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Liberal coercion? Prostitution, human trafficking and policy


Liberal prostitution policy aims at improving labor conditions for prostitutes and protecting victims of forced prostitution. Given its policy mandates, legalized prostitution should be linked to better protection policies for trafficking victims and stronger anti-trafficking measures. In this paper, I investigate empirically whether or not legalized prostitution improves protection policies for victims, as it is presumed. The results of my analysis—using data from 149 countries for the period of 2001–2011—suggest that a liberal prostitution policy does not lead to better protection and, in some cases, legalized prostitution can be detrimental to protecting victims of human trafficking.

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  1. In particular, several studies have investigated justifications for legalizing or criminalizing prostitution in relation with stigma and values. See Jakobsson and Kotsadam (2011) for the discussions on the prohibition of prostitution and its relation with gender equality and liberalism; Immordino and Russo (2015) regarding how the legality of prostitution affects moral and societal acceptance towards prostitution; and Jakobsson and Kotsadam (2014) on (de-)stigmatization and changes in demand for commercial sex.

  2. See Barry (1995), Farley et al. (2003), Hughes and Roche (1999) and Jeffreys (1997) for the arguments that define prostitution as sexual domination and oppression against women.

  3. Chapkis (1997), Kempadoo and Doezema (1998), O'Neill (2001) and Pheterson (1996) propose the position of sex work that supports prostitution as an occupational choice and advocates labor rights for prostitutes.

  4. Furthermore, the prostitution markets in Germany are said to be one of the largest in Europe, with an estimated 14.6 billion euro in revenues or 0.5 % of the GDP (see Die Welt 2013).

  5. In addition, the Cragg-Donald Wald F-statistic of the weak identification test is 20.44—greater than the critical value of the 10 % level relative bias (Stock and Yogo 2005). This result suggests that the null-hypothesis of weak instrument is rejected at the 10 % level. Note that the Cragg-Donald Wald F-test is conducted by applying a 2SLS method based on the linear assumption, and therefore is not ideal for this model given its non-linearity. Thus, I conducted this weak identification test as an additional check for the robustness of my chosen instrument, ensuring the result of the Chi2-test above.

  6. Given the limitation of within-country variations in prostitution law, I admit that the results of my analysis mainly reflect differences in protection policy across countries under different prostitution regimes. Accordingly, this limitation calls for a cautious interpretation regarding whether legalizing prostitution deteriorates victim protection within a country. However, my findings still emphasize that liberal prostitution policy is not associated with a higher level of protection for victims of human trafficking—contradicting the objectives of the policy.

  7. Bulgaria, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Moldova, Poland, and Slovakia.


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The author thanks Lukas Stroemsdoerfer and Douglas Pierce for their research assistance.

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Correspondence to Seo-Young Cho.


Appendix 1

See Table 7.

Table 7 Descriptive statistics

Appendix 2

See Table 8.

Table 8 Data sources and definition

Appendix 3: test for the instrument

See Tables 9 and 10.

Table 9 Relevance: first-stage regression (probit)
Table 10 Exclusion restriction: second-stage regression (ordered logit)

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Cho, SY. Liberal coercion? Prostitution, human trafficking and policy. Eur J Law Econ 41, 321–348 (2016).

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  • Prostitution
  • Victim protection
  • Human trafficking

JEL Classification

  • J15
  • J16
  • K14
  • K37