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Divided EU Parliament backs decriminalisation of sex work, ‘punishment’ of clients

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EU lawmakers adopted a report urging member states to decriminalise people in prostitution, and ‘punish’ – but not criminalise – buyers, in a debate that sparked confrontation between sex workers and MEPs on how to regulate the sector.

On Thursday (14 September), members of the European Parliament adopted a report on the regulation of prostitution, with 234 votes in favour, 175 against and 122 abstentions.

The report has no direct legislative effect but has triggered controversy between EU lawmakers and sex workers, due to its critical approach to the legitimacy of sex work as well as the regulatory model it proposed.

The original text called for member states to implement the so-called Nordic model, currently used in Sweden, France and Ireland, which criminalises sex buyers. However, the final text took a less forceful approach, instead calling for initiatives to reduce demand and ‘punishment of clients’. It did not lay out guidance for what ‘punishment’ in this context would mean.

This aspect, as well as the number of votes against and abstentions on the file, was welcomed by sex workers’ organisations.

“It demonstrates that it [the report] was unnecessary and that the majority is not in favour of criminalisation,” Sabrina Sanchez, director of the European Sex Workers Alliance (ESWA), told Euractiv following the vote.

The text also encourages member states to decriminalise sex workers and offer exit programmes to people in prostitution.

“With this report, we call for more support offers and alternatives for those who want to leave prostitution,” rapporteur Maria Noichl (S&D) said after the vote, adding that “EU states should launch initiatives to drastically reduce demand by targeting sex buyers and others who profit from the prostitution of others.”

Division over criminalisation of buyers

The report was supported by a majority of MEPs from the S&D, EPP and The Left political groups, despite calls from human rights and sex workers organisations to reject it.

The supporters of buyers’ criminalisation argue that this approach is effective in curbing demand, while critics argue that it further pushes sex work underground, increasing the risk of violence for sex workers.

“More criminalisation will only put sex work under the rock because it will still be happening,” Sanchez said.

While calls for criminalisation were watered down, the final text maintains the same approach and wording, referring to prostitution – and not sex work – and framing it as gender-based violence.

According to the rapporteur Noichl and several other MEPs, prostitution is a form of gender-based violence and should not be recognised as a profession. However, not all EU lawmakers agreed with this approach.

“The report removes the right of adult people to say yes or no, to decide about their own body [and] this is a gross violation to the right to make independent decisions,” said Karen Melchior (Renew), who voted against the report.

Another aspect highly criticised by both sex workers and some MEPs, was the lack of consultation of sex workers in the preparation of the text.

“Let’s stop talking about them [sex workers] and start talking with them,” said Green MEP Kim van Sparrentak, pointing to the need to work together in order to protect and extend the rights of sex workers to housing, healthcare and social protection.

According to Sanchez, the report does not address the root causes of sex work, like the cost of living crisis. It also encourages more policing, rather than strengthening the role of labour inspectors and trade unions, she said.

In her view, despite its findings not being binding, the report could still influence national approaches to regulating prostitution as it represents the official opinion of the European Parliament.

Welcomed report

The vote was welcomed by several MEPs, who pointed to the need for a common European approach.

“[Prostitution] is a European problem and therefore we need a joint response,” said social-democrat MEP Hel?ne Fritzon, adding that “this is the kind of legislation I want in the EU”.

The outcome of the vote was also endorsed by women’s associations, like the European Women’s Lobby (EWL).

“MEPs sent a strong signal for women, for Europe, for justice and equality by voting in favour of this report: it is a clear way of reaffirming that exploiting a woman’s body is not acceptable,” said EWL’s Mary Collins.

During Wednesday’s debate, EU Commissioner V?ra Jourov? did not openly endorse the report, rather pointing at other EU initiatives against sexual exploitation and violence, such as the directive against human trafficking and the directive against gender violence currently under negotiations.

“I trust that this report will contribute to the policy reflections at both EU but also, where it is needed, at the national level,” she said.

[Edited by J?nos Allenbach-Ammann/Nathalie Weatherald]

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