This article was written by Marin Scarlett, Campaign and Communications Officer at the European Sex Workers' Rights Alliance (ESWA).
Sex worker rights activists’ success against the ‘Prostitution Report’ was the culmination of months of campaigning – that must continue in the next fight against the Anti-Trafficking Directive.
On 14 September, sex worker rights activists celebrated a partial victory as a resolution against “prostitution” passed unconvincingly in the European Parliament – and with some of its most harmful parts removed.
The European Parliament adopted the report Regulation of Prostitution in the EU: Its Cross-Border Implications and Impact on Gender Equality and Women’s Rights with a minority victory of just 234 in favour, 175 against and 122 abstentions. As such, more MEPs voted to oppose or abstain on the resolution (56%) than voted in favour of it (44%).
Furthermore, calls for an EU-wide introduction of laws that criminalise the purchase of sex were specifically thrown out. These laws, sometimes dubbed the Swedish Model, Nordic Model or Equality Model under its latest rebrand, had previously been part of Paras 9, 22 and 38 of the resolution. Their removal was achieved through a process known as “splitting”, where certain passages of a motion can be voted on separately and thereby removed from the final text of the report if they fail to pass.
This partial victory is the culmination of months of campaigning by sex worker rights activists, including the European Sex Workers’ Rights Alliance and allied organisations. In December 2021, 175 researchers joined forces to denounce the research which formed the basis of this report as methodologically flawed and driven by ideology rather than evidence. In January this year, leading human rights organisations including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and La Strada International launched a series of videos calling on MEPs to reject a criminalisation approach. In June, peer-reviewed medical journal The Lancet published an editorial explicitly calling the European Parliament’s report “misguided” and backing the full decriminalisation of sex work in order to protect the health of sex workers. Several days before the vote, the European Coalition on Sex Workers’ Rights and Inclusion sent an Open Letter calling on MEPs to reject this report.
The results of the vote reflect a significant shift in opinion since the last time EU decision makers debated sex work regulation in 2014, when a similar report was tabled by British Labour MEP Mary Honeyball. Of the MEPs present, those who voted in favour in 2023 decreased by 14% when compared with 2014. Those who voted against rose by 9%, and those who abstained rose by 5%.
These achievements are not without their drawbacks. Despite an unconvincing vote, the report was adopted – and with some extremely harmful passages, including labelling sex work as inherently violent and conflating all sex work with human trafficking. Staggeringly, the report also peddles misinformation. It misinterprets the internationally agreed upon definition of human trafficking as reflected in Article 2 of Directive 2011/36/EU, earning it criticism from anti-trafficking organisations including the European NGO Platform La Strada International. Furthermore, it misrepresents health research to claim that decriminalising only sex workers – but retaining criminalisation of clients – leads to improved health outcomes for sex workers. In fact, the research supports full decriminalisation of sex workers, clients and third parties.
“We in EATG and other organisations support the Open Letter of the European Coalition on Sex Workers’ Rights and Inclusion to Members of the European Parliament Re: Prostitution Report,” says EATG Combination Prevention Programme Chair Harriet Langanke. “The evidence overwhelmingly supports fully decriminalising sex work to reduce transmission of HIV and STIs. That includes clients and third parties as well as the sex workers themselves. This is why health organisations like the WHO, UNAIDS, Médecins du Monde, AAE and EATG oppose any and all forms of criminalisation. To suggest that improved health outcomes can be achieved while retaining laws that criminalise the purchase of sex is to misrepresent the findings of research.”
Sex worker-led organisations have also been highly vocal about the failure of MEPs to meaningfully consult and include sex workers, a crucial step when making laws and policies that govern the lives of any given community.
"Simply meeting us for literally just two hours is not enough,” says ESWA Director Sabrina Sanchez. “When you explain from your experience, from 17 years of doing this work every day in multiple countries across Europe, and from knowing more than 2000 sex workers personally. For representatives to then tell you, with their zero days of experience doing this job, that they don’t believe you, because it doesn't fit with their narrative – that's not meaningful participation.”
The vote comes just two weeks after a landmark victory in the European Court of Human Rights in the case brought by 261 sex workers in France challenging the 2016 Prostitution Act. More than three years after the case was brought, the Court renewed its ruling that the application is admissible – a significant victory afforded to only 5% of applications. Furthermore, their ruling acknowledged the harmful consequences of the Act, which introduced laws criminalising the purchase of sex.
The mixed messages from high-level European institutions reflect intense divisions among Parliamentarians on how to approach the laws and policies that govern sex work. Consensus is not only lacking between parties, but within them; the author of the ‘Prostitution Report’, Maria Noichl, does not even have the support of her own party.
The debate between politicians is one that sees ideology pitted against evidence, as those beholden to the former argue that criminalising the purchase of sex sends an important message about what is and isn’t “acceptable” in society. The evidence, however, consistently finds that these laws cause immense harm to sex workers. This includes increased likelihood of experiencing violence by police and clients, reduced ability to negotiate condom use, criminalisation of those who work together for safety, and impeded access to healthcare, housing, and justice. This mounting body of research comes from a wide range of sources including human rights organisations, public health bodies and academic researchers.
In Norway, 2016 research by Amnesty International found that laws criminalising the purchase of sex had resulted in numerous violations of sex workers’ human rights. Their recommendations explicitly urge the Norwegian government to abandon a criminalisation approach and decriminalise to centre the protection of sex workers’ human rights.
In France, a 2018 study led by Médecins du Monde found that client criminalisation had a detrimental effect on sex workers’ safety, health and overall living conditions. Cases of all kinds of violence have increased, including insults in the street, theft, physical violence and sexual violence.
In Northern Ireland, 2019 research commissioned by the Department of Justice saw dramatic rises in reports of violence against sex workers in the three years following the introduction of laws that criminalise the purchase of sex, including assaults, sexual assaults and threatening behaviour. In Ireland, reports of violent crime against sex workers rose by 92% in the two years following the introduction of these laws. In both countries, these were made via the Ugly Mugs app, which allows sex workers to confidentially report incidents of violence and abuse.
In the Nordic region, research published last year emphasises that people who sell sex are de facto criminalised under laws that criminalise the purchase of sex, through the enforcement of immigration, third-party and fiscal policies. In particular, these laws were found to provide a smokescreen for punitive and racialised policing of people in the sex trade.
In the face of such overwhelming evidence, MEPs beholden to ideology are continuing to pursue criminalisation in the wake of the ‘Prostitution Report’ – and in increasingly harmful ways. Earlier this year, Swedish MEPs seized the opportunity to take over the rapporteur and shadow rapporteur-ship of the Revision of the EU Anti-Trafficking Directive to propose some exceptionally harmful amendments. These pose a huge risk of harming efforts to identify and help victims of trafficking, as well as eroding both the human rights of sex workers and victims of exploitation. On 4 October, seven leading civil society organisations sent an Open Letter urging MEPs to reject these amendments. Unfortunately, the initial vote the following day saw these amendments adopted by the FEMM and LIBE Committees.
While the ‘Prostitution Report’ is ultimately non-binding, the EU Anti-Trafficking Directive poses a greater threat. These amendments are especially dangerous as they could have legal consequences. Sex worker rights activists must celebrate the partial victory achieved in September, and prepare to continue the fight against this new attack.