Strasbourg round-up: Prostitution and sexual exploitation

Written by Mary Honeyball, Ulrike Lunacek and Inês Cristina Zuber on 28 February 2014 in Special Report
Special Report

Parliament's plenary vote on prostitution raised a number of issues and some division between MEPs. Here, three of parliament's key players in the debate, Mary Honeyball, Ulrike Lunacek and Inês Cristina Zuber give their views on the final report and on why many MEPs decided to put forward an alternative resolution.

Mary Honeyball is parliament's rapporteur on sexual exploitation and prostitution and its impact on gender equality

This week's European parliament vote on prostitution represents a vital signal from MEPs that we cannot continue to tolerate the exploitation of women.

Rather than blanket legalisation, the parliament has backed the more nuanced approach already practised in Sweden as a means of tackling prostitution.

This approach punishes men who treat women's bodies as a commodity, without criminalising women who are driven into sex work.

"I am delighted that the parliament has been ambitious enough to begin tackling the root causes of prostitution"

Since it was implemented in Sweden in 1999 the model has been a success, reducing demand and halving the levels of street prostitution. I am glad the parliament has decided to consider Sweden's lead on this issue as one option to follow.

The idea that prostitution is the 'oldest profession' leads some to think we should accept it as a fact of life – that all we can do is regulate it a little better. This approach has led to an increase in prostitution levels in countries where it has been implemented. It normalises the purchase of sex and ingrains the inequalities which sustain the sex industry.

An open letter in support of my report, signed by nearly 80 world academics and sent to British MEPs on Monday, made exactly this point. In the letter they wrote that "the prostitution system is a reminder of continuing inequalities between women and men", arguing that the legalisation of prostitution undermines attempts to tackle the gender pay gap or challenge the abuses women and girls are subjected to.

Recent changes in France and Ireland suggest the wind is blowing in the direction of Sweden. The parliament's position on this is an important one, and the outcome of this week's vote symbolised the changing attitudes of EU countries on this issue, and the desire of member states to learn from one another.

I am delighted that the parliament has been ambitious enough to begin tackling the root causes of prostitution. I hope it marks the point of critical mass in a sea-change taking place across the EU - a resolution that we will no longer tolerate the exploitation of women.


Ulrike Lunacek is parliament's Green/EFA group shadow rapporteur on the report on sexual exploitation and prostitution and its impact on gender equality

As a feminist, the fact that in our patriarchal society many men still look at women as objects for sex, for work or for other things and not as dignified human beings in their own right is a major concern.

However, the prohibition and therefore criminalisation of prostitution as demanded by my colleague, Mary Honeyball in her report on the sexual exploitation and prostitution and its impact on gender equality does not solve this problem.

"Women who choose to work as a sex worker have to be offered health care, protection, empowerment and the chance to do their work legally"

It is crucial to differentiate between forced prostitution, human trafficking and sexual exploitation, which is a crime and therefore has to be combated with all necessary means, and sex work resulting from an active individual decision.

I am well aware that there are women who decide to go into sex work because of economic hardship they encounter. However, it is still their own decision, which needs to be respected.

Women who choose to work as a sex worker have to be offered health care, protection, empowerment and the chance to do their work legally. Moreover, exit strategies should be provided for those who want to leave prostitution.

The criminalisation of sex work reinforces the social stigma of sex workers and compels them to go underground. Therefore, they are more likely to become a victim of exploitation and violence.

As the prohibition of sex work also means less access for sex workers to health care and contraceptives, they are more vulnerable to sexually transmitted diseases as well.

All these reasons show how important the distinction between forced and voluntary prostitution is. Since the Honeyball report misses this distinction completely and does therefore provide a very one-sided picture of the issues, I tabled an alternative resolution together with several colleagues across party lines.

The views expressed in the alternative resolution are supported by over 500 NGOs around the world and by research from 70 scientists, many of whom work closely with, or are comprised of sex workers or victims of trafficking or sexual exploitation.

Unfortunately, the alternative resolution was not adopted in plenary. Nonetheless, the narrow vote is symbolically important as it sends a strong signal to all those battling against trafficking and exploitation and for sex worker's rights.


Inês Cristina Zuber is parliament's NGL/GUE group shadow rapporteur the report on sexual exploitation and prostitution and its impact on gender equality

Mary Honeyball's report has had important successes, despite some contradictions that remain in the final version and that were not in the report as adopted in parliament's women's rights and gender equality committee.

"I want to see pimps and customers criminalised rather than prostitutes"

Around 96 per cent of the world's prostitutes are women and today they were largely neglected by the European parliament. Prostitution clearly contributes to the perpetuation of inequality between men and women and is a form of violence.

It's not the 'oldest profession', but one of the oldest forms of violence against women, reflecting the social and economic inequalities of a capitalism that believes that everything is marketable, including intimacy, treating women as commodities and using them for profit. I want to see pimps and customers criminalised rather than prostitutes.

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