Those of us who work or have worked in the third sector, among victims of violence and their oppressors, will understand the highs and lows that come with the experience. When we come into daily contact with the injustices our society continues to permit – all too often disproportionately against women – the lows are inevitable.That is why we have to embrace the highs! For our colleague, Ruby, the opportunity to attend the Brussels’ Call Conference on 16th October was one such occasion. There is something extremely moving and powerful about being in a room full of feminists and abolitionists, about being surrounded by successful, determined and compassionate women, of all ages and from all walks of life. 

The conference, part of the Brussels’ Call campaign for a Europe free from prostitution, was held at the European Parliament (EP) in Brussels to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the EP’s ‘Resolution on sexual exploitation and prostitution and its impact on gender equality’ (also known as the Honeyball resolution), which represented a turning point in the fight against the sex industry and its inherent violence. This resolution was the recognition that prostitution is a form of violence against women and called for measures to end the demand for sexual exploitation. The conference explored the reality of prostitution across Europe and included contributions from some of those most directly affected and those still fighting for change.

The President of the European Women’s Lobby, Gwendoline Lefebvre welcomed Mary Honeyball, the MEP who authored the very report into prostitution that led to the resolution she has now lent her name to, and that we were there to celebrate, saying “You’re our rockstar!” Honeyball talked about the impact Brexit could have on women’s rights in the UK and how all of the hard-won progress made at the European level, like the anti-trafficking directive, could be lost for British women. She reminded us that the question of prostitution and gender-based violence cannot be a party political issue. One of the keys to her success with the Honeyball Resolution was bringing people together on this issue;  people who largely disagreed on other topics, including the important role played by church groups. Tsitsi Matekaire from Equality Now reinforced this message of the importance of international collaboration at the European level, as Europe has a role to play and an example to set around the world.

Malin Bjork, an MEP of the Swedish Left Party and the European United Left–Nordic Green Left, described the 20-year struggle that Sweden went through before passing their law in 1999 which punishes the exploitation of prostitution and the purchase of sex – while decriminalising those involved in prostitution. Per-Anders Sunesson, the Swedish ambassador to combat trafficking in human beings, explained what an impact the law has had on the Swedish mindset; very few people now think buying sex is acceptable. In concrete terms, the demand for sexual services has also fallen, as have the levels of organised crime. Crucially, since the law was passed, there has not been a single murder of a woman in prostitution in Sweden. That historic decision taken by Sweden became an example and a kind of blueprint for other countries. Bjork put it to the conference to find and agree on a new name for the model going forward to reflect its reach beyond Sweden and the Nordic region, saying “we cannot call it the Swedish Law any more and I leave it to you to give it a new name, and happily so!”.

In recent years, the subject of pornography has been discussed more and more by abolitionists, as it is clearly linked to prostitution and violence against women. During the conference Aline Rossi from Generation Abolition talked about the high rate of exposure to porn nowadays, but our children are not learning about sex through porn; they are learning about sexualised violence. We have to talk about porn in the context of prostitution because it’s part of the modern sexualised world and we have to look to the future. Porn objectifies and dehumanises women and girls and desensitises people to the violence they see depicted. Through porn and prostitution boys are learning that abuse is ok, as long as we call it sex.

The fight against gender violence has made some significant strides in the last 5 years, not least in terms of the abolitionist laws that have been passed in Ireland and France. Frances Fitzgerald, MEP for Ireland and former deputy prime minister of Ireland, told us about the crucial role civil society played in passing the Irish law, which included the key voices of survivors. Thanks to that movement it has been illegal to purchase sex acts in Ireland since March 2017, resulting in a fine of between 500-1000 euro or up to five years in prison for purchasing sex with a trafficked person. This legal setting makes the country less attractive to traffickers and sends a clear signal to men and boys about what we consider acceptable as a society. 

Gregoire Thèry, Executive Director of CAP International (the Coalition for the Abolition of Prostitution), brought a voice from France, where, not only have they passed an abolitionist law, but that law has been challenged at the constitutional court and emerged victorious. He reminded us of some of the shocking statistics which really bring home exactly how harmful prostitution is, saying that “in France the suicide rate is 12 times higher among prostituted persons than in society in general.”

Alongside our collective celebration of the progress that has been made in Ireland and France, among other places, Fitzgerald also reminded us of how much work there is still to do in terms of tackling the misguided and harmful misconceptions about prostitution, the result of which is that it is viewed by many as being an exercise of freedom. The reality is that prostitution exists because of the profits involved, which is why trafficking is so intertwined, as it exists in large part to provide the ‘tools’ of this trade. It is extraordinary to think that human trafficking is up there with the international drugs trade in terms of profits. Myria Vassiliadou, the European Commission Anti-Trafficking Coordinator, gave us a simple example to get an idea of the scale of the money involved in prostitution. If 9000 women and girls are involved in prostitution every day, abused 5 times per day – even though the reality is often more like 20 -, say at 30 euro per time – even though the reality can be much lower or higher – that equates to almost half a billion euro. This number of 9000 people only represents victims from Nigeria, and only those who have been identified as victims of trafficking. We know the real numbers are much higher. 

The money involved begs the question of why we continue to offer impunity to sex-buyers. When we buy a fake designer bag, it’s illegal and we can be punished. But if we want to buy a human being for unfettered access to their body, we face no consequence. Fitzgerald added that “to end the culture of impunity, we must disrupt the business model.” If we want to make this a reality, we must create a comprehensive approach shared by countries internationally, in order to avoid a situation where men can simply cross a border to satisfy their desire for paid rape without fear of punishment. As Thèry told us, “it’s high time to transform the principles of the Honeyball Resolution into harmonised legislation” across the European Union.

Campaigns such as those in Ireland and France couldn’t have been successful without the invaluable voices of the survivors. It is they who are leading the call for the abolition of prostitution because they are the ones who understand the grim reality, what it really means to be bought for sex acts on a daily basis. Representing herself, and reminding us all to remember the women and girls who have died or been murdered in prostitution, Fiona Broadfoot, survivor, activist and founder of Build a Girl, said “I have to bring them into the room. I speak for them.” She recounted some of her own harrowing experiences, when “up to 10 men a day paid to rape” her, and she noted how they became less interested in her the older she became. Not only did Fiona experience the violence first hand, but she also lost a loved one to that violence. Her cousin was murdered by a sex-buyer who had just got out of prison after murdering a so-called ‘sex worker’. 

No harm reduction programme can erase the abuse Fiona was subject to;  or the abuse she inflicted on her own body in an attempt to cope with what she was experiencing and nothing can bring back her cousin, or the other women and children who have died and continue to die in prostitution.

Anja Jesinger, a German survivor and member of the survivors’ organisation SPACE International, also shared her experience of prostitution, which started later in life when she was in her 40s. She describes this as a ‘choice’ made out of desperation because she couldn’t find a job and saw this as the only solution. Originally she told herself that prostitution just equated to lots of one-night stands, which in theory made sense to her, because she’d heard stories of the ‘happy hooker’. But from the very first appointment she found out that there is no joy in prostitution, only violence, stating “I had to ignore my own boundaries.” Having continued her search for a job, she eventually found work for a year, during which time she left prostitution. But when that job ended she describes a physical feeling of desperation not to go back into prostitution, which turned into depression. Seeking help that she was then unable to find, that desperation turned to anger at the realisation that the services she needed didn’t exist. It got her wondering about all of the young girls she had seen in prostitution. If she, as an adult woman, hadn’t coped and had struggled so much to get out, then how would they ever manage it? 

These testimonies reinforce our conviction that prostitution can never be a job like any other. Anja reminded us of the racism that’s rife in prostitution, which cannot be compared with any legitimate and dignified form of work. In some countries, Roma women represent up to 90% of women in prostitution[1], the same trend we see with African American women in the US and indigenous women in Canada. Women from poorer countries are being used and abused by men from the wealthier countries of the world. As women, we know all too well that sexism still exists in every aspect of our society, but where the legislation permits or regulates prostitution, this sexism translates directly into violence.

And what about the conviction of those exploiting women in prostitution? According to Myria, people don’t want to talk about sexual exploitation, but it is a serious problem with an extremely low prosecution and conviction rate. The old excuse that is still being rolled out is that the exploitation in prostitution is hard to prove. The same excuse used to be used with regards to rape – but now we know better. EU states have sidelined this issue. We must make sure our governments and legislators are on the side of the victims of this crime. Simply being vulnerable does not make you a victim. It’s the exploiter, the profit-maker, the user, the pimp who takes advantage of this vulnerability that makes you a victim. 

The Honeyball Resolution is just one among many key instruments we have at the European and international level. For example, the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, many of the rights guaranteed by which are violated by prostitution. We must put pressure on our local, national and European politicians to put these instruments into practice and protect our women and girls from violence, to work towards equality between men and women, and to strive for a Europe free from prostitution. As Anna Zobnina from the European Network for Migrant Women said, addressing our European governments, “we are watching you.”


[1] According to the Anti-Discrimination Centre“In France, Germany, Spain, the UK, The Netherlands, more than 80% of prostitution victims are migrant women from Romania, Bulgaria, Albania, Nigeria China, or trans people from Latin America. And among these nationalities, the most discriminated groups are always the primary victims. For example, 90% of the Bulgarian women we meet in prostitution in Western Europe belong to the Roma or to the Turkish speaking community.”