L’actualité d’isala asbl

☎ 0472 35 30 58

>>> Besoin d'aide ? Need help? Necesitas ayuda? Bisogno di aiuto?
Keni nevojë për ndihmë? Нужда от помощ? Precisas de ajuda? <<<


Abolishing the myths about prostitution!

Le 5 mars 2024, notre cofondatrice Pierrette Pape a été invitée par le Feminist Chapter (club féministe) du campus de Sciences Po au Havre pour parler de son expérience et du modèle abolitionniste dans le cadre de la Semaine des femmes. Voici son intervention en anglais, qui a été suivie par une discussion riche et curieuse, suivie par plus de 100 étudiant.es de 1ère et 2e années. Le 21 mars, Pierrette est revenue sur le campus pour une discussion passionnante autour du documentaire « Pornland » de Gail Dines. Un grand merci au Feminist Chapter pour l’invitation !

In English: On March 5, 2024, our co-founder Pierrette Pape was invited by the Feminist Chapter of the Sciences Po campus in Le Havre to talk about her experience and the abolitionist model in the framework of the Women’s week. Here is her talk in English, which was followed by a rich and inquisitive discussion, attended by over 100 first- and second-year students. On March 21st, she was back on campus for a passionate discussion about the documentary « Pornland » of Gail Dines. Many thanks to the Feminist Chapter for the invitation! Below you’ll find a list of resources about prostitution and pornography.

Women’s week conference: Abolishing the myths about prostitution!

I am very happy to be able to share my experience on the abolition of the system of prostitution and I would like to share with you my journey, so that you understand how I ended up with this vision, what I learned along the way and what I can share today. I’m not here to convince you of a certain position, you have to make your own opinion, based on your values, but I hope this exchange will at least give you an insight into the abolitionist model and maybe break some myths about it.

I joined the European Women’s Lobby in 2009 as Policy Officer and Campaigns Coordinator; I then became Policy Director and Acting Secretary General, and I worked there for almost 9 years.

The EWL and the EU

The European Women’s Lobby is the largest umbrella organisation for women’s rights in Europe: it has members from all over the 27 European Union Member States, from the UK and accessing countries such as Moldova, Iceland, North Macedonia, Serbia and Turkey, and from 17 European and international networks like the European Trade Union Confederation, the European Network of Migrant Women, the European Disability Forum or the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. It amounts to more than 2000 organisations which come together to bring change at European level for women’s human rights and gender equality.

I was already very much engaged into women’s rights when I joined the EWL: I was an activist in many feminist organisations in Brussels. For example, I was part of a spontaneous collective protesting against a masculinist conference in Brussels and we did it with a lot of serious arguments but also a lot of fun outdoor actions. I gave French classes to migrant women, I was the spokesperson for the World March of Women in 2010 when we organised a big march and shared our demands with the decision-makers, I co-organised a special 8th of March dedicated to youth with a feminist association working on gender and development, I was a member of an intergenerational group raising awareness on sexist advertising, I was and still am a member of the editorial committee of a feminist publication sharing research and analysis.

I wanted to work for the European Women’s Lobby because I wanted to both make an impact on European legislation and create new harmonised laws for women’s equality. A big part of our legislation on economic issues comes from the EU, because it’s a European competence. But when it comes to the majority of women’s human rights, women are not protected equally throughout Europe because there is no EU competence to address violence against women or reproductive rights, and you can find very good policies in some states and very weak ones in other states.

A debated issue amongst feminists

When I started working on the issue of prostitution, I quickly discovered that prostitution is one of the issues bringing the most heated debates in the feminist world, well beyond quotas, surrogacy or unpaid domestic work. I guess some of you have had such debates with friends or classmates.
But I also discovered that the European Women’s Lobby had a clear and strong position on the issue. The EWL’s governance foresees that decisions are taken through democratic processes, and this is what happened with prostitution like it did for other issues like the right to abortion or the access to maternity leave.

So 10 years before I joined the EWL, its members adopted a motion stating that the system of prostitution is a form of violence against women and girls, a violation of women’s human rights, an obstacle to equality between women and men (and each statement is important here), and that its root causes should be addressed, namely targeting the sex buyers, shifting the shame from the victims to the perpetrators, tackling rape culture and dismantling the sex industry through abolitionist laws.

Different policy approaches

Before I carry on, maybe I need to clarify here what the different policy approaches are today on prostitution. The abolitionist model aims to abolish the system of prostitution like the system of slavery has been abolished: address the root causes to change the mentalities and make prostitution undesirable in contemporary societies because it is considered as part of the continuum of male violence as well as a racist, classist and colonialist system; so the pimps and the buyers are criminalised in the law and not the prostituted persons who get support if they ask for it. Sweden was the first one to implement such model, in 1999, then Iceland and Norway, then Canada, Ireland and France. Spain is discussing it.

The prohibitionist model aims to prohibit everything that has to do with prostitution, stating that prostitution is contrary to ethics. So the prostituted persons, the buyers, the pimps, everyone is criminalised in the law. You would find such model implemented in Croatia or some Baltic states, as well as in some US states where the prostituted persons can get a criminal record for prostitution.

The regulationist or decriminalisation model states that there is no moral judgement on prostitution and therefore people can choose to be in prostitution, as long as they are not exploited. So in this model, only specific forms of exploitative pimping are criminalised. The Netherlands were the first ones to adjust their legislation to decriminalise pimping in 2000, followed by Germany and Austria, then New Zealand, some provinces of Australia and Spain, as well as Belgium last year.

Breaking my own stereotypes

Being a feminist, I already had a strong opinion on violence against women and rape culture, but through my work at EWL, I got to dig deep into the reality of prostitution and sexual exploitation. I met with activists and survivors from all over the world, read a lot of feminist analysis from different perspectives, and I did street work directly in contact with persons in prostitution.

Indeed, I could not develop campaigns and advocacy work on the issue of prostitution without experiencing myself the frontline work of going on the streets, talking to the persons and supporting them in the way they wish when they asked for help.

I had stereotypes on prostituted persons before I started to go and meet them on the streets and in the windows (because in Belgium you have windows, which you won’t see in France, brothels have been closed after the second world war). I thought they would be drunk or on drugs, that they would be dressed in a certain way, that they would be either completely free or on the contrary surrounded by pimps and bruised. I also had prejudices about sex buyers, I thought they would be at least 30 years old, ugly, very shy, with no friends, living far away from the city, single, with no sex life at all.

This volunteer work gave me an insight into the reality of the system of prostitution and helped me to adjust my understanding of the reality. I heard a lot of stories, very different ones. Some of my stereotypes were crashed, some were confirmed. In 2013, I founded an association in Brussels, to do this frontline work, and we were more than 40 volunteers going to meet the persons and supporting them in their journey. We had a house where we could host women if they wished to exit prostitution. The association is called isala, from the name of the first Belgian female student and first female doctor, Isala van Diest. She created a shelter for prostituted women.

Individual stories, here and there

Through isala, and through my work at the European Women’s Lobby, I met students who prostituted themselves to pay their rent, some of them took it as a student job like any other, some said they could not concentrate any more and had difficulties carrying on with their studies. I met elderly women who had been in prostitution for years and didn’t know that they could ask for social allowance and stop “working”. I met mothers who were on the streets at the end of the month because the minimum wage was not enough to allow ends meet; they would do it only at the end of the month.

I met transwomen who left Uruguay to be on the streets in Brussels and could not find any other occupation. I met a transactivist in Argentina who created a cooperative for transpeople in prostitution so that they would learn skills and get out of prostitution with a “real job”; she was hated by the sex workers’ associations. I met travesties who would come to the association as men and explain that they dress as women at night because that’s what excites buyers. Some of them were gay and had to flee their country because of their sexual orientation.

I met young women who were sold by their families to a network so that they could get money from the prostitution of their daughters to sustain the family back home in Romania, Bulgaria or Nigeria; a lot of them were from the Roma community or from ethnic minorities. I met young women who fell in love with a guy who offered to travel to Belgium, and then stole their passport and put them in a window. I met women who were the “madams” in the windows, which means that they stopped being in prostitution and had a new role: checking on the 2 other women in the window.

I met young women who told us prostitution was just a transitory strategy to gather money and then pay for their studies back home in Bulgaria; they didn’t want their family to know, so they were lying to them and pretending they were working in bars. Some of them had been through Greece and Spain before, we could tell through the languages they spoke, but they never had enough money to buy a car, so we guessed they were transported by others or had to contract a new debt to reach a new prostitution site. I remember this woman from Romania, who could speak perfect France, English and German, and told us: “Please do something against prostitution so that young girls are not trapped into it”.

I met with women who fell into a prostitution ring while in an asylum centre because they would trust people who told them that they could help them work to send back money home. I met women who registered on an escort website because they had nothing left in the fridge and 2 kids to feed. I met women who had to prostitute themselves in refugee camp to be able to get sugar or food for their children. Sometimes the sex buyers were humanitarians or peacekeepers.

I met women who had sex with strangers against money so that they could go to a hotel for the night because they were homeless and didn’t want to sleep on the streets or in the homeless centres. They said they preferred “being paid for sex than being raped on the streets”. Some had fled domestic violence at home, some fled sexual violence when they were teenagers, some had no money after a divorce because they were taking care of the household and not working.

I met families in India who were “dedicated” to prostitution: it is nomadic tribes who were persecuted by the English colonisers and ended up in townships around New Delhi. The girls would be born in families where the women are in prostitution, and the men manage the business. It is called intergenerational prostitution.

I met women who were in the German brothels and when they were complaining about the conditions (like the flat rates for example: men pay 80 euros and can “consume” as much as they want), they were told that they were not strong enough to be prostitutes. Others had to accept a job as a prostituted person if they wanted to keep their right to social allowance, before the German law decided to qualify prostitution as a “special work”. I met a sex worker who said that prostitution was a way to get revenge after the rapes she faced. Another one said that prostitution was violent, like any other job.

After the EWL, I worked for the Dr Mukwege Foundation, the advocacy organisation of the Congolese doctor who opened a hospital in Bukavu to care for victims of sexual violence in conflict. He started to do advocacy in the 90s, after the Rwandese conflict, and in 2018, he was Nobel Peace Prize, together with Nadia Murad, a Yezidi survivor of Daesh in Irak. Daesh killed all the men of the Yezidi community from her village and used all the women as sexual slaves, selling them or offering them to soldiers as awards.

With the Mukwege Foundation, I met with survivors from all over the world and went to Congo to train the network of survivors, as they were willing to do national advocacy as well as awareness raising within the communities. We talked about prostitution because they told me how sexual violence and prostitution are intimately linked, especially in times of conflict and post-conflict. This is something that came also from survivors of ex-Yougoslavia and Colombia: many women who have been victims of sexual violence end up in prostitution because they are ostracised by society and have no other way to survive. In some countries, prostitution camps were/are organised. Eve Ensler, whom you know because she’s the one who’ve written The Vagina Monologues based on her visit to Croatia, has been to Congo and met with survivors, and she wrote new monologues based on their testimonies. She also supported the City of Joy, a centre for young women who’ve been victim of rape as a weapon of war in Congo, where they rebuild themselves and get psychological support and education to find their place in the Congolese society. For the ones amongst you who are from Europe, you might remember the stereotypes and jokes that some women from Ukraine had to face when they became refugees in Western Europe.

Different stories, one system

What I’m trying to say with these examples, is that behind each individual story, there is a context. And when you start putting together the patterns, you realise there is a system that allows prostitution to happen and to normalise.

I’d like to share some of them with you and they are facts, not opinions, facts and figures based on studies, frontline work and years of activism from grass root organisations from all over the world, facts and figures which give the big picture of the system of prostitution.

The majority of persons in prostitution are women and girls and the overwhelming majority of sex buyers are men.
The majority of prostituted persons are from minorities, ethnic minorities, especially the Roma communities when it comes to Europe, but also indigenous communities in Canada, India, Thailand or Lebanon, from the Black communities in the US. Transpeople and people from the LGBT community are overrepresented in prostitution, like in New Zealand, the US, Brazil of Pakistan.
The majority comes from poorer countries, poorer regions, or regions in conflict. Or from regions where extractive industry is taking over the economy, employing the men and offering jobs as “barmaids” and prostitutes to the women.
Many of the persons in prostitution are refugees or asylum seekers, migrant women and girls, undocumented people.
Many have experienced some form of violence before entering prostitution: it can be sexual violence in the childhood, rape, conjugal rape, domestic violence, forced marriage, rape while homeless, sexual violence on the migration journey, but also lack of love, dysfunctional families, experience in care systems or foster families.
Many are young, and the prostitution marketing tries to make them believe that prostitution is glamorous, you just need to look at “sugar daddy/sugar baby” websites (please translate “sugar daddy/baby” in your language, what do you feel about it?).

Sex buyers are not shy or ugly, they are Mr Everybody, the majority of them have a family and a sex life and live in a city.
Some of them are young men from cultures where sexuality is taboo, so they go to prostitution before marriage, either because the family organise it for them (so their first sex experience is with an older woman in prostitution) or because they can’t date a girl from their age before marriage.
Some are crossing the border to go to another country where pimping is legal and they go as a ritual when they are 18 or with the sport club at the end of a game.
Some are young men like some of you, who are about to get married and have fun in the red light district of Amsterdam, just for fun.
Some have to buy sex while they don’t want to do it, but if they don’t, everyone will think they are gay.
Sex buyers going to Thailand for sex tourism believe that it’s part of the local culture to sell the kids for prostitution to sustain the family.
Expats often turn to prostitution as an exotic way to enjoy their experience of the country, thinking it has no impact on them because they are abroad. Only Norway has included in its law the possibility to arrest sex buyers abroad (and it first did with a Minister in Estonia).
When the decriminalisation model was passed in the Netherlands, nurses got into a strike against the law because the men in the hospital were asking for sex as part of the “normal service”.

And let’s not forget the third actor of this system: pimps and traffickers. The big picture tells us that they are unpunished in countries where decriminalisation has been put into place. They earn a lot of money because the “material” is reusable, contrary to drugs or arms. And they benefit from the rape culture and the normalisation of porn which are prevalent everywhere.

Doing politics

These are facts and figures, there are always exception and I met many. I heard their stories and I believed them too. No one has the right to say that a person is wrong when they tell their story.

You can decide to bring your attention to some specific cases and design policies out of it. But you can also decide to look at the big picture to see how to tackle the whole system and create the conditions for girls of today to avoid any exploitation and violence. And when you do so, it doesn’t mean that you betray the stories who won’t fit with your model, it just means that you do politics, in the Greek sense. You advocate for values and laws who will protect the most vulnerable.

My experience at the EWL, together with my frontline volunteering, and all my other feminist experiences, made me decide to support the abolitionist model, because for me, it is the one that will contribute the best to building societies where equality between women and men is a reality. Because by recognising that prostitution is a form a violence, we recognise that it is part of male domination, it is part of classist and racist domination, and we therefore create the context for victims to be heard.
Maybe you have followed the recent news in France where the actress Judith Godreche did a speech at the Césars ceremony about sexual abuse in the cinema industry: she said that “to believe yourself, you have to be believed by others”. This is what a lot of women we met told us: they did not trust anyone would believe them, so they kept silent. We need to break this silence, and the abolitionist model makes it clear that their voices are legitimate.

By making buyers responsible for their action, the abolitionist model aims to end rape culture, to change mentalities and send a strong message to men about a new masculinity they need to develop. I often used to share this comparison: a boy who grows up in Sweden learns that he can’t rape or buy women. A boy growing up in the Netherlands sees a shop with women in between a shoe shop and a food shop. Maybe he will think that all women can be for sale at some point.

For me, the abolitionist model is the one that will disrupt best the trafficking rings and pimping networks, because it tackles the very root of the system: money, by criminalising the buyers.

If we consider the prostituted persons as victims of a system, then we need policies providing real social support, sex education, antiracist education, and alternatives. Rachel Moran, a survivor from Ireland, used to say: “When a woman is hungry, what she needs in her mouth is food, not a dick”. To give her food, we need to prioritise women’s economic independence, which means action in the economic system, closing the gender pay gap, breaking stereotypes at work and in education, educating men to share the household, ending neocolonialist attitudes.

Meeting and listening to these stories makes you feel humble and realise how strong these women are. What would I have done if I were in their position? I don’t know. Maybe I would have said it’s my choice, to maintain my dignity. Maybe I would have asked for help, but maybe I wouldn’t have known that what I was living was not OK. Maybe I would have found “colleagues” and decided that it was my professional path. Maybe I would have committed suicide. We don’t know what we would do. But in the case someone needs help, we need to have the system into place for them. We should make sure that the most vulnerable person should be protected from any exploitation and violence, including in prostitution. This is my deep belief and this is what I fight for in my life. It’s up to you to decide what you want to fight for.

Thanks a lot for your attention!

Pierrette Pape, Le Havre, March 2024

conference abolishing myths prostitution sciencespo

Resources on prostitution and pornography

10 myths on prostitution – European Women’s Lobby – https://www.womenlobby.org/IMG/pdf/prostitution_myths_final_ewl.pdf

Her future is equal: the reality of sexual exploitation and trafficking across Europe – Brussels’ Call, 2018 – https://www.womenlobby.org/IMG/pdf/final_en_brussels_call_briefing_paper.pdf

Towards equality: progress, challenges and next steps – Brussels’ Call, 2022 – https://www.womenlobby.org/IMG/pdf/herfutureisequal_2022_web_artwork_v1_2_very_final.pdf

Abolitionist library of the Brussels’ Call – https://brusselscall.eu/resources

Sex purchase in Sweden and Germany – Swedish Women’s Lobby, 2023 – https://sverigeskvinnoorganisationer.se/in-english/

Making the connections: resource extraction, prostitution, poverty, climate change, and human rights – Melissa Farley

Prostitution and Its Impact on Youth: Violence, Domination and Inequality – Pierrette Pape

Decriminalised prostitution systems are a cancer, and it has spread to the European Union and the Council of Europe – Rachel Moran in Eureporter, 2024 – https://www.eureporter.co/womens-rights-4/2024/03/18/decriminalised-prostitution-systems-are-a-cancer-and-it-has-spread-to-the-european-union-and-the-council-of-europe/#google_vignette

The Problem with Sex Trade Expansionary Feminism – Esperanza Fonseca – https://proletarianfeminist.medium.com/the-problem-with-sex-trade-expansionary-feminism-a-response-to-kate-zen-e8ee7f8ae99a

OnlyFans is not empowering – Yana Stoykova – https://medium.com/the-political-economy-review/onlyfans-is-not-empowering-607b2c2f11f4

Liberalism and the Death of Feminism – Catherine McKinnon – https://femcitations.files.wordpress.com/2014/02/liberalism-and-the-death-of-feminism-mackinnon.pdf

The Lie – Andrea Dworkin – http://www.nostatusquo.com/ACLU/dworkin/WarZoneChaptIa.html

10 myths on porn – Talita, 2018 – https://sisters-ev.de/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/RC_10myths-Porn_english.pdf

Porno : l’enfer du décor – Rapport d’information du Sénat français, 2022 – https://www.senat.fr/notice-rapport/2021/r21-900-1-notice.html

Pornocriminalité : mettons fin à l’impunité de l’industrie pornographique – Rapport du Haut Conseil à l’Egalité entre les femmes et les hommes (France), 2023 – https://www.haut-conseil-egalite.gouv.fr/violences-faites-aux-femmes/travaux-du-hce/article/rapport-pornocriminalite-mettons-fin-a-l-impunite-de-l-industrie-pornographique

Last Girl First! Prostitution at the intersection of sex, race & class-based oppressions – CAP International – https://www.cap-international.org/activity/release-of-last-girl-first-prostitution-at-the-intersection-of-sex-race-class-based-oppressions-a-study-by-cap-international/

Out of sight, out of mind. Insights into the Swedish pornography industry – Talita, 2019 – https://assets-global.website-files.com/5dca82ba9193d035ec4bb598/657c1d5af0fe184eb27ebc45_outofsight.pdf

Culture reframed / Pornland – Gail Dines – https://culturereframed.org/