The Price of Sex in Estonia

It’s been months since I visited Estonia, but I’m still haunted by the sex trade that exists there. Estonia is not unique in this regard but it was unexpected because it seems disproportionate to its population. My observations are admittedly superficial and I am no one of significance when it comes to politics or international relations, but my impression is that the growing sex trade in Estonia is dangerous to it — and is creating challenges for Estonia that could undermine its culture and social integrity long-term. I care because I care about Estonia and its people.

Estonia is among the wealthiest former Soviet satellites sharing an uneasy border with Russia, and it is one of the least populous countries in the European Union (EU). Its low population density is apparent from its uncrowded streets and beautiful landscapes. When I visited Estonia during summer 2014, approximately 1.3 million people lived there – similar to the population of San Diego, California. Roughly 430,000 people lived in its capital city of Tallinn. Since declaring its independence from Russia, sex trade in Estonia has reportedly flourished. By 2014, the ratio of prostitutes in Estonia to its overall population reportedly exceeded the European average – eclipsed only by Germany, Austria, Belgium, and Holland. Some women are prostitutes by profession; some other young women do not consider themselves prostitutes but may engage in sex for money on occasion, according to some female college students I met there.

The sex business in Estonia has become part of the economic and cultural fabric of this relatively young, democratic republic. It seems that the majority of Estonians consider prostitution inevitable. Tourists in Tallinn may be solicited by the sex business on signs and accessible literature printed in multiple languages. Prostitution is legal in Estonia (although brothels and pimping are not), and it seems to be fueled by the demands of predominately Estonian, Finnish, and Russian men. There is no separate “red light” district that I’m aware of within the capital; sex-oriented businesses are word of mouth, identified by taxi drivers, ferry operators, tour operators, airline operators, or hotel employees, or they simply, visibly coexist throughout the city, alongside storefronts and other tourist destinations. According to my Estonian guide, the overwhelming majority of prostitutes in Tallinn are Russian-speaking women, often from areas outside of Tallinn where there is higher unemployment and where they tend to be less educated. My guide was an attractive, twenty-something Estonian woman who had been college educated. According to her, Russian-speaking women from rural areas sometimes come to Tallinn with dreams of securing a better life there. However, their dreams for a better life are usually disappointed and they become quickly disillusioned – particularly if they do not speak Estonian well, and particularly when they confront the traditional gender pay gap within Estonia’s workforce. Their vulnerability is exasperated by the fact that many of the women engaging in prostitution begin when they are quite young, naive, and inexperienced in the ways of the world — particularly if they are orphans or come from broken or dysfunctional homes.Lured by the promise of a better life or human connection, some enter the world of prostitution willingly.

In 2014, the age of sexual consent in Estonia was 14 years old. By comparison, the age of sexual consent in the United States is between 16 and 18 depending on the state. Whether some of Estonia’s prostitutes may be victims of adult or child trafficking is unknown but likely. During my visit, my guide shared that Estonia is facing significant social challenges to its culture and to its society — challenges that are traditionally associated in the West with prostitution, including increasing rates of drug use, the highest rate of HIV infection in the EU, crime, alcoholism, family dysfunction, child pornography, and social fragmentation. However, whether she and other Estonians associate those challenges with prostitution is unclear. It appeared she did not. Perhaps most revealing to me was my guide’s assertion that prostitution is a “victimless” crime in Estonia. According to her, most Estonians view prostitution as a free market, business decision that does not affect ordinary Estonians – not a moral decision, not in a context where vulnerable populations may need information or protection, and not in a context where prostitutes may need help. There are Estonians who might disagree with her, but my guide believes most prostitutes in Estonia engage in prostitution to make money when they cannot find work elsewhere, to supplement their income, or to pay for addictions. Although she expressed no objection to prostitution in general, she appeared to judge the prostitutes of Estonia harshly. She revealed that prostitution is increasingly controversial within Estonia, and indicated that “like most Estonians” she would not want her children playing with the children of a prostitute; nor would she want to work or associate with a former prostitute – “especially if they were Russian.” When asked if it would make a difference to her whether a prostitute had been recruited as a child, had been unable to support herself any other way, or had been desperate for money to feed her children, she replied it would not. I had the sense her views reflect those of many Estonians who are not involved in the sex industry.

I do not pretend to understand the Estonian people, their beautiful culture, their complex politics, or their impressive history. Nor do I have the answers to moral questions that have forever taunted democratic republics as they balance free market principles with the desire to protect vulnerable members of their population from exploitation. However, I am concerned for any nation if a group of residents who it is obliged to serve and protect perceptively becomes unjustly alienated, persecuted, or isolated from the rest. And it is in is this context that I have vague but unshakable misgivings about the consequences of Estonia’s sex trade attitudes. Simply put, it haunts me that so many children and women in Estonia appear to be at risk; the decisions they make at vulnerable, uninformed, or desperate stages in their life appear capable of resulting in their condemnation by Estonian society without end. Unlike prison terms that consider the circumstances surrounding a crime and that expire for time served, women who engage in prostitution in Estonia have not broken its laws but may nonetheless be forever ostracized and excluded by society for their actions. Whether women and children have the opportunity to make informed decisions before entering the sex trade in Estonia; whether sex trafficking or other forms of coercion is occurring; whether the legal and social consequences to men, women and children involved in the sex trade is fair, equal, and just; whether the sex industry in Estonia is being driven domestically or from abroad; and, whether adequate consequences exist for foreign and domestic customers who flame the fires of Estonia’s spreading sex trade is the subject of debate.

I would argue only that the stakes are high for Estonians to get it right. If my guide is correct – if she indeed represents the majority of Estonians in her belief that prostitution is a victimless crime — it’s my concern that Estonia may not be able to react effectively to social change and issues associated with prostitution because it might not identify them as such in a timely manner. Further, if the result of their commercial sex business is the mistreatment, isolation, or neglect of a vulnerable segment of their population, I’m concerned that treatment of women and children affected by prostitution in Estonia may become a moral issue to world observers as controversial as sex trade itself. If the people who may be preyed upon, harmed, or neglected by Estonia’s attitudes continues to represent primarily Russian-speaking residents, my concern is that the cries of its Russian-speaking cubs will be heard by their mother bear to the east — giving Russia an excuse to come to their defense. Sure, I concede the latter concern is probably a stretch. But as Aesop observed nearly 3,000 years ago, “any excuse will serve a tyrant.” In a country passionate about freedom, Estonia’s existing sex business may conceal costs to it that are not worth the price.

PHOTO CREDIT: Risto Hunt (123rf License)

14 responses to The Price of Sex in Estonia

  1. I agree with you, sex trade and game trade big and growing in Estonia also in the startup hubs statistics baltic business hub. And results, communicate to Estonian and talk about fair trade is getting more complicated, as several people of the good society are totally scared about this trend.

  2. Jazzdat says:

    franziskathalerbaltic, Thank you for leaving a comment on my post. It means a lot to me when I receive feedback of any kind.

  3. Michelle says:

    That was a really insightful piece, I’m from Australia but resided in the Netherlands for a year. I was curious about how sex trade is regulated and viewed in other countries as it is a taboo industry which society tends to treat as being invisible. However, I strongly believe additional transparency and regulation could offer increased protection to those who choose to be sex workers, I will be interested to see how Estonia develops its attitudes and beliefs towards this as its economy continues to expand.

    • Jazzdat says:

      Thank you for your comment. It’s difficult for me to write about a topic such as prostitution because it’s an uncomfortable topic for most people, but I agree that increased transparency might be beneficial. I appreciate your thoughtful feedback.

  4. Momand says:

    Jazzdat, for such issue you have to get benefit of quota sampling method only one source no one believe that your research or report is right any way thanks for your hard efforts that you have done toward the right and living condition of a underestimated society

    • Jazzdat says:

      Momand, thank you for your comments. Your observations are valid in the sense I have NOT done statistical research on any observations I write about in my travel journal. My travel entries reflect only my personal experiences and impressions as a traveler based on people I meet along the way and information available to me at the time, which impressions may or may not be supported by statistical studies and which may or may not be believed by others (including people who are in a better position to judge their accuracy than I). My journal entries are NOT intended as anything more than my personal impressions and observations to be shared among family and friends — based on perceptions that are never static and are always incomplete. The kind, intelligent, and thoughtful way you challenged my blog entry is appreciated and I hope you will write again. All feedback is enlightening. Your feedback in particular serves as a valuable reminder that I am NOT a definitive authority on the countries or issues I write about, I am simply a casual traveler who is willing to share my personal observations. Finally, something I struggle with: At least in my country, statistical studies can sometimes be commissioned or suppressed to support or disprove whatever serves the interest of people initiating or opposing them. For example, statistical studies were presented for decades in the U.S. by tobacco companies as evidence that cigarettes were not harmful to people’s health — conclusions that were ultimately discredited. My personal bias is that the existence or absence of statistical studies, although it may be compelling and an important consideration, does not necessarily prove or disprove the existence of any fact unless the professional integrity of the study withstands challenges to it over time. Should you ever become aware of any study on this topic that you trust and are willing to share supporting or discrediting my impressions, please post a link to it in your feedback. The exchange of ideas and information is something I value greatly and if my impressions of this beautiful country and people are inaccurate, I would very much like to be corrected — I hope they prove themselves incorrect. Again, thank you so much.

  5. jorge says:

    i just thought say something because you have mentioned it was hard for you to talk about prostitution…., well for me is like death many people say is uncomfortable but it is the most common and true thing we have in our lives… after all everyone dies, so maybe prostitution should be a topic taught openly in schools like death, it is just part of us as a human race and has been one way on another within our lives, in our societies across the globe, and through all times since we are humans on this earth!

    nevertheless i would agree with you one should be aware and concern about it, specially if it involves children and hidden agendas on sex and sex exploitation….having a place that excels on sex trade, hidden, unregulated and not legal, or been open and in transparent way indeed can have many implications on the future of a country.

    i never visited Estonia or the Baltic, but are countries i want to visit one day, but i visit many places which one can argue about the same on prostitution, Las Vegas, Macau, Thailand, Holland, and many more (i guess if we dig deeper in every city you will finds a true underlying sex hush hush vibe…), which in my humble opinion it should be legalized, open and transparent like any other regular tax payer worker has to.
    i believe one can and should do whatever they want as long the freedom and their liberty of choices are not affected by other or from others, of course sometimes is easier to say than done! and many can counterargument that… but it is just an opinion

    but my argument usually goes that my body only to me belongs and my choices are exact the same, the problem is when the hypocrisy of men trying to hide and marginalize these personal choices makes a fringe of people like parasites living with the power of benefiting on others and like cancer thrives on and on and on through society into the secrecy and what ever comes along with it like drugs, child abuse and so on…

    • Jazzdat says:

      I have thought long about your comments and I appreciate that you shared your thoughts and feelings with me. In the future, I will try to be more sensitive when discussing topics that are difficult for me and I apologize if I made you feel badly in any way. That was not my intention and I admire your ability to challenge viewpoints that may be different from your own in such a respectful manner.

  6. Philip tarbo says:

    I’ve lived in Estonia for 5 years , originally from the UK. One thing I noticed early is the youth to early 20s align themselves to political parties. Within these parties are well organised syndicates acting together to raise funds for the party, providing propaganda , attending rally’s , and always searching for new members.
    One of the most lucrative sources is the selling of pornographic images and videos.
    The syndicates have regular “treening” sessions pre arranged within the group. It would not be uncommon for members to have group sex and sex with parents.
    This is the most disturbing thing. Even University educated women have been been having second from 14 or 15 in the company of their parents. The money made for such hard right polical views and support can not be compared to the social impact women would have in later life.
    Many Porn Studios pay more for “bareback” or unprotected sex between actors. As such HIV in Estonia is reaching public health safety disaster .
    All tourists should be educated on pre warned on the perils of engaging sex with Estonians.
    Mostly it’s the underprivileged country residents who will solicite sex in carparks, hotel bathrooms , and truck stops.

    • Jazzdat says:

      Thank you for taking the time to write to me. I don’t have knowledge of these things, but I find the information you share disturbing. I deleted the last part of your final paragraph where you wrote about locations where sex is common and prices for sex because I did not want it to appear that this site was facilitating sexual exploitation in any way and I know that was not your intent.

  7. You write really well! This was a very insightful article. Thanks for sharing your travel experiences and what you observed about the sex trade in Estonia. God bless!

  8. James bohm says:

    It is so sad that there is an inevitability about prostitution and i do not see any effective steps taken anywhere in the world to prevent it, without the adoption of severe methods that may be worse than the original problem.

    Regrettably the answer seems to be gentle and sympathetic tolerance to keep it in circumstances and locations were it can be regulated to prevent crime and undue public disruption.

    Stopping the punters seems far better than punishing the prostitutes.


    Veteran police officer uk

    • Jazzdat says:

      Thank you for your comments. I share your conclusion, but without your expertise and experience.

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