Turning the Tide: Sex workers stand for their rights at the European Parliament

Turning the Tide: Sex workers stand for their rights at the European Parliament

On Thursday 13 October, sex workers stood for their rights at the European Parliament.

Europe is facing a crisis. Amidst housing shortages, economic stagnation and rampant inflation exacerbated by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, more people are set to turn to selling sex in order to keep a roof over their heads and feed their families.

The political response should not be founded on carceral solutions. Criminalisation does not widen the limited options available to already vulnerable people or reduce the potential harms they face. Instead, it exacerbates their financial precarity, increases their risk of experiencing violence and impedes their access to justice and healthcare services.

“There is an urgent situation in Spain that needs European attention right now,”  said Kali Sudhra from OTRAS, the first sex worker union in Spain. “The Spanish socialist government has introduced a new draft law to criminalise clients. This will only hurt sex workers. It puts us in dangerous, precarious situations and increases poverty.”

“Criminalisation of clients fails and instead even exacerbates vulnerabilities of the most marginalised sex workers, many times by the same authorities that are supposed to serve and protect,” added European Sex Workers’ Rights Alliance (ESWA) Coordinator Sabrina Sanchez, echoing Sudhra.

The recent political changes in Belgium demonstrates that a different approach is possible. The COVID-19 crisis laid bare sex workers’ vulnerabilities and triggered an extraordinary show of mass solidarity. Politicians in Belgium began listening to the struggles of sex workers and subsequently voted in March to fully decriminalise sex work.

“I am proud to say that the oldest job in the world - as the cliché goes - is now the newest protected job in Belgium,” said Vincent Van Quickenborne, the Belgian Minister of Justice. “We are grateful to [Belgian sex worker union] Utsopi for working with us. Their advice led us to decriminalisation, not legalisation. The latter is well-intended but creates extra barriers, starting on the wrong foot by telling sex workers they are outside of the law. Decriminalisation turns that paradigm around. Sex workers are within the law. Exploiters and abusers are outside the law.”

Justice minister Mr. Van Quickenborne further stressed that he is committed to promote full decriminalisation throughout the entire EU.  “Sex workers deserve equal protection everywhere.” he added. “I ask all MEPs here today to support decriminalisation.”

Evelyne Paradis, President of ILGA-Europe, expressed support for sex workers’ struggles and launched a European Coalition on Sex Workers' Rights and Inclusion that unites 15 European and global level civil society organisations in denouncing criminalisation of sex work as a solution. “Engaging in discussion on sex worker rights was crucial learning for us. We were forced to see the power dynamics that we hadn’t fully recognised in society. We had to engage more meaningfully, deeply and seriously into the discussion around deeply-seated structural socio-economic inequalities that exist and persist.”

MEP Sophie in ‘t Veld (Renew), who hosted the event, noted that European institutions should be more inclusive of voices of people for whom the policies are designed. “The hypocrisy is unpalatable,” she said. “We need to talk with sex workers, not about them.” In ’t Veld added that there are allies across the political fractions in the European Parliament supporting sex workers rights that she is ready to bring together. 

A European report on ‘prostitution’ scheduled for publication early next year is expected to push for laws criminalising the purchase of sex. This model has been denounced by the World Health Organisation, United Nations and Amnesty International. 

The harms of these laws were echoed by MEPs Monika Vana (Group of Greens/EFA), Clare Daly (GUE/NGL) and Cyrus Engerer (S&D). The discussion triggered an intense outpouring of emotion in the room as most of the audience were sex workers, with direct experience of consequences of this model.  

The event was live-streamed and can be viewed here.

Today’s event concluded ESWA’s first Congress. This inaugural and groundbreaking event welcomed approximately 200 participants, including sex workers and allies, from all over the world. Events included nearly 30 workshops, a Book Fair and a Public Conference. A full programme can be found here.

Please direct media enquiries to ESWA Communications Officer Marin Scarlett: [email protected]


Let’s keep in touch

Subscribe to stay informed about new campaigns, policy briefings and resources, events and other activities you can get involved with.