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Sex workers, activists call on EU lawmakers to reject report on prostitution

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Sex workers and human rights organisations called on EU lawmakers to reject a report that argues for the criminalisation of sex buyers, illustrating a deep divide among activists and sex workers over how to regulate sex work.

The parliamentary report, which is set to be voted on Thursday (14 September), refers to prostitution as a form of gender-based violence and calls on EU member states to decriminalise people in prostitution while criminalising buyers and third parties involved in selling sex services.

“Prostitution is not a normal job,” rapporteur Maria Noichl (S&D) said during a press conference on Tuesday (12 September), adding that “there is a real need for urgent action across Europe.”

While the report does not carry legislative power, “this is an opportunity for the European Parliament to take a stand,” Noichl said, adding that she hoped for a positive outcome with repercussions felt across the Union.

In particular, the report encourages EU countries to adopt the model currently implemented in Sweden, France and Ireland, in an effort to curb demand and promote exit strategies, but has been criticised by sex workers and several human rights organisations who support full decriminalisation.

Sex workers’ concerns

In a letter addressed to the European Parliament, the European Sex Workers Alliance, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and 10 additional organisations called on MEPs to vote against the report, describing it as “biased and harmful”.

“[C]riminalisation of any aspect of sex work, which is proposed by this report, does not protect the rights of women and others engaged in sex work,” the letter reads, urging MEPs to adopt “a human rights-based approach” and decriminalise all aspects of sex work.

According to the organisations, criminalisation of clients could lead to sex work moving underground and could result in less safety for sex workers.

The letter also criticises the report for not distinguishing third parties who are abusive or exploitative from those who provide support and safety to sex workers.

This approach could also end up targeting sex workers who share premises for safety, warns the letter, which overall criticises the report’s approach to the right to bodily autonomy.

“Criminalising the purchase of sex denies an entire group of people (most of whom are women) the right to make decisions about their lives,” the letter reads.

According to an Amnesty International report on Ireland, one of the countries criminalising buyers, this regulatory approach not only increased exposure to risky behaviours from clients, but also increased fear among sex workers working together of being charged with brothel-keeping.

‘Policies for the majority’

However, according to Noichl, the report addresses the experiences of the majority of women involved in prostitution, who do not choose but are forced to sell sex services.

“I know there are some people who choose to be in prostitution and who want to be seen as sex workers. I understand this, but it’s a small group,” she said, adding that “as a person in politics my job is to make policies for the majority, not for a small group.”

According to the report, in the Netherlands up to 70% of people in prostitution are considered to have been forced into the work.

During Tuesday’s press conference, the call to criminalise buyers was also shared by three women who exited prostitution, invited by the rapporteur to speak about their experiences.

“Prostitution is not a choice, but rather a lack of opportunity,” said Saga Brodersen, who is an expert at the Swedish foundation ChildX, adding that “buying sex is an act of violence” and women in prostitution can easily become victims of human trafficking.

Spanish activist Amelia Tiganus also called for the abolition of prostitution through the criminalisation of sex service procurers and buyers.

“If we’re talking about progress, we cannot continue to assume that women exist for the purpose of men’s sexual pleasure,” she said, calling on EU lawmakers to support the report.

Vote ahead

MEPs remain divided over the proposed common regulatory approach to prostitution, with the majority of Green lawmakers opposing it and most lawmakers from S&D, EPP and The Left supporting it.

Back in June, the report was adopted by the Parliament’s committee on women’s rights with 16 votes in favour, 10 against and 3 abstentions. The plenary vote on Thursday will follow a plenary debate taking place the day before.

Whether it is adopted or not, the report will not have any direct legislative effect.

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

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