Why the European Parliament Shouldn’t Criminalize Buying Sex

The European Parliament must decide Wednesday whether it should formally recommend that European states criminalize the act of buying sex. This criminalization approach is becoming an increasingly applauded policy—by everyone except sex workers and the people who work with them.

The European Parliament must decide Wednesday whether it should formally recommend that European states criminalize the act of buying sex. WikiMedia Commons

A decision due soon from the European Parliament could trigger a wave of legislative change about how sex work is policed in Europe. Following a debate scheduled Monday about a report submitted by UK politician Mary Honeyball, politicians from around Europe must decide Wednesday whether they should adopt her position and formally recommend that European states criminalize the act of buying sex.

Often referred to as the Swedish or the Nordic model, this criminalization approach is becoming an increasingly applauded policy—by everyone except sex workers and the people who work with them.

“Most societies who work with sex workers are against criminalizing the work. It’s a very ideological approach and not practical,” Luca Stevenson, coordinator of the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe (ICRSE), told Rewire. “But it’s the well-funded, politically connected state organizations that can be the loudest.”

In the weeks leading up to the European Parliament debate, the ICRSE has been trying to get the voices of sex workers in Europe heard in the hope that it will prevent politicians from adopting these recommendations. The group’s call for Honeyball’s report to be rejected has been signed by over 550 organizations, from those representing transgender and HIV/AIDS groups to the International Planned Parenthood Federation. Around 85 academics have also shown their support, criticizing the scientific quality of the report and arguing that many references cited by Honeyball have been refuted time and time again.

This is the latest development in a debate that has been going on in Europe for more than a decade. A law criminalizing the purchase—but not the sale—of sex was first introduced in Sweden in 1999. Although different countries vary over how they implement such a law, the “criminalization model” works by arresting or penalizing customers of sex workers. While some have argued this would reduce the demand for and supply of sex workers, as well as making them less subject to violence and abuse, in fact the result has been just the opposite, driving sex workers underground and making them more vulnerable.

Over the next decade, similar legislation was put in place in Norway and Iceland and is currently being pushed through the French parliament. In addition, it has been frequently referenced by politicians in other countries, including Scotland and England, as a potential model. The praise heaped on the Nordic model in Honeyball’s report repeats similar claims made by many politicians and police in Sweden and other European countries, such as France, celebrating the fact that it is legislation to tackle prostitution that doesn’t criminalize sex workers.

However, critics argue that because a law has to be broken in order for sex workers to work, by de facto they are perceived to be working in a criminal environment. According to groups representing sex workers, one of the effects this has is to reduce tolerance and increase stigma directed at sex workers.

“They say that these laws are about criminalizing the buyers of sex and not against sex workers themselves, but in reality in the street that does not work,” Stevenson said. He noted that in France, a week after a bill was approved by the national assembly that would introduce a €1,500 fine (about $2,065) against people who purchase sex, residents in one town rallied in the streets with signs, intending to drive sex workers out of town. “They could do that because the state agreed with them. Criminalizing sex work reinforces the stigma against it,” he said.

According to Stevenson, although the Swedish law acts under the guise of protecting sex workers, it’s actually an ideological position against prostitution and the people who work in that industry. He sees this reflected strongly in the attitude of the police concerning migrant sex workers.

“In Sweden, they can deport migrant prostitutes even though they are from countries in the European Union,” he said. “It’s OK for Swedish sex workers to be there, but if you’re a sex worker from Poland you get deported, even if you try to argue that it’s legal to work there as a European sex worker.”

This is legislatively backed up with the Swedish Aliens Act, which makes it illegal for foreigners to work in Sweden as sex workers, contradicting the assumption by international applauders, particularly pro-women groups, that the Swedish model is friendly to sex workers.

Advocates for criminalization also claim that it is a success because the number of sex workers has dropped in countries where it was introduced. However, a widely referenced 2010 Swedish government report, the Skarhed report, that claimed street prostitution had dropped has been refuted by academics who questioned the scientific rigor of its statistics and the fact that it ignored the longer ongoing trend of prostitutes moving off the streets and underground, which some researchers have recorded since the 1970s.

The Skarhed report even ignores governmental reports” that provide opposing conclusions, May-Len Skilbrei, a professor at the University of Oslo, told Rewire. “In this field, as in many, policy makers and implementers ignore what doesn’t fit their world view, and hype what does.” She also pointed out that there has been little research on the situation in Sweden in the first ten years, although this is now beginning to pick up.

In a 2008 report on prostitution in Sweden, professor Skilbrei also critiqued studies based on data drawn only from sex workers who had had contact with support services. Swedish police themselves have admitted in a press release that because much of the trade is conducted over the Internet, “none of the inspecting authorities have a complete picture of the scope as they are not engaged in continuous or structured reconnaissance.”

Perhaps even more important than the divisions in ideology and criticisms of the validity of scientific evidence, researchers, NGOs and, sex workers argue that criminalization negatively affects the physical well-being of sex workers.

“A major issue for me, the absolute bottom line, is the health and safety of sex workers,” Maggie O’Neill, a professor of criminology at Durham University in the UK, told Rewire. “It’s this—the health and safety—that binds us together. I respect there are different ideological perspectives on this, but what does unite us is health and safety.”

Sex workers themselves have reported that this type of legislation creates heightened dangers. Interviews carried out with sex workers in Norway after the criminalization of the purchase of sex was introduced there found that sex workers consistently reported a change in customer base. “Nice” customers who stick to the correct boundaries are often law-abiding “average” people. “With criminalization many believe that fewer of this type of man buys sexual services,” a report by the organization Pro-Sentret notes.

The hope from pro-criminalization groups was that as the customer base narrows, it would drive sex workers away from the work. People who work with sex workers report that the reality is somewhat different. “What the police and campaigners like Honeyball don’t seem to realize is that if a sex worker hasn’t made enough money to pay for a room or whatever then they will just stay out longer,” said Stevenson. “If you’re on the street, you’re not going to go unless you have the money.”

Fewer opportunities to make money also can lead to an increase in taking risks. “Many people don’t know that sex workers choose clients,” said Stevenson. “If before you get in a car with someone you decide they are not safe, you can say no if you know that there will be someone else along in 15 minutes. But if you think that no other people are going to come by in the next half hour, you go with someone who you wouldn’t normally.”

The interviews carried out by Pro-Sentret also support the idea that risk taking has increased. “More and more of our users report that they take ‘trips’ without a condom,” the report notes, citing a drop in customers as the reason for this.

Increased health risks are a key reason why so many HIV and AIDS organizations are against criminalization. This includes the UNAIDS Advisory Groups on HIV and Sex Work, which in a 2011 update to a 2009 report stated that “states should move away from criminalizing sex work or activities associated with it,” including removing criminal penalties for the purchase and sale of sex.

“AIDS organizations are all saying that criminalizing sex work will increase the risk of HIV for sex workers. There is no understanding of this by pro-criminalization campaigners,” said Stevenson, pointing to the fact that in Honeyball’s report she mentions the risk of HIV for sex workers just once but fails to point out that HIV and AIDS organizations believe this risk becomes worse with criminalization. Among other criticisms, this misunderstanding is why so many of the signatories of the ICRSE petition against the Honeyball report are organizations who work with people living with HIV.

If the European Parliament decides to vote in Honeyball’s recommendations it won’t force countries to change their policies, but it will pressure them to revisit those policies and will give pro-criminalization groups much more leverage with politicians in their countries. Whatever the result on Wednesday, the future of sex work in Europe will become clearer, one way or another.