A step towards a Europe free from prostitution

By Sian

On 14 September 2023, the European Parliament voted to support a resolution that defines prostitution as a form of violence and both a cause and a consequence of the persisting inequality between women and men. The resolution encourages member states to adopt an approach to prostitution based on reducing men’s demand for prostitution, providing all those caught up within the prostitution system with support and exit services, decriminalising the selling of sex, and criminalising the purchase of sex and third parties profiting from the prostitution of others. In other words, a Nordic Model (aka Equality Model) approach. In this article, Sian, a survivor of prostitution, explains how it felt when she heard the news.

As an exited woman, I felt so much joy when I read, last week, that the EU has voted to adopt the resolution to defend the abolition of prostitution across the EU area, by supporting the provisions of the Nordic (Equality) Model. To read that the EU believes prostitution is violence against women and girls, to see it written in black and white that the EU recognises the harms that prostitution causes to women and girls, felt incredibly emotional to me.

For so long it feels as though I have seen people pointing to how apparently wonderful Germany’s legalisation of the sex industry has been. How everyone there is apparently free to sell sex happily, as much or as little as they wish, for however much they would like to charge, and all issues with violence in the industry have been somehow solved by massive brothels in every city.

As an exited woman, it’s painful to explain to someone how your consent isn’t just bought and then suspended, it’s utterly obliterated by the act of prostitution – and then have that person tell you you’re just a sad minority and all the other women are perfectly happy.

I know how it works. I used to be one of those women who claimed it was fine and I was perfectly happy. But I’d have snapped your hand off if you’d offered me an exit programme – a way to leave the area I was in, a way to earn a living that would support me, or even just a place to live where my pimp couldn’t find me and exploit me.

I can’t count the number of people who have told me prostitution is absolutely fine if you consent to it; that violent punters and pimps are a myth, or a tiny minority; that under total decriminalisation, you would be able to report such attacks to the police and be taken seriously.

So it’s so incredibly reassuring and wonderful to read in this EU resolution that the EU recognises that prostitution is full of violence, exploitation, and discrimination. In fact, it’s built into the system of prostitution so deeply that prostitution cannot function without it.

Germany has seen a tenfold increase in human trafficking since it liberalised its already legal prostitution system in 2002. If prostitution were so benign as to be a simple agreement between two consenting adults, why are the brothels in Germany needing to bring in so many unwilling and often trafficked women and children to undertake this so-called ‘work’?

To have the EU recognise the harm prostitution causes feels as though, finally, the voices of exited women are being heard, at least somewhere. The sale of women and girls is a horrifying industry, one that’s routinely lied about by those with vested interests in making a profit from those women’s bodies.

Prostitution isn’t about personal agency, as pointed out by the EU resolution – it exists in a framework of extreme inequality based on gender, poverty, and race/nationality. You cannot extract the sale of a woman’s body from the situation that put her there – and in the vast majority of cases, that situation is far from being one of free choice, no matter what the ‘sex work is work’ lobby may say. It’s extremely heartening to see that the EU recognises this. No woman or girl should face losing her human rights, her right to say ‘no’, to safety, to freedom, simply because she needs to earn money.

Well-funded and organised exit programmes are pointed to in the resolution as a crucial tool in helping women who don’t want to be in prostitution to leave. The lack of knowledge of rights and whether exit programmes or support is available, conversely, has been a real barrier to helping prostituted women in the EU, especially those who have been trafficked or who may be in their country of residence illegally. It’s crucial that these barriers are removed.

Far too many women and children in the EU are caught in prostitution, wish to leave, but have no support to do so. The structure of legalised prostitution makes this even harder, when information on support services have to be filtered through brothel owners, pimps and handlers, who have a vested interest in not providing such information to the women and children they control.

The resolution mentions that very few prosecutions have been brought anywhere in the EU against those profiting from the abuse of women and children in prostitution. There needs to be a major sea-change here. At its basis, this is a deeply gender-imbalanced structure with men the vast majority of traffickers, pimps and brothel owners, as well as making up the vast majority of sex buyers.

You cannot recognise the inherent violence of prostitution, the lack of human rights that it causes, and then allow those who arrange it and profit from it to carry on unhindered. No-one in the EU should profit from the rape of women and children – because that’s what prostitution is. Consent obtained by payment (or promise of payment) is not consent at all, as stated very clearly in the resolution. Sex without consent is rape. It is extremely reassuring to see that the EU recognises this.

It finally feels as though we have someone on our side, someone who listens when we speak out about the abuse we face in prostitution, someone who will fight our corner with us, who can change legislation and actually create a safer Europe for women and children.

The resolution also points out that the difference in approaches to legislating prostitution in EU member states has caused a large issue with trafficking across the bloc, and that trafficking is easily and obviously tracked to those states where prostitution is completely decriminalised.

I sincerely hope that after many years of data showing the absolute disaster for women’s rights that German legalisation has created, the German government will finally wake up and listen to exited women, to the thousands of women and children trapped in prostitution, and to the EU. The harm can no longer be hand-waved away.

The facts of legalisation and complete decriminalisation are clear. Women and girls deserve to have the same human rights right across the EU, no matter the country they are from or the EU country they now reside in. This resolution states as such very plainly. It is now up to member states to institute the Nordic (Equality) Model, and to begin giving women and girls those rights in practice.

No more excuses. We’ve waited long enough.

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