The debate concerning the legitimacy of sex work is often shrouded in controversy, yet this has not stopped the introduction of legislation to address the matter, particularly where victims of trafficking are concerned. The 2018 report ‘Disrupt Demand’ by the Immigration Council of Ireland provides a detailed analysis of the relevant law, and this piece will briefly outline some of the approaches taken by various European states, as outlined in the report.

For the most part, the purchase of sex from trafficked persons is regarded as unacceptable, even in those countries with the most liberal of sex work laws, such as the Netherlands and Germany. This is the position taken by Directive 2011/36 of the EU and the Convention of the European Council, and followed by the likes of Cyprus, Lithuania and Finland, where the buyer must be aware that the person being bought is a proven victim of trafficking.

Other countries have extended the regulation of prostitution beyond the scope of just trafficked persons. Sweden, for example, was the first country to introduce a law prohibiting the purchase of sexual services in 1999, which includes purchases by third parties. In terms of curbing demand, the introduction of this law is regarded as a success, with the number of women engaged in prostitution in Sweden remaining low when compared to other European countries.

In France, the purchase of sex is regarded as a ‘simple misdemeanour’, punishable by fine. More severe penalties exist for the organisation of prostitution, and the law also provides for exit routes and welfare supports, such as the provision of temporary residence permits to victims of trafficking who wish to exit prostitution.

Ireland followed the ‘criminalisation of demand’ approach adopted by Sweden with the introduction of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017. Part 4 of the Act criminalises anyone who ‘purchases or attempts to purchase sexual activity from another person’. The Criminal Law (Human Trafficking) Act 2008 remains in place and buying sex from a trafficked person is considered ‘a more serious offence than the buying of sex from any other person under Irish law’.

While this is far from a comprehensive overview of the law in this area, it does demonstrate a variation in the approaches to regulating sex work in Europe. It will be interesting to see what the future holds for sex work in terms of legislative reform, particularly in the context of human trafficking, mass migration and the current feminist discourse about whether prostitution should ever be considered a legitimate form of work.


Sadhbh O’Muiri – Law Writer