Sex workers in Belgium celebrate historic vote for Decriminalisation in parliament

Source (institute/publication)

Sex workers in Belgium are celebrating a historic vote in parliament that will result in an amendment to the country’s Penal Code and the laws on sex work. NSWP member organisation Utsopi wrote about the news on their website, declaring “The decriminalisation of sex work in Belgium was approved by the Federal Parliament on March 18 at 1:35 a.m.” The Federal Parliament voted in favour of this rights-affirming legal reform with 70 for, 41 abstentions and just 4 against. When the new laws are enacted, it will make Belgium the first country in Europe to decriminalise sex work.

The current legal situation for sex work in Belgium means that it is tolerated and regulated at a local level. The laws however are restrictive, with a mismatch of different laws and policies in each local area, and sex workers are not able to benefit from appropriate legal, social or employment protection.

Utsopi outlined the proposed changes to the law, which we have summarised below.

“1. Regarding services to sex workers: third parties are no longer criminalised. Opening a bank account, creating a website, offering insurance and renting out a space to sex workers can no longer lead to prosecution. Self- employed sex workers are given the same rights as other self-employed people.

2. Regarding advertising: Advertising remains prohibited, with these exceptions:

  • If you advertise your own services
  • If you advertise for sexual services or for a place where sexual services are offered (e.g. a club) on an internet platform or on another medium (e.g. a designated section in a newspaper) that exists especially for this purpose. This means that advertising for sex work in public places (posters in bus stops, billboards on the motorway,...) is not allowed.
  • The internet platform must demonstrate that it is making reasonable efforts to combat the abuse of prostitution and trafficking in human beings. Cases of abuse and trafficking must be immediately reported to the police and judicial authorities.

3. Regarding running a business: Pimping is prohibited, but is strictly defined to be able to distinguish between economic and respectful organisation on the one hand and exploitation on the other. Pimping is: organising the sex work of another to benefit oneself, except in the cases provided for by the law...

4. Public incitement to sex work: It remains prohibited to incite people publicly to prostitution by means of advertising. This applies, for example, to the advertising of paid dating sites at the entrance to a university. Using any means whatsoever to incite someone in public to prostitution is punishable. The law clarifies here that this means offering dinners, gifts or other lures.

5. The impossibility of declaring a contract null and void: This is another law that was already approved in the Federal Parliament a few weeks before the decriminalisation. Before this law, in case of a conflict between a sex worker and an operator that came before the courts, it was possible for the operator to ask the court to declare the contract null and void.

According to the Civil Code in Belgium, sex work is not in accordance with public morals, therefore any contract with a sex worker cannot be legally valid. This meant that the sex worker not only lost the lawsuit, but also all social rights that were accumulated under this contract (pension, holiday, sick leave, ...). Since this law, approved by the Federal Parliament on 17 February 2022, declaring a sex worker's contract null and void is no longer possible.”

The European Sex Workers Rights Alliance (ESWA) also celebrated the news, taking to Twitter to say: “This victory is the culmination of many years of work by sex workers and allies in the difficult context of the COVID pandemic. Belgian lawmakers clearly rejected the failed Swedish Model and listened to sex workers. While we await further details, we are delighted at the progress made and join in the celebrations of our members and allies.”

The implementation date of the changes to the Penal Code is still to be confirmed, with an expected transition period of around 3.5 months between the publication of the law and the moment it enters into force. The existing policy of ‘tolerance’ will remain in place until the new law is in place. The amendments to the Penal Code on “pimping” mirror existing Belgian laws on human trafficking. Those guilty of exploitation in sex work will be liable for prosecution and subject to the same penalties as those guilty of exploitation in any other work sector.   

A Committee being set up to adapt the Belgian Labour laws. This Committee, which is comprised of “competent ministers, the sex workers’ sector and the representatives of victims of trafficking or abuse of prostitution”, will make recommendations for the conditions that will be imposed on the operators (not the sex worker) of sex work businesses to ensure they are ‘respecting the labour code’ or be liable to prosecution for ‘pimping’ or under trafficking laws. The Committee is due to report by the end of 2022.

The four ministers and cabinets who are responsible for the drafting of this new Labour law are in dialogue with Utsopi. The ministers are taking a rights-based approach, including the intention to limit regulation so it is in line with other work sectors, and not unfair or overly restrictive.

It is likely that there will be continued resistance in Parliament from anti-sex work proponents. Overregulation of the sector or making running a business impossible would drive sex workers underground, increasing their risks and denying them access to healthcare and justice. This situation will then be used by opponents as evidence that decriminalisation doesn’t work. 

The decriminalisation of sex work in Belgium will be of historic significance in the European context. It marks a clear departure of the recent trend towards ‘end demand’ models that criminalise the purchase of sex, and make sex workers more vulnerable to violence, discrimination and exploitation.