For the majority of people, the controversy surrounding Amnesty International and its proposed prostitution policy is a non-story. This is for the simple reason that most will assume that decriminalisation means not arresting the women. When Amnesty promotes the notion that the decriminalisation of sex workers will protect their human rights, they fail to explain that this would apply to all those whose business is associated with the sex trade: pimps, brothel-owners, pornographers, and others who profit from the sale of women.
A number of survivors who have left the sex trade have spoken about how they survived while still involved, which includes insisting to themselves and to others that they were making a free and happy choice to sell sex.
When I exposed Amnesty’s plan to campaign on decriminalising the entire sex trade in a national newspaper, I did so in the knowledge that feminists had been fighting this battle with senior policymakers for some years. Amnesty had been experiencing pressure both inside and outside of the organisation to put the human rights of women on the Amnesty agenda. This was partially achieved when it launched its violence against women strategy, but prostitution was never a part of it. So long as Amnesty was condemning child sexual exploitation and the trafficking of women from across borders within the sex industry, they seemed fine to ignore the rest of the grotesque, state-sanctioned abuse of adult women.
The whistleblower who approached me with the policy paper told me that she and other women in the organisation could not convince many of the men that decriminalisation would harm rather than help women in prostitution. Following my exposure, and the outcry from survivors of prostitution and feminists, Amnesty responded by promising that it would properly consult interested parties before deciding on the appropriate policy. This consultation exercise was carried out by an academic who is a well-known adherent of the pro-decriminalisation argument. During the consultation, no survivor group or other abolitionist organisation that are critical of the sex trade was consulted. The result – the new draft policy – was a foregone conclusion.
Amnesty has only released a short summary of this research, emphasising the accounts of a few sex workers, especially in Oslo, who have complained about police brutality. All who oppose Amnesty’s policy also oppose police brutality against any and all people. Amnesty was established to protect people against this.
In the draft policy document, New Zealand is cited as a paradise of egalitarian prostitution, but according to its own government report, that is not quite the true story. Senior police officials have admitted that policing of organised crime in legal brothels is “patchy” and the regulation of brothels is “often woeful”. One investigator noted that because of decriminalisation police were not required by law to investigate the goings-on, and organised criminals infiltrated the off-street sex industry. The gross mistreatment of women in this vile industry is clear to see. Why is it that Amnesty, supposed champion of the oppressed, fails to see this?
This week, in Dublin, about 500 Amnesty International delegates from more than 80 countries will vote on a proposal on prostitution that would recommend decriminalising both the selling and buying of sex, as well as pimping and brothel-keeping. The supposed logic is that gender equality exists to the extent that prostitution is a consensual act, but also that buying sex from women in prostitution is an important human right for some men to improve “their life enjoyment and dignity”.
As somebody who has worked for several decades with prostitutes, I know exactly what “consent” means in the context of the sex trade. The vast majority of women enter it in the absence of real choices. Many are children – or were children when they first supposedly consented to it.
Those who buy sex are the reason why violence and discrimination are part and parcel of the sex trade. They are the reason why younger and younger girls are trafficked into it and why organised crime is attracted to countries that decriminalise it.
Legalisation of the sex trade has failed spectacularly where it has been introduced. In Germany and the Netherlands, violence and trafficking have hugely increased. Both countries are now backtracking from previous policies. In New Zealand, according to a 2008 report, women in prostitution said they were no more likely to report acts of violence or access health services than before decriminalisation.
A key moment in Amnesty’s history took place in the pages of this newspaper in 1961, when Peter Benenson launched an “Appeal for Amnesty”, after two Portuguese students were jailed for raising their glasses to toast freedom. For years, it has done important work, but has often missed a gender lens on issues such as sex trafficking.
Equality Now, an international women’s rights organisation, was set up partly in response to this gap. As international law experts, they were shocked by Amnesty’s proposed policy, which doesn’t recognise that the commercial sex trade is inextricably linked to sex trafficking. Buyers can never know if a women or girl has been trafficked. There is no question that, collectively, the men who (and the tiny number of women) buy sex keep the multi-billion trafficking industry afloat.
International law reflects this. The key treaty on trafficking – the Palermo Protocol – requires governments to enact policies “to discourage the demand which fosters all forms of exploitation, especially of women and children, that leads to trafficking”. The main women’s rights treaty, the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (Cedaw), points out that the exploitation of women is endemic in the commercial sex trade and the Cedaw committee has repeatedly asked governments to discourage the demand for prostitution.
International law views the commercial sex trade as incompatible with upholding the rights of women and ending sex trafficking. As an organisation that seeks to “respect international law”, why is Amnesty ignoring international law as it relates to prostitution and sex trafficking?
Organisations such as Space International were set up to give voice to the countless women who have survived the abusive realities of the sex trade. Space has released its own statement to Amnesty. As survivors, they know that there is nothing consensual or sexually liberating for the vast majority of people in prostitution. Its founder, Rachel Moran, tells it how it is: “Those who say otherwise are usually earning money in no-contact situations such as live web-cam porn; those pro-lobby voices who are actually in prostitution are overwhelmingly white, western, privileged women in escort prostitution and have no business speaking for the global majority.”
Survivors know that the only way to reduce exploitation and move ever closer to gender equality is to recognise the human rights of people in prostitution. This means recommending a set of laws and policies based on gender equality and informed by the truth of the prostitution experience.