Each year, International Sex Workers Day celebrates sex workers’ resistance to the stigmatization, criminalization, and exploitation they face. This year, to commemorate the event, a seminar at the ISS discussed how sex workers’ advocacy resulted in the recent decriminalisation of sex work in Belgium. In this article, Marianne Chargois, Daan Bauwens, and Karin Astrid Siegmann discuss which further changes need to be made to ensure the dignity and rights of sex workers in Belgium.
We celebrated the week that concludes with International Sex Workers’ Day with an ISS seminar in which I, Marianne Chargois, member of the executive team of the Belgian sex worker union Utsopi, delivered a presentation titled “Swimming against the tide: Decriminalization of sex work in Belgium”. Decriminalization, a regulatory model that sees sex work as a regular profession and abolishes all laws that criminalize prostitution directly or indirectly, has been considered the best way to govern sex work because it helps protect sex workers’ health and well-being, enhances their access to services and justice, makes the industry safer, and, overall, improves the guarantee of sex workers’ human rights (Oliveira et al. 2023).
Until June last year, Belgian law criminalized services and third parties supporting sex work based on the understanding that all sex workers are victims of exploitation and human trafficking, independent of their own view of or consent to their situation. This could lead to bizarre situations where a sex worker’s accountant or even his or her child — basically anyone supporting sex workers — could be, accused of ‘profiting from the exploitation of sex work’ and could be fined or imprisoned for pimping.
Decriminalization is an important first victory
Utsopi has fought against these stipulations since 2015, and last year, the union won! Taking a seat at the negotiating table in the Belgian Ministry of Justice first of all made it possible for sex workers to argue that sex workers can give consent, stopping the infantilization of those working in the ‘adult industry’.
The revised law also defines pimping more clearly, so that normal economic transactions are not targeted anymore. Instead, the criminalized aspects are now more narrowly defined as the ‘abnormal profits and advantages from the organization of prostitution’ or the organization of sex work in disrespect of sex workers’ labour rights. In contrast to the earlier version of the law, this does not threaten consenting sex workers’ livelihoods. Rather, it enables them to access necessary things that are normal for all other workers, such as having a bank account, housing, or other basic needs.
But much still needs to be done
Yet, while important, decriminalization is just the first step towards the improved rights and recognition of sex workers — many other things still have to change. For instance, stigmatization and discrimination involve such high levels of symbolic as well as physical violence that the large majority of sex workers refrain from divulging that they do sex work. These hidden lives expose them to greater risk of exploitation, abuse, and blackmailing.
Broader social protection is required
Besides, Utsopi and its partner organizations are working with the government on the concluding phase of a labour law for the right to have an employment contract and guaranteed social rights. Directly after the reform in 2022, only independent sex work was possible in Belgium. Working as employees would enable sex workers to start benefiting from social security. This would for instance enable sex workers to go on early maternity leave, but also to cover their risks, which include sexually transmitted diseases, but also other risks that they face such as harassment or discrimination based on the sex work.
Cooperation from municipalities is essential
Apart from the national legislation, local governments can make it difficult to carry out sex work by imposing restrictive conditions. For example, some municipalities require sex workers to register, and locations for sex work often have to comply with specific regulations. Presently, there is still a lack of spaces to work legally and under decent conditions. Shared spaces, brothels self-managed by sex workers, or other possibilities still need to be created and guaranteed.
Migrant sex workers need to be included
Finally, maintaining a certain level of tolerance in sex work regulation remains necessary even after it has been decriminalized. Most sex workers cannot access existing legal entitlements. For undocumented migrants, for example, the lack of residence or work permits implies that abuses can go unreported out of fear of deportation. In fact, no decriminalization process is complete without entitling undocumented sex workers to rights. This also points to the ‘unfinished decriminalization’ of sex work in New Zealand. Being the first country to decriminalize sex work in 2003, New Zealand still excludes migrant sex workers from the ambit of the Prostitution Reform Act.
A regulatory ‘grey zone’ remains necessary
One complication related to the protection of sex workers’ rights is that for some, sex work is a backup to make ends meet in an emergency. This implies that these persons do not consider themselves sex workers and are, consequently, unlikely to claim associated rights and entitlements. To address these additional complications that sex workers face, a certain regulatory ‘grey zone’ remains necessary.
The decriminalization of sex work is not a silver bullet
These learnings from the Belgian experience add nuance and realism to the idea of decriminalization as the silver bullet for ensuring decent work for sex workers. Marjan Wijers, consultant, researcher, and activist in the field of human trafficking and sex workers’ rights, echoed this when discussing the Belgian reform. She highlighted the paradox that decriminalizing brothel-based sex work in the Netherlands in 2000 ushered in an even more restrictive legal environment for sex workers now based on administrative law.
Still, on International Sex Workers’ Day, Belgium’s ‘swimming against the tide’ was an apt celebration of sex workers’ agency to successfully challenge the legal and societal structures that marginalize and stigmatize them!
Note: Thanks to Silke Heumann and Maria Ines Cubides Kovacsics for their helpful feedback on and suggestions for improvement of this post.
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About the authors:
Marianne Chargois is a member of the executive team of the Belgian sex worker union Utsopi.
Daan Bauwens is the Utsopi director.
Karin Astrid Siegmann is Associate Professor in Labour and Gender Economics at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS).
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