By Tatiana Kurova, Inna Zarina

In Latvia, as in other post-Socialist countries, prostitution has developed very rapidly during the period of economic transformations. Prostitution has spread along with the rapid increase and feminisation of poverty in Latvia, which has occurred against the background of a high level of unemployment. According to experts from the Latvian Centre for Gender Studies, there were between 10,000 and 15,000 prostitutes in Latvia in the period between 1996 and 1998.

As a phenomenon, prostitution in Latvia has not been sufficiently studied or evaluated. The medical profession, which comes into contact with prostitutes largely in the context of the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, has expressed its concerns. Research has been done mostly by public organizations with financing from private companies or international organizations, as well as by the Latvian Criminology Research Center. The public organization “Gender,” which is headed by Dr. Tatiana Kurova, has conducted several surveys in order to gain a better understanding of the issue of prostitution in Latvia. In 1995 specialists from the Center conducted a survey of prostitutes in Riga (N = 107); the aim was to learn about the health status and income of prostitutes, as well as the factors, which motivated them to engage in prostitution. In 1997, a survey of residents who were above the age of 16 (N = 400) was done in order to learn the public’s views on the legalization of prostitution and other issues. The results of the survey were given in the form of a report for the Latvian Human Rights Bureau. Also in 1997, specialists from the “Gender” Center conducted another survey of prostitutes in Riga (N = 97); this time they focused on social considerations and the risk factors to which prostitutes and their clients were subject. Specialists from the Criminology Research Center in 1999 surveyed minor prostitutes to learn the conditions and motivations of teenagers who become prostitutes. The results of these surveys have been reported in seminars, conferences, and various reports, as well as in the mass media.

On the basis of these survey materials, most experts believe that preventive work, not punitive actions, is the key to limiting prostitution. Punishments are aimed at the consequences of prostitution, not its causes. The most effective way to reduce the incidence of prostitution would be to eliminate the socio-economic causes for it. Society, and especially young people, must be educated about the dark side of the world of prostitution. Surveys of prostitutes can be an important source of information in selecting target audiences for such educational activities.

Materials from the second survey of prostitutes, which “Gender” conducted in Raga, have not been published yet. Specialists from the organization who also did the actual survey elaborated the questionnaire, but the data were processed and correlated at the Latvian Women’s Research and Information Centre. The results are described in this paper.

The survey was conducted in 1997 in Raga, and 97 prostitutes were questioned. Access to respondents was, of course, relatively complicated, and the cohort was not planned or shaped in advance. Respondents were encountered at random and asked to respond to the questions in the survey. Since experts feel that there may be between 10,000 and 15,000 active prostitutes in Latvia at this time, the cohort covers between 0.7% and 1.0% of the total number (and an even larger proportion of prostitutes who work in Raga). We can make no claims about the extent to which the respondents were representative in terms of age, education, and other important factors, which affect an individual’s social behaviour. This must be kept in mind, if any attempt is made to generalize the results of the survey. The responses, which respondents gave within age groups and other socio-demographic groups, were sufficiently believable, however, and they serve to reflect the essential aspects of this issue.

The 1997 survey contained 38 questions, which can be divided up into five conditional groups:

This paper does not cover the answers, which were given to the last group of questions, because the health of prostitutes was not the major object of analysis. Readers have access to a great deal of medical statistics about the spread of STD’s in Latvia-a problem that is very directly linked to the incidence of prostitution in the country

The cohort


Approximately two-thirds of prostitutes were younger than 21, and one-quarter of respondents were younger than 18. The average age of respondents was 20.8. This is a figure that is 4.1 years lower than the average age of women who were surveyed in 1995. The data from the two surveys cannot be compared exactly, but it can be said with certainty that prostitutes in Riga are getting younger. Research by the Criminology Research Centre suggests that underage persons involved in prostitution in Latvia in 1999 represented 15% of all prostitutes, and this percentage is increasing. It can be assumed that the proportion of underage prostitutes in Latvia as a whole is lower than was found in the survey in Riga, because prostitutes in Riga are younger because of the arrival of underage women from other parts of the country.

The number of respondents in various age groups up to 28 years of age varied between 23 and 39; this is a sufficient number of responses to take a look at various views on the basis of these different age groups. The number of older prostitutes was too small for an age-based comparison, so their answers are reported here in the group of responses that are not differentiated by age. In all tables, except Table 1, data are shown in three different age groups.


Nearly one-half (47%) of the prostitutes had not completed high school; an identical percentage was found in 1995; however, in 1997 as compared to 1995, there were a larger proportion of respondents with an educational level above secondary education-from 17% in 1995 to 26% in 1997. It is possible that changes in this factor indicate that university students were more commonly becoming involved in the profession. In 1995, some 12% of respondents were students; unfortunately in 1997, respondents were not asked to state their occupations.


62% of the surveyed prostitutes were born in Riga; the others arrived from other cities, rural areas, and even other countries. The proportion of natives of Riga had increased significantly from 54% in 1995.

The natives of Riga, on average, were older than respondents from other places, and the average age of the latter group was under 20. Both respondent groups were well represented in the survey-60 women from Riga and 37 from other places. The age distribution in the two groups was different, and some of the subjective evaluations and descriptions obtained from respondents in the two groups are reviewed separately here so as to learn about specifics in either instance.


A key difference was found when results were compared with the 1995 survey. In 1997 Latvian women represented 17% of survey respondents, while in 1995 their proportion was two times larger-34%. The proportion of Russian women has declined by 12%, but the proportion of women of other nationalities-mostly Byelorussian and Ukrainian women-had increased over and against the two main nationalities in Latvia; however,  11% of prostitutes did not state their ethnic background. It is very possible that these women came from mixed families and had trouble in accepting one or the other nationality as their own. The questionnaire did not allow for complex answers to the question of nationality. Latvian women were, on average, the youngest-their average age was under 20. In the other ethnic groups, the average age of respondents was around 21.

Experience in providing sexual services, the age at which the work was begun, and the motivation for the work

Duration of work

Most of the respondents (62%) were prostitutes who had been engaged in the sexual services industry for more than one year. Approximately two-fifths of the respondents had been active in the industry for less than a year, and almost half of these reported having been involved in prostitution for less than six months.

Women from Riga and those from other places did not differ much in this respect, even though women from other places were on average younger. Among younger women, there were fewer respondents who had spent more than a year in prostitution- 39% among those aged 15-17, but 72% among those women who were older. This suggests that even the youngest prostitutes among those who had come to Riga from other places had a year or more of experience in the industry. The proportion of prostitutes who had been in the business for more than a year had increased since 1995, when it was 54%.

The age at which prostitution was started

The largest number of respondents (31%) said that they began to offer sexual services when they were 16 or 17, but fully one-quarter reported having joined the business at the age of 15 or even younger. This means that more than one-half of the respondents (57%) began sexual services when they were still minors. One-fifth of respondents took up prostitution at the age of 18 or 19, while 23% of respondents began work in the industry later in life. Among women in Riga, the proportion of women who began to provide sexual services at the age of 15 or even younger was approximately 2.5 times lower than was the case among women from other places.

All of this suggests that the main risk group in this area was girls aged 16-17 who live in Riga, as well as girls aged 14 and up from rural areas and other cities in Latvia, because the age boundaries dropped in those areas.


Respondents were asked to answer the question “What motivated you to begin providing sexual services?” they were offered five options: the need to earn money, easy work, enjoyment, curiosity, or something else. Respondents could choose more than one answer. 14% of respondents gave more than one reason. The need to earn money was the main motivator for commercial sexual services, cited by 70% of respondents. There were differences, however, in terms of several socio-demographic indicators. The younger the respondent, the more likely it was that money was a motivator for entering the profession-83% of respondents in the 15-17 age group cited that as a motivation. Women from other parts of Latvia and abroad cited this motivation far more often than did women from Riga-81% as compared to 63%. The lower the education level of the respondent, the more common was this motivation-76% of women who had not completed high school, but only 64-65% of women who were high school graduates.

Another factor, which influenced motivation, according to the study, was the way in which prostitutes work-independently, with a pimp, or at a company. 82% of the women who worked with a pimp cited the profit-making motivation, as did 80% of the women who worked at a company. Only 50% of women who worked independently cited the motivation.

Curiosity was the second most commonly cited motivation-between 8% and 21% of respondents, depending on the age group. Women from Riga (18%), the youngest prostitutes (17%), and the relatively oldest prostitutes (21%) cited this motivation most frequently. Curiosity as a motivation was cited more often among more highly educated women-every fourth respondent in the higher education group cited it, but only 15% and 11% at the lower levels of education. It is possible that prostitutes can satisfy their curiosity most easily when they work individually-one-third of women working as independents cited curiosity as their motivation. Women with an educational level higher than high school cited curiosity more frequently, and nearly one-half (48%) of those women worked individually. It is possible that prostitutes with a higher education (including students) find it easier to engage in the business without intermediaries.

Approximately 14% of prostitutes said that their motivation was the fact that the work is easy. The youngest women cited that less frequently as a reason for going into the business, but it was mentioned most commonly among respondents with a completed secondary education and in the 18-20 age group (24%). This lets us conclude that the idea that prostitution is easy work is more widespread among high school graduates. Given the fact that many girls who finish high school have difficulty in finding a job or winning admission to university, it becomes easy to understand why some become involved in the sex industry. This view suggests that high school graduates also belong to a group at risk for prostitution. Respondents in the 18-20 age group who had a completed secondary education were most likely to work with a pimp (41%-55%), rather than independently (30%-37%) or at a company (15%-22%).

Enjoyment was mentioned comparatively less often, especially by the youngest prostitutes (9%) and those aged 21-27 (4%). Respondents with an educational level that was higher than high schools were most likely to cite enjoyment (24%). Because enjoyment was cited almost at an equal level among those women who work independently (20%), we can conclude that the work is enjoyable mostly for those women who work individually.

The fact that overall, however, enjoyment is not one of the key reasons why women go into prostitution suggests that if the economic situation in Latvia were to improve, if poverty were limited, and income levels were increased, the spread of prostitution might be curbed, or at least the structure of motivations of those who are engaged in the business would change. This is based on the assumption that as new jobs appear and income levels rise; people who are involved in sexual services might be those who are predisposed to such activity. We might expect that those women who cited enjoyment as a reason for working in the business could be said to be predisposed to the work. Further research will require more complete representation of various socio-demographic groups, and it would be important to learn about the number of prostitutes who cite enjoyment as their only motivation for the work. They might well represent the number of prostitutes that would be working in an ideal, well-off society.

Sexual services as a source of income and work

Respondents were asked, “Is prostitution your basic source of income?”  answers to this question allow us to get a certain idea about the role which sexual services play in the income structure of respondents. Prostitution as the basic and sole source of income was cited by 50% and 78% of prostitutes depending on place of birth, and between 54% and 74% depending on age. Among women who were not natives of Riga, prostitution was cited more often as the basic and sole source of income, which means that some women had arrived in Riga specifically with the intention of engaging in prostitution, and others became prostitutes while looking for work. Among those prostitutes who had come from other places, there were 2.5 times more girls in the youngest (15-17) age group. It is precisely in this group that prostitution was most often (74%) the basic and sole source of income. Underage girls from other places were away from the eyes of their families, and they were apparently full-time prostitutes. They were also more likely than others to say that their motivation for engaging in prostitution was the ability to earn money.

Among Riga women, only one-half cited prostitution as their basic and sole source of income. Among them, 28% said that prostitution was the basic, but not the sole source of income. If we look at Riga women and women from other places by age group, we find that the older the prostitute, the less common it was for prostitution to be her only source of income, even if it was seen as the basic source.

Prostitution was not the basic source of income most often for women from Riga (22%) and for respondents who were over 18. Among prostitutes in Riga, therefore, there were women who earned additional money with sexual services, spending the rest of their time at another job or perhaps in studies.

Respondents in this survey were not asked about the sums of money, which they receive. No matter what the sum, however, experts say that an average of one-half of the money is turned over by the prostitute to the pimp or the owner of the brothel. Presumably those who work independently receive the sum of money, which they have agreed on with the client [Kurova, et al., 1998].

If we leave aside the moral aspects of prostitution, we can gain something of an idea about prostitution as a “career” by looking at answers that were given to the questions “How many days per month, on average, do you provide sexual services?” and “How many clients per day, on average, do you service?” An answer of 21-31 days per month was given most frequently (42%) by those women who worked with a pimp, and among them 50% serviced five or more clients each day. Prostitutes who worked at clubs had a slightly less intensive regime-the most common answer to the second question (47%) was that they serviced between two and four clients each day.

Answers to these questions differed in various age groups, showing that most underage prostitutes worked most intensively. Among the youngest prostitutes-those in the 15-17 age group-43% worked between 21 and 31 days per month, and 61% serviced five or more clients per day. Among underage prostitutes, as we know, there were more girls from other places than there were from Riga. Girls who didn’t have root in the city hade virtually no protection against the arbitrary decisions of pimps and club owners. It was also true that these girls really wanted to earn a lot of money-something that we see in the statement of motivations by the underage prostitutes.

Prostitutes who were not underage work in a comparatively “lighter” regime, but most of them were Riga women. Among them, 25% to 30% serviced five or more clients per day, and a far greater proportion among them worked fewer than 20 days per month than was the case among underage prostitutes. These differences were partly explained by the fact that older prostitutes were more likely to work individually, and among them most (63%) worked in the industry only one to ten days per month, servicing an average of two to four clients a day. Obviously these were women who used prostitution as a way to make some money on the side.

The psychological discomfort of prostitutes

In this paper, sexual services and the peddling of one’s flesh are not viewed from the moral perspective. We see this is as a voluntary choice and as a fact, which cannot be wished away. Our questionnaire did not include questions that would have allowed us to see directly the way in which prostitutes evaluate their work from a subjective perspective.

We did, however, include a few questions that allow us to get at least an indirect idea of what prostitutes think about their work. Two of the questions had to do with non-commercial sexual contacts: “How many non-commercial sexual partners have you had in the last year?” and “Do your non-commercial sexual partners know about the prostitution?”  The greatest differences were found between underage and adult prostitutes and between Riga women and those from other places.

Among underage prostitutes, approximately 65% reported no non-commercial sexual partners at all, while among adult prostitutes, approximately 40% had had no non-commercial sexual partners in the last year. These answers show that prostitution is an obstacle in creating long-term loving relationships. One-third of the Riga women who were older than 20 reported having had one non-commercial sexual partner. We don’t have enough information about why prostitutes refrain from non-commercial sexual activities. There could be a variety of reasons. Perhaps women don’t want to subject their partners to health risks, maybe they don’t have time, perhaps they just haven’t found the right person, etc. One of the most important problems, however, is that it seems that it is difficult for women to hide the fact that they are working in the industry. Among adult prostitutes who had non-commercial sexual partners, 76% to 83% reported that they did not reveal their work to their partners. Among minor prostitutes, one-third said that they inform non-commercial partners about their work in the field of prostitution. Among Riga women, 3.5 times more respondents reported one non-commercial sexual partner than did women from other places, which reaffirms the idea that women in Riga often use prostitution as a way of earning some extra money.

Indirect evidence of the discomfort, which prostitutes feel in their work, is also provided by answers to questions that have to do with health and the risk of sexually transmitted diseases. We asked: “How high is your risk, do you think, of becoming infected with an STD or AIDS?” and “Are you afraid of becoming infected with an STD or AIDS?” and “Do you have enough knowledge to avoid infection?”

Approximately three-quarters of respondents said that they faced a high or very high risk of becoming infected, but the subjective views of underage and adult prostitutes varied. Among minors, 83% viewed the risk as high or very high, while among older women the percentage was lower at 64% to 68%. At the same time, however, underage prostitutes, despite being aware of the risk, most often (70%) said that they were only slightly concerned about coming down with an infection, and only 17% said that they were seriously afraid of the possibility. Among adult prostitutes, the proportion who were concerned about getting sick correlated with age (36% - 75%) and educational level-the older and better educated the woman, the more likely she was to be afraid of infection. This was true of 26% of women with less than a high school education, 46% of women with a completed high school education, and 88% of women with an educational level above secondary.

Among respondents older than 20, approximately one-half reported sufficient knowledge to avoid infection. Among 18-20 year old prostitutes, however, there were nearly one-half fewer respondents who said that (27%). Underage respondents almost universally (91%) admitted that they didn’t have sufficient knowledge to avoid infection. The level of information, when self-evaluated, correlated with educational level. Among women with a high school education or better, approximately one-half reported that they had enough knowledge, while among those who had not finished high school, 84% said the opposite, that their knowledge was not sufficient.

One conclusion that we can draw from this is that most of the respondents have had personal experience with STD’s-65% reported having contracted such diseases.

When a woman does not have a personal life, when she is afraid of getting sick, when she is afraid of telling other people about her work, and when she suffers repeat instances of sexually transmitted diseases-this is fertile ground for psychological discomfort, and many prostitutes compensate for this with alcohol and drugs. The money they earn, of course, must also be seen as a form of compensation. This will remain a problem as long as society cannot provide jobs to women, who ensure at least a normal level of income, and as long as there is a demand for sexual services. The clients of prostitutes are an aspect of this issue, which has not been studied very much at all. The main problem for researchers, of course, is that neither party to the transaction of prostitution is interested in pointing to the client. Since clients include people active and visible in the community (see below), it is unlikely that they would be willing to disclose their activities.


On the survey questionnaire, prostitutes were asked point blank: “Who are your clients?” Suggested responses described professions in a general sense-local businessmen, company employees, bureaucrats, athletes, policemen, drivers, soldiers, etc. Tourists were listed separately, as were married and unmarried men. The responses did not provide any detailed information about clients-their age, education, children, etc. The fact that certain jobs suggested higher income, as well as a certain amount of behavioural stereotyping, gives us an idea of who was using the services of prostitutes in Latvia.

The prostitutes were asked to indicate who their clients were by selecting as many categories as they wished.  The analysis is based on a comparison of the frequency with which groups were cited. The responses are ordered in terms of frequency, and not in the same order as was set out in the questionnaire. Most frequently cited were:
Local businessmen (65%)
Tourists (62%)
Company employees, bureaucrats (59%)
Athletes (54%)
Policemen (50%)
Soldiers (39%)
This is pretty much in line with income categories-prostitutes most often serviced clients who had relatively higher income, such as businessmen and tourists, as well as company employees and bureaucrats. This means that increased income levels are a factor in promoting demand for prostitution-not the only one, to be sure, but certainly in combination with other factors that have not particularly been researched.

Prostitutes in various birthplace, age, education, and work form groups cited the various client categories more or less frequently. Women from Riga was more likely to service wealthier clients-businessmen and tourists, as well as company employees and bureaucrats. Underage prostitutes serviced policemen (78%) and drivers (70%) more often than older prostitutes did. Minor prostitutes also cited well-off groups-tourists (65%) and local businessmen (61%). Underage prostitutes clearly have the least to say about selecting their clients; therefore, their exploitation is intensified. The higher the educational level of a prostitute, the more frequently she serviced wealthier clients-businessmen and tourists, as well as company employees and bureaucrats. Prostitutes who had not completed high school, by contrast, more frequently serviced athletes, policemen, drivers, and soldiers. The greatest differences were seen in terms of the work form. Women who worked with a pimp serviced all of the client categories at approximately the same level (48% - 63%). Those who worked individually cited tourists most often (73%). Those who work in brothels serviced all categories. Nearly all of the prostitutes (93%) in brothels serviced businessmen, while 73% serviced tourists, company employees, and bureaucrats. More than one-half of prostitutes who worked in sex clubs (53% - 67%) had serviced soldiers, drivers, athletes, and policemen.

Local businessmen, as far as can be determined from the study, most often chose a Riga native who was 18-20 years old and had a completed secondary or higher education; most often businessmen used a sex club as an intermediary. Tourists were also oriented toward women from Riga, especially minors or those who were 21 years or older and with more education than just high school. Tourists preferred independent prostitutes or the services of sex clubs. Two qualities seemed to be important to tourists-very young girls and a good education. Because these two qualities do not go hand in hand, we can conclude that well-educated prostitutes were sought out among those who worked independently, while underage prostitutes were found with the help of brothels. Company employees and bureaucrats most often selected Riga natives with a secondary education, and they were most likely to seek out sexual services through a company. Athletes most often used underage prostitutes, as well as older women with less than a secondary education-women who worked with a pimp or at a sex club. Policemen were of particular interest in this area. They were less likely to be interested in Riga women, but they were the group, which was most commonly interested, in underage prostitutes with less than a secondary education. Policemen most often got their prostitutes through a pimp or a sex club. Because the services of prostitutes who worked with an intermediary were relatively more expensive and the fact that police officials haven’t earned very much money in Latvia, we might conclude that this group took advantage of their job status to receive the services of prostitutes. The main element in their demands would seem to be that the girls be young. Among prostitutes aged 15 to 17, fully 78% cited policemen as being among their clients. Drivers used women from Riga and women from other places more or less equally, and they preferred minor prostitutes with less than a secondary education and women who worked with a pimp. Soldiers most often used the services of women who were aged 15-20, had not completed high school, and were natives of Riga. Soldiers most often used prostitutes who were attached to a company or a pimp.
In terms of family status, prostitutes in the survey reported married and unmarried men with approximately equal frequency. If we look at all local men who used the services of prostitutes, we see that both married and unmarried men most often used prostitutes who were younger than 20. They hired women who were underage and women who were in the 18-20 age group with approximately equal frequency-mostly those women who had not completed their secondary education. Sexual services were most often received through the intermediation of a pimp or a sex club.


The results of the survey show that there are several risk groups among Latvia’s women with respect to the possibility of their becoming involved in prostitution. Chances of becoming a prostitute are increased if the woman is:
Underage girls are not only becoming involved in prostitution, but they also work the most intensive regime, and they are least protected against the whims of pimps and the owners of sex clubs. In order to increase the workload, the intermediaries take advantage of the fact that young girls have a greater desire to earn money-something, which was seen when prostitutes described their motivation for entering the profession.
Women, who arrive in Riga and engage in prostitution, as well as underage prostitutes, are subject to a greater risk of contracting STD’s than are women from Riga and older prostitutes.
Men with comparatively higher income seek sexual services out most often.

The survey points toward another bit of truth-the fact that from the perspective of the average client in the sexual market, the most significant quality in a prostitute is her youth. This is one of the reasons why the law in economically developed countries specifically defends minors, and serious penalties exist for involving underage people in prostitution. Citizens of these countries, including Sweden, can come to Latvia, however, and take advantage of underage prostitutes in a country where children are not sufficiently protected by law and by relevant actions. Limitations on prostitution that were adopted by the Cabinet of Ministers in November 1998 do not resolve the problem. The regulations first of all point toward a legalization of prostitution. Secondly, the elements in the regulations, which are supposed to protect children against becoming involved in prostitution, are not being implemented, because the mechanism needed to implement those regulations does not exist in Latvia. The regulations provide that the vice squad of the National Police must supervise the process, but the vice squad does not exist. The director of the Criminology Research Centre, Andrejs Vilks, feels that if the vice squad is not created, and its set-up is not organized all around the country, the regulations will simply remain on paper.

Any real attempt by the police to battle prostitution is called into question by the fact that police officers are active clients of prostitutes. If those who work in law enforcement structures are among the clients of prostitutes, then there are some uncomfortable questions to ask about the way in which prostitution is being opposed. Authorities under these conditions are, first of all, subject to blackmail. Secondly, they are in a position to hide the activities of prostitutes and their pimps. Third, they can be paid in sexual favours from prostitutes in return for their help in hiding them or warning them when danger nears. Journalists have conducted investigations, which show that such things regularly happen in Latvia.

Efforts to battle prostitution are a difficult proposition in any country, including those that are economically developed and have high-income levels which maintain a certain demand for prostitution. The problem is all the more complex in Latvia, because the factors, which promote both supply and demand in the commercial sex industry, are continuing to develop. Income levels in Latvia are polarizing very quickly-many people have very low income, and some have very high income; this creates an ideal situation for the development of prostitution. This is manifested in Latvia through a wide variety of forms of prostitution-“highway prostitution,” prostitution abroad, and the offering of sexual services on the Internet.

Of course, against the background of poverty and an insufficiently developed legal system in Latvia, it is hard to talk about resources that could be brought to bear in the fight against prostitution. There are, however, always things that can be done. Society can be educated through all of the resources that are publicly available. First of all, there must be purposeful work with risk groups in schools. Secondly, there must be education and information for fathers, mothers, and grandparents. And third, there must be education for the prostitutes themselves. Even journalists might for instance remember that when they write about prostitution, susceptible minors are in the audience. The understandable tendency of journalists to put some “pepper” in their materials should be done carefully, especially when it comes to perhaps intriguing or romanticized headlines on stories about prostitution.