Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality (FEMM I)
From abolitionism to legalisation: The legal landscape of prostitution varies greatly across the EU, with forced prostitution, underage prostitution and unsafe working conditions still occurring across the Union. What stance should Member States adopt in order to safeguard sex workers’ welfare?Chairperson: Foteini Chatzikyriakou (GR)
Introduction and Relevance
Prostitution, the practice of engaging in sexual activity in exchange for immediate payment, sometimes referred to as “the world’s oldest profession”, arouses strong sentiment. Around the world, attitudes towards it, how and if it should be regulated, vary considerably, and have varied over time.
Sex workers are of all genders, but most of the time female, and are frequently managed by a male procurer, pimp, or the owner of a brothel. Underage and forced prostitution are a huge part of prostitution, and are usually a consequence of human trafficking. During the period 2017-2018, 14 145 victims of trafficking were registered in the 27 Member States, and over half (60 %) of the registered victims were trafficked for sexual exploitation. Children accounted for nearly a quarter (22%) of all registered victims, and 64% of the child victims were trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation, with 78% of them being girls. However, according to the European Commission, the actual number of victims is most likely to be significantly higher than the number registered and reported in these data collections.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), sex workers face an increased burden of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and blood-borne infections. Globally, female sex workers are estimated to be 30 times more likely to be living with HIV than other women of reproductive age.
Not only the physical, but also the mental health of sex workers is affected by working on the sex industry. Sex workers seeking mental health support feel that quality, specialised, non-judgemental and free mental health support is not, but should be, widely available. Mental health care professionals’ lack of knowledge about sex work and their prejudice against sex workers, combined with their insufficient knowledge and preconceptions about other issues that concern many sex workers, such as gender identity, sexual orientation, race and cultural differences, and substance abuse are the main obstacle faced by sex workers in accessing quality mental health care. This is why many sex workers believe that mental health support staff should have sex work experience or be trained by sex workers in order to be able to help other sex workers.
The stereotypes around prostitution are created by cultural and media representations of sex workers and red-light districts, socially conservative ideologies, religious organisations, and certain branches of radical feminism. With the stigma around prostitution being continuously reinforced, prostitutes are being discriminated and socially excluded, and as a result, they are not being heard or taken seriously, so the industry and its problems remain mostly unspoken. Moreover, in countries in which prostitution is illegal, prostitutes do not have access to rights that come with legal employment, such as healthcare and retirement.
International and EU regulations do not take a specific position on prostitution, which leaves the decision up to each country, so the legal and social treatment of prostitution differs widely by country in the European Union. However, it is possible to group the different policies into 5 models, depending on the approach of each Member State: abolitionism (outdoor and indoor prostitution are not prohibited. The State decides to tolerate prostitution and not to intervene in it: prostitution by adults is not subject to punishment, but profiting from another person’s prostitution is criminalised), neo-abolitionism (outdoor and indoor prostitution are not prohibited, but the existence of brothels is), decriminalisation (there are no criminal penalties for prostitution), legalisation (prostitution is both legal and regulated) and prohibitionism (outdoor and indoor prostitution are prohibited and parties involved in prostitution can be liable to penalties, including in some cases, the clients).
However, none of these legislative models seem to be completely effective. The prostitutes themselves believe that the best solution is for sex work to be legalised, get acknowledged as a real profession and be treated like one, since they consider, that only then will they ensure a healthy and safe work environment and safeguard their rights.
Sex tourism, refers to the practice of traveling to foreign countries, with the intention of engaging in sexual activity or relationships in exchange for money. Many EU Member States have become popular destinations for sex tourism, including the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Bulgaria. Sadly, some of the clients travel to these countries to engage in sexual activities specifically with minors. It is a multibillion-dollar industry, organised both within and outside the structured laws and networks, as the World Tourism Organisation of the United Nations(UN) has acknowledged.
The World Health Organisation (WHO), is the UN agency that supports countries in their efforts to ensure human rights for sex workers, and to implement a comprehensive package of HIV and other STI services through community-led approaches
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN Refugee Agency, is a global organisation dedicated to saving lives, protecting rights and building a better future for refugees, forcibly displaced communities and stateless people, and fights against sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment of refugees.
United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund(UNICEF), works on a global and national level and focuses on supporting children and parents. It works directly with children to build their knowledge on how and where to seek help and protection, and with parents, teachers and adults to help them identify signs of abuse and make sure children receive ongoing care.
The Member States, whose legislative approaches on prostitution directly affect not just the sex industry but also the lives of the sex workers.
Brothels are a place where people engage in sexual activity with prostitutes. In countries where owning a brothel is illegal, establishments often describe themselves as massage parlors, bars, strip clubs, body rub parlours, studios, or by some other description. Sex work in a brothel is considered safer than street prostitution, since they “protect” the prostitutes who work for them by making sure that the customers pay or don’t abuse them. However, they often exert control over the workers through intimidation, fear, physical and sexual abuse, rape, torture, and other abusive methods.
The International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe(ICRSE), is a network of sex worker organisations and their allies that work together to support the development of national and international law, policy and practice, which respects and upholds the human and labour rights of sex workers throughout Europe and Central Asia.
The sex workers, the great majority of whom want a world where sex work is recognised as work, where all sex workers are respected and their rights are upheld and where gender, racial, social and economic equality and freedom of movement are a reality enabling individuals to start, continue or leave sex work safely, and free from violence and coercion. However, sex workers do not act alone, but through unions and organisations such as ICRSE and TAMPEP (European Network for the Promotion of Rights and Health among Migrant Sex Workers).
Measures in place
The Optional Protocol on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography is a protocol of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, formally adopted by the United Nations (UN) in 2000. Essentially, this protocol formally requires states to prohibit the sale of children, child prostitution, and child pornography. As of December 2019, 176 states are party to the protocol.
The directive 2011/36/EU of the European Parliament and the European Council on preventing and combating trafficking in human beings and protecting its victims, has been in force since April 5th 2011.
WHO, with the global health sector strategy on sexually transmitted infections, 2016–2021 sets out a vision, goals, targets, guiding principles and priority actions for ending the sexually transmitted infections epidemic as a public health problem.
Questions to think about
- What can be done by the European Union to improve sex workers’ mental and physical health?
- Which legislative model is the most effective one?
- How can it be ensured that no one is forced into sex work?
- How can minors be protected from sex tourism and sexual exploitation?
Links for further research
The European Youth Parliament,
- Concerned by the increased likelihood prostitutes have to experience an unwanted pregnancy, contract an STI or various other illnesses[mfn]The effects of prostitution on a sex workers’ health, WHO: sex workers’ health.[/mfn] due to their unhealthy work environment,
- Recognising that the lack of professional health care can lead sex workers to developing mental health issues [mfn]Sex Work and Mental Health: Access to Mental Health Services for People Who Sell Sex (SWMH)[/mfn],
- Noting with deep concern the lack of harmonisation in the legislative models addressing prostitution among Member States[mfn]The different legislative approaches of the Member States are: abolitionism, neo-abolitionism, decriminalisation, legalisation and prohibitionism.[/mfn],
- Aware of the number of human beings trafficked in the Member States for sexual exploitation[mfn]During the period 2017-2018, 14 145 victims of trafficking were registered in the 27 Member States, and over half (60 %) of the registered victims were trafficked for sexual exploitation(Data collection on trafficking in human beings in the EU).[/mfn],
- Alarmed by the fact that pimps, brothel owners and clients continuously take advantage of sex workers, abusing them psychologically and physically,
- Deeply concerned by the number of children being forced to get involved in the prostitution industry[mfn]Out of the 14 145 victims of trafficking registered during 2017-2018 in the 27 Member States, 22% of them were children, and 64% of the child victims were trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation.[/mfn],
- Emphasising the fact that sex tourism is a multibillion dollar industy, in which minors are involved[mfn]Estimates from ECPAT International show that each year, approximately 250,000 people travel internationally to engage in sex tourism with children and youth and that the industry generates over $20 billion in revenue.[/mfn],
- Bearing in mind that the stigmatisation of prostitution and the stereotypes about it have led to:
- The discrimination of sex workers,
- The sex industry not being sufficiently controlled, monitored or regulated;