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The law and economics of international sex slavery: prostitution laws and trafficking for sexual exploitation

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International trafficking in humans for sexual exploitation is an economic activity driven by profit motives. Laws regarding commercial sex influence the profitability of trafficking and may thus affect the inflow of trafficking to a country. Using two recent sources of European cross country data we show that trafficking of persons for commercial sexual exploitation (as proxied by the data sets we are using) is least prevalent in countries where prostitution is illegal, most prevalent in countries where prostitution is legalized, and in between in those countries where prostitution is legal but procuring illegal. Case studies of two countries (Norway and Sweden) that have criminalized buying sex support the possibility of a causal link from harsher prostitution laws to reduced trafficking. Although the data do not allow us to infer robust causal inference, the results suggest that criminalizing procuring, or going further and criminalizing buying and/or selling sex, may reduce the amount of trafficking to a country.

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  1. The figures regarding the share of sexual exploitation should be taken with care though, since sexual exploitation is arguably more visible than forced labor (UNODC 2009).

  2. Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime.

  3. The significance levels and size of effects are robust to the exclusion of countries that changed legislation during our period of study (Hungary, the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, and Sweden, see Appendix 2).

  4. We are grateful to an anonymous referee for pointing out this possibility.

  5. These results are available upon request.

  6. These results are available upon request.


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The paper has benefited from comments by seminar participants at the University of Gothenburg. We also wish to thank Marcus Eliason, Olof Johansson Stenman and Katarina Nordblom for useful comments. In addition we are very grateful to Danailova-Trainor and Belser for giving us access to the ILO data.

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Correspondence to Andreas Kotsadam.


Appendix 1

See Tables 6, 7 and 8.

Table 6 Trafficking inflow to European countries
Table 7 Prostitution legislation in European countries
Table 8 Variable description

Appendix 2

The Law variable was constructed mainly using the 1996–2003 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices from the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. For a few countries the report from 2003 did not include information on prostitution legislation (Andorra, Belarus, Estonia, Finland, Hungary, Luxemburg, and Macedonia). For these countries the report from 2007 was used instead. Since this information is from 4 years after the period we are interested in we complemented this information with other sources. For Andorra we used the 2005 report and found no information in other sources of a legal change in the years from 1996 to 2003. For Belarus, Estonia, Finland, and Macedonia, (Ditmore 2006) confirms the former finding; this is also true for Luxemburg (European Parliament 2004).

Some of the countries also changed their legislation during the investigated period (1996–2003). In Hungary, prostitution became legalized and regulated in 2000, but prostitution had not been seen as a crime since 1993 (Gorondi 2007). In Denmark, prostitution (but not procuring) became legal in 1999 (European Parliament 2004). In Sweden it became a criminal offence to buy, but not to sell, sex in 1999 (Proposition 1997/98:55). Before 1999, Sweden belonged to the category where procuring is illegal. In 2000 the Netherlands legalized prostitution; before this, procuring was generally illegal but many municipalities adopted a regulatory policy even before 2000 (European Parliament 2004). In Germany, prostitution became a legitimate form of employment in 2002, but it had been legalized (and only somewhat restricted) several years before (Raymond 2004).

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Jakobsson, N., Kotsadam, A. The law and economics of international sex slavery: prostitution laws and trafficking for sexual exploitation. Eur J Law Econ 35, 87–107 (2013).

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