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Europe is finally starting to tackle prostitution in the right way Lauren Hersh

Sunday, 15 December 2013 14:00 // 2128
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Zsolt stands in front of St Stephen's basilica in Budapest's city centre every night from 8pm until the early hours. His job is to direct passing tourists towards a nearby "gentleman's club".

He earns 300,000 forint (£830) per month in a country where the average wage is less than half this amount. He speaks five languages and is happy to answer questions during what he says is a "slow" evening. Even so, he talks to 12 English-speaking interested men within a 20-minute period. The commercial sex industry is not legal in Hungary, but it is tolerated and exists largely in plain view.

Hungary is a key "source" location for women and girls being trafficked to countries where prostitution is legal, such as Switzerland, Germany, and the Netherlands. In those countries, women and girls are brought in to supply the legally sanctioned demand.

Those who support the legalisation and decriminalisation of prostitution often do so with the intended goal of making prostitution better and safer for those involved. Yet, survivors of sex trafficking have repeatedly stated that legalisation and decriminalisation of the commercial sex industry does just the opposite.

A statement signed by 177 verified sex trafficking survivors from Sex Trafficking Survivors United (STSU) suggests that: "Without the buyers of commercial sex, sex trafficking would not exist. If we start penalising and stigmatising the buyers, we could end sex trafficking in our lifetime … prostitution is not a victimless crime; it is a brutal form of sexual violence."

Europe is finally starting to listen. A new trend is emerging – criminalising the buyers, traffickers and pimps that fuel the commercial sex industry, while decriminalising and providing services and exit options to people in prostitution.

Starting in 1999, Sweden, Norway and Iceland implemented this "Nordic model" of prostitution policy. These laws aim to reduce all demand, recognising that due to the widespread coercion within legal prostitution sectors, it is simply not possible to differentiate the demand which is exploitative from that which is not.

France has recognised this and its assembly voted in favor of adopting the model last week; Ireland is due to follow shortly; Finland's Ministry for Justice has called for the same.

The Netherlands and Germany – which attempted to regulate prostitution in 2000 and 2002 respectively – are beginning to backtrack from their failed experiments, with politicians pushing for new laws to criminalise the purchase of sex from a victim of trafficking or coercion.

In the United Kingdom, we hope that Theresa May MP's "modern slavery bill" will include provisions that tackle demand specifically. If Ireland follows France's lead by adopting the Nordic model – and the UK fails to criminalise demand – it may have to respond quickly as traffickers move across borders to a legislative environment which is more favourable. This European trend towards criminalising the purchase of sex and decriminalising people in prostitution echoes Mary Honeyball MEP's recommendation in her European parliament report that the Nordic model be implemented throughout the continent. It is also consistent with the legal obligation of all EU member states to tackle the demand that "fosters all forms of exploitation related to trafficking", as emphasised by EU anti-trafficking co-ordinator, Myria Vassiliadou. It reflects too the recommendation by EU commissioner for home affairs, Cecilia Malmström, for countries to take action to reduce the demand for sexual exploitation.

Back in Budapest, Zsolt does not realise that he is part of the reason why sex trafficking continues to flourish. He does not know that the 14-year-old girl from his home town, who can't speak English or Dutch and thinks she is going to work in a hairdresser's in Amsterdam, ends up in a window in a Nyíregyháza street, purchased for sex by "red light visitors".

We urge the UK and all European governments to implement the Nordic model throughout the continent. This will not only ensure that the lives of countless women and girls are improved, it will also send a strong signal to people like Zsolt, who do not fully appreciate that by enabling the commercial sex industry, they are concealing the exploitation and violence which is at its core.

Last modified on Sunday, 15 December 2013 14:00
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