Prostitution in Prague: Is legalisation the way forward?

With its numerous erotic bars and night clubs, as well as the very visible presence of prostitutes on many of its streets, Prague is developing a reputation as "the Amsterdam of the east". The city's sex industry has aroused much discussion in the past, with many calling on the government to bring the situation under control. Now a draft bill is being prepared by the Ministry of the Interior, which aims to legalise and regulate prostitution. If passed, the new law would see licences issued to prostitutes, who would then be able to legally work in designated places and even pay taxes. These legal prostitutes would have to fulfil certain criteria to practice their trade and would also have to undergo regular health checks to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted disease. Although some have praised the bill for its forward thinking, many who are involved with the sex industry are sceptical about how effective it will be.

At nine in the evening, a prostitute on Prague's main shopping boulevard Wenceslas Square offers to have oral or penetrative sex with me in a phone booth. This sort of soliciting is a relatively common experience for any man walking unaccompanied at night in Prague's main thoroughfare. According to many estimates, there are thousands of prostitutes working in the Czech capital, which seems to suggest that business is booming.

Meanwhile, across town, "Robby" shows me around K5 - the night-club he manages. It is one of dozens of strips bars and erotic clubs dotted around the city. The surroundings here are a lot more salubrious than a Wenceslas Square phone booth:

So what exactly does Robby's club offer and are the erotic services it provides legal?

"It's a delicate situation. In general, prostitution is illegal. The word 'prostitution' is not legal. Now we try to do everything as cleanly as possible. We've managed to get as far as being clean on erotic massage. We can give erotic services such as a massage. We have a licence for this. We can do it officially. We can send a girl to a private room with a guest, where there will be an erotic service - a massage. Now what is a massage and what is sex? Nobody really knows the difference. So we can play with this. So prostitution is not legal, but you can go to a private room with a man and give him an erotic massage..."

Robby thinks the authorities are well aware of this grey area and in some ways even use it to their advantage:

"Some of the services we provide such as manicures, pedicures, massages and restaurant services. They're all in the 5 % tax bracket. But there's 22 % tax on erotic massage. Why? Obviously, they know what it is and 5 % is not enough. All services pay 5 %, but erotic services pay 22 % taxes. We have it on our bill. Each service is marked with either 5 % or 22 % tax depending on which category it is. And it all goes to the state. It's their money."

At around 4000 CZK per hour, an "erotic massage" is a rather expensive service by standards in the Czech Republic, where wages can be as low as 8,000 CZK or 250 EUR a month. So who are the people who avail of K5's services?

"We have some Czechs, but obviously not everyone can afford our services. Otherwise, it's a mixture of foreigners who have their business here and tourists"

"Lenka", is a former sex-worker, who spent many years working in the sex industry. She describes how easy it was for her to begin working as a prostitute: "I had moved out of my parents' home and I needed some extra money. So I put an ad in a newspaper saying that I was a young student looking for a part-time job. And my future boss rang me, and told me who he was and what sort of business he was involved in, and he asked if I would like to meet him for a cup of coffee. So I thought why not. And so we talked for a little bit and I realised that I might like to try it, because before I didn't have any problems with having sex or fun with somebody. So I tried it and it wasn't that bad."

During her time in the prostitution business, Lenka primarily worked in clubs like K5. Usually, girls working in clubs get fifty percent of every transaction they make with a client. So what do the clubs do for their money?

"Well, everything. All the background, which means the advertising that brings customers in. They also take care of all the other background stuff like bars, drinks, and sometimes even food, as well as the rooms, cleaning, water, power, and music. The girls just have to come in, get changed, and make themselves as pretty as possible."

Besides having everything arranged for them, girls who work in clubs are also less likely to be harassed by the authorities than prostitutes working in the street. I asked Lenka, if she ever had any problems with the law when she was working in sex clubs?

"No, not at all. Sometimes the police would even come into the club to have a cup of coffee or to sit down and have fun with the girls and to watch the show and stuff. That happens pretty regularly."

Lenka also believes that it is safer to work in a club, as help is usually at hand if a dangerous situation arises with a client. Nevertheless, she can also see why some girls prefer to work the streets:

"Well it's their choice, if they want to be there. They can actually come to work whenever they want. They don't have to sit down with people and talk, talk, talk without being sure of the outcome. It's not something I would do, though."

Is it also not more dangerous for girls on the streets?

"Well, I would say that it's more dangerous for the guys than the girls!"

As Lenka suggests, the risk of diseases such as AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections is something that sex workers constantly face. This is especially true for girls working on the street, who don't always practice safe-sex, which is something that many of the clubs insist on.

Hana Malinova runs Rozkos Bez Rizika or Bliss Without Risk, which is an organisation that aims to fight the spread of sexually transmitted disease by providing free medical examinations and treatment for prostitutes at a drop-in centre in Prague. Thanks to the efforts of her organisation, she is upbeat about the disease situation among prostitutes although she does have some concerns:

"Of course, we have been taking care of them for 12 years now and the effects are visible. We have a negligible number of HIV-positive women. What is a little bit of a warning for us is the increasing number of syphilis cases. Usually a wave of syphilis precedes a wave of HIV."

The incidence of syphilis also indicates that safe sex may not be widely practised. This is one of the issues addressed by a new law which is being prepared by the Czech Ministry of the Interior. The draft legislation proposes legalising and regulating prostitution. The new law would be established to ensure that all women working in the sex industry would be over 18 and would undergo regular health checks. It would also mean that prostitution services could only be provided by people who had a special licence in designated facilities. This would presumably help reduce street prostitution.

Robby from K5 guardedly welcomes the idea of legalisation. He claims that making prostitution legal would help separate it from other illegal activities such as drugs and people trafficking, which frequently go hand in hand with this murky industry.

Nevertheless, he insists that resources would have to be directed towards ensuring that illegal sex-workers were rigorously dealt with in order for legal prostitution to have a chance of succeeding. Otherwise, he thinks the situation would not really change for the better. The resources needed to ensure this could conceivably come from prostitutes themselves, whose earnings after legalisation would presumably be subject to taxation.

Robby feels that the money generated by the sex industry is a potentially huge source of income for any government:

"If we legalised all this, prostitutes in Europe could have their own bank. They could run a country - they could have the same budget as a small country. And all this money is black right now, and it's not going to the right places..."

Lenka, however, is sceptical about the idea of legalised, regulated prostitution:

"I cannot imagine how it would work. I cannot imagine a 30-year old prostitute who is a mother with two or three kids going to some "Office of Social Welfare" and declaring herself as a prostitute working in a certain club. I really cannot imagine how it would work."

Hana Malinova is also concerned that the introduction of legalisation would result in the penalisation of illegal prostitutes. As a result, they would be less likely to seek out social workers and doctors, which could in turn lead to an increase in sexually transmitted diseases.

She feels politicians and legislators are focusing too much on the actual issue of prostitution instead of the social problems it reflects:

"I think this country has much bigger problems that are harder to resolve. They say they would like to find who is guilty for this situation and they ask how it could be improved, but prostitution is part of society. The fish smells from the head..."