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Bored eyes flicker up briefly before returning to the screens of mobile phones, the TV discreetly hidden in the corner, or the client trying to negotiate a knock-down price on the other side of the glass. The Belgian police appear equally indifferent to the women sitting in the dim red glow of neon tubes, even if they are occasionally flouting a city rule specifying exactly how much skin can be on display from neck to navel. Nearby in France, buying sex usually means a hasty transaction on the street and the risk of a fine or public identification.
So young men pack in their cars and drive 50km east for nights out that can turn rowdy. Ghent police now hold monthly operations to stop and search French cars. If they find drugs or weapons, the men pay a fine and police motorcycles escort them to the highway and point them towards the border.
A report recommending this approach is due before the European Parliament in the coming days. In Belgium, the purchase and sale of sex is legal, but making a profit from prostitution is forbidden. The prostitutes must have a contract and social security number, meaning the city has a record of every woman working the sex industry, and social workers can make regular visits to check for abusive relationships or victims of human trafficking. No one claims the system is perfect: police can only act if the women speak out about abuse or illegal pimps.
But all the sex workers who agreed to speak to TIME said they felt safe in Ghent and opposed criminalization. Honeyball has drafted a report recommending E. The model criminalizes buying sex, but legalizes selling sex, in theory treating prostitutes as victims of a crime rather than perpetrators.
If the report passes, it would not be legally binding, but Honeyball hopes it would help steer the debate in member states.