A Tax on Sex?

Legalizing prostitution and taxing sex workers could fill state coffers, politicians argue

When the city council in Cologne, Germany was looking for new sources of revenue to boost its shrinking budget, they came up with an original idea -- they imposed a so-called sex tax. Cologne was the first German city to levy a tax on prostitutes, strip shows, pornographic cinemas and massage parlors. It has since generated more than a million euros for the city's coffers.

There are around 10,000 prostitutes in the Czech Republic who, between them, earn as much every year as the Škoda car company (between 10 billion and 11 billion crowns). Currently, no Czech prostitute pays taxes but this may soon change.

Alone with my "Freier"
"It isn't possible to ban prostitution but it is possible to enforce the rules in order to maintain public order and make sure there aren't major health and crime risks," argued a group of Prague city councilors who last year decided to do something about the sharp increase in new cases of syphilis among Czech prostitutes and the rising number of brothels in downtown Prague. In September, they presented a proposal to legalize prostitution -- the third such proposal in the Czech Republic in the last 10 years. Procuring prostitutes and human trafficking are illegal in the Czech Republic, although prostitution isn't a criminal activity, as such.

The amendment proposed by the Prague councilors calls for compulsory registration and health checks for prostitutes. According to a survey conducted last year by the non-governmental organization Rozkoš bez rizika (Pleasure Without Risk), which helps local sex workers, two-thirds of the 160 prostitutes questioned opposed paying taxes. They said they would be afraid of having their identities revealed and, on top of that, didn't like the idea of being forced to work only in designated areas. Eighty percent of the survey's respondents would accept regular health checks, though.

A year has passed since the proposal was submitted and no progress has been made. This also happened with the proposals filed in 2000 and 2005. Some MPs argue that there is a clash with existing legislation, some of which wouldn't allow prostitution to be legalized. Amending these laws isn't simple, they say. "A majority of MPs are too conservative to acknowledge that prostitution will always be here and by defining it in legal terms and regulating it we can help the people involved in it," says one of legalization's advocates, Jiří Šulc of the Civic Democrats (ODS). As the former mayor of Most, a northern Bohemia town near the German border, he has a vast amount of experience dealing with issues relating to prostitution and now he and fellow party members Rudolf Blažek and Ivana Řápková are trying to promote its legalization and regulation.

Rozkoš bez rizika is also in favor of making prostitution a legal profession. They argue that it helps prostitutes to work independently, without being at the mercy of pimps. According to German social workers, a good half of the prostitutes there have officially registered themselves since the industry was legalized. Particular streets in Berlin, for example, are full of independent sex workers, one of which is Kurfürsten Strasse. Here they'll openly talk to foreign journalists, saying they choose their Freiers (German slang for clients) themselves. On the other hand, if they have a problem with a client, they can rely only on themselves or the police.

Decriminalizing workers and businesses involved in prostitution makes the whole sex scene more transparent. With rules imposed on everyone involved, it's easier to crack down on the exploitation and harassment of prostitutes. This all helps prostitutes gain equal status in the eyes of the public.

In the gray zone
Besides Germany, changes to the legal status of prostitution have been introduced in the Netherlands, Hungary, Greece, Switzerland, Turkey, New Zealand and Sweden, where it is the clients rather than the prostitutes who are criminalized. In most European countries, including the Czech Republic, France, Britain and Italy, prostitution exists in a so-called "grey zone," where it is officially banned but generally tolerated.

Germany legalized prostitution in 2001, giving sex workers the right to contracts, social security and national insurance. Prostitutes have to be of age, pay income tax and health, social and unemployment insurance. On the other hand, they have the right to sick leave, maternity leave and a pension. Regular health checks aren't compulsory in Germany, however. On top of that, local city councils may regulate the business according to local needs -- limiting prostitution to a particular place and time and/or imposing additional taxes of their own.

It is these local taxes that have been a resounding success in Cologne. "Unlike income tax which is paid yearly, we require that sex workers pay a fee of six euros for every day that they work," says Josef Rainer Frantzen, head of Cologne's financial bureau. The prostitutes get a daily license which, upon request, they must present to one of the council's 11 financial inspectors. If they fail to produce a license, they can be fined hundreds of euros. "One pays between five and 300 euros for sex services in Germany and we don't really care if a prostitute makes the six euros or not," says Josef Frantzen. "We would prefer to tax their clients but it isn't feasible."

As mentioned above, around a half of German prostitutes now work independently, without a pimp. But the working girls on Berlin's Kurfürsten Strasse say a majority aren't registered and don't pay taxes. "Having talked to my colleagues abroad and at our practice, I know it is only 10-15 percent of the women who register with the city council," says Hana Malinová, the head of Rozkoš bez rizika. "The rest want to remain anonymous." Despite this failure, she would still welcome a change in Czech prostitutes' legal status. "Prostitution will be always here with us," she says. "In my view, it would be much better for all sides to make it a legal profession."

There is some hope. "We are currently studying how it works abroad and by the end of this year we would like to come up with a solution that reconciles the amendment we are trying to propose with the legislation that doesn't allow the legalization of prostitution," says Šulc, who adds that a new bill legalizing prostitution could come into effect next year.

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