EU: Harmful ‘Prostitution’ Resolution Passes

Brussels, Belgium

14 September 2023

The European Parliament passed a resolution against “prostitution” on September 14, 2023, but removed some of its most harmful parts, Human Rights Watch said today. Parliament adopted a non-binding report, Regulation of Prostitution in the EU: Its Cross-Border Implications and Impact on Gender Equality and Women’s Rights, but rejected “calls for an EU-wide approach based on the Nordic/Equality model.”

“Calling for the purchase of sex to be a criminal offense puts the health and safety of women, queer people, and migrants at risk,” said Erin Kilbride, women’s rights and LGBT rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The fact that the majority of parliament members did not vote in favor of this dangerous resolution signals that they recognize what the data makes clear: criminalization leads to violence against the very people it purports to help.”

A coalition of sex workers rights defenders and their allies, including Human Rights Watch, urged European parliament members to reject the resolution in the run-up to the vote, calling the report “biased and harmful for people selling sex and other vulnerable groups.” The health journal The Lancet also urged parliament members to reject the “misguided” proposal. Although it passed, the majority of members rejected it or abstained, with 234 votes in favor, 175 against and 122 abstentions. This points to a growing understanding of the dangerous impacts of criminalization on sex workers and their rights, Human Rights Watch said.

Several United Nations agencies oppose criminalization, including the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, the World Health Organization, the UN Population Fund, and the UN Development Program. Civil society organizations including Human Rights WatchAmnesty International, and the International Planned Parenthood Federation also oppose criminalization.

The new European Parliament resolution still contains harmful and misleading statements about sex work, Human Rights Watch said. It makes repeated calls to punish clients, including making it a criminal offense in all EU countries to solicit, accept, or obtain a sexual act from a person in exchange for remuneration, despite extensive evidence of the violent, discriminatory effects of such laws. It also includes dubious claims that trafficking for sexual exploitation is increasing across the EU and “countries that follow approaches like the Nordic/Equality model are no longer big markets for human trafficking for that purpose.” The latest available data sets from the European Commission and Eurostat, respectively, disprove both claims.

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Disappointment after Ontario court dismisses sex workers’ Charter challenge

Ontario, Canada

18 September 2023

On Monday Ontario’s Superior Court dismissed a Charter challenge launched by an alliance of groups advocating for the rights of sex workers. The court ruled that Canada’s criminal laws on sex work are constitutional.

Justice Robert Goldstein’s decision says the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act, brought in by the former Conservative government, balances prohibition of "the most exploitative aspects of the sex trade" while protecting sex workers from legal prosecution.

CASWLR’s national coordinator Jenn Clamen called the ruling "extremely dismissive of sex workers’ realities and the concerns that were raised."

Clamen told CBC Toronto that "there’s a lot of incorrect information written into the decision that eventually, overtime, with our deeper analysis, we’ll be able to deconstruct."

Jenn Clamen

She says the suggestion that sex workers don’t know the laws that impact them is "probably most egregious." In particular, Clamen says the ruling is "dismissive of the evidence where sex workers, particularly migrant sex workers and Black sex workers submitted evidence to demonstrate how sex workers are being arrested under third-party laws."

CASWLR argued in court that the laws foster stigma, invite targeted violence, and prevent sex workers from obtaining meaningful consent before engaging with clients — violating the industry workers’ Charter rights.

Monica Forrester, an outreach coordinator at Maggie’s Sex Work Action Project and a plaintiff in the case, said the ruling is "very disappointing" but she’s not surprised by it.

She said the applicants knew going into the challenge that there would be obstacles, but were also hoping that the court would look at some of the revisions in the laws currently that are affecting sex workers and the work that they do.

"This is not over," Forrester said. "We’re going to continue to fight for the decriminalization of sex work and to look at a push on why these laws make it unsafe for sex workers."

Meanwhile, Clamen says, "This fight is not over." CASWLR is probably going to appeal the decision, she said. 

"Sex workers have been fighting for rights for over 50, 60 years in this country alone and are extremely resilient people are not easily stopped in this fight to have their rights recognized."

Goldstein wrote in his decision that decriminalization and regulation of sex work may be better policy choices, but that is up to Parliament, not the court, to decide.

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The UN human rights office called for the “full decriminalization of sex work”

New York, USA

28 September 2023

On this day, United Nations Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights published a position paper Eliminating discrimination against sex workers and securing their human rights, which sets up a showdown with legislatures around the world that continue to criminalize sex work and target sex buyers. 

UN Working Group on discrimination against women and girls wrote in introduction to this document:

“Sex workers worldwide suffer widespread discrimination and violations of their human rights. While the sex workers rights movement has been growing, human rights jurisprudence on violations of sex workers’ rights is limited. Barriers to sex workers’ access to human rights accountability mechanisms and highly polarised views on the relationship between sex work, feminism and human rights have restricted any real progress in protecting the human rights of sex workers.

The Working Group on discrimination against women and girls considers that it is high time for discrimination, marginalisation and stigmatisation of sex workers to be addressed by human rights bodies so that their human rights are protected. The Working Group proposes full decriminalisation of adult voluntary sex work from a human rights perspective, as it holds the greatest promise to address systemic discrimination and violence and the impunity for the violations of sex workers’ rights.

This 2023 position paper, informed by the views of sex workers, aims to raise the visibility of violations of sex workers’ human rights under different policy regimes, to clarify and re-affirm international human rights standards and to make recommendations for States and other stakeholders, to further realise the human rights of sex workers. The Working Group’s hope is also to contribute to building solidarity among movements and ensuring that ‘no one is left behind’.

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