European states are divided on how to deal with sex work, the debate has reached the European Parliament.
Until last June, sex workers in Belgium were part of the shadow economy: they did not have access to social security, loans and credits, sick leave, but they also did not pay taxes. The services around them, from designers to accountants, have also been open to prosecution, thanks to the criminalization that reigns around sex workers.
However, with the adoption of the first in Europe and the second in the world landmark law on decriminalization, everything has changed. Daan Bowens, acting director of UTOPI, a Belgian sex worker organization, says: “We fought very, very, very, very hard for this.” quotes euronews.
The Belgian authorities have decriminalized all third parties and allowed some of them to work as sex workers legally – with a contract guaranteeing their labor rights. The result was a replacement sector that didn’t have the standards or safeguards that Bowens says are critical to preventing exploitation.
An equally key factor has been the impact of COVID-19 and lockdown policies, which Bowens says have been a “catastrophic period for sex workers” because, as part of the shadow economy, they had no access to government support.
There was a massive campaign to financially bail out sex workers in the country, and the state eventually did its part as well, as it couldn’t provide a welfare network for sex workers that didn’t legally exist. The situation attracted a lot of media attention and campaigning, which helped put decriminalization on the agenda in October 2020, after the formation of a new coalition government. Bowens notes:
“It showed so clearly that sex workers organize for themselves, they know how to do it, they can speak for themselves and they have some political demands.”
Thus, Belgium was the first to decriminalize sex work. Meanwhile, in Austria, the Netherlands and Germany, it is legalized in one form or another. And Sweden and France criminalize the buying of sex, but not the sale of it, aiming to “abolish” sex work.
The debate on how to approach sex work has moved smoothly into the European Parliament. The FEMM Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality is preparing a report on how to regulate the sex industry. It is expected to be presented at the plenary meeting in June 2023 and will likely recommend some form of ban. Maria Neuchl, MEP from Germany and speaker on the report “Regulation of prostitution in EU“, He speaks:
“This is a very emotional topic. Prostitution is a global and gendered phenomenon: women mostly sell their bodies to men, reproducing the power structures and inequalities that exist in society as a whole. The sex market needs to dry up.”
She argues that liberal sex work policies, such as those in Germany, create a demand for women who are trafficked for sexual exploitation. And wants all Member States to “decriminalize women in prostitution, remove stigma” and ensure they have access to their fundamental rights. That is, people who buy sex will continue to face prosecution, which, according to supporters of this policy, will reduce the demand for sex work.
Dutch MEP Sophie in’t Veld (Renew) is surprised at the lack of EU policy on the issue and finds it strange “because sex work is work.” She is a supporter of the decriminalization of sex work in the European Union and has worked on this issue for many years: “People are workers and they should have working rights like everyone else.”
She discusses what protection against discrimination and hatred should include. And she acknowledged that it is difficult because of the stigma and prejudice against sex workers, as well as the real problem of abuse. She argues that full decriminalization “will not be 100 percent successful overnight” but stressed the need to work with sex workers to understand what will work and what won’t. Sophie in’t Veld says:
“I am a feminist. It’s always been that way, and I’m always a little puzzled by the attitude of feminists who talk a lot about sex work but rarely talk about sex workers.”
She regretted the European Commission’s refusal to fund the European Sex Workers Alliance, a sex worker-led network representing more than 100 organizations in 30 countries in Europe and Central Asia, to help fulfill its role as a civil society organization:
“I don’t understand how people who call themselves feminists, how they are so condescending, so biased, take high moral positions instead of talking to people and asking what they need.”
Sabrina Sanchez, Coordinator for the European Sex Workers Rights Alliance (ESWA), is concerned about the forthcoming EU Parliament report. Most likely, the Scandinavian model will dominate there, which continues to criminalize clients, but decriminalizes the sale of sex. She argues that the partial criminalization of sex work increases exploitation and sends a message that sex workers are “undesirable” – tacitly sanctioning violence against them by not only clients, but also authorities:
“We have to be practical and solve people’s problems, namely the lack of housing, the lack of other employment options besides sex work. This is what we demand: labor rights, the right to social and economic justice instead of criminalization.”
She claims that anti-sex workers have sought to remove any mention of sex workers, even to recognize them as a vulnerable group: “They don’t really like the term ‘sex worker’ because it gives you some free will.”
Whether efforts within member states or at EU level will lead to more policies to decriminalize or abolish sex work, the key change appears to be the organization of sex workers who will insist on their needs and demands, if the politicians are willing to listen. Bowens notes:
“I have a feeling that more and more politicians in Europe are opening their eyes to other ways of dealing with this problem.”
The Belgian Labor Code is currently being updated in consultation with sex workers, medical and social support organizations, and NGOs supporting victims of trafficking. This will now be one of the key policies governing and supporting sex work. The decriminalization law includes an impact assessment of the law itself, which must be carried out every two years and then every four years. Bowens is confident it will be a success: “There is overwhelming evidence that decriminalization is the only way to ensure that sex workers’ rights are protected.”