Bo Jensen is a Danish scholar in the history of prostitution; several years ago he was commissioned by a sex worker group to study the size of the Danish sex industry in order to counter prohibitionist propaganda that the industry was “rapidly growing”. Regular readers know I’m skeptical about low estimates of the fraction of men who buy sex, but Jensen makes a reasonable case for his 3% regular client figure (about half of my usual estimate) if one assumes that the relatively low number of sex workers and high turnover estimate are also correct.
Denmark has experienced an angry and confrontational debate on prostitution during the last 10 years. According to several public opinion polls, 80% of Danes who have taken a position are supportive to sex workers and believe that prostitution is a job, but 20% believe that prostitution is a problem for society that must be reduced and criminalized in some way. That minority managed to get the Swedish model introduced by the government, though it had essentially no chance of passing; the sex workers’ organization SiO mobilized the Danish population so effectively that the government was forced to take criminalization off the table in 2012. But during that period, the scale and growth of prostitution was a central theme in the debate; prohibitionists claimed that sex work in Denmark was booming, and the rescue industry contributed fake numbers to “prove” it.
According to prohibitionists, virtually every aspect of prostitution is in alarming growth: Trafficking is growing, child prostitution is growing, street prostitution is growing, the number of rapes and deaths among sex workers are growing, the hazards associated with the job are growing. It’s hard to separate the facts from the moral panic, so myths replace knowledge and democratic debate is sabotaged; this led the public to demand that the extent of prostitution should be measured by an independent research unit. To that end, Parliament asked The Danish National Centre for Social Research (SFI) to measure the industry’s size; at the same time, SiO asked me to do the same. Remarkably, the two investigations reached similar results; this means that Denmark now probably has the world’s most correct and detailed statistics on prostitution. Most countries have miserable statistics on the subject; take Sweden, for example. No one knows how many sex workers there are in Sweden or how many there were before clients were criminalized, which means that no one knows if the Swedish model has actually decreased prostitution. Some German studies claim that there are 50,000 sex workers in the country, others that there are 400,000. Great Britain has the same problem. In many countries the debate and political decisions are guided by false figures created to cause panic and to maximize the funding for the rescue industry.
So let’s have a look at the Danish figures for 2007. 16% of all adult men admit to having paid for sex, but most of those contribute to only 3% of the turnover. About 3% of all adult men in Denmark (roughly 56,000 men in all) are frequent customers who buy sex regularly for many years; these high rollers pay for sex once every third week on average, and each spends on the order of 2,000 € a year. In total, they buy sex 1 million times during the year, which gives the Danish sex industry an annual turnover of approx. 100 million €. A million client visits a year averages to 2800 clients every day; since there are about 800 women at work on any given day, they average 3.5 clients each. And since each only works about a third of the day, there are about 2400 active sex workers in the workforce at any given time (plus something like 100 transgender or male sex workers). The figures shows that on average, each sex worker has 22 regular clients; I believe that something like this must be the case all over the western world. Danish sex workers do not have extravagant earnings; their income is only good if you take into account that they work merely 20 hours a week. At the same time it is evident that the industry does not have such a big turnover that there are room for gigantic profits to shady pimps or traffickers as claimed in headlines.
The Danish sex industry has very high turnover; most sex workers are only in business for a few years, and many migrant sex workers are here for only for a few months. Because of this, about 4000 women altogether did sex work in Denmark during 2007, though the work force averaged only 2400 women at a time. This is very important to consider when calculating the true size of the sex industry in a country, otherwise the estimates come out much too high; EU countries have agreed to include prostitution in the calculation of GDP, and the estimates are all too high because they are calculated from the total number of women working in the course of a year rather than the number working at any given time (for Denmark, 4000 vs 2400). Sex work is not rapidly growing in Denmark; there was dramatic growth in the industry from 1970 to 2000, but after 2000 there was stagnation, then a drop after 2007 due to the financial crisis.
To all those who say that prostitution is impossible to measure because it is clandestine, I have to answer: Clandestine prostitution isn’t so clandestine, once you have the proper insight. And the way to get that proper insight is to listen to sex workers and recognize them as the true experts on their own profession.