West European Anti-Prostitution Measures Provoke Positive Response from Feminists

In Western Europe, the feminist response to anti-prostitution measures has been largely positive, according to German political journalist Mariam Lau. In a New York Times op-ed, Lau looks at the rise of "state feminism" in Europe, where — contra American counterparts, who've been increasingly supportive of feminist sex work — many prominent feminist voices are celebrating crackdowns on prostitution.

Sweden criminalized the hiring of prostitutes in 1999, "turning the judicial gaze on the johns and away from the women," Lau notes. Now Northern Ireland, Belgium, Finland, and Lithuania are all poised to pass similar measures. Meanwhile, a new French law fines people caught soliciting a prostitute 1,500 euros and requires them to undergo a sort of sex-worker sensitivity class. And some are even pushing for recriminalization in Germany, where prostitution was legalized in 2002 (making sex workers eligible for social security, among other benefits).

Not all feminists are so into these measures. Sex worker activists and organizations have been pushing back, Lau says, especially in France. French philosopher Elisabeth Badinter called her country's new law "a declaration of hate toward male sexuality" (though it's obviously no love letter to sex workers themselves, either). A French group called "343 Bastards" circulated a petition called Don't Touch My Whore.

Perhaps the biggest problem is people's failure to differentiate between prostitution in general and human trafficking, Lau writes. "Unfortunately, state feminism, in its desire to make a stand for women, ends up punishing those who are most open about their willingness to pay or be paid for sex, while pushing the evils of human trafficking and forced sex work further underground."

Meanwhile, when prostitution is legalized like in Germany, sex workers wind up safer and with more protections against the kinds of abuses anti-trafficking crusaders are trying to prevent (for instance, if client refuses to pay, he can be taken to court). While Europe's new client-focused prostitution laws are a step up from those focused on punishing sex workers themselves, they seem to be one feminist step back from Europe's previous, more laissez-faire sex work policies.