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Bulgaria is only the latest European country to shift its approach to prostitution. Finland last year made it illegal to buy sex from women brought in by traffickers, and Norway is on the verge of imposing an outright ban on purchasing sex. Even in Amsterdam, the city government has proposed shutting down more than a quarter of the famed storefront brothels in the red-light district. And in the Czech Republic and the three Baltic republics, attempts at legalization similar to the Bulgarian one have been turned back.
Prostitution now exists in a legal gray area in Bulgaria, a small but important country for the European sex trade. Opponents of legal prostitution argue that illegal operations flourish in environments where paying for sex is permitted, and that human trafficking follows the demand. The goal of prohibiting sex-for-money is to reduce the demand, and thus curtail trafficking if not stamp it out entirely.
The fight against legal prostitution has been led by an unusual coalition, including the Bush administration, feminist groups and the Swedish government. Proponents of measures like the Swedish model, which punishes customers rather than the prostitutes, say it has succeeded in Europe precisely because it singles out those who pay for sex without criminalizing those who provide it. The prostitutes, mostly women, are the real victims of the transactions, the proponents say.
While increasingly appealing, the Swedish model is hardly the only one. The Hungarian government announced last month that it would give entrepreneur permits to prostitutes to help bring them into the legal economy and collect tax revenues. The most common arguments against the Swedish model are those long used in the legalization debate: because prostitution is all but impossible to eradicate, it is better to keep it in the open, with some control. Even if it is not a crime for the women, critics say, they still must hide to protect their clients.
On the streets of Sofia, several women engaged in prostitution said they took advantage of the distribution of condoms and the free health checkups now available. A year-old woman, who declined to give her name to keep her family from finding out about her occupation, said that she preferred working on the street rather than from a brothel, because she could make a judgment about whether to go with a client.