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Media debate on sex work in Hungary

After a few years of relative silence on sex work legislation in the Hungarian media, the debate regained momentum this summer.

Péter Sárosi, the Drug Policy Director of HCLU challenged the end-demand legislation proposal of MONA (a Hungarian NGO that promotes gender equality and aims to uncover the unfair or inferior treatment of women) and other anti-trafficking organizations. In a newspaper article Sárosi pointed out that even if sex work in Hungary is de jure legal, street sex workers are often harassed by the police, hundreds of them are arrested each month because municipalities reject designating tolerance-zones as the law orders. He called for the inclusion of sex workers into political decision making.

Responses soon followed from anti-prostitution activists Emma Csapó, the head of the Way Out Ecumenical Association for a World Without Prostitution Anna Betlen from MONA. Both Ms. Csapó and Ms. Betlen accused Sárosi of trying to legalize slavery and violence against women. Ms. Betlen argued that all prostitution is rape, girls enter prostitution at the age of 14, most of them were abused as a child, and 70-95 percent of them are forced into prostitution. She called the effort to listen to the voice of sex workers a “cynical blurb” because she thinks sex workers are brainwashed and intimidated.

In his reaction Sárosi emphasized that sex workers are a hidden population and one cannot make general statements based on the most marginalized group, namely street sex workers seeking help in shelters or who are arrested by the police. In his view, a clear distinction must be made between consensual sex work and forced prostitution or child prostitution. According to new research the majority of sex workers are able to control their own lives and the majority of clients do not hate women.

The debate spread from print to the broadcast media: in September Emma Csapó, Anna Betlen and Peter Sárosi were invited to a live debate on ATV, a commercial channel, to present their ideas about sex work. When Mr. Sárosi suggested the editors to invite Ágnes Földi, the head of the Sex Workers Association in Hungary, they simply refused to comply, saying that she “doesn’t fit” into their editorial concept.