Prostitution is very often called world’s oldest profession, and for a good reason. Sex workers, courtisans, prostitutes and escorts are professionals who have practiced in almost every era. In ancient Rome, renting of a brothel was a legitimate source of income. Prostitution was also very common in ancient Greece, Israel and among the Aztecs in Mesoamerica. Many Asian countries have long traditions of selling and buying sex.
The prohibition of prostitution is typically linked to religion. Muslims believe that prostitution is a sinful act. Catholic church condemns prostitution, though it is not forbidden in the religion.
Not prohibited, but not seen as legal activity either
Social worker Tereza Tyvlova works in Espace P, which is a 27-year-old organization that helps prostitutes in Belgium. Espace P is a non-profit organization which gets its funding from different communities and private sectors in Belgium. State doesn’t fund its working. Espace P releases a report about the situation of prostitution in Belgium every year.
Tyvlova meets prostitutes every week in her work. She thinks that prostitution should be fully legal in Belgium.
“There are three possibilities of how to put the structure in prostitution. You can legalize it like in Holland or Germany. You can prohibit it completely, or then it can be in between these two. That means it’s not seen as a legal activity, but it’s not prohibited. It means that it doesn’t exist in fact, and in Belgium it’s like this”, Tyvlova explains.
Amnesty International supports 'a full decriminalization of all aspects of consensual sex work'. The organization calls on states to ensure that sex workers could enjoy full legal protection from trafficking, exploitation and violence.
Freedom in Amsterdam
The Red Lights District in Amsterdam is today one of the most famous areas in the world to find legally working prostitutes . There are options for every taste: skinny girls, curvy girls, transgender workers, sadomasochism, almost everything you can think of.
Prostitutes rent a window at the alleys in the Red Light District for 150 euros per day. They also must register to the Dutch Chamber of Commerce to be allowed to practice. Legally working prostitutes must be over 21 years old and they have to work independently, but when all these conditions are met, women (or men) are free to work as they wish.
Nowadays there are numerous wrong expectations and stereotypes about prostitutes. For example, it might come as a surprise that over 80 percent of prostitutes working in Amsterdam are either married or in long-term relationships. Prices and the duration of the paid meeting are also issues that tourists usually don’t know much about. The answer: prices start from 50 euros and the average duration of a meeting is only 6 minutes.
Different story in Brussels
Prostitution is also legal in Belgium, but the law prohibits operating brothels, pimping, exploitation and any form of trafficking. Even though the prostitution itself is legal, there are lot of practical problems. Prostitutes don’t get the same benefits from the government as other working people: They don’t have health insurance, pensions or social welfare possibilities.
'We would like prostitution to be fully legal so women can work officially as sex workers', Tyvlova says.
She thinks that stigmatization of prostitution is a big problem in Belgium.
'If it’s a professional activity, they have rights like anyone else. There is no reason to stigmatize it.'
Tyvlova thinks that prostitutes should get the same benefits as workers at any other industry. They should be able to pay taxes and get a pension after their working career just as any other working person.
'And if there is some problem about the health, they have to pay the full amount and it’s not cheap in Belgium if you don’t have insurance. The system is hypocrite', she says.
'Basically they have obligations but no benefits, and we don’t agree with this.'
The forms of trafficking and exploitation have changed
According to Tyvlova, most of the prostitutes in Belgium come from abroad. She estimates that over 80 percent of them knew what they were going to do when they came to Europe. Trafficking is there, but it’s more complex than what we usually think.
A typical media story is that girls were promised a singing or dancing career in Europe and they didn’t know that they would end up working as a forced prostitute. According to Tyvlova, there are less cases like that every year.
'Girls who work independently would notice this kind of trafficking right away and call the police.'
'There is lot of trafficking that we call voluntary exploitation. It means that women who come here to Europe know that they will work as a prostitute. They may not know the conditions, but they know that they will work as a prostitute when they come here.'
Girls think that it’s normal to give their loverboy 50 percent of the money, because she thinks that he loves her and protects her
'The context is different nowadays. There is always a guy who helps them to come here, but these guys have a new strategy to get the money from the girls. We call them “loverboys”.'
'Loverboy' is a nickname for a man who is illegally taking half or even more of the money that a prostitute earns. Loverboys are mostly boyfriends or even husbands of these prostitutes, and the prostitutes are willing to give their money away to them.
'How they do it? By love. Girls think that it’s normal to give them 50 percent of the money, because she thinks that he loves her and protects her.'
There are lot of girls from Eastern Europe and Africa who don’t know how to read or how to write, so they really need their so-called lovers. The problem is that these girls usually know that this kind of prostitution is illegal. They don’t want to tell anyone because they actually care about their abusers. This makes it a very complex situation.
Prostitutes usually come from very poor countries, for example Romania, which has been suffering from Euro crisis for years.
'Romania has been in the European Union for a few years. We have hundreds of girls from Romania, because the salary is not good in Romania. We were there for three days last year to do social work. It is horrible. Who are we to criticize and judge women who decide to work as a prostitute to take care of their children or old parents? Who am I to tell, what they have to do?' Tyvlova argues.
'They can work here as a prostitute for a few years and earn over 100 000 euros. Then they can go back to their own country and buy a house.'
Tyvlova highlights that prostitution is not always black and white. Some women really like their job as a sex worker. And if you look at it from a different perspective, for some clients prostitution is the only possibility to get sexual pleasure. If prostitution is legal, sex workers can decide for themselves what they'd agree to do with their clients. Many prostitutes have regular clients who have their own special needs.
'Yes, it is a special profession. But I think it is up to every woman what she wants to do with their body. And trafficking won’t stop by making prostitution illegal. No way!'