MEPs asked to consider both sides of the moral debate in prostitution vote

Marije Cornelissen and Marina Yannakoudakis raise the question of 'voluntary prostitution' as MEPs choose between prostitution resolutions.

In Strasbourg, the European parliament will take a vote on prostitution. Members can choose between the initiative report by rapporteur Mary Honeyball and an alternative resolution by Greens, ECR, ALDE and individual members from other groups. The difference between both texts comes down to one central question: is there such a thing as voluntary prostitution, resulting from a woman's individual choice? The report says no. The alternative resolution says yes.

Almost every mandate has a debate about prostitution at some point. The class of 2009-2014 now has its own. Throughout the decades, the arguments have remained largely the same. Those supporting the 'Scandinavian model' consider all forms of prostitution a violation of human rights. Voluntary prostitution does not exist. Even women who might think they have made an individual choice to be a prostitute were probably in some way forced into it by a traumatic past or social circumstances. Those supporting the Dutch/German/Austrian model do differentiate between forced and voluntary prostitution. While they also want forced prostitution, human trafficking and sexual exploitation to be combated vigorously with all possible means, they think people should be allowed to make the individual choice to be a sex worker and work legally, pay taxes, build up social security rights and get the protection and health care they need.

There are a lot of recurring arguments in the debate. These arguments are dutifully exchanged each time the EP has a debate on prostitution, without ever changing the opinion of the other side. In the end though, [pullquote]a debate about prostitution is never really about the arguments or the facts and figures[/pullquote]. It is a deeply moral debate where the arguments don't match. The proponents of the Scandinavian model deeply feel that prostitution is wrong and needs to be entirely eradicated. They tend to view the issue from a societal point of view. A civilised society in which women are respected cannot tolerate the existence of prostitution. And conversely, to them, tolerating the existence of prostitution means accepting a society in which women are objectified and disrespected. The proponents of the Dutch/German/Austrian model have a less deep moral judgement about prostitution. They accept it as a fact of life. Not a pretty fact of life, but a fact nonetheless. There will always be a demand, there will always be an offer. They tend to view the issue more from the individual point of view, and wish to protect individual women as well as possible. For voluntary sex workers as well as for victims of trafficking, a model in which sex work is legal will offer protection and a better chance of reporting and combating exploitation. Meanwhile, all should be done to offer those who want to leave prostitution a way out, with social and educational programmes.

'Would you want your sister to be a prostitute?' is a question the Scandinavian model proponents often ask. The answer is of course no. No one in their right mind would applaud their sister making such a career choice. But that is hardly the point. Those who oppose the Scandinavian model don't all want their sisters to become prostitutes. Their relevant counter-question would be: 'Would you still love and respect your sister if she chose to be a prostitute?'