Belgium amends its Penal Code to further decriminalize pimping and brothel owning, following the model of Germany’s disastrous 2002-2017 prostitution law
NEW YORK and PARIS, March 31, 2022 – On March 18, 2022, based on a proposal presented by Federal Justice Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne, the Parliament of Belgium approved amendments to its Penal Code in a number of “sexual matters,” including related to prostitution. While Belgium had already legalized the system of prostitution in 1995, the amendments to Articles 380 to 382 of its Penal Code further decriminalize pimping and brothel owning, except in cases of “abnormally” high profits.
Other amendments include permitting the prostitution of minors between 16 and 18 years old if either the brothel managers or the sex buyers can claim that they didn’t know the child’s age. Under international law, any person under the age of 18 in the sex trade is a sex trafficked child. These children, under Belgium’s amendments, will have to prove that their pimps or “clients” knew they were minors, an almost impossible threshold to meet.
Also, at a time when many European countries are struggling to curtail online sexual exploitation, Belgium’s amendments allow the advertising of prostitution on the Internet, linked to certain websites’ facilitation of sex trafficking.
While the decriminalization of sex buying has not changed under the amendments, sex buyers will likely benefit from an expanded and oversaturated Belgian prostitution market, online and off, with lower prices. The sex trade’s targeted bigotry, including categorizing human beings by sex, body size, race, ethnicity, pregnancy status, and gender stereotypes, has essential marketing value to sex buyers.
Contrary to some assertions about these amendments constituting a “historic step,” Belgium is not the first country in Europe to decriminalize pimping and legalize the sex trade. Belgium’s penal code now mirrors Germany’s 2002-2017 prostitution law. The legal frameworks of legalization and decriminalization of the sex trade are too similar for a meaningful distinction from each other.
The Belgian and German prostitution laws each frames the sex trade as a legitimate industry, defines people bought in it as “workers” or “independent agents,” and classifies third-party exploiters as “employers” or bona fide business owners. Both Belgium and Germany legally frame prostitution as a choice of employment, with promises of access to state benefits, and only allowing for “ethical” brothel managers. As a result of such decriminalization, Germany became “the brothel of Europe,” as dubbed by the media, and recognized internationally for enabling organized crime and the systematic dehumanization and sexual exploitation of vulnerable persons. With its new amendments, Belgium will soon follow Germany’s legacy.
Like in Germany, people in prostitution will be able to enter legally recognized employment contracts in Belgium, as well as officially register as “sex workers.” In Germany, however while it is estimated that anywhere between 200,000-400,000 people, almost all women, are in prostitution, only 1% entered a full “work-contract” at a brothel or escort agency. A government investigation in 2018 could only identify 76 people as having registered as “prostitutes” in order to access social security. The reasons for this reluctance include the stigma inherent to prostitution and that the vast majority of women in German brothels are undocumented foreign women from Eastern Europe and the global south. Holiday, sick pay, maternity leave, pensions, and other benefits all remain hypothetical.
This pattern will undoubtedly occur in Belgium. Already in 2008, an estimated 60% of women in the Belgian sex trade were also foreign and undocumented, but since this number has increased in recent years in neighboring countries the proportion today is likely even higher and will exponentially increase with these amendments.
Germany acknowledged their prostitution law’s disastrous failures; 80% of the German population did not believe the law met its intended goals, and 86% associated prostitution with unchecked exploitation. The state slightly amended the law in 2017 to tighten some regulations, including for opening and running brothels since they found that while brothel owners register as “landlords,” in practice they impose specific and cruel practices on women. As to Belgium promising to target possible sex trafficking cases in legal brothels, Germany found that these investigations require costly, years-long efforts leading to a dearth of prosecutions for myriad reasons including victims’ reluctance to testify.
“At a time when millions of human beings around the world are made vulnerable due to environmental disasters, economic inequality, and wars, including in Ukraine, it is shocking that Belgium is now offering this gift to sex traffickers and brothel owners,” said Taina Bien-Aimé, executive director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women. “With these amendments, Belgium will further expand the sex trade, empower sex buyers, and secure its standing as a colonizing force sexually exploiting poor women of color for its profit. That, as well, would not be ‘a historic first.’”
A number of countries recognize prostitution as an exploitive system of gender-based violence and discrimination and consequently enacted laws that only decriminalize prostituted people, offering them services, while holding sex buyers and other perpetrators accountable for the harm they cause. The jurisdictions that have enacted such laws, known as the Nordic, Abolitionist or Equality Model, include Sweden, Iceland, Norway, Northern Ireland, Canada, France, Ireland and Israel.
The real historic significance of these amendments is that Belgium is moving further away from its obligations under international law and its commitments to upholding human rights principles. Decriminalizing pimping and failing to target the demand that fosters sexual exploitation collectively violates of the 1949 Convention, the Palermo Protocol, the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Belgium is also further defying the CEDAW Committee’s 2020 General Recommendation No.38 on the Trafficking in Women in the Context of Global Migration, the 2014 European Resolution on sexual exploitation and prostitution and consequences for equality between women and men, and other European resolutions calling on member states to enact laws and policies that prevent sex trafficking, gender-based violence and discrimination and protect victims and survivors of these human rights violations. The European Parliament recommends that all of its members enact the Nordic/Abolitionist/Equality Model.
“If prostitution is a ‘choice,’ then it is a choice systematically made by women who are not given any choice. Whether it is obtained by physical or by socio-economic coercion, the sexual act obtained in prostitution is always coerced. It is the complete opposite of sexual freedom. The repetition of sexual acts without physical desire, but experienced as an exploitation of vulnerability constitutes in itself sexual violence,” said Jonathan Machler, executive director of CAP International. “Thus, the dissociation present in this bill is completely disconnected from the realities of prostitution and trafficking in Belgium. This law is a betrayal of all precarious, migrant and refugee women, including Ukrainian women currently fleeing the war, who will be all the more vulnerable to the grip of the pimp networks as a result of being abandoned by the Belgian government.”