Here is a challenge. You are Amnesty International. You want to take a position on sex work. It must not, however, have an impact anyone else’s human rights, in particular the “human right” of men to purchase sex. Therefore whatever your research throws up, your conclusion has been set in advance. How can you get from A to B, at least without openly treading on the corpses of too many trafficked women and girls?
Fear not! For now you can read Amnesty’s own draft policy doc and work out how it’s done …
Define your terms
Worried about how to deal with that whole issue surrounding trafficking, exploitation and coercion? Why not point out that “by definition, sex work means that sex workers who are engaging in commercial sex have consented to do so”? Sorted! Sure, as definitions go, it’s a bit “no true Scotsman.” You have, “by definition,” cut off all engagement with a deeply problematic part of what the term “sex work” is used to justify. Almost all those who buy sex will tell themselves that “by definition” it is consensual. In reality they have no idea. But we’re not dealing with reality, are we? Just a definition.
Do not acknowledge any fundamental link between patriarchy and the sex trade
There is a long, long history of men policing women’s sexual availability, physical agency and reproductive choices. Rape, marriage, the threat of violence, compulsory heterosexuality, the appropriation of material resources … all of this is relevant to why, in 2015, most people who buy sex are men and most people who sell it are women. It’s relevant to why the people who have fewer economic options tend to be women. It’s relevant to why sex can be reduced to leisure for men and work for women. These things are all related. But it’s incredibly messy to have to admit this and deal with the deeply tangled consequences.
It’s easier to say, on the one hand, that “women face entrenched gender discrimination and structural inequality in most societies and bear a disproportionate burden of poverty” and on the other that “intersectional discrimination and oppression have an impact on the lives of many sex workers and can play a role in an individual’s decision to engage or remain in sex work.” Do not, under any circumstances, suggest that the link between disadvantage and sex work is anything other than one-way. Don’t suggest that a world in which women are reduced to objects is necessarily a world in which women will remain unable to do anything but “face entrenched gender discrimination and structural inequality.” I mean, sure, the two-way link is obvious to anyone who bothers to look, but most people don’t. To look would make it obvious that patriarchy is the problem rather than, um, that form of “entrenched gender discrimination and structural inequality” that affects women specifically but somehow never has anything to do with anyone, anywhere, exploiting the sexual and reproductive labour of women as a class.
You could also mention that “transgender people and men who have sex with men also account for a significant proportion of sex workers in many states.” Ha! Take that, feminists! Of course, the feminist response would be “yeah, that’ll be patriarchy again – see above.” But w/evs. They’re always going on about patriarchy as a source of oppression as opposed to, um, oppression itself.
Do not engage with the potential negative impact of your proposal on trafficked women and girls
This is easy because such women and girls are “by definition” not sex workers, hence your proposal has nothing to do with them. Not even if, as one recent Guardian piece supporting the Amnesty proposal suggested, decriminalisation will increase demand (more choice for the privileged sex worker, more surplus demand to be catered for by … Well, not, “by definition,” sex workers, so not within your remit, right?).
If people persist with the “what will happen to trafficked women?” line (yawn) it may be helpful to indulge in a little whataboutery. Say something like “the disproportionate focus on trafficking into forced prostitution by some governments also ignores the human rights violations suffered by people trafficked into domestic work, construction, agricultural work, or other forced work.” Obviously trafficking within agriculture has less to do with the sex industry than, say, sex trafficking, but people always get stressed and guilty when you accuse them of ignoring another form of marginalisation just because that’s not the one they’re talking about at the time.
Remind people that your “longstanding position that human trafficking into forced prostitution, or any other aspect of non-consensual sex, should be criminalized as a matter of international law” has not changed. There, that’ll do. What more do people want? Coherence?
Has Amnesty International been hijacked by proponents of the global sex trade? When the human rights nonprofit convenes its International Council Meeting next week in Dublin, delegates from around the world will be asked to vote on a proposal to recognize prostitution as a human right.
Amnesty is arguing that prostitution is a matter of free choice, a stance heavily promoted by the multibillion-dollar commercial sex industry. The group is putting forth the view that sex work is compatible with the principle of gender equality and nondiscrimination, as if it were a job like any other.
Women’s rights country by country – interactive
“By definition,” Amnesty’s proposal states, “sex work means that sex workers who are engaging in commercial sex have consented to do so.” This definition fails to take into account the dire economic need, the childhood sexual abuse, the brutal coercion employed by pimps, and the vast power differences of sex and race that drive the commercial sex industry.
Amnesty contends that “such conditions do not inevitably render individuals incapable of exercising personal agency”. This argument ignores the reality for the vast majority of individuals exploited by the commercial sex industry. When United Nations personnel trade food for sex, these transactions – called “survival sex” – might technically be consensual, but can hardly be considered examples of free will. Almost all prostitution is some form of survival sex. There is no choice in the absence of the freedom to choose otherwise.
Amnesty’s stance on prostitution shows it is missing a gender lens. This isn’t the first time Amnesty has been slow to protect women’s rights: the group failed even to recognize sex trafficking as a human rights violation until the late 1990s. But it now recognizes rape as a weapon of war and some other forms of violence against women – including trafficking – as violations of human rights.
It also previously shied away from recognizing female genital mutilation as a human rights violation, noting the practice was deeply rooted in tradition, but then took up the issue in 1995. The issue is harm, not choice.
Barack Obama in Kenya: ‘no excuse’ for treating women as second-class citizens
Perhaps Amnesty should look to the 1949 UN Convention on trafficking, which characterizes prostitution and sex trafficking as “incompatible with the dignity and worth of the human person and endanger[ing] the welfare of the individual, the family and the community”. If the organization endorses prostitution as a human right, it won’t be supporting the women who might have no choice but to have sex for money, but rather the pimps and buyers of sex who have all the choice in the world.
Amnesty is urging its membership to separate prostitution and sex trafficking as entirely unrelated. Yet common sense and the economics of supply and demand dictate that demand for prostitution fuels sex trafficking to supply it: not all prostituted women are sex trafficking victims, but all sex trafficking victims are sold into prostitution. Amnesty is urging its membership to legalize the industry, making no distinction between the women being prostituted and those who pay for and profit from their exploitation.