In early February Iroko’s Executive Director, Esohe Aghatise, and two members of the team went to Madrid to attend CATW and the Commission for the Investigation of Harms Against Women’s (Comisión Para La Investigación De Malos Tratos A Mujeres, CIMTM) global conference entitled Centering Women and Girls in Ending Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation: The Architecture of the 5.2 Global Partnership. Not only did the conference give invaluable insights into the challenges facing this movement to end trafficking and sexual exploitation and some of the tools and projects in place to tackle them, but it provided an opportunity to come together with an inspiring group of women and men who work every day to protect the rights of women and girls around the world.

The conference consisted of 8 panels of experts, journalists, survivors, activists and many more, across two days, including speakers from all over the world. Among them were CATW’s Board of Directors, who began the conference talking about the successes and challenges they’ve seen over the organisation’s 30 years. Aurora Javate-de Dios highlighted the hypocrisy that many self-proclaimed feminist organisations demonstrate today, citing the example of the scandal surrounding Oxfam staff in Haiti in 2010, where representatives of a global organisation promoting human rights and equality were supporting earthquake victims one day and buying women’s bodies for sexual services the next. Janice Raymond recognised the huge contribution and strength that survivors have brought to this movement over the years. Ruchira Gupta brought forward a theme that continued throughout the conference: the question of language and the powerful role it plays. When asked what she would change given a magic wand, she proposed the removal of the concept of ‘consensual sex’ from our collective vocabulary, and its replacement with ‘welcome sex’.

Later, Grégoire Théry highlighted the legal instruments that exist within the framework of human rights law, which he sees as already sufficient if implemented properly. The cornerstone of this framework is the dignity and worth of the human person, with which prostitution is entirely incompatible. Germany and the Netherlands, for example, where prostitution is legal and state-regulated, both violate their obligations under Article 6 of CEDAW, which requires states to “suppress all forms of traffic in women and exploitation of prostitution of women”. Trafficking will never end if we don’t focus on the ‘destinations’ of this crime, the largest of which is the sex trade which accounts for 80% of trafficking worldwide. The statistics back up this position, showing a clear link between legalised prostitution and high rates of human trafficking. Théry cited two comparisons:
Human trafficking is ten times higher in Germany than in France, and is twenty times higher in the Netherlands than in Sweden.

As the Executive Director of CAP International, Théry is working on a campaign focused on ILO[1] and trade unions[2] to ensure that reference to ‘sex work’ or the recognition of the activity as work is avoided at all costs.

Linking back to Gupta’s reference to the language of consent, we also turn to the Palermo Protocol, which stipulates that consent is irrelevant when gained through means of threat or use of force or other forms of “coercion, abduction, fraud, deception, abuse of power or a position of vulnerability, and the giving or receiving of payments or benefits”[3], i.e. consent CANNOT be bought. As explained by Rachel Moran, the word ‘consent’ also gives the idea of doing something to somebody rather than with them. She prefers the language of mutuality when it comes to sex, which makes it clear that the exchanges in prostitution cannot be characterised as sex because mutuality is simply absent.

In the third panel the psychologist and trauma therapist Ingeborg Kraus called out the state-sanctioned violence and abuse in her home country, Germany. As she pointed out, we now have plenty of evidence and experience of three different legal models of prostitution (legalisation, decriminalisation and the Nordic Model) and so there is no doubt about their effects and no longer any need for experimentation around these policies in other countries considering legislative reform. Germany sees an annual €15bn of direct transactions within the sex trade, but there is still a strong illegal part of the trade even in this legalised context, which turns over at least the same amount of money, if not more. The country has seen an increase in demand for prostitution and the creation of mega brothels[4]. This legislation sends a very clear message to society and to men in particular, that they have the right to buy sexual acts and need not feel any guilt or shame. The law was supposed to protect the women in prostitution and give them access to systems of health and welfare, but the reality is quite different. In reality, the women ‘officially employed’ in prostitution are a tiny minority in Germany. Many of the women are either victims of trafficking and their exploiters do not want them made public for obvious reasons, the brothels want to avoid the responsibilities that come with being official employers, or the women do not want to be publicly registered to avoid stigmatisation[5]. Most of what is earnt through prostitution goes to the brothels, which make women pay rent for the rooms where they receive punters  – 1.2 million men every day.

“Germany will have a seat on the UN Security Council for 2019/2020. Gender equality is a precondition for global sustainable development and a central target of the United Nations Agenda 2030. It cannot be that Germany has been given a co-responsibility for keeping peace in the world, when Germany in its own country, with its legislation on prostitution, is waging a war against women. It is a fatal contradiction.” Dr. Ingeborg Kraus

Melissa Farley highlighted the strength of the pro-’sex work’ side of this debate and the ease with which the media can access the stories and opinions of their representatives and activists. She called on abolitionists to work on the creation of more survivor testimonials like this blog to strengthen our visibility and our message about the harms of prostitution, which is harmful not only to the individual victims, but also to society at large. For example, her research has shown a correlation between men buying sex and their likelihood to commit rape. Having reviewed much of the research on pimping and trafficking in Europe and North America, she highlights the fact that “84% of adults in prostitution [are] under the control of a pimp or trafficker”[6] – prostitution is the end result of sex trafficking and they are two sides of the same coin: pimping and trafficking amount to the same abuse.

We must not forget the reality that, not only is prostitution itself a form of violence, but a large proportion of those who end up victims of prostitution are already vulnerable and have already suffered other forms of violence and abuse. The prevalence of childhood sexual abuse and chronic traumatisation among prostituted women has been documented by studies showing that between 60% and 90% were sexually assaulted in childhood. 90% of women in one study had been “physically battered in childhood; 74% were sexually abused in their families- with 50% also having been sexually abused by someone outside the family”. “Of 123 survivors of prostitution at the Council for Prostitution Alternatives in Portland – 85% reported a history of incest, 90% a history of physical abuse, and 98% a history of emotional abuse”[7].

The presence of survivor leaders was particularly invaluable and it really reinforced our confidence in the strength and objectives of this movement. As an abolitionist association and as individual members we left with an overwhelming feeling of optimism for the future of this movement if we continue to work together as a network. The tools and frameworks that support our conviction that prostitution can never be considered work already exist within international laws and conventions and there is overwhelming evidence of the damaging effects of legalising prostitution and the successes of the Nordic Model. With all of these tools and evidence, what we as a movement need to do is work together, reinforcing and making the most of our national and international networks and forcing our governments and international entities to abide by and enforce the rules and conventions that already exist.

We also learnt about the importance of working at a local level to change attitudes and put pressure on local officials and entities, that can then form a stronger and more united ‘upwards’ pressure on institutions at the national and international levels. Today in Italy we face an alarming political situation where one half of our current governing coalition support the regulation of prostitution and the reversal of the 1958 “Lina Merlin” law that abolished brothels.

It seems our Interior Minister, Matteo Salvini, and his party, The League, have based their position solely on a moral argument and the questionable ‘potential benefits’ for the public purse of taxing people in prostitution. Gianfranco Rufa, Salvini’s colleague in The League and secretary of the parliamentary committee of inquiry into femicide, has described their proposed legal change as “an act of civilisation with regards to street prostitutes” and, above all, “for decency and the image of our streets themselves”. Contrary to his assertion however, such a proposed legal change would be one of the most uncivil acts of public policy as it would constitute an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ approach to the abuse and violence that women experience every day in prostitution. Moreover, it could contribute to a national increase in domestic violence and rape, as has happened in New Zealand since their decriminalisation laws were enacted[8]. Considering the particulars of how this regulation would work, the League’s proposal foresees an official register for prostitutes with the objective to “guarantee for clients that everyone in this profession work in a safe way, following the rules”[9]. Above all, this law would protect the pimps, the buyers and punters, putting in place the necessity for those in prostitution to undergo health checks every six months and present proof of such on request. This would ultimately render women’s bodies as products that need to have particular certifications and guarantees in order to make them safe for buyers’ use. Their proposed legal change comes hot on the heels of another new law, passed in December 2018, from the same party that has greatly reduced the possibilities for asylum seekers arriving in Italy to receive legal protection. Their position seems to take no account of the devastating impact of prostitution on its victims or the proliferation of trafficking for sexual exploitation in Europe, but particularly in Italy as a point of arrival and entry into Europe.


[4]For a frank description of such mega brothels, see this article from the Telegraph newspaper.