Up until June of this year, sex workers in Belgium were part of the underground economy: they had no access to social security, sick pay, loans or credit, nor did they pay tax.
They also criminalised everyone around them so that those who “assisted” them — from a web designer to an accountant — were also open to prosecution.
But that all changed with the passing of a landmark decriminalisation law — the first in Europe and the second in the world.
“We fought really, really, really, really hard for that,” Daan Bauwens, interim director of UTSOPI, a Belgian sex worker organisation, told Euronews.
Belgium decriminalised all third parties and allowed some to be lawfully employed as sex workers, with a contract guaranteeing their labour rights. Prior to the change, sex work was “tolerated” but the result was a sector where there were no standards or safeguards, which Bauwens said are crucial to prevent exploitation.
Another key factor was the impact of COVID-19 and lockdown policies, which was “a disastrous period for sex workers” according to Bauwens – because as a part of the underground economy they were unable to access state support.
There was a large grassroots campaign to financially help sex workers and the state eventually contributed to this scheme because they were unable to provide a social security net for workers that did not legally exist. The issue got a lot of media attention and campaigning, which helped put decriminalisation on the agenda when a new coalition government was formed in October 2020.
“It showed so clearly that sex workers are organising for themselves, they know how to do that, that can speak for themselves and they have some political demands,” Bauwens said.
'Sex work is work'
While Belgium is the first EU state to decriminalise sex work, the Netherlands, Germany and Austria all have some form of legalised sex work. By contrast, Sweden and France criminalise the buying of sex, but not the selling, with the broad aim to “abolish” sex work.
The debate over how to approach sex work is now moving to the EU Parliament, where a report on how to regulate the sex industry is being prepared by the Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality, known as the FEMM Committee.
The report, which is expected to be brought to the plenary in June 2023, is likely to recommend some form of prohibition.
“It is a very emotional topic,” German MEP Maria Noichl (S&D), the rapporteur for the 'Regulation of prostitution in the EU' report, said. “Prostitution is a global and gendered phenomenon: it is mostly women that sell their bodies to men, reproducing power structures and inequalities that exist in society as a whole."
Noichl argued that liberal policies on sex work, such as in Germany, create demand for women to be trafficked into sexual exploitation. She wants to see all member states “decriminalise women in prostitution and destigmatise them” and to ensure they have access to their fundamental rights.
This means that people who buy sex will continue to face prosecution, which supporters of this policy believe will reduce the demand for sex work.
“The sex market needs to dry out,” Noichl says.
For Dutch MEP Sophie in 't Veld (Renew), the fact that there is no EU policy on the issue "is strange because sex work is work".
In 't Veld is a supporter of decriminalisation of sex work across the EU and has worked on the issue for years.
“People are workers and they should have workers’ rights like anybody else,” she said, which should include being protected against discrimination and hate.
She acknowledged this is challenging because of the stigma and prejudice towards sex workers, and the real problem of abuse. She also acknowledged that full decriminalisation “will not be a 100 per cent success overnight,” but emphasised the need to work with sex workers to get a sense of what would be effective and what wouldn't be.
“I’m a feminist. Always have been and I’m always a bit puzzled by the attitude of feminists who talk a lot about sex work but rarely ever with sex workers,” she said.
She deplored that the European Commission refused to grant funding to the European Sex Workers’ Alliance — a sex worker-led network representing more than 100 organisations in 30 countries across Europe and Central Asia — to help fulfil its role as a civil society organisation like any other.
“I don’t understand how people who call themselves feminists, how they are so condescending, so prejudiced, taking the moral high ground rather than talking to people and asking what they need,” she said.
'Decriminalisation is the only way'
For Sabrina Sanchez, coordinator of the European Sex Workers’ Rights Alliance (ESWA), the forthcoming EU Parliament report is of great concern. The Nordic model, which the report is likely to back, continues to criminalise clients but decriminalises selling sex.
The report will not be "addressing anything it is supposed to address,” she said.
Sanchez argued that the continued partial criminalisation of sex work increases exploitation, forcing workers into poorer and more dangerous conditions without the power to change them, and sends the message that sex workers are “undesirables” – tacitly sanctioning violence against them by the authorities and by clients.
“We have to be practical and we have to address peoples’ problems, which are lack of housing, lack of other labour options outside of sex work,” Sanchez said. “This is what we demand, an approach of labour rights, social-economic justice rights instead of criminalisation."
Sanchez is also concerned that without a clear definition of what constitutes sexual exploitation, all sex work could be drawn into the EU’s response to violence against women under a proposed directive on Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence currently being considered by parliament.
She also claims opponents of sex work have sought to remove any references to sex workers, even to recognise them as a vulnerable group.
“The term ‘sex worker’ they don’t really like because that gives you some agency,” she said.
Whether efforts in member states or at the EU level will lead to more policies to decriminalise sex work, or to abolish it, the key change appears to be in the organisation of sex workers to press for their needs and demands, if the politicians are willing to listen.
“I have a feeling more and more politicians in Europe are opening their eyes to other ways of dealing with the issue,” Bauwens said.
Sophie in 't Veld urged policymakers to “talk with these people, don’t judge. Ask them what they need. I think that is feminist."
The Labour code in Belgium is now being updated, in consultation with sex workers, medical and social support organisations, and NGOs supporting victims of human trafficking. This will now be one of the key policies regulating and supporting sex work.
The decriminalisation law includes an assessment of the impact of the law itself to be done in two years and then every four years after that.
Bauwens is confident that it will be a success. “There is an overwhelming body of evidence showing decriminalisation is the only way to assure the safeguarding of the human rights of sex workers,” he said.