Gender equality and women’s rights are an important topic in Hungary – or more precisely, they should be. Intimate partner violence is relatively high, 7% of women (over 15 years old) experience sexual violence and 19% physical violence, and 20% of women come from a family where the father beat the mother.
However, these issues are mostly ignored at best by the mainstream media and the government. The government’s approach to the problem is mostly denial. Like many other European countries, Hungary signed the Istanbul Convention, which aims to prevent and combat violence against women and domestic violence. However, the government has not implemented its terms. For example, Hungary is the only EU country lacking any intervention programme for violent men. Then in 2020, the government decided not to ratify it. This is a serious setback considering the levels of domestic violence in Hungary.
Before moving on to prostitution, I want to describe the everyday hardship in some Hungarian communities. There are many extremely poor neighbourhoods that lack viable work options and where enslavement for physical labour is not rare.
House enslavement is basically small-scale slavery, where a person or a family exploits a person or another family for manual labour. The exploiter doesn’t usually make big sums of money from the situation – typically they gain just enough to sustain daily necessities.
From this, you can imagine the desperation, lack of education, and the power dynamics in these areas. These areas are the main source of people who are sexually victimized and trafficked by the greed of criminals – some of whom are even relatives of the victim.
In Hungary there are generations who have little choice but to follow their parents and become pimps or prostitutes themselves. Municipal workers in rural areas report frequently hearing this. It is an indication of the dynamics that perpetuate the system of prostitution and the supply of new pimps and prostitutes.
There are approximately 15,000 individuals involved in prostitution in Hungary (estimates vary between 10,000-50,000). It’s not hard to imagine how they are viewed in a society where women’s rights are neglected.
With the exception of procurement and brothel owning, prostitution is legal in Hungary if it takes place in so-called “tolerance-zones”. Local municipalities can implement these zones where they see fit, taking into account the proximity of government institutions. However, there are few tolerance zones, because whenever the municipality introduces one, local residents almost always protest against it.
As a result, prostitution is found in secluded areas just about everywhere and not just in these zones. This makes the police and local authorities fine and arrest people arbitrarily. They sometimes introduce a zone after arresting the prostitutes.
In conclusion, prostitution is partly legal, but enforcement is a grey area and is often abused area by individual policemen.
Prostitution and trafficking in Hungary
In Hungary, prostitution largely operates with the same dynamics as elsewhere. An interview with senior police officer, Krisztina Balogh, paints a grim picture. Sexual exploitation is the most common form of human trafficking and victims are typically 16–24 year-old girls and women. This is not surprising considering that today sex trafficking is one of the most profitable criminal acts and the younger the victim, the more profit the trafficker can hope for.
Sex traffickers target emotionally vulnerable young people – particularly those from orphanages – and homeless and disabled people. Once under the control of the traffickers, victims find themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place. Prostitution can mean survival and so the possibility of exit can become unimaginable – meaning that they are unlikely to report abuse or try to escape. Besides these dynamics, traffickers typically work in organized crime networks and use threats to keep the victims in check.
From the police perspective, investigating the crime of trafficking is challenging. In many cases even the victims do not realise that they are victims. Sometimes a victim comes to the police to report something else and gradually it emerges that the person is trafficked. The police have insufficient resources to be able to make much impact on these criminal dynamics.
Hungary is a source and transit country for sex trafficking victims, but due to the low average income and grey policing, it’s not the most profitable for traffickers. In the past, most victims were sold abroad, but now this has reduced to around 60%. Illegal migration in the last years has not changed the situation much, generally both the traffickers and victims are Hungarian.
Hungary is the third highest country in Europe in terms of numbers of sex trafficking victims – Romania and Bulgaria are first and second, respectively.
The target countries are those where prostitution is legalized, which shows that legalization empowers traffickers more than almost anything else.
According to an interview with Ágnes Németh (a colonel in the Hungarian police force) the biggest target country for Hungarian victims is Germany, where prostitution is legal, the average income is much higher and borders are easily accessible for Hungarian citizens.
The Netherlands is also a target. Part of the Amsterdam red-light district was even named after a Hungarian town, “Nyíregyháza”. The police forces of the two countries work together to tackle the traffickers. However, soon after dozens of traffickers were arrested in the Netherlands, a sudden spike of Hungarian prostitutes was detected in Great Britain. It seems an impossible job to tackle the traffickers for long. The police are always behind.
The difficulties are compounded by the exploiters’ changing strategies. The traffickers have built a European network, transporting their victims from country to country to make it harder for the police to catch up. They have also switched from direct beatings to more sophisticated coercion, like threats and blackmail, which cannot so easily be proven, should victims turn to the police for help.
Németh said that at this very moment, traffickers are working on buying teenagers from poor towns in Hungary, and making victims believe that the man driving a nice car and offering a life of luxury is deeply in love with them.
Understanding and helping victims
According to Árpád Sebestyén (crisis psychologist, university teacher at ELTE), it is so rare that someone is a self-made, truly independent prostitute that we can say that basically all prostitutes can be considered trafficked.
Many men believe that the prostitute they go to, does not have a pimp. But who are the victims getting sold to if everyone is the exception? When we claim she must be enjoying it, because it is her “job” and she makes a lot of money, we absolve ourselves and avoid facing the issue.
From the perspective of victims, they often find prostitution a necessary evil compared to the prospectless future they otherwise imagine for themselves. Even when they are abused and violated, at least they have a human network and known dynamics in prostitution. It is a deeply human reaction to be desperate to find stability.
Women need help to understand and extricate themselves from these complex dynamics. Psychologists, social workers, doctors, teachers, etc. need to help them find stability and rebuild their self-worth. Only when she has reconstructed her boundaries, assertiveness, and confidence, will she be able to stand her ground alone. Usually this means that she needs a job as well, and we need to provide help for her in gaining one.
If we find signs of abuse, exploitation, or we are victims ourselves, one of the best available, free and anonymous phone service is OKIT (“Országos Kríziskezelő és Információs Telefonszolgálat”).
Policing in Hungary
In Hungary usually fewer than ten cases of trafficking are prosecuted annually – although there are more prosecutions of some of the related crimes, such as procuring and exploitation. In 2018 there were 41 closed cases of child sexual exploitation, 143 of procurement and 23 of soliciting for prostitution. This shows that Hungarian authorities can barely scratch the surface of the problem and are not even close to controlling it.
According to Europol reports, one out of every five prostituted victims in Europe are Hungarian. The victims are most often lured by empty promises, or abducted, but in some cases they are sold by their own families to traffickers and are forced to “work” seven days a week in brothels in foreign countries. A US report found that a high proportion of Hungarian prostituted women are from the Roma minorities and that the Hungarian government does not do enough to prevent and tackle trafficking and to help the victims.
The need for change
Stricter laws could help. However, strengthening the social welfare safety net is more important, as is detecting and preventing victimization and building greater understanding of the problem so that it is not left out of sight. And of course, the enthusiastic implementation of Nordic Model laws in the countries of Western Europe would make intercountry sex trafficking a less attractive proposition.
Although I am sceptical about the prospects of the advancement of women’s rights in Hungary, especially in prostitution, there are promising signs of a potential shift. Discussion about the Swedish/Nordic model has started in Hungary. Anna Ekstedt (the Swedish anti-trafficking ambassador) spoke about it at the conference of the Hungarian Women’s Lobby in 2021. This model criminalizes the buyers and third parties, but not the prostitute herself. It is known for its success in reducing prostitution, trafficking and focusing on the protection of prostituted victims.
About the author
You may wonder why I, a Hungarian man living in Hungary, became interested in prostitution policy and a supporter of the Nordic Model approach. There are several threads, which I will try to explain.
As a teenager I consumed a lot of porn, thinking that it was an innocent and safe thing to do. After a while I noticed signs of coercion in the videos and this led me to think about my actions. Looking back, I can see that I often felt a sense of guilt after a session consuming porn – although I didn’t recognise it as that at the time.
I have an acquaintance who works in criminal psychology, who explained the grim reality of prostitution to me. Many of the stories are too dark and disturbing to be told publicly. As a child I was sexually abused and although I wouldn’t say it’s what drives me, it does make me want to prevent others being abused.
Finally, I am a researcher by profession – although not in the social sciences. When I conducted even a small amount of research about prostitution, it didn’t take me long to see the dark reality of it.
All of these factors contributed to my growing empathy with victims of prostitution and my desire to support them. But it was my research that has made me support the Nordic model over other policies.
- Lies, Damn Lies and Ignoring Statistics: How the Decriminalisation of Prostitution is No Answer
- The cost of Western Europe’s rampant prostitution: the genocide of Romanian women
Sources in Hungarian:
- https://mandiner.hu/cikk/20210809_az_emberkereskedok_tudjak_kire_utazzanak _balogh_krisztina_rendor_alezredes_a_mandinernek