Decriminalisation of prostitution – what’s going on? What can be done in Belgium?

© 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”.

Different Belgian cities have different approaches. In Brussels for example, the city makes a lot of money taxing prostitution – usually via the rooms prostitutes have to rent for way too much money. In Antwerp there’s a large “megabrothel” – just like Germany has – that is partially managed by the city. In Ghent, the mayor has publicly said that he thinks the prostitutes are good quality for their price. The police also arrests prostitutes for “causing trouble”, soliciting buyers, etc. There is no lack of hypocrisy in Belgian politicians.

What would decriminalisation mean in a Belgian context? That prostitutes will no longer be persecuted – I agree with that part – but would the police take down pimps? What about the buyers? What about exit programmes?  Right now, Belgium tolerates pimps and sometimes cooperates with them. So the question is: decriminalisation of whom? In discussions about prostitutes, the buyers and the pimps are too often ignored.

In Sweden, selling sex is legal – which means a “decriminalisation” of prostitutes, with the protection that entails. There’s also exit programmes: if you want to stop, there’s a system in place that helps you exit prostitution. The buyers, on the other hand, are criminalised. I’ve already reviewed in-depth the situation in Sweden and The Netherlands.

Since 2009, Norway also adopted the Swedish model, with as explicit goal the reduction of human trafficking.

The voices of prostitutes – but who’s talking?

In debates about prostitution you often hear the cry “we should listen to the voices of prostitutes”. You hear this a lot from liberals who use this as an authority argument: “My opinion is the right one because all prostitutes [according to them] want legalisation”. Nothing is further from the truth, the opinions of prostitutes are divided, which is only logical.

If we’re going to “listen to prostitutes” – and I agree with that – then we should do that in a serious, structured way. We should try to avoid instrumentalising prostitutes: that every opinion maker would find some prostitute that has to give the same opinion as them, just to lend legitimacy to their arguments. Frankly, that seems like further objectification to me.

It also means we should correct for bias. Meaning: we should explicitly correct for the fact that some prostitutes are less able to speak freely than others. Working for yourself, under a pimp, in a large brothel, in a private house, in the street, in an illegal brothel… Who gets to speak the most? Who gets to write blogs? It’s not the victims of trafficking whose pimps withhold their papers, or are locked up in an illegal brothel, that get to write or speak the most.

We shouldn’t lump pimps in with prostitutes. The writing is on the wall here: it’s a smart move as a pimp to pretend to be a sex worker. Everyone takes your opinion seriously – “listening to prostitutes” remember – and you can defend your profits easily. The power relations being what they are, I wonder how we can listen to the majority of prostitutes without influence from the pimps. It’s a legitimate problem for unbiased research.

Bias is often unintentional – it’s a common mistake in research. But there’s also intentional bias. An example: I was asked to write an article about prostitution for a Belgian Magazine – GDL (Goedele Liekens magazine). I went to interview several prostitutes so amongst others I called the aid organisation in Ghent. They gave me two numbers: one of a prostitute that worked by herself in a private house, another of a prostitute that turned out to be a pimp. As many prostitutes work with a pimp and/or in “windows” – very small rented rooms – only talking to the exceptions would have given me a very distorted picture.

Luckily I had already talked to several prostitutes before that – otherwise I might have been taken in by this tactic. I talked to a woman who had sores in her mouth that didn’t heal. I learned about the desensitisation gel that helps numb the physical pain of too many men, day in day out. There are limits to what the human body can endure. I heard the stories of a woman who was prostituted and filmed under-age. And many, many more.

Never did I encounter a typical “happy hooker” – those only seem to show up when there’s a debate for legalisation. I saw variations: some came through trafficking, some through child abuse, some through economic poverty and so on. Rachel Moran – as many others – asks the pointed question:  Where were all the happy hookers when I was on the game?

The voice of money

There’s a different voice in this debate that is constantly present but rarely acknowledged – the voice of the profit seekers: the men for whom prostitution is a billion dollar business.

What happened in Amnesty? Part of it is certainly due to a neoliberal climate and the lack of a large and critical feminist movement. But also part of it was a pimp that influenced them to go for decriminalisation. Now as pimps only want profit, it’s natural for them to defend anything that helps them increase profits and decrease chances of arrests – like legalisation / decriminalisation. “I want to make more money” doesn’t sound so good however. But he was clever – he pretended to be a “sex worker”. This is not uncommon: in many discussions pimps have pretended to be “sex workers”.

Money distorts debates. And there’s a lot of money involved in prostitution. So there’s a lot of distortion, a lot of people that don’t even want an honest debate. They just want to win. To protect and increase their profits. It makes an already tough debate even more difficult. But we can’t let them win.

For the record, I’m not saying everyone in favour of legalisation / decriminalisation is part of the sex industry lobby. But this group does exist, is powerful and we shouldn’t ignore their influence.

Research and decriminalisation

Good research about prostitution is in fact possible. That’s just good science. Ask large numbers of prostitutes, correct for bias as much as possible, explicitly take different backgrounds and situations into account…

So, you might wonder, why hasn’t such research been implemented yet? Well it has. However, the pro-prostitution lobby doesn’t recognize that research as valid. Of course they don’t.

Still, even they couldn’t ignore the countless reports of the human rights disaster that was caused by the experiments with legalisation. It didn’t work. Anywhere. So how could they maintain the façade? Simple, they just changed the name. It’s no longer legalisation, because that didn’t work! It’s *sparkles* decriminalisation!

I’m not fooled. That’s the same thing people. In reality that’s the same thing. If you don’t take on pimps and buyers, what you have is the same as legalisation. Which doesn’t work. So…

What can be done in Belgium?

Current situation

The aid organisations for prostitutes in Ghent and Antwerp (PasOp and Ghapro) support Amnesty’s call for decriminalisation. Feminist organisations (like the umbrella of women’s organisations Vrouwenraad, the European Women’s Lobby, the grassroots collective FEL) almost all support the Swedish model. This does not include the women’s division of labour unions and political parties, many of these don’t have a firm viewpoint yet.

Politicians mostly don’t bother. Belgium is currently led by a coalition of racist and right-wing to ultra right-wing political parties, which does not help the feminist agenda. Increasing poverty, violence against people of colour and demolishing of worker’s rights and no plans for exit programmes is leading to a slowly building human rights crisis.

In theory, an exit programme would be extremely cheap in Belgium. I did some quick math. Belgium wants to buy new fighter jets for the army, which would cost billions. For a quarter of the price of one fighter jet, we could pay for an exit for all prostitutes in Belgium. Prostitution could be solved in 5 years, if we had enough power to create such a programme.

The only feasible solution seems to be to work to create a large and radical enough feminist movement that – in alliance with e.g. labour unions – would have the power to demand this change. We’re far from that situation however.

It’s time for some self-criticism too: it is true that, with minor exceptions,the feminist movement has done nothing for prostitutes the past 20-30 years in Belgium (maybe longer but I’m still digging into that part of history). That has to change. The background of those 30 years is a decimated women’s movement after the second wave and a partial retreat into academia, true, but still…

An exit programme you say?

Why doesn’t Belgium have an exit programme? It doesn’t cost anything compared to the cost of letting prostitution continue. It doesn’t cost anything compared to the useless fighter jets the army wants to buy. We could abolish the army of course, two birds one stone.

Every person from both sides of the debate that actually means well should support an exit programme. It’s morally and ethically right, it’s practical and actually reasonably simple. The alternative would mean that women are forced to have sex they don’t want to have…

So why doesn’t Belgium have an exit programme yet?

Now is the time to fight for it.

A shorter, earlier version in Dutch of this article has appeared in DeWereldMorgen.

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