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Is Europe Ready for 'Whore Power'?

America has a clear position on decriminalizing prostitution: No way. But some Europeans believe it's time to legalize commercial sex.
 
 
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Camille Cabral knew what she was doing when she posed for a Press Association photographer at the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium, last October.

Dr. Cabral, an academic and commercial sex worker, wore a liberal application of makeup, a sticker reading "Sluts Unite!" across the skin of her right breast, and the starry flag of the European Union.

The picture of Dr. Cabral was not flattering, but that didn't stop it becoming one of Yahoo's most emailed images for several days, and the subject of morbid fascination on numerous weblogs. "My eyes, my eyes!!!!!" wailed one contributor. "I wouldn't let that woman near me," moaned another. "Come to think of it ... I wouldn't even let her pay ME for sex."     

Not, perhaps, the press she was looking for. But Dr. Cabral's intended audience at the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe (ICRSE) was not just the blogging public. Her message, as evidenced by the sticker adhered to her chest, was aimed at other so-called sluts. "You shouldn't hide yourselves!" Cabral announced to Europe's hookers via Reuters. "You shouldn't be ashamed!"

Pride apart, on that day in Brussels, the rights of sex workers -- or more accurately, the absence of such rights -- was given an unprecedented airing. The European press broadcast the concerns of male and female prostitutes across the continent. An Italian legislator, Vittorio Agnoletto, pledged to pursue the matter. But at the end of the day, no laws were passed, and it was possible to detect a polite distancing among some political leaders from the crowd of provocatively dressed lobbyists bearing signs reading "Whore Power."     

It's hard to imagine such a group making their way up the Capitol steps for a similar meeting with U.S. lawmakers to discuss the oldest profession. America has a fairly clear position on decriminalizing prostitution: No way. While liberals have their hands full shoring up such basic issues as evolution and sex ed, the right to purchase sex will remain confined to Nevada.

But a conservative executive branch isn't all that defines the American public's view of the issue. Americans are far less inclined than Europeans to support the rights of sex workers by instinct.     

It comes down to a simple difference in viewpoint. Commercial sex tends to be viewed as enslavement in America -- by moral conservatives as enslavement to sin, by feminists as enslavement to men and by law enforcement as a catalyst for criminal activity. In Europe, on the other hand, where the public is more comfortable with regulation, decriminalization is seen by many as the path to better control.     

As the E.U.'s twenty-five member nations struggle to fashion a cohesive identity, now could the moment for sex workers to achieve widespread legalization on that continent. But it could also be the beginning of a continental crackdown, where countries that have traditionally been tolerant of prostitution swing ideologically toward their neighbors with tougher laws. As it stands, European laws on prostitution vary from country to country, but the E.U. is looking to make a number of its laws consistent continent-wide.     

Currently, in much of Europe, prostitution still lingers on the fringes of legality. For the past few years, the legal climate has been hardening, according to Ruth Morgan Thomas of the Scottish Prostitutes' Education Project (ScotPep). "The Swedish model of criminalizing the purchase of sex, and the American evangelical approach, are influencing much of Europe. It's only in the last few years that France criminalized street prostitution. Things are getting worse."     

In this context, the ICRSE declaration, which stated that "sex work is work and a profession" and "sex workers are workers and must be recognized as such" was a radical creed. The declaration also addressed the legal anomalies that exist throughout Europe. For example, in Greece, though prostitution is legal, prostitutes cannot marry without losing their license to practice. In Portugal, child custody is often threatened.     

Dr. Ana Lopes, a commercial sex worker and Ph.D. student who attended on behalf of the London-based International Union of Sex Workers (IUSW), argues that the conference was symbolic. Prostitutes had visited the Parliament two decades ago, after the Second World Whores' Congress in 1986. "We're a marginalized group, so entering the European Parliament and thinking, 'We have a right to be here, we are European citizens' is important."     

But even as Dr. Cabral was preparing for her close up in Brussels, the European Women's Lobby was staging a conference of prostitution "survivors" and issuing an opposing manifesto. "There is a big push by the sex industry to make it acceptable and visible and normalized as a normal job," says Colette De Troy of the EWL, "but there is a growing recognition that that shouldn't be the way to look at prostitution."

Europe's confusion about its own attitude toward prostitution was made evident last November when it emerged that the British travel company Thomas Cook was marketing a two-hour walking tour of Amsterdam's red-light district, De Wallen. Thomas Cook, which boasts "family holidays and last-minute deals," insisted that touring the brothel-lined streets was an "unmissable experience . . . not unlike a bizarre zoo."     

"Begin with a drink at a prostitute information centre where a former prostitute will explain the system and answer any questions you may have," the tour company's brochure suggested. "Then head for the Wallen and see for yourself." Tickets for the tour were half-price for those aged four to twelve, while under-threes could go for free.     

Quoted in the Observer of London, Esohe Aghatise, the European representative of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, raged that it was "sick to propose a 'prostitution tour' not only for adults, but even more so for children." Thomas Cook, for their part, seemed baffled that offering a tour of something that's approved of and accepted by the people of Holland should present a problem. "We have added this excursion to our program so that our clients who do not feel comfortable or safe walking through the red-light district on their own can do so with an experienced guide, not only to escort them but to share his or her knowledge of this city's colorful past and present."

The minor scandal illustrated the split between those who represent the rights of sex workers and those who argue that sex can never be a normal job. The ICRSE endorses sex workers' rights, but the EWL opposes anything that might be interpreted as giving succor to the industry, including the very use of the term "sex workers."      "Even when they were in prostitution, they could call it work, or say that they chose it, but they never wanted to see it as a normal job," says De Troy of prostitutes she's met. "They described very clearly why it's not a normal job."     

Ana Lopes of the IUSW is blunt in her rejection of this view. "After so many years of that kind of feminist campaign you still have a huge sex industry, and the same problems and the same exploitation and the same abuses go on."     

ScotPep's Ruth Morgan Thomas, herself a former sex worker, also rejects the use of the word "survivor." She says women have various reasons for doing sex work. In Edinburgh, between 800-1,000 women work in the sex industry over a year. 10 percent to 15 percent of these women work the streets, and of these, 95 percent are dependent drug users.     

"One of the reasons for their involvement is the lack of options and opportunities for accessing drug treatment services. That's not to say that they have no choice, but in reality, there are very few options."     

And because most of Edinburgh's sex industry is indoors, through saunas and massage parlors, "a significant majority of those women are making a clear choice about entering sex work for the financial rewards that it offers," says Morgan Thomas.

But in addition to comical stories about tours of brothels for parents and their teenage sons, the British media has been rife with stories about the trafficking of girls from Eastern Europe. In the most recent case, which concluded at the end of November, five Albanian men were convicted of forcing a sixteen-year-old Lithuanian girl into a life of prostitution in London. The case prompted the UK Home Office to suggest that it might sign up for the European Convention on Action Against Trafficking in Human Beings, and -- more controversially -- that the law might be changed so that any man found to have slept with a trafficked woman could be charged with rape.

All of which sits uneasily alongside Dr. Cabral's playful photo call.

Is it possible for prostitution to be normal work? The experience of Lopes suggests that there's merit in the approach, though her ultimate aim -- the establishment of a system in which prostitution is legal no one is exploited -- seems far off.    

"We know that many people choose to do this work," she says. "They're not forced. They have many other options available to them, and they choose this. And they should have the right to do so."     

Lopes has been involved in the sex industry for six years. She worked first in phone sex, then did modeling and stripping before she "tried prostitution," which, she claims, was hardly different from dancing. "People who have never tried working in this industry have a distorted view of what it's about," she says. "When you work as a prostitute it's not like you're having penetrative sex all the time. There are a lot of similarities between going and meeting a client and talking to someone on the phone or doing a dance. It's all about the show. It's all about selling the illusion of desire, of, almost, love. Most of the effort goes into that. The actual sexual act itself very often doesn't even happen. Other things happen -- maybe hand-relief, some kind of massage."    

Lopes says she never lasted very long in any of her jobs because she felt exploited -- not by her customers, but by the lack of regulation. "I never had a problem with the work itself. When I worked in striptease I loved it. I loved the show of it. I loved dancing, I loved having the attention of people. It was very empowering in the sense that almost all women have problems with their bodies. I've got all those problems, and just being open about my body and having all those people desire my body was really therapeutic.     

"The only problem was when it came to the terms of payment and how I was treated in the clubs. Not by the customers but by the managers. I wasn't treated as a normal worker. When I was dancing in the clubs I didn't like the fact that I didn't have a salary. I used to do my show, and then go around with a pint jug and people would put coins in it. I didn't find dancing naked degrading at all, but going around almost like busking, or begging, I found that degrading."     

Lopes decided sex workers needed to be protected by the same organizations that looked after construction workers, pilots, plumbers and mechanics. She formed the International Union of Sex Workers and ran it out of the front room of her apartment (the use of the term "international" was, at best, an act of defiance). Then one day, at a conference on sweatshop labor, she heard a representative of the GMB (England's general workers' union -- the initials used to stand for General, Municipal and Boilermakers) speak about the need for sweatshop workers to be organized. Rather than close down the exploitative factories, throwing needy people out of their jobs, the man said, the union should campaign for their rights.     

Lopes saw the parallels and asked the union official whether sex workers could join. "Later he told me that at that first conversation, he thought he was being filmed by Candid Camera ," says Lopes.     

Today, the IUSW is officially affiliated with the GMB, and its membership is approximately three hundred and growing. With their help, the campaign to enlist sex workers in unions is being rolled out across Europe. In addition to England, there are now unions in Greece, the Netherlands, Germany, Spain and Sweden.

Despite organizational gains, the legal status of prostitutes in the European Union remains far from settled. Fighting trafficking is a more urgent -- and more politically popular -- proposition for most legislators. In Sweden, the fight against such trafficking has become so intense that the use of a female prostitute is now legally defined as a form of male violence.     

"The main cause of trafficking is the demand," says De Troy. "If you don't think about this question, you might think it's logical to give prostitutes better working conditions. 'If they want to work in this area, let's protect them,' goes the thinking. But if you go a bit deeper, you can see that they are not choosing that freely. It's more complex than saying prostitution is the oldest profession, it always happens, and that's it."     

But many E.U. countries aren't convinced that pushing prostitution underground will stifle demand, and are implementing more liberal regulations that attempt to contain it. In Scotland, where the jurisdiction on this issue has been devolved from London to the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, Member of the Scottish Parliament (MSP) Margo MacDonald has been fighting for "tolerance zones" for years. Until 2001, a tolerance zone in the Leith district of Edinburgh allowed women to solicit sex within its borders without fear of prosecution. As the neighborhood developed residentially, however, the tolerance zone was removed, and until November, MacDonald was fighting to get the zones back into law.     

On November 29, however, MacDonald conceded that the term "tolerance zone" had "bedevilled" the debate and ended her campaign. She was its sole champion.     

"The Swedish situation is that they banned sex for sale, which we don't think is feasible," says MacDonald. "It drives it underground, and when it's driven underground, criminality, the trafficking of women, and drugs are under much less scrutiny by the police, because they just don't have the intelligence about what's going on if the women are hidden."

So rather than criminalize prostitution outright, a new Scottish proposal equalizes the treatment of the buyer and seller of sex, and threatens punishment only if someone specifically complains. "If by soliciting for business, or by looking for someone to sell you sex, you cause offence, alarm, harm, or nuisance to a third party, and they make a complaint about you, then that could trigger a charge," says MacDonald. The local authority will also be obliged to look after the welfare of prostitutes, providing health and support services to areas where they're known to congregate. This solution supports the prostitutes, without condoning prostitution. "Whether people like it or not, it is sex between two consenting adults," says MacDonald. "Some women argue it's not, because women are exploited in this relationship, and many of them are, but it's not necessarily the people who are buying sex who are exploiting them."     

Lopes favors the model used in New Zealand, where prostitution has been decriminalized, but the size of brothels is limited, avoiding the "supermarkets of sex" which appear in countries like the Netherlands.     

In the long term, De Troy favors a shift in cultural values. "It's not that we're against sex. It's just that we want respect for people to be the main value, not money. It's not immoral to have sex, it's just immoral to exploit people."     

Lopes is frustrated by this argument, but believes the two approaches can be reconciled. "We have different interpretations on the nature of prostitution. Fine, but we should be fighting on the same side. I'm fighting for the rights of this group of people, they see these people as victims. So we should be fighting for the same thing, for the empowerment of this group of people."     

Morgan Thomas makes the same point, but stresses that the question of prostitutes' rights is more than academic. "There's been lots of research over the last few years into violence committed against sex workers. Actual physical violence. Murders. Rapes. Assaults. Abductions. For me, there is an issue about tackling that, because that's a violation of any person's human rights. The fact that we fail to address that as a society leaves sex workers out there, being perceived by some men who purchase sex as legitimate targets of violence. It's almost as if they're saying any woman who is prepared to do that deserves it."

Today, America's and Western Europe's ideologies seem more divergent than ever. Our political and cultural decisions seem not only to skew, but to actually intentionally deviate with a hint of spite. But if the E.U. decides to decriminalize prostitution across the continent, and the results are overwhelmingly successful, groups that advocate for similar policies in the U.S. will have incontrovertible evidence for their position. Likewise, if Europe drifts into a continent-wide crackdown, it can only embolden anti-prositution advocates in America. Either way, the E.U. will act as a lab for America's problem.     

Will prostitution ever be seen as normal work in the European Union? Margo MacDonald believes that it's still far off.    

"Lots of women go in and out of prostitution -- say you're a single parent and you've got big bills to pay -- and I can't see what's in it for them to have that on their employment record," she says. "We might be headed down that road, but I don't expect a mass conversion."     

But Lopes, the union organizer, is more optimistic. "When I'm asked, 'Would you put prostitute on your CV?' or 'Would you like your daughter to be a prostitute?' I say that in this environment, no, I wouldn't. But I can imagine a legal and social system where that would be okay. In my grandmother's time, if you chose to be a theater actress, it was the same as being a prostitute. You would be completely stigmatized and marginalized. But people still did it because they wanted to, because they had a natural talent, or because they didn't see any other possibilities for themselves.

"There's always been a line between mainstream entertainment and the sex industry, but that line is blurred and it's shifting. I can imagine it moving further. And I can imagine a time when it might disappear."

Alastair McKay has written for the (London) Sunday Times, The Guardian, and Black Book. He lives in London.