World Policy Journal begins each issue with the Big Question, where we ask a panel of experts to provide insight into the cover theme. The question for the winter 2016/2017 World Policy Interrupted issue is: What do sex workers need to better control their working conditions? Below, Boglárka Fedorkó argues that despite legalization of sex work in Hungary, sex workers continue to face highly discriminatory treatment by police and other authorities.
By Boglárka Fedorkó
To better control their working conditions, sex workers need the removal of punitive sex work laws, rights to security, and to be regarded as authorities in what does and does not improve their lives.
Sex workers are a large and heterogeneous community in Hungary. SZEXE, the Association of Hungarian Sex Workers, estimates that there are approximately 15,000 workers either working in Hungary or of Hungarian origin and based elsewhere. The majority of sex workers are cisgender women who work indoors, but a significant number also work on the street and are male and transgender. Despite their diverse circumstances, all sex workers face high levels of social exclusion and discrimination.
Even though sex work was legalized in Hungary in 1999, sex workers continue to face mistreatment by police and other authorities, as well as violations of their rights to workplace health and safety. Most Hungarian municipalities fail to allot or define legal working areas for sex workers, as the law requires, and sex workers are routinely and arbitrarily fined, arrested, and detained under vague laws.
Sex workers are also regularly targeted for administrative fines on unsubstantiated grounds, such as littering or violating pedestrian or traffic regulations, in order to meet police quotas. When those fines remain unpaid due to financial burden, sex workers face detention, which further affects their health and safety as well as their families’ economic well-being and security. The situation has worsened with the introduction of a new law on misdemeanors in 2012, which converts fines to higher sentences.
As a result of regulations that are impossible to comply with for the majority of sex workers—such as the requirement not to work with other sex workers, as it would be considered brothel-keeping, and the vaguely formulated restrictions on where street sex work can take place—a significant proportion of sex work continues to takes place illegally, even though sex work is officially legal. A substantial number of sex workers are therefore fined and/or detained every year. The regulatory structure also creates an antagonistic relationship with police, as sex workers fear them rather than depend on them for protection from violence or other crimes. In a 2011 survey conducted by SZEXE that investigated the extent of police abuse experienced by sex workers, more than 10 percent of the 246 respondents had been asked by a police officer to offer free sexual services, and 43.4 percent of sex workers had experienced verbal or physical assault by authorities. The conflict-laden relationship with law enforcement that arises due to the existing law and policy framework and the lack of awareness of sex workers’ rights seriously threatens sex workers’ safety and health.
Sex work in Hungary is subjected to highly discriminatory policing in order to remove sex workers from the public sphere. The requirement that sex workers receive medical examinations every three months, vague restrictions on the location of sex work venues, abusive policing practices, and regular police raids on sex work venues all undermine sex workers’ right to safety and limit their ability to negotiate safe sex and control their working conditions. Sex workers in the country therefore call for the removal of all punitive laws, policies, and practices that violate their rights. They demand that sex workers not be treated as victims of trafficking or violence perpetrated by men, but as they truly are: experts on issues they experience firsthand, including sex work, migration, social marginalization, women’s rights, and LGBT rights.
Boglárka Fedorkó is the advocacy and communications officer of the Association of Hungarian Sex Workers (SZEXE). She’s currently working for Transgender Europe (TGEU) as the project manager of the ProTrans project, which aims to better protect trans people and their communities in Europe against violence and impunity, and as the advocacy officer of the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe (ICRSE).
[Photo courtesy of Emma Campbell]