Amnesty International has approved a policy to endorse the decriminalisation of the sex trade.
At its decision-making forum in Dublin, the human rights group approved the resolution to recommend “full decriminalisation of all aspects of consensual sex work”.
It argued that its research suggested decriminalisation was the best way to defend the rights of sex workers, rejecting complaints by women’s groups who said it was tantamount to advocating the legalisation of pimping and brothel-owning.
“We recognise that this critical human rights issue is hugely complex and that is why we have addressed this issue from the perspective of international human rights standards,” said Salil Shetty, the secretary general of Amnesty International. “We also consulted with our global movement to take on board different views from around the world.”
Amnesty’s decision is important because the organisation will use its weight to lobby governments to accept its point of view.
Many former [victims of commercial sexual exploitation] have criticised the decision. “We feel that Amnesty International are supporting the men who are killing our women and it’s a slap in the face,” said Bridget Perrier, who was sold into [commercial sexual exploitation] at the age of 12 and later founded Sex Trade 101 in her native Canada to help women leave the industry. “This is a human rights violation in itself.”
Fiona Broadfoot, from Leeds, who was 15 when an abusive boyfriend lured her into [commercial sexual exploitation], said women who saw it as “a job like any other” were in a small minority. “The vast majority of women working in this industry are abused on a massive scale,” she told a press conference in London last week hosted by the anti-sex trade group Space International. “Legalising it will not take away that abuse. When I was working on the streets, I would have said I was a happy hooker, that I’d never work in an office, that I enjoyed it. It was just my way of surviving the abuse that was happening to me every day.”
Broadfoot is a strong advocate for the Nordic model of criminalising people who purchase sex, not the workers themselves. “We need a law against buying sex, so men are made responsible for their own sexual deviancy, not legitimising it, which is killing women.”
Space International’s co-founder Rachel Moran, who was working in the sex trade by the time she was 15, called the Amnesty International decision “breathtakingly disgraceful”.
“When I first heard this proposal, I got very emotional, I have been through a lot and I am not a woman who usually gets emotional. But this is an insult, from the most publicly recognised human rights body in the world, who are saying everything that happened to me was completely normal, above board and ought to be legal.”
I only ever speak English to our three-year-old daughter, and my wife only speaks Swedish to her. The one exception is the word snippa. It’s Swedish for a girl’s genitals, the female equivalent of snopp, meaning “willy”, and I can’t find an English word that does the job.
Almost all the parents I know in Malmö use it. When a cartoon of dancing children’s genitalia made by Swedish children’s television went viral earlier this year, it was called Snoppen och Snippan, with Snippan translated by the English media as Twinkle. But to me, as a foreigner living in Sweden, snippa just is the word you use.
So it was a bombshell to discover that I’ve been the unwitting beneficiary of a programme of feminist social conditioning. The word is new, included in the official dictionary of the Swedish language only in 2006. When I meet Anna Kosztovics, the Malmö social worker who promoted the word back in 2000 – and has a strong claim to naming my daughter’s vagina – she plays down the achievement. But pressed, she admits to being proud of succeeding where even the mighty Oprah Winfrey, with her promotion of the word “vajayjay”, has failed. “I really think I did something,” she says.
The idea came when she was pregnant 18 years ago. “I thought, if this is a girl, I have to have a word for her genitals.” The existing words in Swedish were either too harsh, dirty and sexual – such as fitta, muff and mutta; euphemisms like mus, meaning mouse, or framstjärt, meaning “front bottom” – or too formal and medical, like vagina.
“It came from a gender equality perspective. Boys have a word for it, and girls don’t, and that made me mad,” Kosztovics says. “A friend told me she knew someone who used the word snippa, so I started practising it in front of the mirror.” In 2000 she began promoting it, visiting 50 of Malmö’s then 200 nursery schools, and after that it simply took off.
“It must have been perfect timing because everybody just said ‘yes’,” she remembers.
“I think the snippa initiative was a big success story in Sweden,” says Karin Milles, an academic at Södertorn University in Flemingsberg, who researches feminist projects of “verbal hygiene”. “We hadn’t had much feminist language planning before. It’s the first and I think the major initiative besides hen [a gender-neutral word for ‘he’ and ‘she’].”
The word was already used to describe a small jug for cream and a type of boat, and a small minority used it for vagina. “It’s this shape that is snippa, I think,” says Kosztovics, cupping her hands together to make a slender, tear-shaped gap.
She argues the risk of the word not sticking was too great to get lost in feminist scruples. When she first visited nursery schools, she discovered that while boys were told, “dry your willy”, girls were often told only, “dry yourself”. “If there isn’t a word you can easily use, there’s a very big risk that you don’t use any word at all, and that’s a problem,” she argues. “If there’s one, and only one, part of your body that hasn’t got a name, then people experience that as a taboo.”