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Scrap laws against sex work, says justice minister

Rue d'Aerschot in Brussels, centre of the red light area. © jmerelo/Wikimedia

Sex work should be removed from the criminal law in Belgium, to help sex workers escape from the clutches of international criminal gangs, according to federal justice minister Vincent Van Quickenborne (Open VLD).

Van Quickenborne was replying yesterday in parliament to a question from Open VLD member Marianne Verhaert.

Sex work is rarely prosecuted as such in Belgium, but it remains a criminal offence. That is not only hypocritical, but also dangerous, he said. “Being in a grey zone, the door is wide open to abuse, pimps and forced prostitution.”

Taking the activity out of the criminal code would allow sex workers to escape exploitation by not only criminal gangs, but also unscrupulous landlords who charge exorbitant rents for insalubrious rooms where sex work can take place. Since the ‘oldest profession’ is technically a crime, sex workers have no recourse and no rights.

At present, while sex work per se is not illegal, everything surrounding it is. “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, told The Brussels Times last year.

Anyone who receives money that is earned through sex work, could in theory be punished by law.”

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Clarity benefits everyone,” Van Quickenborne said. “Sex work is a regular, economic activity, provided it involves adults who choose to do so for themselves. In this way people can practice their profession as the rest of us do, and they can, for example, work with an accountant or enjoy social protection.”

But decriminalisation does not mean anything goes, and abuse will continue to be punished.

For example, we will soon come up with an action plan for battling human trafficking with better protection for victims and a tougher approach to perpetrators. Police and justice will also focus on criminal exploitation,” he said.

We have the opportunity to take the historic step of recognising and protecting sex workers and stopping criminal vultures. I am counting on the support of parliament for that.”

Verhaert welcomed the announcement.

About 25,000 people – women, men and trans people – who are active as sex workers work in a legal vacuum right now, making them particularly vulnerable to malpractice. The fact that the minister will now make a proposal to tackle Article 380 of the Criminal Code and to decriminalise sex work is a historic step,” she said.

Alan Hope
The Brussels Times