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No man’s land: Belgium’s Red Light District

Just like everything else in Belgium, prostitution is a complicated topic. With different rules in different parts of the country, and no clear message on what is and what isn’t allowed, a lot of different people have a lot of say on it. The biggest issue, however, is that most of them don’t really want to.

Despite sex work being the oldest job in the world, the lack of official statute makes it difficult for the estimated 28,000 sex workers in Belgium to do their job without getting in legal trouble. First, the official rules. Sex work in itself is legal. Neither the sex worker nor the client can be prosecuted. However, all third parties are committing a crime when they get involved.

“Of course, the aim of this law is mostly to impact pimps. However, the law also affects anyone who might provide services to sex workers, such as lawyers or bookkeepers,” Daan Bauwens, a spokesperson for a union of sex workers in Belgium, UTSOPI, tells The Brussels Times. “Anyone who receives money that is earned through sex work, could in theory be punished by law.” However, as that is not workable, Belgium has a tolerance policy. “The policy is mostly aimed at people who rent property to sex workers, and websites hosting sex worker ads.”

The Belgian prostitution law, which dates from the 1950s, is at its core an abolitionist one, aiming to eradicate sex work in the country, according to UTSOPI. “If you do not allow support for the job of a sex worker, like a bookkeeper for example, then you are making sure that the work is de facto not recognised as an actual job. But eradicating prostitution has not worked anywhere, so why would it work in Belgium,” Bauwens questions.

Legal no man’s land

To complicate matters even further, the tolerance policy is not a matter of federal law, or even a regional one: it is implemented by the municipalities, meaning that different rules apply in different cities, and sometimes even in neighbouring municipalities within a city.

One of the main reasons why the regulation concerning sex work have major flaws is because no one wants to deal with the subject, according to Bauwens. Legally, sex work is in no man’s land, as while it is not forbidden by law, it is not entirely legal either, and regulations depend on the region, but also on the municipality in which it is practised.

The red light district in Ghent, for example, officially only has ‘bar personnel’ working, to make sure that undocumented people cannot end up behind the windows. The ‘Schipperskwartier’ in Antwerp is so well known for sex work, that the city’s tourist website even advertises the streets on which their ‘ladies of the night’ work.

In Brussels, it all depends on the commune. In Schaerbeek, sex work is entirely tolerated. In Saint-Josse-ten-Noode, however, a policy was initially created to get rid of all sex workers, which resulted in situations where the rules on one side of the street differed from those on the other side. “We have had so many problems in Saint-Josse,” Bauwens says. “Initially, regulations had been agreed upon between the police, the municipality and the sex workers, but they have been blown up by [mayor] Emir Kir several times.”

However, even though the coronavirus pandemic in Belgium underlined the need for a legal interpretation and basis to fall back on in times of need, it also resulted in better communication between Brussels’ sex workers and the municipalities. “In Saint-Josse, for example, the communication between the sex work sector and the municipality was really bad, for years and years. There was a lot of bad press, and just a general lack of healthy communication,” Maxime Maes from UTSOPI tells The Brussels Times.

At the height of the first wave if the coronavirus crisis, sex workers were first overlooked and left without support when the federal government ordered the sector shut. Then in June, they were left to fend for themselves again when the workers were given the federal green light, subject to some conditions, but local authorities kept their businesses closed, according to Maes. “That is when we started communicating, sometimes almost weekly. After at least five years without really talking, this was a huge step. Now, we decided to continue to meet about four times per year to evaluate the situation per district and work together,” he says. “This is a really good step.”

But even with steps in the right direction, there is still a long way to go. The fact that Saint-Josse is now changing its approach to sex work, does not alter the situation in other municipalities. “That is exactly what we are talking about: leaving important decisions about sex work to the local level creates a situation of contradictions, arbitrariness and legal uncertainty for sex workers,” the sex worker union says, adding that they demand a design of a federal framework that brings “coherence and legal certainty.”

“A statute would determine if the job falls under the penal code of Belgian law, or not. The current situation creates a lot of insecurity among sex workers, because some of them are under the impression that sex work is tolerated in a certain area, but are then suddenly prosecuted,” Bauwens explains.

Breaking world records

The law has an element of randomness to it, according to UTSOPI, which is why the organisation wants to see a revision of the penal code, specifically of article 380, which punishes “those who cooperate in fornication and prostitution.”

The office of federal Justice Minister Koen Geens started the task, looking to decriminalise adult pornography and the economic exploitation of consenting adults. However, Belgium would not be Belgium if everything just went smoothly, and in December 2018, while the law was being revised, the federal government fell. “We are now waiting for the next government, in case the revision of the penal code will still come through,” Bauwens says.

According to Sigrid Schellen, a Flemish sex worker, an official statute for sex workers would help many people but she does not think it will become a reality soon. “I am afraid that the political part will be a very long time coming, mostly because it is a very difficult subject,” she tells The Brussels Times.

“Of course, I hope that it will come sooner rather than later, but I am very realistic, and I’m well aware that it is not going to happen overnight. I just do not see it happening anytime soon, to be honest. It’s very unfortunate. The thing is, as long as everything happens according to plan, a statute does not change a lot. The statute becomes important from the moment something goes wrong. The problem is that sex work is some kind of grey zone. There is zero protection for people working in my sector,” Schellen says.

This lack of protection, which already caused a great deal of trouble for many sex workers before the pandemic hit, was laid completely bare due to the impact of the coronavirus and subsequent lockdown. It did not create new problems as such, but it allowed existing problems to surface.

“Bills have to be paid, and money has to come from somewhere. I can very well imagine that the people who do not have a safety net, the most vulnerable group, in other words, continued to work,” Schellen says. “The crisis made a group of people in an already precarious situation even more vulnerable. We have the same duties as everyone else, we have to pay taxes. But when the time comes to get something in return, we have no rights. That is incredibly hypocritical, if you think about it.”

Juggling

Besides the statute for which UTSOPI has been campaigning for several years, an official social statute would also make many sex workers’ lives easier, according to Schellen. Under the current law, everyone providing services to sex workers is technically doing something punishable. “My landlord is committing a punishable offence by allowing me to rent from him, because I practice my job from my apartment. My bookkeeper is ‘facilitating prostitution’ by taking care of my finances. Volkswagen too, because I lease my car from them,” Schellen says.

In practice, sex workers can officially register, by using a NACE-BEL code (Statistical Classification of Economic Activities in the European Community, in Belgium) that stands for ‘other services’. “The situation in Belgium is unclear however. The code has the subsection ‘escorting services’, but that applies to bodyguards just the same as to sex workers,” Bauwens from UTSOPI says. “However, sex workers have a lot of job-specific costs.”

“Not having official guidelines also has its upside on this front,” says Schellen, explaining that she can also use the lack of clear rules to her advantage. ”I have been working independently for about two years now. I admit, it has required some juggling with NACE-BEL codes. I can declare pretty much everything as a job-specific cost,” Schellen says, adding she can declare children’s toys for her daughter with the explanation that it’s a kink for one of her clients. “With no rules, no one is going to tell me I can’t.”

Stepmother-like treatment

Any binding regulations that could be agreed on, however, should not reinforce the existing stigma on the job of sex workers, as that leads to discrimination. This stigma, according to Bauwens, is in part both the cause and the result of what he calls the authorities’ “stepmother-like” treatment of the sector, in a direct and unsubtle reference to the fairy tale in which Cinderella is neglected by the person who should have taken care of her basic needs.

Policies that include compulsory medical checks, or the restriction of sex work to areas within municipalities that are too small and too dangerous, only enforce the stigma and should not be implemented. “We ask, instead, that the government join us in the direct fight against the stigma, in particular its possible presence in services essential to daily life,” UTSOPI pleads, referring to, among others, public services, treatment at hospitals and by the police.

“Belgium has laws to combat discrimination. It is time to apply them to curb discrimination against sex workers in their daily lives,” the sex worker union says. “This is the only way we can create equal opportunities for sex workers.”

By Maïthé Chini