Violence against sex workers can be curbed – but not with our current policies

Everyone has a right to be protected against violence. Sex workers, however, not only face appalling levels of violent, but their vulnerability has been actively exacerbated by policymaking.

Dec 15, 2023

‘Everyone has a right to be protected against violence,’ explains Dr. Marjan Wijers in a panel discussion organised in 2022 by Volt Europa to mark International Day to End Violence against Sex Workers.

It may sound like a self-evident statement. But sex workers are a group that not only faces appalling levels of violence but for whom European policymaking has actively exacerbated their vulnerability.

While it’s almost impossible to quantify the prevalence of violence against sex workers (in large part due to underreporting), a systematic review has revealed that between 45 and 75% experience violence during their lifetime. Cisgender female sex workers experience more violence than their cis male counterparts, while transgender sex workers are especially at risk, as are BIPOC and migrant sex workers.

We might be inclined to think that sex work is simply dangerous by nature, and violence an inevitable and intractable part. If that were so, we would find that sex workers experience violence equally regardless of the legal context in which they work. But that’s simply not the case. As the Lancet notes, ‘abuses occur across all policy regimes, although most profoundly where sex work is criminalised through punitive law’.

A patchwork of policy approaches

Like much social policy across the EU, legislative frameworks on sex work vary widely.

In the majority of European countries, sex work is legal and either regulated (e.g. Germany, the Netherlands, Greece) or legal and unregulated (e.g. Italy, Denmark, Poland). 

Where sex work is legal but regulated, these regulations may forbid work to be undertaken in specific areas, or require sex workers to meet certain conditions (e.g. registration or medical examination). These regulations may sound benign, but they can result in a two-tier system of legal and illegal work. Complying with the requirements can be difficult or expensive, especially, for example, for undocumented migrants.

Even where sex work is legal and theoretically unregulated, there may still be specific restrictions. In many countries, self-organised forms of sex work are forbidden, a policy which can ultimately leave sex workers isolated and vulnerable.

Elsewhere, sex work remains a criminal offence, either for the seller of sex, the purchaser, or both. A legislative approach which criminalises the purchaser of sex (but not the seller) is also known as neo-abolitionism or the ‘Nordic Model’, so named for Sweden, the first country to introduce the law.

Again, this may not sound unreasonable. But criminalising either party ultimately endangers sex workers – a client who fears prosecution is less likely to provide identifying information or may demand a meeting in a remote location.

Wilfully bad policymaking?

The decriminalisation of sex work has consistently been shown to be the most effective approach to reducing violence against sex workers. It is supported by (amongst others) the WHO, United Nations, Human Rights Watch and the Lancet.

So why is it that Belgium remains the only EU country to have decriminalised sex work? Indeed, rather than following the advice of researchers and renowned human rights bodies, many EU countries have begun to reject legalisation, instead favouring neo-abolitionist policies.

In France until 2016, the selling and buying of sex was considered legal. But in that year, the French Parliament passed a law that criminalised the ‘use of prostitution’. Likewise in Ireland, a widely-criticised 2017 amendment to the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act introduced the crime of paying for ‘the purpose of engaging in sexual activity with a prostitute’. Sweden, the birthplace of the Nordic model, increased custodial sentences for purchasing sex in 2011, while the German opposition party has recently proposed criminalising purchasers of sex.

This national turn towards neo-abolitionism is also reflected at the EU level. Just this year, the European Parliament came perilously close to adopting a Nordic model position on sex work. While this particular demand was voted down, the report still passed with the inclusion of assertions that ‘prostitution’ is a form of gender-based violence and should ultimately be abolished.

This is a key point. We might expect the EP’s position or the regressive laws introduced recently in Western Europe to be the work of conservative legislators, however the EP report was overseen by an S&D MEP, while the French law came into force during the presidency of François Hollande.

Neo-abolitionist policies are predicated on the belief that sex work (usually referred to as ‘prostitution’) is, essentially, a form of violence against women, and that those perpetrating this violence must be punished. There is no denying that there are clear intersections between aspects of sex work and gender inequality: violence against sex workers, for example, exploitation by pimps, or the fact that women tend to find themselves in more economically precarious positions in society in general.

But by failing to unpack the complexity of sex work and conflating it with gender violence or trafficking, policymakers not only negate the agency of sex workers themselves, they introduce policies that actively harm the people they aim to help.

As Evie J of the Black Sex Worker Collective notes in the above mentioned Volt panel, ‘you can never abolish sex work, you can only keep pushing it to the margins, and doing so will just keep endangering sex workers.’

What do sex workers actually need?

Neo-abolitionist policies aren’t being introduced because policymakers want to cause hurt, but because of a flawed understanding of sex work itself. Invariably the best way to understand something is to talk to those involved. When we do that, we find that sex workers, themselves, are against criminalisation.

As a political party that grounds its policymaking in evidence and stakeholder engagement, Volt proposes the complete decriminalisation of sex work across Europe.

But decriminalisation is not a complete solution. To truly empower sex workers, we need to respond to their specific needs.

When Belgium decriminalised sex work in 2022, it also introduced social security provisions for sex workers including unemployment benefits, health insurance and parental leave. This reframing of sex work as a job like any other is vital to protecting the wellbeing of sex workers. It not only creates the practical conditions that enable sex workers to work safely, it helps break down the stigma associated with sex work, a driving factor of violence.

Decriminalisation does not guarantee that sex workers will be free from violence. But combined with a regulatory framework established by those directly involved, it’s the best chance we have for keeping sex workers safe. Let’s hope legislators begin to recognise this.

Article by Kate Fistric.