Belgium Protects Sex Work Employees’ Right To Refuse Customers

“Belgian Government Will Intervene In Cases Where Prostitutes Refuse Sexual Acts Too Often.” That headline, at a website called The Publica, certainly caught my attention. A new law in Belgium, the website claims, will enable “pimps to punish” sex workers “if they refuse sex more than 10 times in a six-month period. The Belgian Parliament voted for the law on May 3, with 93 in favor, zero opposed, and 33 abstentions.”

Others have taken up this story with similarly salacious and critical tones.

As you might suspect, the truth is much less disturbing than these reports suggest. In fact, the law in question is aimed at protecting sex worker rights and autonomy.

Decriminalization Takes Hold

First, some background: Belgium decriminalized sex work in 2022—making it an outlier in the European Union. While some other E.U. countries have legalized prostitution, their systems are highly regulated, leaving it a crime to sell or pay for sex acts in all but certain narrow circumstances (such as working in a licensed brothel or having a professional sex work certificate). Other E.U. countries have decriminalized selling sex in some circumstances but still criminalize paying for it.

Belgium decriminalized not just selling sex but also paying for sex and working with sex workers. That last bit is important, as it allows sex workers to pay people for ancillary services—such as security, administrative work, and accounting—without making those people criminals.

It’s “important to note that it has never been illegal in Belgium to offer or pay for sexual services. Belgium’s policy was to slowly make sex work disappear, by making it impossible to perform the job in a normal and safe way by criminalizing all third parties,” according to the Belgian Union of Sex Workers (UTSOPI). “Those third parties are landlords, owners of rooms, bankers, lawyers, drivers…” Even employers were criminalized, “making it impossible to work legally in a brothel.”

Decriminalized third parties might also include folks that have historically been referred to as “pimps” or “madams”—words carrying a lot of loaded implications but essentially referring to anyone who helps a sex worker find customers or otherwise manage their business.

Doing any of this in a violent, abusive, or coercive way is still a crime, of course. As UTSOPI notes: “If an accountant charges abnormally high fees to the sex worker for the sake of him or her being a sex worker, or if a third party demands sexual services in exchange for the delivery of services, then they are liable to prosecution.”

A big part of what Belgium is doing now is trying to bring sex workers into “social protection” programs and employee benefits—things like unemployment compensation, maternity leave, and Belgium’s version of Social Security.

The decriminalization law was a first step to making sex workers eligible for such things. The second step was the law the country passed at the beginning of May—the one that The Publica makes sound like a horrifying, dystopian mess. In fact, the measure had the support of the Belgian sex workers union.

Needless to say, Reason is generally critical of expansive welfare-state benefits—and of detailed labor regulations that invite the government to insert itself into workplace regulations. So nothing that I’m about to say is meant to suggest that there are no legitimate critiques of this new law. The point is to make it clear what the new legislation does, and why; any criticisms should proceed from the real law, not from fantasies.

The Right to Refuse

Under the decriminalized system, sex workers could be self-employed, and they could hire third parties to help them in various ways. They could also be freelance workers in an establishment run by someone else. But sex workers could not themselves be employees.

Under the new law, “sex workers will also be able to work under an employment contract, thus gaining access to social security: pension, unemployment, health insurance, family benefits, annual vacation, maternity leave,” according to UTSOPI. “At the same time, the law ensures that sex workers in the workplace are protected against job-related risks and conditions are imposed on employers.”

As part of this balance, the law imposes obligations on both businesses that employ sex workers and on sex workers who work for those businesses. One of the conditions on employees is that refusing sex acts more than 10 times in a six-month period allows an employer to request government mediation.

But the law also explicitly protects the right to refuse specific customers, sex acts, etc.

It stipulates that “every sex worker has the right to refuse a client,” that “every sex worker has the right to refuse a sexual act,” and that “every sex worker has the right to interrupt a sexual act at any time.” It also says that “any sex worker has the right to perform a sexual act in the manner they wish” and that “if there are dangers to the sex worker’s safety, the sex worker may refuse to sit behind a window or advertise.”

If a sex worker invokes any of the five rights listed above, “the sex worker is protected from dismissal or other adverse action by the employer,” notes UTSOPI.

Boundaries Go Both Ways

In reality, this law is explicitly drafted to stop prostitution businesses from punishing workers for exercising agency and setting boundaries. But employers must have some redress if the refusals are frequent enough to cause problems. Since firing or disciplining employees for exercising refusal rights is generally forbidden, this is where the mediation clause comes in.

“If a sex worker exercises the right to refuse more than ten times in a six-month period, the sex worker or the employer may seek the intervention of a governmental mediation service,” according to UTSOPI. “That service will assess if there is anything wrong with the working conditions, if there is a problem in the employer-employee relationship. The service can also offer professional reorientation possibilities.”

As you can see, saying that the new law allows “pimps to punish” sex workers for refusing sex acts is misleading. For starters, we’re not talking individual “pimps” (a one-person sex work business cannot legally hire employees) but registered businesses that have contracted as a sex work employer and taken on all the responsibilities that entails.

One of the slogans of sex worker rights campaigners is sex work is work—it’s a job, just like other jobs, and sex workers deserve the same dignitty and rights. But that has to go both ways. And employees of other jobs can’t repeatedly refuse to do what they were hired to do without encountering at least some sort of intervention.

In this case, the “punishment” is merely having to try and work out a mutually agreed-upon solution. And either an employer or employee can trigger this mediation. A sex worker whose repeated refusal to accept customers or sex acts stems from broader issues with what their employer is expecting can themselves request mediation to try to work this issue out.

Or they can quit—without any sort of notice period required and without forfeiting their right to unemployment benefits.

Self-employed sex workers are obviously not subject to the mediation requirement here. Nor are those who work for someone else as non-employees (as independent contractors or freelancers or whatever you want to call it). But sex workers who are independent contractors are also not guaranteed job protection if they refuse.

Far from being some sort of crazy scheme that denigrates sex worker consent, the new labor law is designed to protect sex workers’ autonomy and protect them from violence, exploitation, and privacy invasions, too.

Some of the employer obligations under the new law include a requirement that each room where sex acts take place be equipped with an alarm button and that sex worker unions and support groups be allowed to access sex workplaces. And sex workers can work under hospitality contracts that don’t mention sex work.

Far from granting too much power to sex work employers, the new scheme seems, overall, to grant government too much say in the employer-employee relationship. The good news is that sex workers who want to work in such a system can, and sex workers who want to work outside such a system can. Under decriminalization (unlike legalization), staying out of the more managed system isn’t against the law.

More Sex & Tech News

• Artificial intelligence hits search results, chaos ensuing… Google’s turn toward AI-powered search results is starting to be felt by news outlets and is likely to have impacts that spread much wider. “The shift stands to shake the very foundations of the web,” warns The Washington Post in what—alas—is not an overstatement.

• Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has signed a measure making the minimum age to work in a strip club 21 years old.

• Read James Czerniawski on the new AI bills in the Senate:

• North Carolinians talk to lawmakers about porn.

• It is not going to be difficult for teenagers to get around age verification laws.

Today’s Image

Decriminalization rally in Washington, D.C. | 2019 (ENB/Reason)