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Decriminalised prostitution systems are a cancer, and it has spread to the European Union and the Council of Europe

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When the Council of Europe’s Human Rights Commissioner, Dunja Mijatović, released a statement on February 15th calling for the full decriminalisation of pimping, brothel-keeping and all forms of third-party profiteering, she claimed to have “consulted with sex workers across Europe, their representative organisations, relevant international organisations and experts…” - writes Rachel Moran.

This came as news to those of us stakeholders involved in organisations made up of sex trade survivors, frontline service providers, women’s rights campaigners and legal experts focused on combatting the harms of the global sex trade. It was news because none of us were consulted.

As bizarre as it will sound to some people, there is nothing new in the promotion of pimping under the banner of human rights principles; it is obviously counterintuitive, but we in the women’s rights movement have been listening to it for years. There are many loops of logic one must jump through to follow this line of thinking, but an essential first is the fiction that being mauled, licked, sucked and penetrated by random strangers is not a violation in itself.

Many women have campaigned for years against the global sex trade. Some of us, like myself, have been used in the brothels and the red-light zones. Many others have not. What unites us all is the vision that what the world needs is a system of partial decriminalisation, where those exploited in prostitution are decriminalised, while the pimps who enjoy vast profits and the punters who enjoy buying sexual access to the bodies of vulnerable women are held legally accountable for their abusive and exploitative behaviour.

We have seen for years now the creative backlash from the profiteers of an exploitative trade that must reinvent itself against the backdrop of legislative progress made in this area by sex trade survivors and women’s rights organisations. The mantle of ‘human rights’ was probably both the least appropriate and the most influential position from which they could have chosen to argue. Every now and then though, the mask slips in a fashion so dramatic as to be entertaining, like when Amnesty International was questioned in Stormont in 2014 about the involvement of British pimp Douglas Fox in framing their prostitution policy, or when high profile ‘sex workers rights’ advocate and advisor to UNAIDS policy Alejandra Gil was convicted of sex trafficking in Mexico on a raft of charges so numerous and serious they landed her a fifteen-year sentence in a Mexican prison.

Not all those who argue for a decriminalised sex trade are driven by an obvious personal self-interest. Some are driven by career interests in academia, which are not so apparent to the casual observer, but are at least as despicable as the motives of the pimps, in my view. Others argue from an ignorant but genuinely well-intentioned perspective for a blanket decriminalisation of all aspects of the global sex trade. However well-intentioned, it is not possible to take this stance without disappearing the abusive nature of what is done to women in prostitution. Only in that dramatically blinkered way, when ideology rules the day and the actual reality of what is happening to women’s bodies, spirits and psyches is ignored, can this position make sense. It is not lost on me that this is dehumanisation manifesting in yet another form. The sex trade is riven with it; why would the arguments to defend it have any different flavour?

I’ve never come across an argument calling for the full decriminalisation of all aspects of prostitution that was not heaving with practical inaccuracies, linguistic inversions and calculated concealments. Ms Mijatović’s statement is a good example of this. In it she notes that “Belgium became the first European country to decriminalise sex work in 2022” before going on to laud this move as a new beacon of progressive legislation, offering the example that “The new law also decriminalises third parties, who will no longer be penalised for opening a bank account for sex workers or renting out accommodation, and it allows sex workers to advertise their services.” She never mentions why a supposedly autonomous woman in prostitution would need a pimp to open a bank account on her behalf, or the rates charged to women to rent out rooms in which to be used, often so exploitatively exorbitant that they must be used by seven or eight men before they even cover that day’s rent.

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I returned from Belgium on February 11th, just days before this statement was released. I’d gone there on a fact-finding mission, to conduct four pre-planned interviews and to walk, accompanied, around the red-light zone. It is situated in walking distance of the European Parliament. What I saw there was disturbing beyond words or measure. Scores and scores of near naked women in windows, lining the entire side of one very long street, and many more women in the side-streets connected to it and the streets beyond that, and pre-pubescent boys playing in those side-streets, as if playing amongst women displayed as sex objects for hire was a natural or healthy environment for children; as if ingraining the understanding of women as sexual merchandise in the minds of boys could create anything but violence and misogyny in the men they will become.

The women I’d gone there to interview covered various areas of expertise. Ms Viviane Teitelbaum, Vice President of the Brussels Regional Parliament, had this to say about her political colleagues who colluded to create the situation in which Belgium now finds itself: “Politicians who voted for decriminalisation did not listen to women. They voted for a system that’s good for pimps, for traffickers, for some men... They ignored all the warnings, they ignored all the messages, from women’s organisations, from women who came to testify in Parliament. They just listened to representatives of a system that’s making money out of women’s poverty.”

Pascale Rouges, prostituted for many years in Belgium, said “You give yourself body and soul. That’s the job, if you could call it a job. You really give your whole body; nothing belongs to you and you lose your soul. I want to ask these politicians if they would like this as an option for their own kids?”

Alyssa Ahrabare is the Legal Lead of the Brussels-based European Network of Migrant Women, a platform of over fifty organisations working across twenty-three European Union countries. I ask about the profile of women in prostitution across Europe; she tells me that 70% of the women prostituted in Europe are migrant women. She says: “The reality of prostitution for the majority of women in prostitution is nothing but violence. We speak a lot about freedom of choice and freedom of sexuality; that’s not what prostitution is about. Women and girls in prostitution are denied their desire and their individuality and humanity.”

Mireia Cresto, Executive Director of Brussels-based frontline service Isala, says “It is evident that the new legislation has created a pull factor on the sex trade: pimps and sex traffickers know that the Belgian territory is now favourable for their profits. On the frontline, for the women and girls affected by the system of prostitution, decriminalisation brings neither status nor additional protection, since in order to convict a pimp, one must prove that there has been an abnormal profit or advantage.” An abnormal profit or advantage, that is, above and beyond the regular business of pimping.

The decision of the Belgian government to allow the free-for-all of human rights violations that I witnessed on the streets of Brussels demonstrates the deadly disconnect between ivory tower thinking and the reality on the ground. What’s even more disturbing is the Council of Europe’s Human Rights Commissioner involving herself in a coordinated and determined push to spread decriminalised sex trades across Europe.

The truth of decriminalised prostitution systems is that they are a cancer on this earth, and in Europe the first cells have shown up in two very important political structures, the European Union and the Council of Europe. The years to come will show us the mettle of our politicians, in whether they will determinedly excise the tumour, or allow this destructive social cancer to spread across the continent itself.

Rachel Moran is a women’s rights campaigner, author, and Director of International Policy & Advocacy at the International Centre on Sexual Exploitation, a subsidiary of the National Center on Sexual ExploitationOn X: @NCOSE.

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