Demand for Women's Sexual Services
last updated September 1, 2005


Because women are often trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation, the demand for women's sexual services must be recognized as one of the root causes of trafficking in women. The U.N. Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children asks states to "adopt or strengthen legislative or other measures, such as educational, social or cultural measures, including through bilateral and multilateral cooperation, to discourage the demand that fosters all forms of exploitation of persons, especially women and children, that leads to trafficking." The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Recommended Principles and Guidelines on Human Rights and Human Trafficking also addresses demand, as does the 2004 Model State Anti-Trafficking Criminal Statute (Note: Section 225 of the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 recommends a new model state statute be promulgated), which calls for the preparation and dissemination of "public awareness materials designed to discourage the demand that fosters the exploitation of persons, especially women and children, that leads to trafficking."

The trafficking of women into the commercial sex industry is primarily to countries in which prostitution and the provision of other sexual services are either tolerated or legal. An article by Sari Kouvo of the Department of Law, University of Göteborg, Sweden explains that, "[t]rafficking in women and children is connected to the existence of legal, semi-legal and illegal sex markets, and the existence of these sex markets is directly connected to the fact that there are men who are willing to pay for sex (in all its varied and exploitable forms)."

Ms. Kouvo also maintains that anti-trafficking initiatives in Europe rarely address the demand for sexual services, "[a]lthough many European countries are seemingly upset with the increasing trafficking in women, few are prepared to make these links, and take political action aimed at questioning the demand side, i.e. the behavior of potential customers (men)... [and] [a]lthough it is evident that without men buying sex there would be no basis for trafficking and sexual exploitation of women." From The Swedish Approach to Prostitution. It should be noted that the 2002 Brussels Declaration calls for European Union Member States and candidate countries as well as Russia and CIS countries to take measures to "address the reduction of the demand for sexual services," with "awareness campaigns especially targeting clients" who use such services. However, the European Union Council Framework Decision of 19 July 2002 on combating trafficking in human beings, which, unlike the Brussels Declaration, is legally binding on European Union member states, does not address reducing the demand for sexual services as a method of combating trafficking in persons.

The issue of male demand for sexual services often becomes confused with debate over the legitimacy of prostitution as a form of work. In brief, some women's activists view prostitution, in any form, as men's sexual exploitation of women and maintain that it is always harmful. Other advocates take the approach that the harmful effects of prostitution are related to the fact that it is often stigmatized and relegated to the informal sector, where women cannot receive the protection of labor codes. In her article, Regulating the Global Brothel, Leah Platt argues that women who chose to travel to work as prostitutes are part of a larger phenomenon of the "feminization of migration" and that women who decide to sell sexual services should be afforded the same basic protections as they would in other forms of work.


Regardless of the approach one takes to prostitution in general, comprehensive policies that address the demand for sexual services are necessary to combat trafficking. Kvinnoforum, a Swedish Women's Forum that operates Q-Web, a women's network, created a resource manual for NGOs working on the issue of trafficking titled A Resource Book for Working against Trafficking in Women and Girls-Baltic Sea Region. The Resource Book includes research showing that the demand for sexual services is "an issue of attitudes that . . . vary in its expression in different parts of the world - but that can be addressed." The Kvinnoforum study suggests that general educational and public awareness programs may be effective in changing male attitudes about women and commercial sex work and in protecting potential victims of trafficking.