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ICRSE Report Brussels

Originally published in $PREAD Magazine Volume 1, issue 4

ICRSE Report: European Sex Workers Gather in Brussels to Strategize and Demand Rights

I was raised in a very political home. We talked about human rights violations at breakfast, discussed gay rights over lunch, and had dinner conversations about racism. Needless to say, I was very aware of my rights at an early age. After only a few years of sex work, however, I started noticing that, even though I was perfectly happy with my life, I was expected to behave and feel in a way I couldn’t quite identify with. Worst of all, the social stigma connected to sex work started to have a negative effect on my personal life. Out of instinct I started discussing sex work in public. At first I stuck to subjects directly relevant to my own experience with escorting and striptease, and never discussed other areas of sex work as I felt I knew too little about them and frankly wasn’t really interested.

In 1999, my whole perspective on what I could and needed to do as a sex worker activist changed drastically when the Swedish government endorsed the legislation now known as the “Swedish model,” which criminalizes clients (but not prostitutes). I was stunned when the law was accepted without any real debate, as I was sure it would have an extremely negative effect, especially on the situation of street prostitutes. Suddenly, a sense of solidarity kicked in and I realized that it didn’t matter that I’d never worked on the streets – my opinions were still valid and important. Before I knew it, I was being asked to speak about the subject on an international level.

Two years ago, I received an email from a group of Dutch sex worker activists asking sex workers from around Europe if they wanted to participate in organizing a European conference on sex work, and there was no doubt in my mind that this was something I wanted to be a part of. After endless meetings we defined what we wanted to accomplish with the conference. Our vision was to unite sex workers from all over Europe in a discussion about our situation and to strategize on the best ways to assure that our fundamental rights would be respected. The International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe (ICRSE) was established and the European conference on Sex Work, Human Rights, Labour, and Migration was planned to take place in Brussels, Belgium on October 15-17, 2005.

Six months prior to the conference I was in Finland and had a long conversation with Sabina, a colleague of mine. I wanted her to apply to the conference, as she had already done some activism on the national level. She felt very unsure about how she would be able to contribute. I told her, “You know that guilt thing we all carry around? How society forces us to believe that we’re supposed to feel shame and guilt because of work, and then we add to it ourselves by blaming every bad choice, relationship and experience we’ve ever had on our profession? Well all that guilt will be considered valid experience, so you really have a reason to be there.”

In the third weekend of October in 2005, the dream became reality when 120 sex workers from twenty-six countries gathered in Brussels for three days. The diversity was nearly overwhelming: transgender escorts from France, street prostitutes from the Czech Republic, women from a brothel in Madrid, porn actresses from Finland, British strippers, and male whores from Switzerland. The experiences and personalities were as varied as the participants, but we all had one thing in common: a wish to be heard.

Besides the topic, the conference didn’t differ that much from other conferences. We had panel debates, workshops, and lunches. We discussed issues relevant to our trade, including legislation, labor rights, and migration issues. I met many fantastic people as well as some that mostly irritated me. Experiences were exchanged and everybody learned something new.

During the second day of the conference representatives from different groups and non-governmental organizations such as Amnesty International, Global Labour Institute (GLI) and the Office for Democratic Institution and Human Rights (OSCE) joined us. Together we discussed the situations of sex workers in Europe, and we managed to develop and unite on the Declaration on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe, based on principles of global human rights. In Europe today human rights are often seen as guaranteed, but the reality is quite different. One of the fundamental human rights according to the United Nations declaration is the right to marry and have a family, but this right is not often protected for sex workers. In Greece, where prostitution is legalized and recognized as a profession and sex workers are registered, a worker will lose his license to work if he or she gets married. In France the child of a sex worker, when reaching the age of majority, might be prosecuted with “living off” the sex worker’s earnings in spite of “the right to be free from arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy, family, home or correspondence and from attacks on honor and reputation.” “The right to work, to free choice of employment and to just and favourable conditions of work and protection against unemployment” is also accepted as a fundamental human right. Even so, sex workers in Finland and Sweden risk prosecution (for procuring) if they choose to run a business with a colleague. Sex workers are also the only group of workers subjected to mandatory sexual health and HIV screenings in several European countries.

On the evening of the second day we had a party and my friend Sabina was a success hosting it - or so I’ve heard as I was sleeping instead of dancing. From what I was told everybody enjoyed themselves very much; it was a tired-looking bunch of people in the hotel lobby the next morning. On the third day, we took buses to the European Parliament, where we were escorted into a huge plenary hall, which looked just like it does on TV. We presented the Declaration on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe and there was a huge ovation as an Italian politician became the first European parliamentarian to sign the document.

Afterwards, we demonstrated in the streets of Brussels. In previous demonstrations the majority of the sex workers have chosen to hide their faces, so we had brought lots of masks. But this time the masks weren’t used because no-one seemed to be bothered by the consequences; maybe we just forgot that we are supposed to be invisible. My French colleague carried a sign that said “Sex workers use condoms, and you?” and in front of me there was a women with stickers glued to her jacket. One of them read, “Be nice to a prostitute.”

I went home to Stockholm happy but tired, very proud but with an empty feeling in my stomach. The conference took such a long time to plan, and was over way too fast. My father asked me what had been the best moment of the conference but I couldn’t really answer. Little did I know that the best was yet to come. Very soon “thank you” mail started coming from participants, and I started getting a sense of how important our work had been. We had actually accomplished something quite amazing that had inspired a lot of people and that eventually will lead to even greater things. Three days after I got home, I received a short email from Sabina that said it all: “Of course you were right. All my guilt is gone!”

Pye Jakobson is thirty-seven years old and lives in Stockholm, Sweden. She’s been a sex worker for eighteen years, an activist for eleven years, and is also working as a freelance writer. If your government is even mentioning the Swedish model, she’ll get on the next plane to help you fight it.

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