The long fight for the recognition of sex work


Sex workers had been expecting it for a long time, but for those opposed to it, the announcement had no less of a sting: on 6 April, the French National Assembly, not without difficulty, adopted the Scandinavian model of penalising the customers of prostitution, after two and a half years of heated debate.

Whilst many abolitionist feminist associations rejoiced, for the majority of those most directly concerned, the prostitutes – men and women – the move will not succeed in bringing an end to prostitution but represents a real threat for sex workers.

As denounced by the French sex workers’ union, the STRASS, in a declaration co-signed by around a hundred associations, including Médecins du Monde and the French human rights league, LDH, these workers risk finding themselves being driven underground and into danger.

"By targeting the clients, it is the prostitutes’ livelihood that is being cut off, pushing them into an ever-more precarious situation. A fall in the number of customers risks driving prostitutes to accept practices they previously would have refused, such as sex without a condom," Luca Stevenson, coordinator of the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe (ICRSE) and a sex worker himself, tells Equal Times.

In Sweden and Norway, where this model has been in place for several years, the results are not as encouraging as the governments would have us believe, according to Stevenson:

"In Sweden, street prostitution has been shifted indoors, and the number of Thai massage parlours has tripled in Stockholm. In Norway, a report assessing the impact of the legislation recognises that the situation of sex workers is more precarious, their income has fallen, so they find it more difficult to negotiate with the customers, and they turn less to the police, for fear of the repercussions. So the fact that they are more vulnerable is considered a success."

The criminalisation of the customers does not, apparently, improve the social and economic situation of sex workers, any more than the criminalisation of prostitution itself does, according to the ICRSE. In fact, sex workers are not seemingly thrilled with any of the models currently in place in Europe.

The "legalisation" model in German or the Netherlands is closer to the type of regulation the sector would like to see, but the ICRSE points out that it gives too much power to those running the brothels and not enough to the workers.

It is, in fact, New Zealand’s model that has won the almost unanimous support of sex workers, and the UN.

The decriminalisation, in 2003, of sex work in New Zealand has enabled male and female prostitutes to work together in "small self-managed parlours rather than in mega-brothels like in Germany", explains Stevenson. "Street work is no longer forbidden" and, above all, given that sex work is no longer a crime, the profession is now able to "see the police not as an enemy but as an ally".

Reports published by the New Zealand government reveal an improvement in prostitutes’ working conditions, as well as in their security and their health and safety. It has also been noted that the number of prostitutes has not increased.

The only snag is that the model does not resolve the issue of migrant and undocumented sex workers, which are systematically faced, virtually all over the world, with a twofold stigma: that of prostitution and migration.


Social rights and sex work

Regardless of the model in place, sex trade activists above all want states to ensure decent working conditions for prostitutes, especially given that, whether they work in an abolitionist or regulatory country, they have to pay taxes.

In Belgium, where the sale of sex is not prohibited (only soliciting and procuring are) but the trade is not recognised, prostitutes operating as "self-employed" workers (those working as employees often being classed as "waitresses"), are obliged to register for tax under one of the rare occupations not subject to VAT, such as a masseuse, an escort or… a farm labourer.

Others, like Marie who works in a "window room" in Brussels, do not declare any occupation, just some annual income, so as not to arouse the taxman’s suspicion.

But sex workers have nothing in terms of social rights, aside from the minimal mutual medical cover, like everyone else.

They have no maternity leave, no retirement benefits, no sick pay. As a result, some find themselves having to keep working while pregnant (with all the risks that entails in terms of sexually transmitted diseases), or till over the age of 70. As sex work is physical and youth generally takes precedence over experience, older prostitutes find themselves in an extremely precarious situation.

Marie, who is approaching sixty, is philosophical about it and confides with a smile: "It’s true that the customers often prefer the young ones, who also charge less, but, anyway, I have my regulars who know that although they pay 5 or 10 euros more with me, they get experience and quality."

Legal or not, prostitution and its workers have to cope with the great uncertainties and difficulties of market forces. All the more reason, some believe, for placing the issue of social rights on the table.

Pascale Vielle, a professor at the University of Louvain and researcher in labour law at the ETUI (European Trade Union Institute), explains that considering prostitutes as workers and sex as work would not only improve their conditions but would also reduce exploitation.

"Doing nothing or prohibiting prostitution and its exploitation contribute to keeping this activity outside the law and to trapping sex workers in an extremely vulnerable situation. If this activity were subjected, just like any other, to the labour law, everyone would benefit. Both the worker and the employer would find themselves subjected to its rules, to the payment of social contributions, to contracts, and a whole range of rights could then be asserted."

If we agreed to consider prostitution as work, then the employer could be "subjected to all the obligations in terms of health and safety at work, for example, decent working conditions, work tools, etc., and, above all, the payment of social security contributions", adds Vielle.


Attempts at organising

The abolitionists and prohibitionists have a much harder time accepting that sex work should be legally considered as work like any other, which is why attempts to organise the sector often fail. But not always.

From France to India, sex workers are trying to organise within collectives or trade unions, whether they are recognised as such or not.

In Belgium, in the 1990s, tough negotiations were held within the FGTB trade union centre on the inclusion of sex workers. Its efforts failed in the end, recalls Catherine François, former head of Espace P, partly owing to the reticence of the abolitionists, considers François, but also that of "the sex workers themselves, as it is a field where the workers are very independent".

Luca Stevenson refutes this view, quoting the example of Argentina, where sex workers have joined the CTA union confederation, and are demanding an end to violence and access to health and social protection.

"Today, when an Argentinian prostitute prosecutes a cop who has raped her, she is backed by the whole trade union. If it can be done in Argentina, it can be done elsewhere," concludes Stevenson.


This story has been translated from French.