An Insight into Croatian Sex Work: Results from a Study

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By Iva Jovović, Guest Blogger*

In Croatia, the criminalization of sex work creates an unjust and gendered relationship between those engaging in the industry and the state. Sex workers, who are primarily female, face prosecution that often includes fines and jail time. In contrast, their customers rarely encounter consequences, unless they engage in sex with minors or victims of sexual exploitation. Living in a strict, conservative, and predominantly Catholic society, makes issues such as sex work and related terms a taboo subject within public and private conversations. The industry itself remains largely underground; women hide in the dark and buyers in cars. To most, sex workers are simply invisible. Due to this hostile environment, little research has previously been conducted on the sex industry in Zagreb—until now. Our organization, FLIGHT, implemented the first research project on sex workers and their clients, asking them why they got engaged with sex work, why they buy sex services, and their personal opinion on legislation. We also asked should sex work be legalized and should buyers be criminalized. Interviews were conducted from the end of March through May 2018, in public spaces, private, and offices of the respondents. In all, 15 female sex workers and 30 male buyers participated in the study.

Our Findings

Many pathways lead women to enter the sex industry, but poverty is a primary factor. Within Croatian society, sex work is perceived in a negative light, but our findings showed women were more concerned with the stigma around being poor. The women interviewed said they engaged in sex work because they are without a job and have huge debts. Many women indicated a lack of other employment opportunities and the need to take care of children. They needed the money and had few alternative options. One woman specifically needed to buy drugs, and others had no place to stay after residential care or moving away from a violent partner. Although social inclusion is a cornerstone of religious beliefs, the stigma of poverty overshadowed the stigma of being a sex worker. These results conflicted with expectations of a Catholic country with conservative and patriarchal structures.

People close to an individual can also play a significant role in influencing one to enter the industry. In six of the fifteen cases, a close friend (5) or a partner (1) persuaded the women to engage in sex work. Two women found themselves within the organized sex industry after visiting a party or responding to a modelling ad. Only two women independently decided to start with sex work after having various sexual experiences.

On the opposing side of the relationship, there are two main reasons why buyers engage in sex work: compensation and hedonism. A little more than half said they felt it compensated for a void in their life. Some of the examples provided include being single, lacking success with intimate relationships, marital issues, or having no time or desire for emotional commitment. Many of these men see their interactions with sex workers as a sort of intimate relationship involving spending private time together. The remaining men in our study said their primary motivation was hedonistic in nature. They were enticed by a sense of fun, pleasure, satisfaction, fulfillment of sexual desires, excitement, or curiosity.

Sex workers are aware of and face many risks in their job. Sex workers can face aggression from clients and pimps, as well as a risk of sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy. Thus, 80 percent of those we interviewed expressed concern about their personal safety. The majority of their fear is connected to physical and financial issues. The women shared a concern about violent clients that may not want to pay. In addition, they feared being poor, especially as they become older. The lower socio-economic status can exacerbate their vulnerability to other crimes and being exploited. However, they are aware that sex work is not a lifelong solution and eight respondents (53%) showed concern about lack of money, lack of perspective, and lack of solutions for their retirement age: ˝I am afraid because of everything: if someone recognises me, of violent clients, of other sex workers because relations are disastrous. Of getting old, sickness…˝ Other sources of their concern are disease, prison, fear that someone would recognise them, fear from other sex workers, and unwillingness to continue with sex work in certain situations.

It is significant to mention that all respondents (100%) said that they have some concern about their health. These worries are connected with having no health insurance, feeling shame in front of medical staff, having other physical diseases, and having mental health problems connected with lack of perspective, anxiety and hostility toward their job. From our respondents, ten sex workers have medical insurance, but five do not.

It is these fears and concerns that sex workers feel the legalization of sex work would help address. The majority of the women interviewed believe it would improve working conditions, social rights, access to health insurance, and protection. One such example would be by reframing their relationship with police and clients. Some of the women interviewed relayed stories of police chasing, verbally harassing, and arresting them. Clients also engage in degrading behavior, including insulting the women and calling them worthless. In addition, five sex workers stressed how legal measures could ensure fair and loyal competition on the market, balanced prices, and protection of domestic sex workers from foreigners. They also suggested additional measures, such as providing social rights and combating corruption.


These findings provide clearer insight into the Croatian sex industry and will allow policymakers to more accurately address these issues. It is vital that the voices of sex workers continue to be heard and that laws affecting them are crafted through a worker-informed lens. For the first time, these findings can help alter how Croatian society understands an industry that faces stigmatization and discrimination. In order to provide greater protection for the women involved, we must continue to paint a fuller picture of the entire industry.

*Iva Jovovic holds a MA in Social Work, and has extensive research experience in and knowledge of harm reduction programs and human rights for key populations affected by HIV. The Life Quality Improvement Organization FLIGHT is a member of the Project DESIrE Consortium. FLIGHT has been implementing harm reduction programs since 2003 by providing outreach services to both drug users and sex workers.

** The views and opinions expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the position of the HTC.

Edited by Leah Breevoort, Deputy Director

Photo Credit: Project DESIrE

About the Human Trafficking Center

The Human Trafficking Center, housed in the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies, is the only two-year, graduate-level, professional-training degree in human trafficking in the United States. One way graduate students contribute to the study of human trafficking is by publishing research-based blogs. The HTC was founded in 2002 to apply sound research and reliable methodology to the field of human trafficking research and advocacy.

Founded in 1964, the Josef Korbel School of International Studies is one of the world’s leading schools for the study of international relations. The School offers degree programs in international affairs and is named in honor of its founder and first dean, Josef Korbel.


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