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Research4sexwork Brussels 2005

European Conference on Sex Work, Human Rights, Labour and Migration 2005

Originally published in Research 4 Sex Work issue 9

“I found it a must for all people working on trafficking. We only see one side of the picture and spend half our time also having to do business with the abolitionists. It was therefore a real education and the lessons learnt are already being put to good use!” (Poland)

“It was a wonderful opportunity to meet sex workers from other countries even out of Europe, and that was so interesting, I’ve been learning so much...Even if we sometimes had some "conflicts" here and there, I really felt a union those two days, and it is so motivating.” (France)

“It gave just the empowerment that we need here in Finland to fight against the Swedish model.” (Finland)

The European Conference on Sex Work, Human Rights, Labour and Migration, October 15 – 17 2005, Brussels Belgium, was the end result of more than two years of collaboration between the 15 sex workers and allies from several European countries who made up the organising committee. One of our main ambitions was to stage an event that would create enthusiasm for greater collaboration and reaffirm the need for broad-based political activism promoting the rights of sex workers in Europe and internationally. Was this achieved? In a word, yes but it is the participant’s commitment and energy that must be thanked for this.

Who were these fantastic people? It was always the intention that the majority of participants would be sex workers. 120 sex worker and 80 ally participants travelled from 30 different countries. People came on their own, or representing an organisation. There were female, male and transgender sex workers who have worked or are working on the street, independently, in massage parlours or brothels, dancers and more. There were sex worker organisations, sex work projects, migrant organisations, people working in the, human rights, labour rights or anti-trafficking fields, representatives from labour unions that have recognised the labour rights of sex workers, grassroots activists, and many from other NGOs.

Celebration! Day One was a day for sex workers only and although there was tremendous background support from our allies on this day it was really an opportunity for sex workers to meet each other, to work together on the Sex Workers in Europe Manifesto and to network. Although the intention was to endorse the Manifesto that evening there was such a commitment to getting the text right that a group of people worked well into the evening and the document was endorsed unanimously the next day.

Connection! Day Two brought sex workers and allies together. This day focussed on sharing knowledge with each other and linking the long history of political work around prostitution to the political work being done in the fields of human rights, labour and migrant rights. To remind us of this history Gail Pheterson and Margot St James made a presentation that had everyone in tears; powerful. Looking back to the first and second World Whore’s Congresses in 1985 and 1986 Gail and Margot celebrated with us what must be seen as pivotal moments in sex worker movement politics.

The work that was done collectively on the Declaration on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe expressed the sentiment of this day. Sex Workers do not see their lives in isolation from the rest of humanity and the world cannot, with any conscience, ignore or abuse their human rights. Allies played an extremely important role in helping to shape this document into a powerful lobby tool.

Challenge! On the final day of the conference we took ourselves en masse armed with our newly endorsed declaration and manifesto, and the conference recommendations, to the European Parliament. There we proudly occupied the meeting rooms arranged for us by Monica Frassoni, Italian MEP, Greens – European Free Alliance. Locating a politician who was willing to publicly support and sign a document created by sex workers was not easy so there was an excited buzz when the Declaration was endorsed and signed by Vittorio Angoletto, Italian MEP, Confederal Group of the European United Left –Nordic Green Left.

This day was about challenging all European governments to accountability in their treatment of all people working in the sex industry. Our challenge did not stop there though. We held a press conference at the parliament and as a closing event we took to the streets of Brussels, making a very public and very colourful statement. At the demonstration everyone carried red umbrellas. The Red Umbrella, originally used by sex workers demonstrating in Venice, Italy, is a "symbol of beauty and resistance to humans' and sky's attacks, red”.

So what’s happening next? We always hoped that the conference would be a starting point for a stronger sex workers’ movement in Europe. During the conference we decided that a network, with both sex workers and allies, should be established to facilitate and strengthen future activism. A lot of amazing work is happening on a national level in the different European countries, but if we can share information faster and start working across national borders we will achieve even more.

If you are interested in learning more about the conference or would like to contact the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe (ICRSE) please visit our website at

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