Belgium is decriminalizing prostitution, making it the first European country to do so.
A number of European countries have legalized prostitution. That means it’s allowed under specific and highly regulated circumstances but still a crime outside these parameters. For instance, in Greece, sex workers must register with the state and have a professional certificate, get twice-monthly medical exams, and work in a licensed brothel in order for their labor to be legal.
Other European countries have instituted asymmetrical criminalization, in which selling sex is allowed (under certain circumstances) but paying for it is not.
But Belgium is the first European country to officially decriminalize selling sex, paying for it, and working with sex workers, under a proposal put forth by Federal Justice Minister Vincent Van Quickenborn and approved by Parliament last week.
“In terms of sex work, this is a historic reform,” Van Quickenborne said in a statement. “It ensures that sex workers are no longer stigmatised, exploited and made dependent on others. Belgium is the first country in Europe to decriminalise sex work.”
At present, Belgium criminalizes (but does not enforce) a law against “provok[ing] a person to debauchery.” And while both sex work and paying for sex are tolerated in most of Belgium, the rules around it were confusing, restrictive, and varied by area. “Each area develops its own policy and sex businesses tend to be located in red light districts that are tolerated by authorities,” according to the Global Network of Sex Work Projects. “Being a sex worker outside of a toleration zone would likely be illegal and leave sex workers open to administrative fines.”
Since sex work was not officially recognized as a profession, Belgian sex workers couldn’t use it as proof of employment in order to get a loan or apply for social welfare benefits.
In addition, “third parties involved with sex workers are committing a crime,” explains Maïthé Chini in The Brussels Times. “This brings many problems, as anyone who works with sex workers – such as an accountant or a driver – also becomes part of criminal practices.”
Under the new reform, sex trafficking will remain criminalized and—in place of the law criminalizing any third parties working with sex workers—the country will instead criminalize abuses of prostitution. “Abuses include pressuring a sex worker and determining how many clients they must see each day or saying that all sexual acts must be allowed and not leaving that choice up to the worker,” explains Chini.
“Sex work is a regular, economic activity, provided it involves adults who choose to do so for themselves,” Van Quickenborne told Belgian lawmakers last April. “In this way people can practice their profession as the rest of us do, and they can, for example, work with an accountant or enjoy social protection.”
“This reform is the culmination of a fight that we, sex workers, have been waging for 30 years in our country,” said the sex worker rights union UTSOPI in a statement. “This fight is not taking place only here: all over the world, hundreds of thousands of sex workers are fighting for what we are getting here and now. This is a reform that puts an end to a counterproductive discourse of victimization that only further stigmatizes sex workers sex and make them dependent on others.”
If people really want to help, “give us rights,” the group said, adding that it hoped Belgium’s example would be followed around the world.
Maxime Maes, director of UTSOPI, told The Brussels Times that Belgian sex workers preferred decriminalization to legalization (which is the same thing U.S. sex workers and those in many other countries say). “We should find a way to allow sex workers to choose their practices and their clients,” Maes said. “That’s the core of consent.”