Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 22
22 November 1999

Csardas C S A R D A S:
A Green Light to Red-light Districts
Recent developments in regulating prostitution in Hungary

Gusztav Kosztolanyi

The text of the recently adopted law on the protection of law and order (Bill T/5364) sets out the parameters for the regulation and partial legalisation of prostitution in Hungary: "In the interests of protecting the rules of coexistence universally accepted in society more effectively and of safeguarding order and peace in public places, the Hungarian Parliament enacts the following law:

General provisions

First paragraph. For the purposes of the enforcement of this law:

a) A prostitute shall be defined as an individual who offers sexual services in return for material recompense, regardless of the point in time when the recompense is paid and of whether the service resulted from the request of the person availing himself of it, or - with regard to the service itself - from the involvement of another individual;

b) A sexual service shall be defined as an activity, undertaken by the prostitute, which also requires physical contact with the person availing himself of the service and which is directed towards arousing the sexual desire of the person availing himself of the service and towards the gratification of that desire;

c) A public place shall be defined as any area held in private, state or local authority ownership, which may be used by anyone on an unrestricted basis, including public roads serving the public places and those parts of privately owned areas that are not closed off to public traffic;

d) A protected zone shall be defined as a section of public space defined by the current law or by the decree of the relevant (in Budapest the capital's and the metropolitan district's) local authority's (hereinafter referred to as local authority) corporation of representatives as an area in which a prostitute may not either offer or provide sexual services; the prohibitions pertaining to the protected zone shall also apply to the public premises [pubs, for example] situated within the protected zone;

e) Tolerance zones shall be defined as a zone designated by the local authority in a decree in cases where prostitution occurs on a large scale, and in which the prostitute may offer sexual services or may accept initiatives aimed at soliciting sexual services;

f) Prostitution on a large scale shall be defined as the simultaneous presence, on a continuous or seasonal basis, of a large number of prostitutes, a concentration of prostitutes in a single area of a kind that could disturb the peace of the habitation in question;

g) Offering sexual services shall be defined either as the prostitute's verbal propositioning of another individual in public places or in public premises (active propositioning), or as behaviour on the part of the prostitute alluding to the provision of sexual services (passive propositioning), as well as the acceptance of soliciting from the person wishing to partake of sexual services;

h) Propositioning involving harassment shall be defined as hindrance of the movement of other individuals and of the departure of vehicles driven by other individuals or causing a disturbance for others, verbal propositioning containing indecent or threatening language or behaviour on the part of the prostitute;

i) Tolerance of propositioning shall be defined as behaviour on the part of the managers or staff of public premises, which has the effect of encouraging the uninterrupted activity of prostitutes;

j) Individual pursuing press-related activities and providers of other information or news services shall be defined as natural and legal persons as well as societies without legal personality carrying out activities in conjunction with the production and publication of periodicals, radio and television programs, books, fly-sheets, other publications containing texts, entertainment films, video cassettes, video discs, audio tapes, audio discs and any other technical instrument prepared for the purposes of being made public or containing a program;

k) Public premises shall be defined as premises open to anyone, which may not be regarded as public spaces.

Restrictions on propositioning and on the provision and enjoyment of sexual services.

Paragraph two:

(1) The prostitute may not either proposition or provide sexual services:

a) In public places in habitations with a local population of less than 20,000;

b) On the areas of public roads intended for the traffic of vehicles;

c) Within 100 metres of dual carriageways, motorways, or main roads designated by one or two digits lying outside inhabited areas;

d) Within 50 metres of the main road within inhabited areas;

e) On, at or within 300 metres of buildings intended for public representation or state administration, courts, prosecutor's offices, for the fulfilment of educational, popular educational [in other words, not schools, but other learning establishments], child welfare, child protection and cultural tasks, of terminals for passenger traffic (airports, railway stations, piers), registered institutions where church services are held, as well as in cemeteries or other shrines and

f) In side streets where institutions for educating, bringing up, healing or lodging minors on a long term basis as well as where child welfare and child protection institutions carry out their activities.

(2) The prostitute may not offer sexual services within the protected zone.

(3) The prostitute may not provide sexual services within the protected zone on non-residential premises, in the shared areas of blocks of flats, or in areas used by the inhabitants of blocks of flats, in establishments situated in public places or in vehicles.

Paragraph three:

(1) Apart from in the protected zones listed in Paragraph two (1), the local authority may also prohibit the activity of prostitutes in other parts of public spaces and in individual public premises run there.

(2) In cases of prostitution on a large scale, the local authority may designate a tolerance zone by means of a decree.

(3) If tolerance zones have been designated, the local authority may prohibit the activity of prostitutes outside of the protected zone for the duration of events of public interest.

Paragraph four:

(1) The prostitute may only proposition individuals over the age of 18, and only individuals over the age of 18 may accept the offer of sexual services.

(2) Propositioning of one or several individuals in a harassing fashion is prohibited.

(3) The prostitute may offer sexual services if the prostitute is in possession of the medical certificate [testifying that the holder does not suffer from any sexually transmitted disease] stipulated in law elsewhere.[Since prostitution is considered to be a "dangerous business" entailing major risks to health, the doctor's certificate is designed to reduce the risks to a minimum.The prostitute is not called upon to undergo a medical examination as a worker in the sex industry, but is entitled to health screening on the same basis as any other citizen].

Paragraph five:

In the protected zone, soliciting the sexual services of others in return for recompense is prohibited. [This is a unique feature in Hungarian legislation.The potential client may neither solicit nor accept offers within the protected zone.The intention here is to close the loophole, which would otherwise exist if prostitutes could be approached within protected zones].

Paragraph six:

Propositioning in written, image or sound recorded form or by means of any other equipment is prohibited, as is the advertising of sexual services and collaboration in such deeds.

Paragraph seven:

(1) If individuals pursuing press-related activities and providers of other information or news services collaborate in the advertising of sexual services by anyone, a public peace fine of between HUF 100,000 and HUF one million may be imposed on them. 

(2) The manager of public premises may be called to account according to the provisions of indent (1) if a resolution is adopted by the authorities in conjunction with outlawing prostitution and the manager continues to allow prostitutes to proposition on the public premises.

(3) Proceedings to be taken in relation to the instances set out in (1) and (2) fall under the jurisdiction of the police station."

The law also contains a number of clarifications and justifications:

"Until 1993, sexual services were prosecuted under both the petty offences and the criminal law statute, depending on whether the prostitute offered these services for money on a professional or on an occasional basis. In 1993, a trend emerged within legislation towards categorising individual prostitution - presumably accepting the abolitionist viewpoints - as a "private matter" of the prostitute regarded as the victim of crime. With the decriminalisation of soliciting in our criminal statute in May of 1993, the statute came closer to the spirit of the Convention signed in New York on the 21st of May 1950 on the repression of trafficking in human beings and the exploitation of others as prostitutes".

The 1993 law, however, contained a number of lacunae, which the current law was intended to address: "...the 1993 law, number 17, decriminalised soliciting, but intercourse in return for recompense, even if it occurred on a one-off basis, and fornication continued to be punishable offences. This level of violation of the law, however, proved to be trifling, both to society and to the individuals concerned, whilst the difficulty of providing proof and the large-scale occurrence of street prostitution, the inability to either manage it as a problem condemned the police force to helplessness and to defeat". 

In order to counteract this, the new law sought to regulate prostitution in a way that would not cause offence (or real estate values to drop in residential areas!) to the public at large, decriminalising it in tolerance zones under the conditions specified, thereby recognising that it would not disappear as a phenomenon at the behest of the courts and police officers on the beat. By localising prostitution it was hoped that a further escalation in sex industry activity could be avoided and that pimping could be curtailed, albeit only in the long term. 

As regards a possible repeal of Article 25 of the New York Convention (which bans the running of brothels), the law refuses to entertain such a notion: "It would not be expedient from the point of view of international law if we, precisely at the time of our accession to the EU, were to revoke this Convention, which is of such far-reaching significance, and which for the most part contains recommendations aimed at combating international organised crime".

Although there is very little tolerance of prostitution in certain areas ("Society in the affected areas is not, or at least not primarily, irritated by the prostitutes' verbal manifestation, but its indignation is triggered by the mere sight of prostitutes"), the local authorities are not allowed to impose a covert blanket ban on prostitution by refusing to designate a tolerance zone, as this would represent a breach of the Constitution. The same applies if the local authority's choice of tolerance zone comprises an area unsuitable for the commercial transaction between prostitute and client to take place, or if the local authority attempts to employ special restrictions, which would to all practical intents and purposes outlaw prostitution.

Some guidelines for the designation of tolerance zones are set out.The primary consideration must be to take account of the interests of local inhabitants. If the local authority does not have any suitable areas at its disposal for the establishment of a tolerance zone neighbouring authorities may be asked for assistance.

Regulation of prostitution: a historical perspective

Regulation of prostitution has a long history in Hungary, dating back to the Middle Ages, when brothels were organised along German lines and maintained by the cities of  Budapest, Bratislava and Sopron [for this section, see Magyar Nemzet, 5 November 1999]. In the sixteenth century, syphilis (then an incurable disease) had become so widespread amongst prostitutes that the brothels were closed down and the unfortunate prostitutes exiled beyond the city walls. 

In the days of the Napoleonic Wars, clandestine prostitution flourished, as a result of which epidemics decimated the populations of Hungary, Transylvania and Croatia. The response was to persecute the women providing sexual services, though the first real stab at nationwide regulation was made in the form of a decree by the Minister of Trade on 6 November 1848.The Minister informed the city leaders of Buda and of Pest that their official municipal doctors would be expected to conduct medical examinations of prostitutes every week. The motive for this concern was tactical, since the bulk of the army had been incapacitated for varying lengths of time and thus rendered unfit for service due to their sexual pursuits. 

The common practice of renting apartments and employing prostitutes to use them as their base was recognised by the City Council of Pest in 1867 when, on October 31st, it passed a by-law on brothels, which was subsequently (in the absence of any other legislation) taken as a model by national legislators. By 1878, 43 officially recognised brothels were being run in the capital, employing 281 prostitutes. 104 whores [I use this term in a non-pejorative way in keeping with the practice of certain experts on the subject, who feel that the word should be reclaimed and destigmatised, for example, Nikki Roberts, author of Whores in History] worked without a permit and 900 or so streetwalkers were arrested and punished. 

That the law has always lagged behind practice can be illustrated by the example of the 1884 provisions, which allowed independent prostitutes to ply their trade once again. By then, hotels de passe, renting their rooms out by the hour, had been on the go for two decades. Taking initiatives could scandalise the "respectable" world, those who preferred to pretend that the oldest profession was very much confined to the fringes of society. Such was the case when Bela Rudnay, head of the Budapest Metropolitan Police Force decided to regulate prostitution in the capital within his own sphere of responsibility on 10 November 1900. He created two categories: registered prostitutes and those prostitutes who held a health certificate. The latter were entitled to act as private entrepreneurs, operating from apartments, their sole obligation that of undergoing medicals on a regular basis.

Liberal attitudes are not immune to change, and prostitution laws are the perfect litmus test of the mood of a society. Rudnay's solution was abandoned in the conservative Horthy era when, in 1926, prostitution was regulated throughout the country. Brothel permits were no longer issued and existing permits were revoked as of 1 May 1928. The reasoning behind this drastic action was that the mere existence of brothels was enough to destroy the moral fibre of society. Prostitutes themselves were looked down on as inferior beings, morally depraved servants of the great and the good. That politicians counted amongst their regular clientele is beyond doubt. Between the wars, the hotels de passe (garniszallo) were driven underground, but some 30 to 40 operated in secret, the moral of which is that, even with the most repressive legislation, prostitution will survive.

The situation today

It is estimated that several tens of thousands of women earn a living from selling their bodies for the pleasure of others in Hungary. This figure does not include the flourishing call girl industry, as they work to order in expensive hotels for a largely foreign clientele. Two distinct groups emerge: the city prostitutes who work in massage parlours, hotels, night clubs and on the streets. The second group works under even harsher and more depressing (not to mention dangerous) conditions, along the edge of the motorways and main roads and in lorry parks. The vast majority of whores offer their wares in Budapest, and the bulk of these are concentrated in Jozsefvaros, earning an estimated total of half a billion forints a month (a loss of taxable income to the treasury of some 6 billion a year).

Price depends on the precise nature of the service requested, and on the amount of time the service will take. The price tag for simple coitus, lasting about five to ten minutes, is between two to three thousand forints (USD 8 to 12). For something a little more interesting, a surcharge varying between 1,500 and 2,000 forints is de rigeur. Full service can range between five and six thousand forints. If a call girl performs identical services, the price will be ten times as high.

Has the new law proven effective? On the surface, very little has changed in terms of advertising sexual services. Tabloid small ad columns still burst with promises of exotic marvels and young, non-shop soiled girls. Since the legislation entered into force on 1 September, not one single complaint has been filed by local residents anywhere. The police too are duty bound to report any infringements, yet they have also failed to open files (perhaps none of them are conversant with the "literature" that hits the news-stands every morning!). Once a report has been submitted, the proceedings have to be completed within thirty days, and a fine must be paid, as stipulated (see above). A test case would in all likelihood open the floodgates in terms of prosecution and enforcement.

Lea Kardos, President of the Hungarian Advertising Association's (Magyar Reklamszovetseg) Ethics Committee, informed Magyar Nemzet (12 November) that one complaint had reached the Association's desk. The body subsequently set about interpreting the provisions of the law. According to Kardos, only erotic advertising which involves bodily contact is subject to the ban. Deliberately erotic depictions as a means of boosting sales figures may only be condemned if they are not in line with the nature of the product itself, which means that sultry damsels pouting in suggestive lingerie is permitted, whereas similarly garbed nubile females glugging Coke or licking spoons of ice cream are a definite no-no.

A similar degree of reticence is to be found amongst District Mayors when it comes to designating tolerance zones. Maps are being drawn up and political negotiations are in full swing. It is reminiscent of a game of pass the parcel, one in which no one wants either the forfeit or the parcel itself at the end. Criticisms have been levelled against the law itself, by way of a diversionary tactic: no study has yet been carried out in Hungary to determine the actual percentage of the population involved in prostitution, what the social/ethnic composition of the prostitutes might be, and who forms the main body of clients (though if any of them cared to take a stroll around the main stations of Budapest, it would not take them long to figure out that a large proportion of whores are drafted from Hungary's less fortunate neighbours, such as the Ukraine and Romania). Nor, lament the law's detractors, has the government bothered to sound out ordinary citizens on the subject of tolerance zones.

On one issue, opponents' protests seem justified: the law only addresses the issue of street prostitution, turning a blind eye to those who rent apartments or work the hotels or other parts. However, their sanctimonious outcry smacks merely of concern for their precious reputations (tolerance zones, not in my back yard!) with a sweaty undercurrent of fear at a possible backlash at the polls. What about genuine concern for the whores themselves? The tolerance zones would allow them to do their job, unpleasant, dangerous to life and limb and degrading as it may be, and to scrape together a living without the threat of arrest and fines hanging constantly over their heads. This is what has been lacking in the debate in my opinion. It is all very well to sweep the streets of Budapest clean, to consign prostitution to grimy alley ways so that tourists will be duped by the mask of pristine respectability, but hushing away prostitution like a guilty secret is not going to improve the lot of the streetwalkers, the whores, for whom there is a wide variety of names in Hungarian: utcalany / street girl; kurva / whore in the pejorative sense; oromlany / pleasure or joy girl; kejholgy / kejno / courtesan; hetera; barcas / registered prostitute; ejszakai pillango, literally night butterfly, to mention but a few. It is the very hypocrisy that permeates society which condemns these vulnerable women to a marginal and seedy existence, giving - if they are lucky - blow jobs to overstuffed businessmen in sumptuous rooms, the nightly cost of which can exceed three months' wages for the average Hungarian, or, worse still, to men in transit in the cramped cabs of lorries, anonymous, reduced to the status of a collection of orifices.

Arguments and bargaining continue over whether the city's vigalmi negyed (literally amusement quarter - 'red light district' in current English usage) will indeed be situated, as would appear inevitable, in the 8th District, Jozsefvaros, already an inhospitable and highly dangerous wasteland. A ghetto within a ghetto would thus be established. Perhaps the only argument left to persuade the city fathers to breathe new life into this bleak and decaying quarter would be one that appeals to their higher sensibilities, in other words to talk about money. If the whores of Budapest are all to be herded into the permanent twilight of this poverty-racked residential area, real estate values will plunge even further than they have already, retailers would be squeezed out and shoppers would turn their backs on the district to visit the glittering palaces on the outskirts of the city (providing, of course, that they can afford the public transport tickets there and back and the inflated prices once they get there). What politician would boast of that?

On 12 November, a nine month campaign was launched in the rarefied surroundings of the Danube Palace, far removed from the dirt and the din of the streets outside, aimed at preventing trafficking in women - a growth industry in Central Europe. The great and the good tutted over the alarming statistics (500,000 women a year fall victim to the ruthless criminals responsible for dealing in human misery and degradation, i.e., one woman every minute). With funding from both the EU and the USA, this laudable initiative is being co-ordinated by the International Migration Office. The Minister of Justice, Ibolya David, stressed that trafficking in human beings is recognised as a punishable offence in the statute books, though, as several other speakers pointed out, no precise figures exist concerning how many women are lured abroad by false promises of work from Hungary. Some estimates place the likely figure at around 15 to 20,000 per annum, five to seven thousand of whom fall victim to the traffickers in Budapest. In the midst of their righteous indignation, none of the Hungarian participants commented on the appropriateness of the capital as a venue. Budapest has become the hub of the porn industry in Central Europe, earning the label "Bangkok of the West" (!), where every day, hundreds of beautiful young women fake ecstasy in front of the rolling cameras.

Gusztav Kosztolanyi, 21 November 1999

Archive of Gusztav Kosztolanyi's Csardas series of articles.

The sources used in the writing of this article were: Bill T/5364; Magyar Nemzet, 5, 12 and 13 November 1999 and Nepszabadsag, 24 September 1999.


Magyar Nemzet online [in Hungarian]

Nepszabadsag online [in Hungarian]




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