© Evie Embrechts

notforsale2Amnesty International recently voted for promoting a policy of decriminalisation of prostitution. Some are in favour, others vehemently disagree. What’s going on? I’m writing this from my perspective as a feminist in Belgium.

  1. Definitions
  2. The voices of prostitutes – who’s talking?
  3. The voice of money
  4. Research and decriminalisation
  5. What can be done in Belgium?


Legalisation, criminalisation, decriminalisation… looking through a dictionary doesn’t help a lot to understand the debate. Instead, I’ll give three real-world examples:

In The Netherlands there is a partial legalisation. In 2000 the laws against owning brothels were struck. Pimping became legal, just like selling and buying sex – but only in certain designated places like official brothels. There is a large – and growing – illegal sector, and a lot of human trafficking. Germany has more or less the same situation – with so much trafficking into it that Germany is referred to as “the brothel of Europe” – and the conditions for prostitutes are horrible there.

In Belgium things are pretty muddy. Officially, the law forbids pimping but in reality there’s a politics of tolerance – mostly that means politicians and the police do what they want. There are some small organisations that “aid” prostitutes but there are no exit programmes so the aid is limited to “doing the best you can in bad circumstances”.

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Evie Embrechts

This article was first published in 2014 in International Viewpoint and LinksFeminisme. It was based on an earlier article in Dutch and then expanded and translated.

Recent years have seen renewed debate about prostitution in European countries. Both the Swedish and the Dutch models have been in effect for over 10 years and a lot of research has been done on the various implementations. What are the opinions and results?


  • Different models
    • Present-day reality
    • Harm Reduction
    • Harm Elimination
  • Effects in the Netherlands
  • Effects in Sweden
  • Frequently Asked Questions
  • Conclusion

Different models

There are of course countless opinions about prostitution. Most of these are problematic because they are based on myopic, selfish or conservative thinking, or on abstract theory far removed from the real-life situation. There are a few models that try to take reality into account and to improve on it. These can be roughly divided into two tendencies: the harm reduction and the harm elimination model.

I’ll take a short look at both models and then present the actual implementations in Sweden and the Netherlands. The Dutch paper Volkskrant had an article where a quite pessimistic author opines that both the Dutch and Swedish models have failed(1). Luckily that’s not entirely true.

Present-day reality

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