Sex Workers Stand Up for Rights

by R. Frost

(original published in Erotic Review Magazine Issue 71, January 2006)

The European Conference On Sex Work, Human Rights, Labour & Migration marked an historic step in the battle for the recognition of sex worker rights. Ms Frost was there.

Escorts, geishas, courtesans, lapdancers, rent boys… The erotic consciousness of the open-minded public (of whom you are undoubtedly part if you are reading this magazine) is full of curiosity and positive feeling towards those whose profession is to bring erotic pleasure to others. Diaries of call girls are currently riding high in the bestseller charts and ‘Memoirs Of A Geisha’ is set to be the hit film of this spring.

However, the views of the moral majority and the official line of government are not necessarily so positive. The negative moral judgements placed on those who work in sex cause damage even to the extent of basic human rights being abused. While culturally whore culture is celebrated, legally there is a growing tide of repression. Often this is led by politicians, social workers, academics and abolitionists who have never worked in the sex industry, without sex workers themselves being given a voice.

Historic steps were recently taken to begin to correct this. Some 200 sex workers from around Europe gathered in Brussels, Belgium, in October 2005 for the European Conference On Sex Work, Human Rights, Labour & Migration. At the conference they endorsed a declaration and manifesto of sex work rights, which they then presented at the European Parliament and had signed by an MEP before taking to the streets in a vibrant demonstration.

The event was the culmination of over two years of work. Sexwork Initiative Group Netherlands (SIGN), a network of Dutch sex workers and sex work activists, initiated the process in June 2003 by asking participation from across Europe in planning a conference. In January 2004 an international Organisation Committee was established, comprising 15 mostly current or former sex workers from across Europe. This Committee decided a declaration of rights would provide a framework for organising a conference and examining and challenging violations of sex workers rights. A new legal body, the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe (ICRSW) was formed to coordinate the conference and act as a base for future initiatives.


ICRSW sent out consultation papers to sex work groups all over Europe, then collated the responses to form a draft Manifesto of sex workers’ wishes. Meanwhile it drew together all the rights that have been agreed in international treaties and convenants and are being ignored or abused in the case of sex workers, to form a Declaration. ‘The Declaration merely identifies human, labour and migrants rights that sex workers should be entitled to under international law,’ the introduction to the declaration states. ‘[It] is not a demand for special rights to be given to sex workers, but is based on the principle that selling sexual services is not grounds for sex workers to be denied the fundamental rights to which all human beings are entitled under international law.’

Abuses of sex workers’ human rights are many and varied across Europe, irrespective of the legal status of sex work. Laws view those working in the industry at one moment as helpless victims with no choice in their fate and at the next as an evil menace to society. The manifesto states, ‘Society imposes an ‘identity’ and ‘social role’ on sex workers… [These] define us as intrinsically unworthy and a threat to moral, public and social order; labelling us sinners, criminals or victims – stigma separates us from ‘good’ and ‘decent’ citizens and the rest of society.’

Although the legal position varied between countries, there was not a single country where there were not complaints about discrimination and violation of human rights.

The Manifesto is more of a wish-list document of needs and desires. ‘We condemn the hypocrisy within our societies where our services are used but our profession or businesses are made illegal’, it states. As well as the human rights issue, at its heart is a wish for sex work to be seen as just that – work. ‘It is an income-generating activity and must be recognised as labour,’ the Manifesto states.

There are benefits to society of recognising and treating sex work as work, the Manifesto points out, including the payment of taxes by sex workers.

Violence, migration and labour conditions are major themes. ‘Offering sexual services is not an invitation to any kind of violence,’ the manifesto states. ‘Sex work is by definition consensual sex. Non-consensual sex is not sex work; it is sexual violence or slavery.’

Customers are included: ‘Paying for sexual services in not an intrinsically violent or problematic behaviour. Such stereotyping silences discussion about the realities of the sex industry… and obscures the actual violent and problematic behaviour of a small but significant number of clients.’ A demand of the right of non-abusive clients to buy sexual services is included in the manifesto.

The manifesto does not deny that problems exist but says that time and resources spent currently on arresting and prosecuting workers and non-violent clients should be redirected to the actual problems. ‘In order to make sex work safe for all we demand that criminal laws be enforced against fraud, coercion, child sexual abuse, child labour, violence, rape and murder within the sex industry.’


In Brussels, around 200 sex workers from 30 countries gathered for a weekend of hammering out the final wording of the Manifesto and Declaration, plus networking, workshops, sharing of experiences and celebration of their profession. From ages 20s to 70s, males to females to transgender, street workers to strippers, the variety reflected the profession. It was a colossal undertaking, with translation into four languages.

The first day was strictly sex workers only. It included workshops on topics including balancing sex work and private life and media awareness. On the second day sex work allies were included, to give both parties the opportunity to learn from each other. Workshops included Working Conditions, and Positive Experiences. Presentations were given by sex workers on issues such as migration and included a case study of how the Swedish model violates rights. Allies such as Martin Smith of the UK union GMB, which has recognised and welcomes sex workers through its Adult Entertainment branch (set up in collaboration with the International Union of Sex Workers), shared their experience of partnership.

The meetings to agree the wordings of the manifesto and declaration were often passionate as issues close to people’s hearts and experiences were discussed. Final agreements were reached and on the second night, celebrations took place in the shape of a dinner and party at a club in Brussels, which included performances and readings from attendees.

On the Monday the group arrived at the European Parliament. Monica Frassoni, an Italian Greens-European Free Alliance member in the Parliament, welcomed us and hosted our time in the Parliament. The Declaration was presented and then endorsed by Victorio. This historic event was presented in a press conference that afternoon, which led to much favourable coverage across Europe.

The sex workers then travelled to the Stock Exchange and held a street demonstration, marching from the Exchange through the business and red light districts of the city, carrying red umbrellas as symbols of sex work pride (a tradition started by the sex workers of Venice, Italy, in 2002). Cards were given out with the ICRSE email address. In the red light district, girls in their windows cheered and waved. Marchers chanted in numerous languages but the most common refrain was: “Vouz couches avec nous, vous votez contra nous!” – “You sleep with us, you vote against us”. Banners red ‘Sex Workers of the World Unite!’ And ‘Sex Worker Rights = Human Rights’.

It was a fantastically celebratory way to end an historic weekend. The ICRSE intends for the documents to become a point of reference to aid sex workers in being knowledgeable about and therefore able to fight for their rights. Victorio will present the Declaration for debate and a draft resolution at the European Parliament.

Ultimately sex workers are not asking for special treatment, just to be granted the same human rights as all.

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