Prostitution is legal, liberalised and regulated in many European countries, including the Netherlands. Sweden, Norway, France and Ireland have, however, adopted the Nordic or Swedish Model, which prohibits the purchase of sex while legalising the selling of sex. This measure aims at reducing demand for the practice while ensuring that the law does not burden people in prostitution.

Underlying this debate is the fundamental schism of opinions of whether prostitution is a profession or a form of oppression. Views remain divided on whether prostitution should be considered sex work and treated like any other respectable job and empowers women in their sexuality or whether it constitutes a degrading, antiquated and exploitative patriarchal system that is incompatible with gender equality since it primarily puts women’s bodies on sale for male satisfaction.

Anita Kienesberger from Stopp Sexkauf (Stop the Purchase of Sex) points out that this is not an issue along party lines: “In 1999 in Sweden a red-green government passed the Nordic Model into law. Meanwhile, in Germany a red-green government went for complete liberalisation of prostitution.”

This topic has produced divisions among feminist, liberal and leftist groups alike. Renate Blum from LEFÖ, an Austrian organization promoting sex workers’ rights, states “There is not only one feminism but different feminisms.” One type conceives prostitution as violence against women, while for groups like LEFÖ it is a question of female self-determination.

Regarding sex work as a legitimate means of earning income and fighting stigmatisation and discrimination in society is essential for them. These groups also oppose the Nordic model, because as Eva van Rahden, head of Sophie (a counseling center for sex workers in Austria) argues: “You cannot improve things in illegality. [And] it is dangerous if rights are restricted as a consequence of implementing protective measures.” She explains how some sex workers in Sweden have lost their apartments because their landlords feared being punished for “abetting prostitution.”

Other neo-abolitionist groups, which consider prostitution to be a repressive system that feeds on the economic desperation of people and encourages human traffickers to cater to this market, wish to abolish the practice. Sister Mayrhofer from Solwodi (Solidarity with Women in Distress), an organization that provides safe houses for at-risk women who wish to leave prostitution, stresses that the real experiences and struggles of women should be considered since oftentimes only “purely thematic and ideological discussions are being held” and, referring to the pro-legalisation side, Mayrhofer considers it “perverse to measure the distress of a person according to their degree of self-determination.”

In her experience, most of the women receiving help from Solwodi have a history of substance abuse and/or suffer from psychosomatic illnesses. She concludes that “Prostitution permanently damages people physically and mentally. Not only the man or the woman prostituting themselves, but also the customers.” This position has given rise to a peculiar constellation of alliances by uniting conservative, leftist and feminist groups. However, they lobby for this position for very different reasons.

Christian groups are concerned with human dignity and humanitarian considerations, feminist groups are privy to patriarchal structures and aspects of gender inequality, while leftist groups, offering a critique of neo-liberalism, primarily criticise that capitalism has overstepped boundaries by legalising the sale of human bodies.

Their common strategy is to reduce demand by shifting the punitive measures onto customers and making the market unattractive for traffickers. Kienesberger adds that a successful implementation requires financial backing and credible “exit and re-education programs for all women exiting prostitution,” because “lax implementation will fail.”

In practice there are diverging trends in Europe. In individual countries like Germany or Austria, for example, pro-sex work lobbies appear more successful and have significant financial backing. According to Havoscope, the global prostitution industry amounts to $186 billion annually worldwide. Jedida Sutter from Lightup, a youth movement advocating the Nordic Model, criticises that “cities like Hamburg cannot finance themselves without the revenue from prostitution” and questions these dependencies. In Sweden the government has touted the success of their model, which has seen prostitution reduced by half and contrary to some fears has not pushed the practice underground or onto the internet.

On the European level, the European Women’s Lobby adopted a neo-abolitionist position with the 2013 Brussels Call. In it, 53 members of the European Parliament from various countries and parties expressed their view that “Prostitution is an obstacle to equality between women and men and a violation of human rights.” The 2014 Honeyball report also led the EU to adopt the non-binding recommendation that member states implement the Nordic Model.

One main bone of contention is the nature of the link between prostitution policy and human trafficking. Those promoting the Nordic Model emphasise this link, arguing that legalisation plays into the hands of traffickers. The pro-legalisation side meanwhile insists on distinguishing between these issues. With EU-Enlargement and the migration crisis, this debate has been rekindled. “I see that in Austria, 95 percent of prostitutes are foreigners.

©Shutterstock.com / by Constantine Pankin

That means we are dealing with prostitution originating in poverty,” says Mayrhofer. This statistic is reported by the Austrian Bundeskriminalamt. Furthermore, a 2014 European Parliament study on sexual exploitation and prostitution and its impact on gender equality found that “The most conservative official statistics suggest that one in seven prostitutes in Europe are victims of trafficking, while some member states estimate that between 60 percent and 90 percent of those in their respective national prostitution markets have been trafficked […].”

Currently, the EU recommendation that the Nordic Model be implemented in member states still stands. Most member states, however, have opted for liberalisation and regulation. It remains to be seen whether youth petitions, such as the Dutch one, will lead countries to reconsider their view of prostitution, whether their national prostitution policies might serve as a tool in combating human trafficking or whether these issues require completely differentiated approaches.

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