2005-2015 REFLECTING ON TEN YEARS OF SEX WORKERS' RIGHTS IN EUROPE
On 30th of November 2015, the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe organised a seminar on sex workers' rights at the European Parliament to launch our 10 years report on sex workers' rights in Europe and Central Asia: "Nothing about us without us!". A statement about the seminar, sound clips of the different presentations by sex workers, activists and academics, pictures from the event and the report itself are available below.
Statement on ICRSE Seminar "2005-2015: Reflecting on 10 years of sex workers' rights in Europe"
Ten years ago, the Declaration on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe was launched in the European Parliament. Signed by 120 sex workers and 80 allies from 30 European countries, it identified the human, labour and migrant rights that international law grants to all, including sex workers.
To mark the declaration’s 10th anniversary, the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe (ICRSE) hosted a panel discussion to consider the growing evidence against criminalisation of sex work and the past ten years’ positive and negative developments in relation to sex workers’ rights. Among the attendees were representatives of the European Commission, Permanent Representations, members of the European Parliament and civil society groups, such as Transgender Europe, the European Region of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA-Europe), Stop AIDS Alliance, Médecins du Monde and Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants (PICUM).
The event featured inputs from several sex workers and allies. First, Luca Stevenson (listen to his talk here), the coordinator of ICRSE introduced the organisation’s ‘Ten years of sex workers’ rights activism and advocacy in Europe’ report and summarised the key legal and policy shifts in the regulation of sex work over the last decade in Europe and Central Asia.
In the region, sex workers increasingly face laws criminalising all or some aspects of their work, ranging from direct criminalisation through penalisation in accordance with administrative laws to introducing state or municipal by-laws and police practices that arbitrarily target them. As a consequence, sex workers are subjected to police raids, fines, detention, imprisonment in many countries of the region.
According to the ICRSE coordinator, sex workers’ health, safety and work environments are also threatened by laws criminalising their clients. The Swedish Model’s original proclaimed aim to boost gender equality and prevent the trafficking of human beings has not only proven inefficient in accomplishing any of these goals but had also increased the vulnerabilities of sex workers to violence, HIV and stigma. Worryingly, the Swedish Model has nevertheless gained considerable recognition and support among members of the European Parliament and national governments.
Another negative trend that can be witnessed in some parts of the region is an increased tendency to limit sex work by subjecting it to meticulous and coercive state control. Over the last decades, several countries across Europe introduced laws rendering sex work legal, while at the same time entangling it in a dense web of regulations which frequently undermine sex workers’ dignity and rights. These include mandatory registration and HIV and STI testing, restrictions on the location, number and rules of operation of sex work businesses, as well as laws determining who may provide sexual services and under what conditions. Sex workers who do not comply with the regulations are facing punishment in the form of administrative or criminal sanctions.
Stevenson also stressed the necessity to re-affirm the sex worker rights movement’s rallying cry for recognising ‘sex work as work’ by emphasising the precarious nature of labour in the sex industry. Recognising that sex workers may choose sex work out of very limited options does not mean that they are barely victims of patriarchy or capitalist exploitation in need of rescuing. On the contrary, sex workers, like all other citizens and workers in an increasingly unequal society, exercise agency and organise for their rights. For more than forty years now, sex worker groups have engaged fiercely in the struggle for the decriminalisation of sex work, freedom from oppression and discrimination, and the protection of sex workers’ human rights. Furthermore, they also mobilised on the European and international level and achieved that sex work decriminalisation is now supported as a best practice legal model by several United Nations agencies, Human Rights Watch and most recently Amnesty International.
The following speaker, Boglarka Fedorko (listen to her talk here), a representative of Transgender Europe and the Communications Officer of SZEXE, a Hungarian sex work group, addressed the situation of trans sex workers, a group hit hard by discrimination and hate crimes globally and in Europe. Transgender Europe’s work focuses - among other areas - on the intersectional violence targeting trans sex workers. According to its research, every 36 hours a trans person is reported murdered in the world. Since the organisation began tracking deaths at the beginning of 2008, a total of 1,933 trans people were reported killed in 64 countries. Fedorko stressed that while any trans person from any background can fall victim to murder, the patterns of such crimes are anything but random. Of the reported murders since 2008, 99 percent of the victims were female-identified trans people, and 65 percent of those whose occupation was known were sex workers.
Fedorko also showcased the experience of mobilising for sex workers’s rights and reclaiming criminalised spaces in Hungary. In the Central-European country sex work has been legal since 2000, however the vague legislation gives power to police as the main regulator of street sex work, which results in the everyday practice of arbitrary fines and arrests. According to Fedorko, in 2012 alone, more than 14.000 misdemeanor cases were initiated against sex workers in the country. This extremely negative consequence of the coercive legalisation primarily affect Roma street-based sex workers with little means to challenge police and judiciary practices.
In the remaining of the event, the conflation of sex work, migration and trafficking has been in focus. Thierry Schaffauser, a long-standing sex worker activist and the Advocacy Officer of ICRSE presented his work with researcher Nic Mai on migrant sex workers in the UK and France. (Professor Nic Mai was unable to attend the event due to technical reasons but his presentation can be accessed here.) The most striking result of these research projects was the low ratios of victims of trafficking identified in the sex industry (in both countries, under 10 per cent), which was in stark contrast to what is represented in the media and mainstream debates on sex work in both countries. Furthermore, in the French study 98 per cent of sex workers, including those who identified as victims of trafficking, opposed the criminalisation of clients. Schaffauser reiterated that trafficking is often a politicaly created framework to deny the rights of sex workers, especially of migrant origin.
Schaffauser also emphasised that in France, undocumented migrants are exposed to high levels of police harassment, which prevents migrant sex workers - and victims of trafficking - from seeking help from law enforcement authorities as they want to avoid the risk of deportation. A trend Schaffauser also observes in the French context that the police has resources for anti-trafficking raids but no competence in distinguishing between sex work and exploitation and providing victims’ assistance, which he finds also extremely problematic. From a broader percpective, the trafficking framework is also popular in policy-making because it gives the possibility to point out certain criminals, ‘bad people doing bad things’ responsible for committing this human right abuse and erases poverty, economic and gender inequalities as the roots causes for migration to be considered.
Lastly, Pye Jakobsson (listen to her talk here), the president of the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP) and the co-founder of Rose Alliance, the Swedish sex worker organisation talked about the stigmatising discourse on sex work in the country. She gave a brief account of how social stigma was systematically fuelled, going back to the 1970ies, when sex workers were first interviewed by psycho-analysts. This initial and a later study from the 1990ies depicted sex workers as mentally unhealthy, psychologically disturbed and bad mothers. At the same time, clients from the 90ies on became symbols of gender inequality and violence against women. After the introduction of the law in 1999, the sex worker representation became even more stereotypical and the image of the female sex worker being violated was interpreted as hurting the whole of society, making it impossible for equality to happen and did not primarily focus on protecting ‘victims’.
Ever since the law was enacted, sex workers have been labelled as suffering from a form of self-harm, lacking insight, romanticising prostitution and mentally ill. These images have allowed for different actors to talk about the sex industry as ‘genital trade’ or ‘gender trade’ and use words such as ‘whore’ and ‘fuck-doll’ on government-financed publications. Police training materials on recognising victims of trafficking similarly use unacceptable language and trigger discriminatory practices: for instance one material lists ‘country of origin’ of the potential victim as one of the signs to look out for when identifying trafficked persons.
The final words from the panel came from Marisa Matias, member of European Parliament from the GUE Party and leading figure of the Left Bloc party in Portugal. Matias, a strong supporter of sex workers’ rights who had voted against the Honeyball report calling for the criminalisation of clients spoke eloquently of the needs of political parties, trade unions and society at large to listen to all workers, including the most precarious. Taking example from Portugal, where austerity measures had a profound effect on communities, Matias reaffirmed her support for the self-organisation of sex workers and the needs for member states to strengthen social benefits rather than looking at punitive measures to “end demand or abolish sex work”.
Speakers’ inputs were followed by a short Q&A, where several civil society groups expressed their continuous support to sex workers and where ICRSE and sex worker attendees repeated the importance of putting sex workers at the heart of policy-making at the European level.
Click on the cover below for the full report.