“The political economy of prostitution
By Clive Leviev-Sawyer
Bulgaria’s sex industry was hit by the global financial crisis in 2009, leading to a reduction in fees for services, according to recently-released research by the Sofia-based Centre for the Study of Democracy.
In 2008 the charge was 60 leva, but this dropped to 40 leva last year. Still, if self-declared involvement as a client of the sex industry can be believed, about six per cent of Bulgarian men went to prostitutes in 2009.
Bulgarian-language media quoted Tihomir Bezlov, an expert at the Centre for the Study of Democracy, as describing the Bulgarian market for paid sex as of “significant size”.
From the six per cent figure, the following not especially reliable calculation can be made, on the basis of census figures showing that last year, Bulgaria’s population of men aged from 15 to 64 added up to 2.4 million. If six per cent used a sex worker only once, that produces a sum of 5.7 million leva – in the broader context, quite likely to be a vast underestimate.
In theory, and purely for accounting comparisons, the domestic sex services industry may be separated from the internationally-linked trafficking in people from Bulgaria for the purposes of sexual exploitation (in reality, of course, the two are inextricably linked, various research has found).
Again, allowing for the fact that these are private estimates, the human trafficking industry is said in unofficial figures to generate about 900 million leva to 1.3 billion leva a year, at least half of which is repatriated to Bulgaria. Animus, the advocacy group campaigning against human trafficking, estimates that about 10 000 women are sex-trafficked from Bulgaria every year.
Taking a position
According to research quoted by the Centre for the Study of Democracy, about 35 per cent of Bulgarians support the idea of legalising sex work, while 41 per cent want an outright ban.
Bulgaria’s laws on sex work, hardly reformed since they were inherited from the communist era, have hardly helped any law enforcement moves against prostitution, in effect because the general interpretation is that pimping is outlawed but actually earning money directly as a prostitute is not. That said, the actual position on the legality or otherwise of sex work remains unclear. Debate on the question of legalisation has got nowhere, even though it has been close to an annual one in the country’s political life for more than a decade. The most recent serious public debate on the issue saw the idea of legal prostitution shot down by the previous government, more than a year before the current Cabinet came to power.
Notably, however, that figure of 35 per cent of the Bulgarian public being in favour of legalising sex work has risen by four per cent in 2008.
Apart from the occasional bust of street sex workers, for example one well-publicised evening of arrests in Sofia a few months ago, there has been little evidence of serious police operations against prostitution, at least outside the extremely high-profile busts of people in sex trade networks allegedly linked to organised crime.
Further on the question of public attitudes, one well-worn groove of the debate has been followed in Bulgaria when the question has been raised; that legislation would mean eased taxation. Opinions on this have been divided, according to Bulgarian media reports. One view is that it would be a new source of revenue to state coffers; one counter-view is that if this happened, the state would become party to immorality, if you prefer the well-known legal terminology, would be living (in part, at least) off the proceeds of prostitution.
There is another view put forward against legalising sex work in Bulgaria, as expressed by Prosecutor-General Boris Velchev in a 2007 interview with The Sofia Echo, that legitimising prostitution would open the door for criminal networks to use the trade to launder money earned from other sources.
For a trade that nominally is illegal, sex work in Bulgaria is not especially low-profile.
Foreign businessmen travelling alone are quite likely to hear from taxi drivers about sex services on offer at certain addresses to which they would be quite willing to take them; some foreign tourists complain of highly visible street prostitution in a number of Bulgaria’s summer and winter resorts; while for ordinary Bulgarians, advertising happens through newspapers and websites, as recorded in a recent story on local website Frog News.
The website, following up advertisements in newspapers and online, was told in frank terms about services offered and fees charged.
The report said that in one case, the address given was “10m from one of the most popular hotels in Sofia city centre”.
The same phone conversation made it clear that services were available 24 hours a day, according to the report.
“To our surprise,” the website said, after reporting that it had further phone calls, “we found that ‘paid love’ was to be found everywhere possible.” It listed the central city, Lozenets, Lyulin, Mladost, Studentski Grad (Students’ Town) “and even in that quarter of the rich, Boyana”.
Probably predictably, one source told the website that clients included prominent business people, officials, football stars – and politicians.
According to the Centre for the Study of Democracy’s research, it was not only the sex industry that was hit by the economic crisis. So were the trades in illegal drugs and stolen luxury cars – although smuggling of contraband cigarettes and bank card fraud were said to be doing well.
Popular perceptions aside, it is difficult to confirm whether a criminal group may be involved in diversified business – people trafficking, drugs, weapons, for instance – or whether there are specialisations. Going by media reports of busts in Bulgaria and elsewhere in South Eastern Europe (and sometimes in Western and Eastern European countries simultaneously), those groups that have been bust tended to specialise in one form of crime or another.
However, in Bulgaria, the high-profile busts, such as the “Octopus” operation among others, have involved individuals alleged to be part of groups involved in more than one form of illegal activity.
Against the background of the murkiness of Bulgarian law on the sex industry, it is notable that one set of busts, in Sofia and elsewhere in May 2010, was codenamed “Pimps” – even though, reportedly, some of those detained were prostitutes.
The arrests were carried out, according to the Interior Ministry, in part on the basis of information given by people involved in the sex industry after police actions earlier in the Borissov Government’s campaign to arrest those linked to organised crime.
(Quelle: The Sofia Echo.)