Prostitution is not work. That, in a nutshell, was the position adopted by MEPs at the plenary session in Strasbourg on Thursday (14 September).
The European Parliament backed a report calling on the European Commission to draw up common guidelines to guarantee fundamental rights for people in prostitution — with 234 votes in favour, 175 against, and 122 abstentions.
They also urged EU member states, which have the power to regulate prostitution, to review existing laws.
“Only if we recognise prostitution as an experience of violence and analyse the structure behind it, can we protect and strengthen women’s rights,” said leading rapporteur German MEP Maria Nochl from the Socialist & Democrats group (S&D) in the debate ahead of the vote.
One of the report’s main arguments is that the asymmetry between national European laws leads to more victims being trafficked for sexual exploitation and creates a breeding ground for organised crime.
To reduce demand for prostitution, MEPs have also called on EU countries to regulate online advertising, which is designed to attract sex buyers.
“Demand for prostitution is what allows it to keep on existing,” conservative Irish MEP Frances Fitzgerald said. “Therefore, buyers should be criminalised as a deterrent”.
The report calls for a common approach to prostitution across the EU, targeting sex buyers, decriminalising those in prostitution, and providing them with the necessary support to leave prostitution.
It also demands the implementation of the so-called ‘Nordic model’, already used in countries such as Sweden, France, and Ireland, to reduce demand and offer exit and reintegration programmes to those who wish to take them up.
This model is not a “fix-all solution” to reduce demand, sex trafficking, violence, or exploitation, acknowledges the report.
However, evidence suggests it has reduced the demand for street prostitution in countries such as Sweden, it adds.
Since 2016, the number of criminal investigations into pimping and trafficking has increased by 54 percent across the EU.
Prostitution is also an issue that primarily affects women, having negative implications for gender equality.
Seven out of 10 individuals in prostitution are migrant women, and three out of four of the 40-42 million people involved in prostitution are between 13 and 25 years old.
“The gender-specific nature of prostitution reflects the prevailing power relations in our society,” reads the report. “Prostitution reproduces and perpetuates stereotypes about women and men”.
The EU Parliament debate echoes an existing division within the feminist movement itself, and the controversy has been on the table since the vote at parliamentary committee level, when a minority of MEPs voted against the S&D group’s report on regulating prostitution.
First, the very fact of talking about prostitution and people in prostitution is a problematic for this group.
These MEPs speak of “sex workers” because the use of the term “prostitutes” contributes to the exclusion of these people from society, including access to health, legal, and social services, they say.
The signatories include MEPs from the Greens, who have expressed strong opposition, as well as liberal lawmakers from Renew Europe and even some in the S&D group itself.
Opposition has also come from campaigners such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the Sex Workers Alliance, who on Monday (11 September) sent a joint letter to MEPs with 10 other organisations urging them to vote against the report.
“This proposal fails to distinguish between conduct that is exploitative, abusive, or coercive, and activity that is personal, practical, and supportive or for the purposes of safety of people selling sex,” reads the letter.