Decriminalisation of sex work

Decriminalisation: what and how?

The decriminalisation of sex work in Belgium was approved by the Federal Parliament on Thursday 17 March 2022.

As is always the case with new laws, there is a transition period of 3.5 months between the publication of the law and the moment it enters into force. 

Until now, the Belgian law was aimed at making the practice of sex work as difficult as possible with the aim to discourage sex work or make it disappear. Thus, all service providers (accountants, insurers, website developers, landlords, ...) to self-employed sex workers were criminalised.

Also, all advertising was prohibited. In the meantime, under the Belgian tolerance policy, advertising and services to sex workers were not allowed but the authorities turned a blind eye. This led to a situation where many banks, insurance companies and accountants were reluctant to do business with sex workers, and with legal uncertainty and a lack of clarity regarding advertising.

At the same time, in Belgium each possible form of organising of sex work of others was criminalised and designated as pimping. Meanwhile however, the sector was allowed to exist and operate under the Belgian tolerance policy. This created a situation where no difference was made between organising with respect for workers’ rights on the one hand and exploitation on the other, as it is impossible to impose rules on a sector that is completely criminalised. In the meantime, local authorities had the power to issue out their own regulations, leading to a chaotic and fragmented sector. 

Also, the criminalisation of all forms of organisation made it very difficult or even impossible for sex workers who worked as employees to be socially protected, as they often did not acquire social rights like other workers (annual leave, health insurance, maternity leave, right to replacement income, unemployment benefits, pension, etc.).


What exactly changes with the new law?

1. Regarding services to sex workers:

Third parties are no longer criminalised. Opening a bank account, creating a website, offering insurance and renting out a space to sex workers can no longer lead to prosecution. Self-employed sex workers are given the same rights as other self-employed people. 

2. Regarding advertising:

Advertising remains prohibited, with these exceptions: 

- If you advertise your own services

- If you advertise for sexual services or for a place where sexual services are offered (e.g. a club) on an internet platform or on another medium (e.g. a designated section in a newspaper) that exists especially for this purpose. This means that advertising for sex work in public places (posters in bus stops, billboards on the motorway,...) is not allowed. 

The internet platform must demonstrate that it is making reasonable efforts to combat the abuse of prostitution and trafficking in human beings. Cases of abuse and trafficking must be immediately reported to the police and judicial authorities.  

3. Regarding running a business:

Pimping is prohibited, but is strictly defined to be able to distinguish between economic and respectful organisation on the one hand and exploitation on the other.

Pimping is:  Organising the sex work of another to benefit oneself, except in the cases provided for by the law. 

- What does organising the sex work of another mean? This refers to cases where someone receives remuneration for exercising hierarchical control over sex workers, or for coordinating the activity of different sex workers (determining the work schedule, working hours, etc.). It does not cover service providers such as, for example, accountants, chauffeurs or web developers. Nor does it cover cases in which self-employed sex workers rent a house together in which they offer sexual services, provided there is no relationship of hierarchy between them.

- What do the words "except in the cases provided for by law" mean? This refers to the recognition procedure for operators that will be laid down by a specific law. It concerns essential conditions within which sex work will be allowed to be organised. Conditions are imposed on the operator, not on the sex worker.  

- What will this list of conditions look like? As of now, this is being discussed by the competent ministers, the sex workers' sector and the representatives of victims of trafficking or abuse of prostitution. The list of conditions should be drawn up and turned into law by the end of 2022. Those who do not comply with these conditions and yet organise the prostitution of others will be liable to prosecution for pimping and/or trafficking.  

- What happens before this new law is established? The situation for sex workers working for an employer remains as before. In other words, the existing policy of tolerance will be continued until the new law is in place.  

Pimping is also:

- The promotion, inducement, encouragement or facilitation of prostitution with the aim of obtaining, directly or indirectly, an abnormal economic benefit or any other abnormal benefit.  

- This situation refers to the abuse of sexual services offered by another person. For example, asking excessive rent or demanding sexual services on top of regular payment by an accountant. Renting out a hotel room to a self-employed sex worker at a normal price is allowed. Letting a hotel room at twice the price because it is rented out to a sex worker is punishable. Anyone who actively facilitates this abuse is also punishable.

Taking measures to prevent or to make it more difficult to leave prostitution.

4. Public incitement to sex work:

It remains prohibited to incite people publicly to prostitution by means of advertising. This applies, for example, to the advertising of paid dating sites at the entrance to a university. 

Using any means whatsoever to incite someone in public to prostitution is punishable. The law clarifies here that this means offering dinners, gifts or other lures. 


5. The impossibility of declaring a contract null and void:

This is another law that was already approved in the Federal Parliament a few weeks before the decriminalisation. 

Before this law, in case of a conflict between a sex worker and an operator that came before the courts, it was possible for the operator to ask the court to declare the contract null and void. According to the Civil Code in Belgium, sex work is not in accordance with public morals, therefore any contract with a sex worker cannot be legally valid. This meant that the sex worker not only lost the lawsuit, but also all social rights that were accumulated under this contract (pension, holiday, sick leave, ...). 

Since this law, approved by the Federal Parliament on 17 February 2022, declaring a sex worker's contract null and void is no longer possible. 


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