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European debate: Should laws target prostitutes or their clients?

Feminist advocates differ on the best way to protect female sex workers. A number of European countries and Canada have passed – or are considering – new laws.

Christophe Ena/File/AP
In this Sept.17, 2013, file photo, French sex workers demonstrated in front of the French Assembly in Paris, protesting a proposal to penalize clients soliciting a prostitute.

Prostitution is under intense scrutiny in several countries, with feminist-inspired attempts to criminalize the buying of sex being added to statute books in Europe as well as in Canada.

But a decriminalization movement has emerged in response — one also claiming the feminist mantle.

This isn’t merely an issue for a women’s studies seminar. Both sides say lives are at stake and, accordingly, politicians have started paying attention.

On the one side are those hoping to eradicate prostitution who say the best way to do it is by eliminating demand. The favored approach is the so-called "Nordic model,” named after pioneering bans in Scandinavia, where laws criminalize the clients who purchase sex, but not the sellers. 

But critics say demand for prostitution will never be eradicated, so the best thing to do is regulate it and, controversially, manage it like any other form of work, complete with health and safety rules. 

Both sides say they are protecting the interests of vulnerable women: prohibitionists say it will protect women from abuse by clients, while those supporting decriminalization say prohibition exposes prostitutes to greater danger of abuse from rogue clients and even the authorities. 

The divisions have been brought to the fore this week by a draft policy proposal from Amnesty International, set to be discussed at the group’s International Council Meeting in Dublin, Ireland, over the weekend. The proposal suggests decriminalizing all forms of consensual sex between adults.

European governments are taking different tacks on the issue. This year, Northern Ireland criminalized the buying of sex, and men who visit prostitutes can now face up to a year in jail. Sweden and Norway have also banned the buying of sex. In 2013, France’s parliament passed a law banning it as well, but the senate rejected the move this year, reinstating a law that fines prostitutes for soliciting – one which Health minister Marisol Touraine described as “regressive” and “contemptuous toward women.”

But other countries such as the Netherlands, Germany, and Spain do not criminalize the buying of sex. And in Britain, prostitution is not illegal but related acts — such as brothel-keeping and soliciting — are criminal offenses. Campaigners are pushing hard to ban the purchase of sex.

Dublin-based attorney Wendy Lyon says the issue is who controls women’s bodies: women or the state? She also says criminalization results in prostitutes taking risks and avoiding the authorities. 

Ms. Lyon says “carceral feminism,” which uses “the state and police to enforce women’s liberation,” makes no sense.

Traditional feminists reject this view. British activist Julie Bindel believes the recasting of prostitution as “sex work” has come about because organizations like Amnesty now represent a view of the world where criminalization is the source of abuse: “[but] prostitution is not a sexual identity. It is a thing that is done to someone.” 

For Ms. Bindel, the mistake is a focus on individual rights and identity: “The argument has been twisted to become a right to be abused.”

Amnesty’s move has proven controversial. Celebrities including Lena Dunham, Meryl Streep, and Kate Winslet, along with veteran feminist activist Gloria Steinem, have expressed dismay. Campaigners such as Coalition Against Trafficking in Women and Action to Prevent Trafficking, as well as local feminist and conservative groups in Ireland, have slammed the proposal. 

Alison Bass, professor of journalism at West Virginia University and author of a book on sex workers, says Amnesty’s move simply recognizes the reality of a post-sexual revolution world.

“Prostitution has increased, not declined, in the last several decades with the sexual revolution," she says. "It would have seemed there was less of a need for paid sex, but the opposite has occurred.” 

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