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EU: Harmful ‘Prostitution’ Resolution Passes

Most Parliament Members Reject or Abstain From EU-Wide Criminalization

Sex workers wear masks while asking for the clubs where they work not to close, during an event on International Women's Day in Madrid, Spain, March 8, 2023. © 2023 Juan Medina/Reuters

(Brussels) – The European Parliament passed a resolution against “prostitution” on September 14, 2023, but removed some of its most harmful parts, Human Rights Watch said today. Parliament adopted a non-binding report, Regulation of Prostitution in the EU: Its Cross-Border Implications and Impact on Gender Equality and Women’s Rights, but rejected “calls for an EU-wide approach based on the Nordic/Equality model.”

The Nordic model criminalizes the purchase of sex, and its implementation has led to spikes in murder, police abuse, exclusion from social services, and sexual violence for sex workers in European countries that have adopted it. In a successful last-minute procedural move, the European Parliament removed the most harmful references to the Nordic model from the final text. By “splitting” or “separating” votes, certain passages of a motion can be voted on separately and removed from the final text of the report. Sex workers and their allies strongly advocated removing this provision.

“Calling for the purchase of sex to be a criminal offense puts the health and safety of women, queer people, and migrants at risk,” said Erin Kilbride, women’s rights and LGBT rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The fact that the majority of parliament members did not vote in favor of this dangerous resolution signals that they recognize what the data makes clear: criminalization leads to violence against the very people it purports to help.”

A coalition of sex workers rights defenders and their allies, including Human Rights Watch, urged European parliament members to reject the resolution in the run-up to the vote, calling the report “biased and harmful for people selling sex and other vulnerable groups.” The health journal The Lancet also urged parliament members to reject the “misguided” proposal. Although it passed, the majority of members rejected it or abstained, with 234 votes in favor, 175 against and 122 abstentions. This points to a growing understanding of the dangerous impacts of criminalization on sex workers and their rights, Human Rights Watch said.

Several United Nations agencies oppose criminalization, including the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, the World Health Organization, the UN Population Fund, and the UN Development Program. Civil society organizations including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the International Planned Parenthood Federation also oppose criminalization.

An extensive body of evidence demonstrates that criminalization of buying sex harms the rights of sex workers. The 2016 introduction of client criminalization in France caused clients to fear arrest, which forced sex workers into more dangerous locations for street-based work. Ten sex workers were killed in France in a six-month period in 2019.

Research commissioned by the Northern Ireland Department of Justice found “no evidence” that the Nordic model decreased the demand for sexual services after its introduction in 2015, while in the Republic of Ireland a Department of Justice-funded report found 20 percent of sex workers interviewed had been sexually exploited by police and that criminalization “drastically marginalized” an at-risk population.

In April, Human Rights Watch wrote to the Spanish Congress of Deputies, urging members to reject a similar proposed bill that allowed for criminalization and harassment of sex workers using an overly broad definition of pimping. Spain has not yet acted on the bill.

The new European Parliament resolution still contains harmful and misleading statements about sex work, Human Rights Watch said. It makes repeated calls to punish clients, including making it a criminal offense in all EU countries to solicit, accept, or obtain a sexual act from a person in exchange for remuneration, despite extensive evidence of the violent, discriminatory effects of such laws. It also includes dubious claims that trafficking for sexual exploitation is increasing across the EU and “countries that follow approaches like the Nordic/Equality model are no longer big markets for human trafficking for that purpose.” The latest available data sets from the European Commission and Eurostat, respectively, disprove both claims.

“The vote demonstrates that despite the onslaught of anti-rights attacks on sex workers and other marginalized groups, Europe is increasingly in favor of rights-respecting solutions to violence against our communities,” said Sabrina Sanchez, director of the European Sex Workers’ Rights Alliance. “The results show we are not the minority, and that many across the EU believe sex workers deserve human rights.”

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