sex without a condom.

Thus, people in prostitution often suffer from various destructive and even life-threatening effects on their body and psyche. The effects are often manifold, complex and difficult to treat. They may include:

Physical: physical trauma due to repeatedly penetrations or even violence (e. g. bruises, fractions, traumatic brain injury, abdominal pain and inflammations, sexually transmitted diseases, substance abuse, various psychosomatic symptoms.

Mental/ emotional: dissociation and dissociative identity disorder, eating and/ or anxiety disorders, stress disorders and PTSD, complex trauma, substance abuse.

The rationale behind these are repeated experiences of violence – whether physical, mental or emotional. Many women experience severe violence on a regular basis ranging from verbal abuse and bullying, emotional manipulation and isolation to physical violence and abuse whilst serving a customer or in confrontation with violent pimps. One would wish that legal regulations would lower the prevalence of these but unfortunately one cannot truly “control and regulate” what happens between a person in prostitution and her/his client and/or pimp. And in many cases money has the final say.

Money in prostitution is not easily earned – even if women are actually working on their own without a pimp, loverboy or partner who they depend on and who takes much of the money away from them again, as it is usually the case especially as they start out working in prostitution. A room in a brothel or in a so-called “Laufhaus” is generally very expensive and takes much of a person’s income right away again meaning that women work their first few clients every day just to pay for the room which is sometimes the very place they stay and sleep in when they’re not working. If women do have a pimp or loverboy – and many do – they are often forced to give away much of their money.  

Therefore, debts are something that keeps a lot of the women in prostitution, even if they desire to leave because they have become tired of what it does to them and to their body. Pimps sometimes buy objects of value such as cars on the name of one of “their girls” who are then left with paying for it. Most women who are finally able to exit prostitution are not rich as they initially intended to be but must start over again with nothing.

Overcoming challenges such as illnesses, trauma, debt, isolation, stigma, language barriers, legal issues or missing papers can all be part of the journey out of prostitution – thus showing that prostitution can’t be seen a “normal job as any other”. Last but not least, the women also often have to face racism and sexism: Since there are so many Romanian women on the streets and in the brothels, this sometimes leads to the overall perception – especially within the group of pimps and sex buyers – that Romanian girls are “only good for one thing – sex”.

Oftentimes it is very hard for the women to get used to a normal work routine outside of prostitution again, if they are even able to find a regular job after years of working in prostitution. Hardly any of them wants to mention their former occupation in a curriculum and with no further training or education received during this time they often struggle to find another job.

Thus, with over a decade of experience in working with people in prostitution in a country where prostitution is regulated, we find it very difficult to find reasons to recommend legalization. Although the hope of being able to normalize this “job” and preventing it from going “underground” and out of sight where abuse and exploitation might be more difficult to detect is very much understandable, we also see the opposite taking place: Where prostitution is legalized and supposedly “clean”, the police not always have enough instruments in their hands to support women who are being exploited: If women don’t speak out and testify against their exploiters, their hands are bound. And in many of the cases we are dealing with every day, exploited women are too afraid to speak out against pimps, loverboys or traffickers.

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