Comparing the Taxation of Prostitution in Europe

Experiences and Negotiations with Laws and Fiscal Arrangements

Dr Isabel Crowhurst
University of Essex


This project explores the under-studied and under-theorized nexus between taxation and prostitution, and sheds light on the role of fiscal policies in shaping the relationship between the state and sex workers. Drawing on critical fiscal studies, we explore taxation as a social practice which has a key role in shaping the citizenship status of those who operate in the sex industry. Their political, economic and social inclusion/exclusion are influenced by fiscal policies which need to be looked at in the context of the governance of prostitution. The project will explore these dynamics by comparing three European countries which vary in prostitution and fiscal policies: Italy, Portugal and Switzerland. We will investigate laws, policies, jurisprudence, criminal justice measures and practical fiscal arrangements that address the taxation of prostitution in the three countries, as well as political and public debates around these issues and their media representation, where at all present. Moreover, we are particularly concerned with how these legal measures are experienced by those whom they target. Drawing on the concept of legal consciousness the researchers will employ biographical interview methods to explore how prostitution taxation and their socio-cultural implications are understood, negotiated and responded to by sex workers.

The novelty of this project resides in its analysis of an under-studied aspect of the governance of prostitution, thus enriching both fiscal and prostitution studies, as well as the broader fields of sociology of law, economic sociology, policy and socio-legal studies, criminology, and political science.

Through its outputs, which include two academic articles, a think piece for The Conversation, and the organisation of a workshop, the project will develop the limited body of knowledge on the taxation of prostitution and stimulate policy-relevant debates that are aimed at better informed policy-making in this field.

The Research Idea

The institutional treatment of prostitution and of those who operate in it is shaped by a broad array of rarely homogenous measures that pertain to different regulatory frameworks. When looking at the increasingly composite and dynamic ways in which prostitution is approached in any one country, a wide and multi-scalar examination of laws and policies is needed to gain a comprehensive understanding of their intended and unintended effects and of how they affect the lives of sex workers. In other words, just looking at prostitution laws is not enough to understand the governance of prostitution and the impact it has on those it targets. This project builds on this important consideration to explore the under-studied and under-theorized nexus between taxation regulations and prostitution. It aims to carry out an innovative investigation of the roles that fiscal policies play in shaping the relationship between the state and sex workers. Fiscal policies are looked at as social mechanisms that can penalize and exclude sex workers from the enjoyment of full taxpayer citizenship, and limit their socio-economic recognition, welfare benefits and labour rights. The analysis of these dynamics will focus on legal and fiscal measures and on those most affected by them: sex workers. Building on the notion of legal consciousness (Ewick and Silbey 1998; Silbey 2005), the study investigates how sex workers understand, negotiate, abide by or resist the fiscal norms pertaining to commercial sex activities in three European countries with different legal/fiscal approaches to prostitution: Italy, Portugal and Switzerland.


Far from being innocuous bureaucratic procedures, taxation arrangements are central markers of civil belonging and of what is often referred to as taxpayer citizenship, i.e. the enjoyment of political legitimacy through taxpayer status (Walsh 2017; Hackell 2013). Fiscal dynamics of inclusion and exclusion have been the subject of the burgeoning fields of fiscal sociology and critical tax theory, both of which have drawn attention to how categorical inequalities of gender, race, sexuality and class are structured in taxation arrangements (Henricks and Seamster 2017; Martin and Parasad 2014; Mumford 2010; Infanti and Crawford 2009). Despite the fact that fiscal arrangements (or lack of thereof) often contribute to penalizing already socially marginalized populations and groups, such as sex workers, very little research has been conducted on the taxation of prostitution, its contexts and consequences (see Crowhurst forthcoming; Mumford 2005; Sauer 2004; Remick 2003). In this limited body of research, one of the main issues addressed pertains to the discomfort that governments experience when facing the fact that they extract revenues from what is mostly viewed as a problematic activity. As a result, it has been observed that governments are  reluctant to take a clear position on the issue, thus further reinforcing the precarious (taxpayer) citizenship of sex workers.

By bringing the insights of critical taxation studies into the study of commercial sex, this project will enrich bodies of literature and research that can foster fruitful, but as yet unexplored insights into practices of social marginalisation reinforced by unequal fiscal measures.

The Focus

Public and political debates around whether and how prostitution should be taxed contribute to often disparaging and criminalising constructions of sex workers as tax evaders, irresponsible citizens, or even as parasitic undocumented workers. The lack of clear fiscal prostitution policies contributes to such hostile approaches that further stigmatise already socially marginalised populations.

The investigation of these dynamics will focus on three European countries, selected on the basis of their differing approaches to prostitution and its taxation. By adopting a partial criminalization regime, Italy and Portugal do not criminalise the sale and purchase of sexual services per se, but neither do they recognise prostitution as a form of labour. In Italy the taxation of prostitution has been the subject of animated debates but it remains unclear how sex workers should pay taxes. In Portugal the fiscal treatment of prostitution is an obscure issue which has been conveniently left publicly and politically untouched. Contrastingly, the regulation of prostitution in Switzerland entails the taxation of commercial sex, the extent and modalities of which are currently being re-evaluated with different models proposed in different Cantons.

This project will firstly engage in an in-depth exploration of the laws, policies, jurisprudence, criminal justice measures and practical fiscal arrangements on prostitution in the three countries. Secondly, it will analyse how such policies and practices are understood, experienced and negotiated by sex workers themselves. This will provide original insights on their voices and perspectives which, critical as they are, are rarely investigated or interrogated in prostitution policy-making.

Theoretical Novelty

  1. By focussing on the under-explored issue of the taxation of prostitution, this project aims to expand understandings of well-ingrained social practices which contribute to marginalizing the already vulnerable population of those who sell sexual services. The taxation of prostitution is an issue that has been largely overlooked in scholarship thus far, and this project intends to shed light on its importance as a practice that can contribute to further exclusions.
  2. The project emphasises how sexual practices and norms are embedded and shaped by socio-economic and legal forces, and how more attention needs to be brought on the ways these factors intersect. In this way, it multi-disciplinarily brings into dialogue two bodies of scholarship and analytical perspectives – critical taxation and prostitution and sex work studies – expanding the remit of both and more broadly of socio-legal and policy studies, economic and fiscal sociology, criminology, political science.
  3. The project approaches laws and policies psycho-socially, as inseparable dimensions of social relations which have concrete implications on people’s lives and subjectivities. It originally adopts the notion of legal consciousness (Ewick and Silbey 1998; Silbey 2001) to investigate how sex workers understand and interpret the law and how they negotiate, amend, resist and/or sustain it in their daily practices.
  4. The similarities and differences between the three countries’ policy and cultural contexts provide an ideal lens through which to explore the lives of sex workers and the ways in which their individual experiences intersect with socio-legal norms and practices.


This project aims to systematically compare three European countries chosen to explore three different: a) national prostitution regimes and fiscal policies applied therein; and b) national contexts which vary in the composition and organisation of commercial sex. The research will be conducted in Italy, Portugal and Switzerland starting with a critical review of laws, policies and jurisprudence which address the taxation of prostitution and of any fiscal arrangements in place to implement them. To contextualize these measures, an analysis of political and public debates on the issue and their media representation will also be conducted focussing on both contemporary and relevant historical developments on the matter. In developing this documentary research, the researchers will pay careful attention not only to what is known on the issue, but also to what remains unknown, silenced or ignored in laws and policies, analysing the reasons and implications of such scenarios. In addition to this documentary analysis method, the study will also be based on in-depth interviews with sex workers. The interviews (12-15 in each country) will be informed by psycho-social biographical methods to help the researchers better understand the interplay of the participants’ negotiations of their social world and of how external social and legal norms are internalized and impact their lived lives. With the combination of these methods, the project will take shape around the intersection of disciplinary approaches and the insights they offer for an in-depth exploration of the issue: economic sociology, criminology, policy and socio-legal studies, and psycho-social studies.

Work Plan

The 12-month work plan will include: two meetings among the researchers, collection and analysis of empirical data in the three countries, preparation of two academic articles, submission of a think piece aimed at The Conversation, and organisation of a workshop.

Month 1 (April 2018): virtual meeting of the three researchers to finalise: research plans, the comparative approach to the analysis of laws, policies and their contexts, and of the interview guide. 

Months 2 and 3 (May and June 2018): review of laws and policies and contextual material (media coverage, political and public debates, where available). Contacts with interview participants sought during this time. First meeting of the researchers in Porto at the end of June 2018 to discuss findings and draft the outline of an article aimed at a social policy journal.

Months 4 – 7 (July to October 2018): interviews are carried out and transcribed; the first draft of the article is completed.

Month 8 (November 2018): second meeting of the researchers in Geneva to discuss empirical data, finalise the first article, and draft the outline of a second article aimed at a socio-legal journal. Submission of the first article.

Months 9 -11 (December – February 2018): work on the second journal and submission. Submission of a think piece for The Conversation.

Month 12 (March 2019): Workshop at the University of Essex on the taxation of prostitution aimed at presenting the project’s findings and establish a network of researchers and policy-makers working in the field.


In the longer-term this project will:

  1. Facilitate the coming together of fiscal and sex work studies and researchers to enrich the outlook and scope of both.
  2. Ensure that the research findings produced generate informed debates in and beyond the countries explored in the project. To this end, the final workshop at the University of Essex will be aimed at researchers working in this and related fields, as well as sex workers, policy makers and those in charge of implementing fiscal policies in different European contexts. An email list will be set up to maintain the contacts established and expand them in the following months.
  3. The three researchers were members of the European network COST Action Prospol ‘Comparing European Prostitution Policies’ ( which ended in 2017. The findings of the project and of the workshop will be shared with the Prospol community to widely stimulate further research and debates on fiscal policies and their impact.
  4. A conference panel proposal on the taxation of prostitution will be submitted to the annual  ‘Law and Society’ conference taking place in June 2020.
  5. A book proposal for an edited collection on comparative approaches to the taxation of prostitution will be prepared and submitted for consideration to the Routledge series ‘Interdisciplinary Studies in Sex for Sale’.
  6. Submission of an application for a larger funded research project that expands on the findings of this study and which will encompass the disciplinary input of microeconomics scholars.


Crowhurst, I (forthcoming). ‘The dangerously convenient ambiguity of the taxation of prostitution’ (under review by Sexuality Research and Social Policy)

Ewick, P and Silbey, S (1998) The Common Place of Law: Stories From Everyday Life Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Hackell, M (2013). ‘Taxpayer citizenship and neoliberal hegemony in New Zealand’. Journal of Political Ideologies, 18:2, 129-149

Henricks, K and Seamster, L (2017). ‘Mechanisms of the racial tax state’. Critical Sociology, 43(2), 169-179

Martin, IW and Prasad, M (2014). ‘Taxes and fiscal sociology’. Americal Review of Sociology, 40: 331-345

Martin, IW,  Mehrotra, AN and Prasad, M (eds) (2009). The New Fiscal Sociology: Taxation in Comparative and Historical Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Mumford, A (2010). Tax policy, women and the law. Cambirdge University Press

Mumford, A (2005). ‘V.A.T, taxation and prostitution: feminist perspectives on Polok’. Feminist Legal Studies, 13(2), pp 163-180

Sibley, SS (2005). ‘After legal consciousness’. Annual Review of Law and Society, 1, pp. 323-368

Sauer, B (2004). ‘Taxes, rights and regimentation: discourses on prostitution in Austria’. In The Politics of Prostitution (Outshoorn, J ed.). Cambridge University Press: Cambridge

Walsh, C (2017). ‘White Backlash, the ‘Taxpaying’ Public, an Educational Citizenship’. In Critical Sociology, 43(2), 237-247.