/The role of prostitution markets in domestic violence during Covid-19

The role of prostitution markets in domestic violence during Covid-19

The role of prostitution markets in the surge of domestic violence during Covid-19

Giovanni Immordino, Maria Berlin, Francesco Russo, Giancarlo Spagnolo 13 September 2020

Lockdown policies designed to contain the spread of Covid-19 seem to have fostered domestic violence (Taub 2020, UN Women 2020). In the UK, the number of women who died in suspected domestic violence cases more than tripled during the first month of lockdown compared to the previous year (New York Times 2020a). In India, the National Commission for Women reports a 94% increase in domestic abuse against women during lockdown (Nigam 2020). Ravindran and Shah (2020) even relate the stringency of restriction policies to proportional increases in domestic violence complaints, leveraging the variation across Indian states. Along the same lines, a study by WHO found a 60% increase in calls to hotlines that deal with domestic violence cases (Van Hagen 2020), while Google trends reports a 143% increase in domestic abuse queries (Led by HER et al. 2020).

At the same time, prostitution markets, whether legal or illegal, froze almost completely during lockdowns (Platt et al. 2020). Brothels were closed in countries where prostitution is legal, such as Germany (Economist 2020) in an effort to increase social distancing. In the Netherlands, prostitution was criminalized for the first time since the 19th century (Gauriat 2020). In countries where prostitution is illegal, movement restrictions made it very difficult for sex workers to meet clients, leaving them without income and often without financial aid from the government (Wheeler 2020), causing massive psychological distress (UNAIDS 2020a)  and exposing them to even more discrimination than before (UNAIDS 2020b).

There are several reasons why lockdowns may have led to an increase in domestic violence. Restrictions to movements secluded many women at home in close and repeated contact with abusive partners, while reaching women’s shelters and help centres, and even one’s personal support network, was made more difficult. Alcohol consumption also surged during lockdowns (in Russia, for example, see New York Times 2020b), and several studies find a clear relationship between alcohol abuse and violence (World Health Organization 2006). Some women lost their income and/or jobs due to the lockdown, especially if working informally, which increased the wage gap to their partners, lowering their bargaining power within the family and leaving them without outside options. This might have further increased their risk of facing violent behaviour, as highlighted by Aizer (2010). More generally, domestic violence could have increased simply due to increased poverty, consistent with the findings in Jewkes (2002).

Could the shutdown of the prostitution markets also have contributed to the spike in domestic violence? A recent study on the effects of the ‘Nordic model’ of asymmetric criminalisation of prostitution suggests that this might have been the case. 

Prostitution repression and domestic violence in Sweden

The debate on the legislation  of prostitution shares clear similarities with debates on alcohol prohibition or drug liberalisation. Criminalisation most likely shrinks the corresponding market, both because of an increased participation cost and because it functions as a signal of societal acceptability, thereby coordinating behaviour. Whatever is left of the market is pushed into illegality, fostering criminal activity and potentially exposing all participants to heightened risks. In the specific case of the prostitution market, the primary concern is the increased risk of violence and a general worsening of the living conditions of the (fewer) sex workers.

When Sweden enacted the first asymmetric criminalisation of prostitution in 1999, whereby buyers but not sellers of sexual services are punished, a third way between criminalisation and legalisation seemed to have been found. Asymmetric criminalisation still sends a clear signal on societal values, while at the same time protecting the sex workers. The model proved very successful in deterring street prostitution and reducing the size of the prostitution market (Swedish Institute 2010).

 Under the catchy name of the ‘Nordic model’, the law has subsequently been adopted by Norway, Iceland, Canada, Ireland and France, and was the subject of a non-binding resolution by the European Parliament in 2014. But what was its effect on violence?

In Berlin et al. (2020), we address this question and find that violence against women increased in Sweden as a consequence of the implementation of the Nordic model, although the prostitution market itself was made safer. 

Our strategy is based on a comparison between Swedish counties above (treated group) or below (control group) average in terms of female shares of police officers and elected officials. The share of female police officers and the share of female elected officials have previously been associated with greater reporting and lower incidence of crimes against women (Iyer et al. 2012, Miller and Segal 2019). After the introduction of the ‘Nordic model’, we observe a 10% increase in indoors assaults against women committed by acquaintances in treated counties as compared to the control group. Since the reform reduced street prostitution, pushing the remaining sex trade indoors, violence against sex workers is counted in the indoor assault statistics after the reform. However, in the treated counties, where violent crimes against women increased, we also find fewer convictions for buying sex. We therefore argue that the observed increase in assaults did not happen within the sex market, but was rather the result of increased violence against women that are not sex workers from frustrated former customers, most likely their intimate partners. We also consider other crime categories and hospitalisations to make sure that the results do not simply reflects an increase in reports. All in all, the evidence points towards an increased violence incidence.  

Figure 1 Impact of the Nordic model of prostitution legislation on domestic violence


Notes: The figure reports the difference-in-differences coefficient for the number of assaults against women committed indoor by an acquaintance each month, half a year before and after the reform. It can be interpreted as the percentage change in the number of assaults in treated counties relative to control counties, and it is significantly different from zero only in the immediate aftermath of the reform.
Source: Berlin et al. (2020).

Domestic violence during the Covid-19 pandemic

This finding is of particular interest in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. Since prostitution markets collapsed, we are clearly facing a situation akin to the contraction of the prostitution market in Sweden after the asymmetric criminalisation.  Our findings in Berlin et al. (2020) suggest that this contraction of the sex market induced an increase in domestic violence.  Further, we observe a clear increase in domestic violence in Sweden since the outset of the Covid-19 crisis, despite the fact that the Swedish policy reaction has been comparably lenient and that a complete lockdown has so far been avoided. We therefore argue that one of the channels that led to increased domestic violence during the pandemic in Sweden and lockdowns elsewhere may have been the reduced availability of prostitution services. A conjecture that can certainly be tested in future work.

Figure 2 Domestic violence in Stockholm during the Covid-19 pandemic

Notes: The figure reports the number of violent assaults against women committed within an intimate relation each week, between January 2018 and June 2020. Source: Berlin and Gerell (2020).


Research on restrictions in the market for sexual services indicates that such restrictions, rather than the sex trade itself, can have substantial negative consequences for communities and sex workers. Our own analysis of the Swedish case is in line with other recent contributions, which find that allowing some form of legal sex markets is beneficial for outsiders, and that indoor prostitution is safer for the sex workers themselves (Bisschop et al. 2017 for the Netherlands, Cunningham and Shah 2018, Cunningham et al. 2019, Ciacci and Sviatschi 2018 for the US, Ciacci 2019 for Sweden).

We show that, among others, restricting the availability of sex services may have the unwanted side effect of increasing domestic violence. A potential decrease in the offer of prostitution during the Covid-19 pandemic may likewise have favoured domestic violence. When considering various forms of criminalisation or restrictions on behaviour such as those implemented during the pandemic, it is therefore crucial to understand the interactions and counterproductive effects that certain policies may have.


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