Night Shifts Newsletter No. 14

Are there differences around the pro decriminalization of sex work issue in Europe from the U.S.?

Marjan Wijers brought an entirely new frame of mind to our discussion about decriminalization of sex work: She represents the European perspective. A few of the people I’ve spoken with from the U.S. have some understanding or collaborate with advocates in Europe. However, Marjan is a native of The Netherlands and a member of the Netherlands Helsinki Committee. She is currently pursuing her doctorate at Essex University in England, focusing on human rights and sex workers’ rights, but she has been deeply involved in fighting for sex workers’ rights in The Netherlands since the 1980s.

“In the ‘70s and ‘80s, under the second wave of the Feminist Movement, a big part of the movement was combatting violence against women,” she recalls, adding with a laugh. “So it seems sometimes nowadays for young people as if  ‘Me, Too’ is completely new! It’s not!” 

Forty years ago, Marjan and her fellow protestors took to the streets to combat violence against women and also the right of women to decide over their own bodies, which includes the right to abortion.

“We have this slogan ‘Baas in eigen buik,’ in Dutch, ‘boss of your own belly,’” she explains. “But it also includes the right to do sex work without being criminalized or marginalized or used, as well as the right to not do sex work if you didn’t want. So both sides. The right to have sex. The right not to have sex. The right to have children. The right to not have them.”

Marjan and her comrades started the Foundation Against Trafficking in Women. She was closely involved in the development of Dutch policies on trafficking. Furthermore, she engaged in the negotiations on the UN Trafficking Protocol as part of the NGO delegation.

“At that time, it was only women, and trafficking was limited to cross-border and women,” she says. “We responded to the abuse of migrant women in the sex industry, and abuse could mean being forced into prostitution or being forced to work under forced labor or slavery-like conditions.”

In the Netherlands, she adds, sex workers themselves have never been criminalized but brothel keeping was, so that prevented sex workers from organizing. However, in practice Dutch society tolerated brothels that functioned more or less undisturbed, as long as there was no violence, coercion or public nuisance, but The Netherlands lifted that ban in 2000.

Nevertheless, Marjan and pro sex workers’ rights advocates are not content with the situation. Licensed brothels are legal, but sex workers are not allowed to work independently or from their homes. They believe this violates the sex workers’ freedom to work as they see fit and not be part of a highly regulated system. This system also deeply offends her sense of feminism and the right of women to be treated as equals.

“We’re absolutely not happy with the way it is now, and sex workers are definitely not treated the way other workers are,” Marjan says. “This whole idea that you force a category of workers to work for a third party so that you can control them because it all has to do with the idea of the dominance of anti-trafficking that we have to control and supervise sex workers so they don’t become victims of trafficking. That means it’s the police who control the brothel keepers and the brothel keepers who have control of the sex workers.”

Today, she is a member of the Sex Work Research Hub, which connects researchers and academics across a range of universities and disciplines working on sex work and sexual exploitation. SWRH members connect with sex workers, sex work support projects and other stakeholders, such as lawyers, police, policy makers, education professionals, youth and community workers, to support and develop research that produces new knowledge, critiques dominant discourses on sex work, as well as delivers tangible public benefit and impact. 

The work she’s doing for her Ph.D. now focuses on the role of human rights arguments in the public, political and legal debate on sex work. She is looking primarily at the activity in three counties: Germany, France and Spain.

“I look at how human rights are used by the sex workers’ rights movement, for instance the slogan ‘Sex worker rights are human rights,’” she says. “But I also look at how human rights are used against the sex workers’ movement or how human rights are used as a vehicle, an inroad to advocate for repression or repressive measures against sex work or silencing sex work, and especially these three things: the idea that sex work is a violation of human dignity, that it is violence against women or the women are the victims and the men at the perpetrators, and the conflation of sex work and trafficking.”

Marjan also adamantly believes that sex workers in Europe and the U.S. will benefit from decriminalization because it will make them safer from potential violence they face from police or clients and will make more health and human services accessible to them. She points out that the major international human rights organizations all support decriminalization. These include Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, UNAIDS, and the World Health Organization

Marjan kindly sent me a sampling of her extensive bibliographies “Literature decriminalisation sex work” and “References effects of criminalisation of clients of sex workers  (‘Nordic’ or ‘Swedish’ model).” Here are two articles, but please contact me, if you would like these two complete bibliographies:

International comparative explorations of prostitution policies: lessons from two European projects

Human rights violations against sex workers: burden and effect on HIV

When we did our Complicating the Narratives community forum in May, Marjan also made it quite clear that the prevailing belief in Europe for her and her colleagues is that the number of people who choose to do sex work is significant, while many of the anti-trafficking advocates I’ve spoken to in the U.S. believe it is a minority. One of the biggest challenges is often identifying research that everyone finds reliable and credible, so it was great to have her send me her sizable bibliographies of research she trusts.

Marjan is completely conscious of the protections she enjoys as a white, middle class citizen of The Netherlands.

“You take for granted that you have rights, and that if you are abused, you can go to the police, you will be believed, they will take it seriously, they won’t deport you, they won’t rape you or abuse you,” she says. “Even if the police are not always that good, you can trust that they will treat you more or less okay, that you have a right to work, that you have the right to be protected by labor law.”

However, her concerns are focused on migrant women.

“By working with migrant women who were victims of trafficking, you learn that it’s the lack of rights, it’s the illegality, and it’s the stigma on prostitution that creates the ideal conditions for abuse,” she continues. “From there it’s logical that you always have to work on two sides of the same coin. On the one hand, you have to combat violence, and on the other hand you have to improve rights, so you have to improve the position of sex workers. Basically in that period [the 70s and 80s], that was the general principle of the feminist movement: women need both suppression of the violence and improvement of the legal, social and economic position of women, because that’s the only way to structurally prevent violence against women.”

For Marjan, there is a great absurdity in the belief that less rights equate to more protections, for example, with the End Demand/Nordic Model, she says, and the logic that if you criminalize clients, there will be no prostitution, and if there is no prostitution, then there will be no trafficking.

“That’s why I always advocate for abolishing marriage,” she says facetiously. “Because if there is no marriage, there can’t be domestic abuse in marriage. Problem solved. That makes my position quite clear, I think.”

Ultimately, she believes that the criminal law system is not made to help victims but works against them by causing significant anxiety and impairing their health.

“To some extent you need criminal law, but at the same time it does harm,” Marjan states. “For many victims of trafficking or violence going through the justice system is the second round of trauma on top of the first round of the crime itself.”

Additionally, countries seize the opportunity to create regulations and restrictions by leveraging the fear of the crime and violence inherent with human trafficking. She sees a direct connection to changes that occurred in Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall in the early ‘90s.

“Trafficking became the perfect justification for investing more money and power in the police to combat us being flooded not only by foreign prostitutes, but also by the Russian or Eastern European mafia,” Marjan says. “So trafficking became extremely popular as an instrument for countries to justify anti-migration and anti-sex work, anti-prostitution measures. That, of course, has nothing to do with protecting women or people, in general, from violence and abuse, but it serves extremely well other state interests. Trafficking also serves as the perfect instrument to discipline women’s sexuality and mobility, and that’s exactly what it’s still used for.”

Next Up: Rachel Moran, Director of International Policy and Advocacy for the National Center on Sexual Exploitation and author of the book Paid For – My Journey Through Prostitution. She also founded and led SPACE International, an international organization formed to give voice to women who have survived the abusive reality of prostitution.