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“Wealthy men — who have spare money to spend on fucking — meet poor women who have to fuck to survive. So, what bigger difference can there be?” asked MEP Maria Noichl.
Noichl, a German lawmaker from the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) group, is a self-proclaimed fighter for sex workers who didn’t voluntarily end up in the industry. She’s pushing for an EU-wide regulation, which is roiling the European Parliament, on sex work because she says, “Europe is like a magnet for sex tourism.”
Her position is clear: Selling sex is not a job, it is gender-based violence and it should be illegal to buy sex or be a pimp.
People working in the sex industry — mostly women, but also men, migrants and trans people — are not paid to “live out their sexuality here, but the women are paid for staying still, for remaining silent and for not screaming,” she told POLITICO.
There is disagreement, however, over her stance, with some warning that Noichl’s proposal might worsen sex workers’ job conditions.
Luca Stevenson, director of programmes at the European Sex Workers’ Rights Alliance (ESWA) and a former sex worker, finds her position disrespectful.
“When you say that prostitution is gender-based violence, [and] a form of paid rape, what you actually say is that sex workers are not able to distinguish between rape and sex work,” he said.
Fierce disputes in the EU over how best to regulate the sex industry are ongoing.
Some want a complete ban — a position usually supported by religious and far-right groups. Others believe sex work should be legal. The Nordic model, developed in Sweden, is a compromise: It legalizes selling sex, while buying sex is criminalized.
Noichl’s proposal to criminalize across all EU countries the buying of sex and to reduce the exploitation of sex workers through human traffickers is breaking up traditional party lines in Brussels. Though her nonbinding report on the subject was adopted in September with 234 votes, the split in Parliament is evident in the 122 abstentions and 175 votes against it.
Reducing demand is the ultimate goal for Noichl, “because demand creates a market.” The underlying reasoning is that people will eventually stop buying sex out of fear of being criminalized, which will decrease the amount of sex work.
However, Greens lawmaker Sylwia Spurek disagrees. “Criminalization is not the answer … we cannot simply ban it, because that excludes sex workers from public care and protection,” she said.
It also often “leads to [sex workers] working in secret and being denied the opportunity to organize and take effective action against exploitation in the sex industry,” said Monika Vana, another Greens MEP.
Others, like Czech S&D lawmaker Radka Maxová, opposes the criminalization of sex buyers but “absolutely agree[s] with the elements that cover better social protection, migration and labor laws and support programs as the best tools to enable women to chose career paths different then sex work if they want.”
According to Stevenson of the ESWA, the example of France, which adopted a Nordic-style model in 2016, also raises questions.
Reducing the demand for sex work there meant sex workers had less power over who to choose as their clients. This led to “an increase in HIV cases, among most marginalized sex workers” while violent incidents became more frequent, he said. In some Western countries, up to 70 percent of sex workers are migrants which at times obstructs their access to social and health care services, according to a paper from the Global Network of Sex Work Projects.
Stevenson says the Nordic model is “extremely anti-feminist” and “ignores the capacities of women and other people to make decisions about their own life.”
Technically, the EU does not decide on sex work legislation, but Noichl wants member countries to “decide to adopt European rules or — and I think this is faster — step by step, one country after the other will adopt the Nordic model.”
Stevenson, on the other hand, thinks lawmakers should “sit down with sex workers and work on finding long-term [solutions] to the social issues.
“Sadly, they are so convinced that criminalization and ending demand is the only approach that we don’t have any meaningful decisions,” he said.