Australian feminist, environmental activist and whistleblower Isla MacGregor gave a compelling case against Amnesty International’s “Sex Work policy” at the Women’s International League For Peace and Freedom (WILPF) forum in Hobart, Tasmania today .
MacGregor was invited to speak by Human Rights Award recipient Linley Grant.
The talk by the self- described “retired activist”, (who recently won the Volcano Art Prize for her evocative photographs of the environmental impacts of mining on both the earth and community) was “well received”and praised as “informative and mind-changing” by attendees at the forum.
MacGregor’s talk has been taken as a case to the WILPF branch of the United Nations.
“How will Amnesty International’s Sex Trade Policy
Impact on Human Rights,
Poverty and Violence to Women Globally?”
Talk by Isla MacGregor for the
Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom
Forum in Human Rights Week, Hobart 4 December 2015
Thank you Linley for inviting me to give this presentation during the 2015 Human Rights Week events in Hobart.
“Prostitution affects all women because it affects the way men regard women.”- Julian Burnside – @JulianBurnside #qanda 5:36 AM – 1 Sep 2014
(Julian Burnside AO QC is an Australian barrister, human rights and refugee advocate, and author.)
The subject I am about to talk about is not one that receives much public or media attention. Nor is it a topic of ‘polite’ in depth conversation amongst members of social justice or human rights groups.
But the inherent harms to women in a globally expanding sex trade urgently need to be brought back into public discourse – especially now, when the White Ribbon campaign to end men’s violence to women is attracting so much media attention.
Recently, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said –
All violence against women begins with disrespecting women….and further….. men need to take action.
There are many urgent questions that must be addressed by the human rights community. Most importantly, the voices of survivors of all forms of violence against women, including in the sex trade, must be heard. They must not be silenced or threatened.
Why does the debate about men’s violence toward women not include the violence perpetrated by men against the 40 million women worldwide who are part of the $99 billion dollar per annum sex trade? Many of these women have been trafficked, tricked or coerced into transactional sex as a result of war, poverty, terrorism, ecological disasters, or socio-economic disadvantage. Most have little or no education, many are homeless, and a disproportionate number have been sexually abused as children.
Society accepts the commodification of women’s bodies and its ensuing harms for the purpose of providing sexual access for men. Why has that not been considered as a contributing factor in the broader debate about the root causes of violence against women?
Why are the relentless multi-media pornification and hypersexualisation of our cultures, and the increasingly overt sexualisation of young girls not being widely questioned?
How could Amnesty International develop a policy that is incompatible with the 1948 UN Declaration of Human Rights, the 1949 United Nations Convention on the Suppression of the Trafficking in Persons and on the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others, and the 1979 UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW)?
I will begin by discussing what has been considered by many in the human rights movement globally as one of the most retrograde steps any human rights organisation has taken on the issue of women’s rights – Amnesty International’s new policy on what they controversially refer to as ‘sex work’.
Amnesty International began its consultation process on the issue of prostitution in 2008, largely in response to lobbying by the Amnesty Newcastle UK branch, and AI member and known pimp Douglas Fox. Fox stated publicly that he would pursue Amnesty International ‘mercilessly’ to develop a policy supporting full decriminalisation of the sex trade, including sex buyers, pimps and brothel owners.
Amnesty was roundly condemned for fast-tracking the sex laws policy and for dishonestly misrepresenting the alternative to decriminalisation – the Nordic Model – in the material distributed to members. They described Nordic Model laws as a ‘criminalisation’ of the sex trade, and ignored their true rationale – the decriminalisation of sellers of sex, and criminalisation of buyers, pimps and brothel owners.’
The Hobart branch of Amnesty International, for example, did not facilitate any meetings on the issue or invite input from proponents of different legislative approaches to the sex trade. At the 2014 Tasmanian Branch AGM, however, the issue was hotly debated when a resolution was moved by members who stacked the meeting in support of Nordic Model laws – not necessarily a democratic result, but it made a strong point about Amnesty’s decision making processes. Amnesty failed to invite submissions from international women’s human rights groups, or circulate information to members, on all alternative legislative approaches to the sex trade. The members were not fully or properly informed.
Prostitution survivor and National Director of the Nordic Model in Australia Coalition (NorMAC), Simone Watson said –
The proposed Amnesty International Council policy calling for the decriminalisation of sex work released at the Amnesty International Australia AGM held in Sydney last weekend (July 2014), has been roundly condemned by human rights, women’s and survivor groups and Amnesty members all over the world.
This is an appalling abuse of due process by the Amnesty International Council. Amnesty International is an organisation that has become increasingly top down in its consultation processes with members.
The International Secretariat previously admitted after receiving responses in 2013 to their Sex Work policy discussion paper that –
‘There is no question that the consultation process could have been handled much better.’
Of the 29 Amnesty sections that submitted consultation responses, nearly all were from Europe and North America but few responses were received from sections in developing nations or those where indigenous populations have proved to be at high risk of human rights abuses in the sex trade.
With just under 60% of Amnesty International sections not submitting any response on the Sex Work Policy and only four sections giving support to the policy, it is appalling that Amnesty persists with their policy direction.
Of the 40% of sections that submitted written feedback on the policy, all supported decriminalisation of sex workers.
Twenty eight per cent of sections that responded said they needed more research to be conducted by Amnesty to inform their views. And further, 38% of respondents called for an extension to the consultation process. Others found the consultation process to be flawed.
NorMAC submitted a formal and detailed complaint to Amnesty International Secretary General Salil Shetty seeking an independent investigation into the conduct of the International Secretariat during the policy development process. NorMAC also expressed concern about the lack of proper membership and stakeholder consultation for the policy. Contrary to normal Amnesty procedures, Salil Shetty took no action.
Amnesty declined to offer any response to questions about the omissions from their final report to the International Council Meeting in Dublin in August this year.
For example, there was no reference to research critical of decriminalisation/legalisation outcomes in Germany, the Netherlands and New Zealand. Neither was there any mention of positive outcomes for the Nordic Model in Iceland, Norway and Sweden. The latter three countries are in the top five nations on the Global Gender Equity Index.
As I mentioned earlier, survivors’ voices and their experiences need to be heard. Simone Watson has written of her experience in the sex trade –
The first harm of prostitution arrived the day I took on the first ‘john’ and needed prescription medication to endure it. Far from being risqué and ‘kinda cool’, I experienced the need for dissociation, inhibiting of vomit-reflexes and humiliation. This did not end even after I left the industry, due to PTSD. It flares up to this day.
Writing the words ‘vomit-reflexes’ I am aware many will take that as the reality of being orally penetrated, and it is. Further, I mean to make clear that having been raped prior to, during, and after my time in the sex trade, nausea is commonly associated with rape, particularly when one is not able to engage the natural fight/flight response and thus experiences the ‘freeze’ response. As I was being paid, these natural reflexes where inhibited by way of my, quote, ‘job description.’ Prescription medication became my instant best friend.
I did not meet one woman, man or transperson in the sex trade who was not taking some form of medication, including, but not limited to, diazepam, xanax, alcohol and illicit drugs, outside of or during our ‘working’ hours.
I often hear that disabled men need access to prostituted people, and that women such as myself are therefore providing a service to these men, much as we do to soldiers, and any other group of men. The fact that those of us in prostitution end up with disabilities as a result of being sexually used by men seems irrelevant to the discussion and apart from being patronising to disabled men, I think that the prostituted matter and thus our right not to be bought and sold is in keeping with the same principle which demands one marginalised group of people should not be pitted against the other.
The research on the harms of prostitution is damning. The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW) posted a letter from survivors of prostitution on their website. It said –
The average age of entry into prostitution in the US is 13. By the time an ‘average’ girl in prostitution turns 18, she has been abused countless times as a minor by adults. Turning eighteen does not magically change the poverty, sexual violence and abuse, lack of education, racism, sexism, homophobia, and disability, which lead to and are perpetuated by the prostitution trap.
The European Women’s Lobby recently reported that –
80% of registered victims of trafficking are women and girls, and 69% are trafficked into the sex industry. Nearly all of these victims are women, who, in addition to the human rights violations they have already faced due to trafficking, are receiving very limited support, protection and attention from European legal systems.
NorMAC’s analysis of the sex trade is useful –
Research in 2003 looked at the prevalence of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) amongst women in prostitution across nine countries. It was found that 68% of those in the sex trade experienced PTSD. This rate is comparable to the trauma faced by rape survivors and survivors of state-sponsored torture.
In 2005 the National Drug and Alcohol Research centre published an article titled ‘Mental health, drug use and risk among female street-based sex workers in greater Sydney’. The project interviewed 72 women who had been involved in prostitution for 3 months or more, and the statistics highlighted the following –
- One quarter of the identified as being Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander.
- More than half left home before the age of 16.
- The median range for school completion was year 9.
- 14% had no fixed address or were currently homeless.
- Nearly half the sample reported being homeless within the past 12 months.
- Three-quarters of the sample experienced child sexual abuse before the age of 16.
- Almost two-thirds reported that after the age of 16 someone had sexual intercourse with them despite them making it clear they did not consent.
- One third of participants reported moving into prostitution before the age of 18.
- Two thirds of respondents found sex work stressful with half stating that the clients were the cause of this stress.
- 85% of women reported experiencing violence in prostitution, particularly physical assault (65%), rape with gun/knife (40%), rape without weapon (33%) and attempted rape (21%).a little over half (39 respondents) reporting severe depressive symptoms. A little over half of this group (54%) reported having attempted suicide and one-quarter of these had been before the age of 18. Half the sample also screened positively for a diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) with approximately half the total sample also meeting the criteria for PTSD with 31% of respondents reporting current PTSD symptoms.
‘Stigma’ is a word we often hear in conversations about the sex trade. Sex trade advocates often cite ‘stigma’ as one of the major issues for women in the sex trade and charge that abolitionists are doing nothing to ameliorate the problem of stigma for those in prostitution. But who is doing the stigmatising? What do men say about the women they use in prostitution?
Here are some examples –
No big deal, it’s just like getting a beer.
You pay for the convenience, a bit like going to a public loo.
Prostitution is like being able to masturbate without doing any of the work.
We’re living in the age of instant coffee, instant food. This is instant sex.
Look, men pay for women because they can have whatever and whoever they want. Lots of men go to prostitutes so they can do things to them real women would not put up with.
Prostitution is being able to do what you want without the taxation.
Ironically, today’s neo-liberal feminists support the arguments of ‘agency’ and ‘choice’ put forward by the sex trade lobby as justification for decriminalisation. Are they aware they have been co-opted by those who benefit from the sex trade? Not the prostituted persons, but the punters – the men who buy sex- the pimps and the brothel owners.
A study published this year in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence co-authored by UCLA Professor Neil Malamuth profiled men who buy sex. It found that men who buy sex are more likely to report having committed rape and other aggressive acts.
Professor Malamuth, a professor of communications studies and psychology, said –
Our findings indicate that men who buy sex share certain key characteristics with men who are at risk for committing sexual aggression. Both groups tend to have a preference for impersonal sex, a fear of rejection by women, a history of having committed sexually aggressive acts and a hostile masculine self-identification. Those who buy sex, on average, have less empathy for women in prostitution and view them as intrinsically different from other women.
Men who work in law enforcement in decriminalised/legalised jurisdictions have a unique perspective on the relationship between sex buyers and prostituted persons. A senior German Police Officer giving evidence to the European Parliament in Brussels said –
This is precisely what we had to experience in the course of investigations against a brothel in Augsburg a few years ago. We had found that the women were subjected to very strict rules and regulations by the brothel operators. For example, they had to be at the disposal of the punters for 13 hours running, they weren’t allowed to leave the brothel earlier, they had to walk around stark naked, they weren’t even allowed to decide on the prices for their services. Prices were unified and set. They partly had to offer unprotected sex. And they had to pay fees to the brothel for the infringement of any of these rules. These conditions are of course incompatible with human dignity. But the court declared all of this to be legal now, because of the new Prostitution Act.
The Nordic Model
As part of a hearing in the European Parliament recently, Jonas Henriksson, a Swedish Detective Sergeant who works combating prostitution and trafficking, referred to the model of prostitution legislation implemented in Sweden in 1998. He said –
The goal is to damage the market and to starve it of its buyers.
Also at the hearing, a member of the European Parliament, Malin Björk, who organised a workshop on the Nordic Model said –
I am happy to hear you will be focusing on addressing demand for trafficked women, but what exactly is this demand? Brothel owners, pimps, but also men buying sex. The Nordic Model has been very effective in addressing the issue of demand, so what will the Commission do to tackle this?
Nordic Model laws decriminalise all people who sell sex and provide exit programs for those who wish to leave the sex trade, including services aimed at providing housing, health, education and employment support. The prostitution law is part of broader legislation know as the Women’s Peace and Sanctuary Laws. As a result of criminalising buyers of sex these laws have had a marked effect on cultural attitudes to women, especially men’s attitudes, and has been effective in reducing sex trafficking.
In February this year the European Parliament voted in support of Nordic Model laws on prostitution. Recently, Northern Ireland implemented Nordic Model laws and it is expected Eire will follow soon. In Scotland there are moves to reintroduce a Nordic Model style bill next year. Along with Sweden, Iceland, Norway, and South Korea have introduced these laws, with Canada passing similar laws earlier this year. France and Israel are set to follow.
Prostitution and war
Many of you here might remember the shocking case of the whistleblower and American policewoman Kathryn Bolcovac. Kathryn exposed international humanitarian employees, UN police and NATO troops as regular buyers of sex from minors and trafficked women in Bosnia in 1998. She further revealed that UN police were involved in the trafficking of women. Her role was intended to stem the incidence of forced prostitution and sexual abuse in Bosnia but instead she ended up fighting for protection under public interest disclosure laws.
Another example of the sex trade flourishing in times of conflict is documented in the book Base Nation: How U.S. Military Bases Abroad Harm America and the World by Associate Professor of Anthropology David Vine at the American University in Washington, DC. He wrote –
As World War II came to a close, U.S. military leaders in Korea, just like their counterparts in Germany, worried about the interactions between American troops and local women. ‘Americans act as though Koreans were a conquered nation rather than a liberated people’, wrote the office of the commanding general. The policy became ‘hands off Korean women’, but this did not include women in brothels, dance halls and those working the streets.
U.S. military authorities occupying Korea after the war took over some of the ‘comfort stations’ that had been central to the Japanese war machine since the 19th century. During its conquest of territory across east Asia, the Japanese military forced hundreds of thousands of women from Korea, China, Okinawa and rural Japan, and other parts of Asia into sexual slavery, providing soldiers with ‘royal gifts’ from the emperor.
The arrangements were further formalized after the 1950 outbreak of the Korean War. ‘The municipal authorities have already issued the approval for establishing UN comfort stations in return for the Allied Forces’ toil’, wrote the Pusan Daily. ‘In a few days, five stations will be set up in the downtown areas of new and old Masan.
The ‘camp towns’ became deeply stigmatized twilight zones known for sex, crime and violence.
Former camp town former sex worker, Aeran Kim recalled –
Women like me were the biggest sacrifice for my country’s alliance with the Americans. Looking back, I think my body was not mine, but the government’s and the U.S. military’s
They urged us to sell as much as possible to the GI’s, praising us as ‘dollar-earning patriots’. Our government was one big pimp for the U.S. military.
The links between war and the normalisation of sexual abuse and harm to women in prostitution remains a case of business as usual for male privilege and protection today.
Amnesty’s ‘sex work’ policy is a band-aid solution that ignores the lack of real global action on poverty and violence to women in the sex trade since the Nairobi Women’s Conference in 1975. This conference concluded that –
Men own 90% of the world’s wealth and women do 75% of the world’s work.
According to documents leaked in 2013, and prior to any consultation process, the Amnesty International Secretariat had already decided to push through with a full decriminalisation position. But who, other than 80 people claiming to be sex workers, did Amnesty consult with? Certainly not survivors of prostitution – not one was consulted.
The organisation, Abolish Prostitution Now (APN), provides a useful reference point on the Amnesty decision. Recently it posted the following –
Claudia Brizuela, a former leader of the Association of Women Prostitutes of Argentina and a founder of the Latin American-Caribbean Female Sex Workers Network, was arrested and charged for sex trafficking a year ago.
The latter network was also represented by Alejandra Gil in Mexico, also charged with sex trafficking this Spring, found guilty and condemned to 15 yrs. Both groups were funded by UNAIDS and referenced by Amnesty International in support of the policy it intends to adopt, where trafficking is described as not to be conflated with pimping and brothel-managing.
Taina Bien-Aime, Executive Director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, summarised the issue in an article in the Huffington Post in October this year, titled ‘The Framing of Gender Apartheid: Amnesty International and Prostitution’.
What would happen if every country decriminalized prostitution? Not just the few that have already disastrously done so, but what if every government legitimized pimps and brothel owners and failed to hold men accountable for purchasing human beings for sex? Would the United Nations and its member states launch a 2050 Agenda for Investing in the Sex Trade as a Solution and Sustainable Development for Women and Girls, Especially the Most Indigent?
What marketing slogans would ensue? Might public agencies launch poverty alleviation campaigns? ‘First Nations, Indigenous, Aboriginal, African-Americans and Global South Populations: Are you Poor, Young, Incested, Transgendered, Homeless? With our help, the Sex Trade will provide you with shelter, food, free condoms and the opportunity to contribute to your (or a foreign) country’s Gross National Product. No experience or education required’.
Women have the unequivocal right to make decisions about their health, body, sexuality and reproductive life. Men, on the other hand, do not have the fundamental right to gain access to that body in the sex trade or in any other sphere, despite Amnesty’s premise to the contrary. Amnesty is refusing to admit that the prostituted suffer at the hands of buyers regardless of the legal environment, wilfully ignoring johns‘ own accounts of their predilection for dehumanization, and research showing their propensity for sexual violence.
Think of this: over three million women and girls are sold to men on a daily basis in mega-brothels in India. Under Amnesty’s plan, that number would exponentially increase with legalized demand and cultural acceptance of prostitution as a viable livelihood for poor, low caste and invisible girls and young women. A vote to endorse the global sex trade would wipe out any progress to advance women’s rights that Amnesty might have made in the past years.
The Afrikaans term apartheid means ‘apart and aside’ and evokes one of the most brutal regimes in modern history. By encouraging governments to enshrine the sex trade as just another potential employer, Amnesty is promoting gender apartheid, the segregation of women between those who deserve access to economic and educational opportunities and those who are condemned to prostitution. Make no mistake: as long as women are for sale, no woman will be viewed as equal in corporate boardrooms, in the halls of legislature, or in the home.
A visionary human rights organization crafts its mission on what we’d like the world to be, not accommodate the untold suffering that exists. But until Amnesty rights this wrong, its legitimacy is tarnished; its soul, lost; its candle, extinguished.’
And this decision by Amnesty International comes at a time when women in Greece – a country experiencing a dire financial crisis – have been forced to sell themselves for the price of a sandwich. When the spectre of climate change means an impending human and ecological disaster and the mass migration of women from rich food growing coastal belts to urban ghettos, with few options for survival available to them.”
Imagine opposing big business in ALL its forms. Challenging industry lobbyists. Following the money. Fighting for alternatives. Freeing the world’s poor from having to service the world’s rich. Choosing solidarity with women, children and the world’s poorest.
Women protested in 50 countries on October 23, united in their opposition to Amnesty International’s recommendation for full decriminalization of the sex industry, including pimps and johns.
The campaign was organized by a coalition of individual women and women’s groups, collectively referred to as Amnesty Action.
In London, police estimated the number of women outside Amnesty International’s headquarters at 200. There were exited women there, with activists, researchers, journalists — all in sisterhood. The youngest were in their twenties, the oldest were in their eighties.
They were later joined by a few men, one of whom said he’d heard about the protest in an Italian Facebook group two hours before and apologized for not having got involved sooner.
The protesters stood alongside the busy road in London’s rush hour and chanted: “Lock up pimps and johns!” “Women’s rights are human rights!” “Women’s bodies are not for sale!” One brought a mobile speaker and played “All Night Wrong,” a protest song written by Jeanette Westbrook.
he Amnesty Action women were in an unexpected position; having to oppose the world’s leading human rights organization in the name of women’s and girls’ rights. Women and girls are human, after all…
It speaks volumes that since Amnesty International agreed to the policy in August. A large number of women’s rights organizations have came out in opposition of the decision and in support of the Nordic model, which decriminalizes only the sale of sex and promotes exit plans to get women out of prostitution.
Amnesty International’s policy lets women and girls down, putting their rights last as it declares that access to sex is a human right.
Actually, the right not to suffer inhuman or degrading treatment is guaranteed by Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This is also guaranteed under both the Palermo Protocol (the UN Trafficking Protocol) and the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), as well as the 1949 Convention, which recognize prostitution as exploitation.
The absurdity of the situation was summed up by Lisa-Marie Taylor, chair of UK women’s rights charity Feminism in London.
“We cannot and will not stand by whilst a human rights organization supports, encourages, and lobbies for the prostitution of women and by extension girls. This flies in the face of the available evidence and we call for human rights organisations to review their position in the light of emerging data from areas that have implemented the model of legalization with appalling consequences,”
Among them were Canadian registered nurses Linda MacDonald and Jeanne Sarson, the world’s leading authorities on Non-State Torture.
The two founders of Persons Against Non-State Torture know that trafficked and prostituted women are extremely vulnerable to acts of torture committed in the private sphere.
“I am here to share the voices of women who talk about the grave suffering they have endured in their ordeals in Non-State Torture, including the torture that happens in prostitution. I want to shout to the roof tops and to Amnesty International that torture is not work,” Linda MacDonald told Feminist Current.
The two women have spent 22 years supporting victims and campaigning for Non-State Torture to be classified as a specific human rights crime.
“We will never shut up about Non-State Torture,” Jeanne Sarson told Feminist Current.
What would happen if every country decriminalized prostitution? Not just the few that have already disastrously done so, but what if every government legitimized pimps and brothel owners and failed to hold men accountable for purchasing human beings for sex? Would the United Nations and its member states launch a #2050 Agenda for Investing in the Sex Trade as a Solution and Sustainable Development for Women and Girls, Especially the Most Indigent?
What marketing slogans would ensue? Might public agencies launch poverty alleviation campaigns? “First Nations, Indigenous, Aboriginal, African-Americans and Global South Populations: Are you Poor, Young, Incested, Transgendered, Homeless? With our help, the Sex Trade will provide you with shelter, food, free condoms and the opportunity to contribute to your (or a foreign) country’s Gross National Product. No experience or education required.”
These are not teasers for Margaret Atwood’s next novel, but a concept set forth by Amnesty International, one of the most prominent and respected human rights organization in the world.
After a contentious debate at its International Council Meeting in Dublin this August, Amnesty’s delegates passed a resolution for full decriminalization of the sex trade, including pimps, brothel owners and buyers of sex, as a means to protect prostituted individuals. Amnesty’s International Board is about to review, and likely to adopt, a policy framework that would render the sex trade an acceptable and desirable employer.
Although a number of Amnesty country sections, including those of France, Israel and Sweden, opposed the decision, its stubborn march toward urging governments to embrace what effectively is legalization of prostitution seems unstoppable. With inexplicable disdain, Amnesty’s leadership ignored the thousands of voices from the global grassroots women’s movement, survivors of prostitution, scholars and researchers, lesbian and gay leaders, and others, including a former US president and the heirs of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Instead, Amnesty seems swayed more by the incessant chants of a formidable pro-pimping culture and what the journalist Meghan Murphy calls “Playboy Feminism,” than abiding by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Amnesty welcomed convicted pimps to shape the policy and others linked to the sex trade to defend them on the media circuit.
Think of this: over three million women and girls are sold to men on a daily basis in mega-brothels in India. Under Amnesty’s plan, that number would exponentially increase with legalized demand and cultural acceptance of prostitution as a viable livelihood for poor, low caste and invisible girls and young women. A vote to endorse the global sex trade would wipe out any progress to advance women’s rights that Amnesty might have made in the past years.
The Afrikaans term apartheid means “apart and aside” and evokes one of the most brutal regimes in modern history. By encouraging governments to enshrine the sex trade as just another potential employer, Amnesty is promoting gender apartheid, the segregation of women between those who deserve access to economic and educational opportunities and those who are condemned to prostitution. Make no mistake: as long as women are for sale, no woman will be viewed as equal in corporate boardrooms, in the halls of legislature, or in the home.
“The Vice President of a group that officially advised a top UN body on its prostitution policy was jailed earlier this year for sex trafficking. So why is Amnesty International about to adopt their policy proposals?”
On Thursday 12th March 2015, 64 year old Alejandra Gil was convicted in Mexico City of trafficking and sentenced to fifteen years in prison. Gil reportedly controlled a pimping operation that exploited around 200 women. Known as the “Madam of Sullivan”, she was one of the most powerful pimps of Sullivan Street, an area of Mexico City notorious for prostitution. Gil and her son were connected with trafficking networks in Tlaxcala state – site of Mexico’s “epicenter for sex trafficking.”
Madai, a twenty-four year old woman who was trafficked to Mexico City, was one of those who gave evidence against Gil. Speaking to a reporter in Mexico she said, “[Gil’s] job was to watch us from the car. Her son or her took us to hotels and charged us fees. She kept records. She had a list where she kept records of everything. She even wrote down how long you took”. Madai met her trafficker when she was 19 years old. “He wooed me, made me fall in love, and I believed everything he told me. That I would go live with him, that he was going to marry me… He was the one who took me to Alejandra Gil and her son”. Héctor Pérez, the lawyer representing the victims in Gil’s case, told me Gil was handed a fifteen year sentence because “she received trafficked victims and deceived to exploit them through the exercise of [prostitution].”
In addition to her daily pimping duties, Alejandra Gil side-lined as President of Aproase, an NGO that supposedly advocated for the rights of people in prostitution, but in practice functioned as a useful cover for her pimping operation. And until Gil’s arrest last year, the “Madam of Sullivan” was Vice President of an organisation called the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP).
NSWP is no fringe group. In 2009 it was appointed Co-Chair of the UNAIDS ‘Advisory Group on HIV and Sex Work’. UNAIDS is the international body responsible for leading global efforts to reverse the spread of HIV, and the advisory group was established to “review and participate in the development of UNAIDS policy, programme or advocacy documents, or statements.” Alejandra Gil is also personally acknowledged in a 2012 World Health Organisation (WHO) report about the sex trade as one of the “experts” who dedicated her “time and expertise” to developing its recommendations. NSWP’s logo is on the front cover, alongside the logos of WHO, UNAIDS and the United Nations Population Fund.
Amnesty International also reference NSWP and the Advisory Group it co-chaired in its draft policy calling for brothel keeping to be decriminalised – a proposal that has been condemned by prostitution survivors and equality groups around the world, including SPACE International, Women’s Aid and the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women. Amnesty’s policy, due to be finalised this month, cites “human rights organisations” that endorse their proposal: “Most significantly,” they write, “a large number of sex worker organisations and networks, including the Global Network of Sex Work Projects, support the decriminalisation of sex work”.
How could this happen? How could a pimp wind up second in command at a global organisation that officially advised UN agencies on prostitution policy and that is referenced in Amnesty International’s draft policy? And did the “Madam of Sullivan” divorce her interests as a pimp when she was putting demands to governments and global institutions on behalf of NSWP?
She didn’t have to. NSWP campaign for “third parties” in prostitution to be decriminalised. This, they state, includes “managers, brothel keepers… and anyone else who is seen as facilitating sex work”[i]. The organisation also insists that “Sex workers can be employees, employers, or participate in a range of other work related relationships.”[ii] According to NSWP policy, as a pimp Alejandra Gil was a “sex worker” who’s precise role was a “manager” in the trade. The organisation lobbies for pimping and brothel keeping to be legally recognised as legitimate work. To fulfil her role as Vice President of NSWP, Gil didn’t have to mask her vested interests as a pimp, she had a mandate to pursue them.
Those interests have been pursued with startling success through some of the world’s top human rights institutions. What happened in 2007 is key to understanding how Gil’s group pulled it off. That year UNAIDS published a ‘Guidance Note‘ on how countries should respond to the HIV crisis in the context of a prostitution trade. They rightly concluded that to tackle the HIV crisis it was important to tackle demand for prostitution: “it is possible and timely to achieve social change, and consequently behavioural change among men, to reduce the demand for sex work.” Unsurprisingly, this didn’t go down well with Gil’s organisation, which expressed its “concern”, via a working group, about the report’s “emphasis on reducing commercial sex”[iii].
Inexplicably, UNAIDS responded by appointing NSWP – which openly promotes pimping and brothel keeping as ordinary ‘work’ – as Co-Chairs of its new Advisory Group on HIV and Sex Work. A revised version of UNAIDS’ Guidance Note was duly published, this time carrying an annex prepared by the Advisory Group. It recommends: “States should move away from criminalising sex work or activities associated with it. Decriminalisation of sex work should include removing criminal laws and penalties for purchase and sale of sex, management of sex workers and brothels, and other activities related to sex work.” That report is now a go-to reference for groups lobbying governments to make pimping and brothel keeping legal.
It is the legal model advocated by NSWP – full decriminalisation of the sex trade – that Amnesty International’s leadership voted in August to endorse, and plans to adopt as official policy this month. Amnesty maintains their policy is the result of two years research and is the best option available to protect the human rights of people that some men pay for sex. Having myself spent the last two years researching the sex trade for a book, I can confidently say that to suggest Amnesty’s researchers ‘missed a bit’ doesn’t even come close to accounting for the travesty that is the organisation’s draft policy. Brothel keeping, pimping, paying for sex: these are forms of commercial sexual exploitation. Amnesty International is about to call for a form of violence against women to be decriminalised, allowing states to take on a role akin to a pimp: sanctioning and licensing brothels, and taxing the women in them.
As Esohe Aghatise, Anti-Trafficking Manager at Equality Now, says, “It is shocking that a convicted trafficker would influence policy, which is, in itself, incompatible with human rights and international law. We need to end the demand which fuels sex trafficking, rather than decriminalise those who benefit from the exploitation of others. UN agencies need to urgently clarify their position on the sex trade – particularly in light of this new damning evidence”.
Without question, those who are paid for sex should be completely decriminalised. But those who sexually exploit – pimps, brothel keepers and sex buyers – should not. They are perpetrators – not entrepreneurs or consumers. Mia de Faoite, a survivor of prostitution, told me, “I left prostitution utterly destroyed as a human being and I cannot fathom how that level of violence could ever be sanctioned and classed as ‘work’.”
That convicted trafficker Alejandra Gil and her group have been so closely involved in UN agencies’ policy making on prostitution is nothing short of a human rights scandal. Clearly, UNAIDS must urgently conduct a thorough, transparent review of all policies NSWP has advised it on and investigate how this could have happened. As for Amnesty International, it would be abhorrent to see the organisation proceed with its call for full decriminalisation of the sex trade – because it really doesn’t take a conviction for trafficking by a leading proponent to work out who benefits most when states make brothel-keeping and pimping legal.
On 24 August 2015, I published What Amnesty Did Wrong in which I laid out many errors that Amnesty made in developing its proposal for the full decriminalisation of all aspects of “consensual sex work”. This proposal had been passed as a resolution at a meeting of the International Council in Dublin two weeks earlier (referred to as “the resolution” in this article).
In September, members of an internal Amnesty USA discussion forum requested that Amnesty USA respond to all of the points that I raised in that article. On 22 September 2015, Terry Rockefeller replied to the forum on “behalf of the Board and the Priorities Subcommittee” declining to respond to the article because it was “filled with errors and rumors”. She failed to explain who made the errors or what she consider to be rumours. I believe Amnesty needs to clarify this. In order to make it easier for Amnesty to answer the points I raised, I have reframed them as simple questions and include additional questions that arise from Terry Rockefeller’s reply. Please note that this is not an exhaustive list.
I beg Amnesty’s International Board to honestly and seriously consider all of these points and answer the questions honestly and with an open mind before proceeding with the implementation of the proposed policy to fully decriminalise the sex trade. Please consider carefully whether it is ethical to proceed with implementing a policy to fully decriminalise the sex trade in the light of the issues raised in these questions.
The questions are worth reading in full, but I’m only going to quote a small selection here:
32. Does Amnesty understand that (a) The success of the Nordic Model depends on the political will to carry through its implementation and to provide funds for the services for those in prostitution, for training the police and others, and for public information campaigns? And (b) That the introduction of the Nordic Model approach usually takes some time to bed in because it requires the police and those in public services to undergo a significant shift in attitudes?
33. If so, why did Amnesty not undertake research on the approach in Sweden, which has the longest experience with it and where there has been the greatest political will to ensure its success, rather than in Norway, where it is still bedding in?
34. Is Amnesty aware that the Nordic Model law is popular in Sweden and has been credited with changing attitudes of young men in particular and of reducing sex trafficking in that country, without an increase in violence towards prostituted persons?
35. If so, why did Amnesty base its dismissal of the Nordic Model approach in the final draft policy on one piece of research (by Bjorndah on behalf of Pro Senter) that was conducted in Norway?
36. Is Amnesty aware that the research in question has been discredited and that in 2012 Pro Senter publicly acknowledged that the statistical foundation of the report is unreliable and the data does not show that violence has increased since the introduction of the Nordic Model as the report claims but in fact the data suggests that violence has decreased? (See also page 16 of this Norwegian newspaper.)
37. Amnesty’s “Sex Work Policy Discussion Paper” stated that none of the consultation responses disagreed with the proposal to decriminalise persons in prostitution but many disagreed with the proposal to decriminalise pimps and punters. In view of this, why did Amnesty subsequently couch the arguments in terms of criminalisation versus decriminalisation, which gave the incorrect impression that some people were calling for the criminalisation of persons in prostitution?
More from The Feministahood’s What Amnesty Did Wrong article:
Amnesty lied about who they’d consulted
In an email response to a protest about Amnesty’s proposed policy, Jackie Hansen, Major Campaigns and Women’s Rights Campaigner, Amnesty International Canada said the following:
“Internationally, Amnesty International has held discussions with hundreds of organizations and many more individuals including, but not limited to, International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe – ICRSE; The NGO Delegation to the Programme Coordinating Board (PCB) of UNAIDS; Freedom Network; The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, Australia; The Resource centre for women (Marta), Latvia; Ruhama, Ireland; Center for Reproductive Rights; Global Network of Sex Work Projects; SPACE International (Survivors of Prostitution-Abuse Calling for Enlightenment); Equality Now; Rape Crisis Network Ireland (RCNI); SANGRAM India; Abolish Prostitution Now.”
Rachel Moran, survivor of prostitution and co-founder of SPACE International, confirmed in a tweet that in spite of pledging to consult with them in a Committee for Justice Meeting of the Northern Ireland Assembly on 30 January 2014, Amnesty did not in fact consult with SPACE International.
Resources Prostitution, a feminist campaigning organisation, confirmed in a tweet that after months of calling Amnesty begging to talk to them about their proposals, Amnesty responded after the crucial vote on 11 August.
Shortly after Amnesty voted on the issue, Rachel Moran was asked to appear on the BBC’s “The World This Week” to debate with Amnesty. She agreed but Amnesty refused to debate directly with her and insisted that the show was segmented so that Rachel would speak first and they would follow. They refused to meet Rachel Moran in a head on discussion.
What has Amnesty got to be afraid of in talking to a single survivor of prostitution, except perhaps the truth?
The Feministahood has a great post up called What Amnesty Did Wrong. I’m going to quote from it more than once, since they pull the info together so well.
Amnesty’s research was flawed
Amnesty conducted research in 4 countries (Papua New Guinea, Norway, Argentina and Hong Kong) that have a variety of legislative approaches to prostitution, including one country (Norway) that has implemented the Nordic Model. Amnesty did not make the full reports publicly available but the leaked final draft policy includes a summary of the “overarching” research findings. This states that they interviewed “80 sex workers” – i.e. an average of 20 in each of the four countries, which is too small a sample to draw conclusive results. Also, as we saw earlier, the “sex worker” term may include pimps and others with vested interests in the decriminalised approach that Amnesty recommends.
The research purports to show “the human rights impact of criminalisation of sex work.” However, they did not conduct research in a country (like Holland or Germany) that has implemented a fully decriminalised approach. To show that full decriminalisation is the solution to the problems that they observed, they would need to show that these problems are not present in countries that have implemented that solution.
Under the heading “Criminalisation of sex work compounds stigma and discrimination against sex workers”, the research summary includes four quotations from migrant women in street prostitution in Norway describing racist slurs they had received from passing white Norwegian women. Clearly what these women describe is appalling but it does not prove that it is caused by the prostitution legislation or that it would be solved by decriminalisation.
Under the heading “Sex workers are criminalised and negatively affected by a range of sex work laws – not just those on the direct sale of sex,” there are several quotations from women in prostitution in Norway who complain that the ban on sex buying results in them having to visit clients in their homes and the dangers this involves. For example:
“When you go to a customer’s house there could be five of them there.”
“If he hurts you there is no-one there to rescue you.”
Rather than proving that decriminalisation is the solution, this shows that punters are inherently dangerous to women in prostitution and that the prostitution relationship is inherently unequal. That Amnesty wants to legitimise this inherently dangerous and unequal relationship through full decriminalisation of the entire industry seems to prove only that it has lost touch with its original aims of protecting the least powerful.
Under the heading “Criminalisation gives police impunity to abuse sex workers and acts as a major barrier to police protection for sex workers,” the summary says that Amnesty “did not find substantive evidence of police violence towards sex workers in Norway.” Unfortunately they did not conclude from this that Norway’s Nordic Model legislation has produced some good results for prostituted women in Norway. The report goes into some detail about how a law against promoting prostitution in Norway is used by the police to evict prostituted women from their accommodation. However, again this does not prove that the full decriminalisation that Amnesty is advocating is the only solution or even a solution. You do not have to be a genius to think of other solutions.
Under the heading “The most marginalised sex workers often report the highest levels, and worst experiences, of criminalisation,” the summary reports migrant on-street prostituted women in Norway complaining of racism from the police and the public. However, there is no evidence that this is related to the Nordic Model law per se or that full decriminalisation of the sex industry would magically cure the racism in this Scandinavian society.
The summary also reports the head of a Brazilian transgender rights NGO saying that the police demand money to protect the prostituted transgendered people from human trafficking networks and thieves. Again this does not prove that full decriminalisation of the sex industry would solve this problem. However, it does hint at the extreme dangers that prostituted people experience from those who profit from the sex trade.
There is no doubt that marginalised people are treated appallingly in the sex trade. The argument is about what is the best way to deal with this. There is a significant body of research that shows that prostitution tends to entrench the disadvantages that marginalised people face. This is an argument for the Nordic Model rather than for full decriminalisation of the entire industry.
It is clear that Amnesty’s research was poorly designed and implemented and it is not possible to honestly extrapolate from the research that full decriminalisation of the industry would be a solution to any of the problems that they document. This suggests that the research was not conducted in good faith and a spirit of openness but with the aim of proving what had already been decided.
A more honest approach would be to compare a country that has implemented a fully decriminalised approach (such as Holland) with a country that has implemented the Nordic Model. Sweden would make the best choice as an example of a country that has implemented the Nordic Model, as it has the longest experience with that approach and has had time and, importantly, the political will to iron out some of the teething problems.
Amnesty international does not take a position on whether sex work should be formally recognized as work for the purposes of regulation. States can impose legitimate restrictions on the sale of sexual services, provided that such restrictions comply with international human rights law, in particular in that they must be for a legitimate purpose, provided by law, necessary for and proportionate to the legitimate aim sought to be achieved, and not discriminatory.
Now, it could be that Amnesty means controls and restrictions can be placed on the way brothels operate, to avoid abusive ‘working’ conditions like the entirely legal flat rate brothels in Germany, but since Amnesty hasn’t acknowledged that such abusive conditions exist, who knows?
It’s obvious which ‘sex workers’ are most likely to be targeted for regulation; it will be the most vulnerable and marginalised on-street prostitutes, who are seen as a public nuisance who put off the tourists when they operate in city centres.
And if it’s not ‘work’ that’s being regulated, what is it? Abuse? So a state can pass laws about how exactly someone can be raped for money?! (Is this the ‘harm reduction’ Amnesty is dedicated to in point 4?)
The Decision also says this (point 12):
The policy will be fully consistent with Amnesty International’s positions with respect to consent to sexual activity, including in contexts that involve abuse of power or positions of authority.
How is this actually possible? How does any act of ‘sex work’ (except for a tiny minority of already privileged individuals in the shallow end of the sex industry) not involve an inequality of power? Under any other circumstances, coercing someone into sex is rape, but, somehow, economic coercion and inequality doesn’t count – Amnesty is committed to the cleansing power of money.
Point 5 is actually ridiculous:
States have the obligation to prevent and combat trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation and to protect the human rights of victims of trafficking.
As long as states don’t recognise the link between supply and demand, the link between blanket decriminalisation and the massive increase in demand, right?
“Love how you treat them like slaves too bro love your work” pipes up one young Australian dad on Facebook. He is messaging Tim “Sharky” Ward, a notorious Australian pimp who lives in Pattaya, Thailand.
Pattaya’s lucrative sex trade boomed off the back of the United States Army who frequented the town for a bit of “rest and relaxation.” The trade continues to this day, bolstered by favourable economic policy and cohorts of sex tourists.
Pattaya’s demand for young women is particularly well served by the continued exclusion of minority and ethnic groups in the region.
Sharky, Pattaya’s resident pimp, boasts several hundred thousand online fans that flock to view his explicit images of young women. He also shares stories of how he demands respect and uses violence if “girls” don’t pay up – for instance, he put one woman in a “sleeper hold” in order to snatch her money. Sharky’s fans applaud.
We might expect pimps like Sharky to be embraced by the deadbeats of the world. Surprisingly though, Sharky may find his greatest promoters are actually those who consider themselves progressives. From within their stronghold of so-called feminist and left-leaning supporters, they are calling for pimps like Sharky to be recognized as legitimate managers and professionals.
Such is the case in a new policy adopted by one of the world’s most renowned progressive organisations, Amnesty International.
In recent days, the debate has heated up over Amnesty’s call for full decriminalisation of the activities of pimps, sex-buyers and those profiting off exploitation in the sex trade. Australia’s feminist media has been quick to respond with declarations of support for Amnesty and their pimp comrades.
Mamamia was among the first to lay out a business case for why Amnesty’s policy merits support. Destroy the Joint followed suit. Yet both ignored the many organisations whose research and experience stands in opposition to Amnesty’s policy – including the EU Parliament, the European Women’s Lobby and Council of Europe, not to mention hundreds of grassroots organisations that support people within or getting out of the sex trade.
Daily Life published a piece by Eurydice Aroney claiming that Amnesty’s opponents want to “criminalise sex work.” This charge was echoed by Rebecca Hiscock in The Conversation. Both articles’ claims are demonstrably wrong, given that petitions against Amnesty’s policy clearly state they do not support criminalising anyone who sells sex. Hiscock frames opposition to Amnesty as a kind of over-simplified “tragedy porn” that ignores voices of those involved in sex work and that therefore misses important nuances. On the contrary, a blanket approach to decriminalising all aspects of pimping is a culpably oversimplified response that is neither contextually attuned, nor attentive to the voices of those most exploited by pimps.
Aroney in Daily Life regurgitates invalidated claims about how decriminalising pimping and brothel keeping is necessary for the safety of sex workers, and then pronounces that anyone who doesn’t concur must be too “privileged, wealthy and white” to understand. Although I suspect it is the privileged, wealthy, white pimps like Sharky and his ilk that understand it best.
The necessity of ongoing revenue is the apparent logic behind promoting the sex trade. Yet this logic is not applied to any other industry on earth. There are calls to shut down coal and shut down global supply chains – “smashing the state” was even a topic explored at the recent All About Women feminist conference. Little concern is expressed for the workers in any of these industries. Undoubtedly anti-free trade, and yet bizarrely pro-sex trade, the feminist left seeks to undermine capitalist industries, except the one industry responsible for some of the most heinous human rights violations on earth, all the while proudly declaring its impeccable moral bona fides.
The standard defence for this hypocritical position relies on the notion that “any exploitation is bad, sexual exploitation is no different.” This is echoed by the more explicitly socialist version, “all work is exploitative under capitalism, so work involving sex is no different.” Amnesty International draws on this to explain that all labour exploitation is equally bad. Yet it doesn’t take a trauma therapist or criminal lawyer to know that sexual crimes are treated differently from non-sexual offences for good reason. There is a world of difference between being forced to wash dishes against one’s will, and a person being forced to have sex against their will, usually for years or decades.
Amnesty and their supporters in the Australian feminist media argue that there are sufficient laws to deal with sexual exploitation and trafficking, including child sex abuse. They argue that not all prostitution involves sex trafficking.
On the contrary, all sex trafficking results in prostitution and any increase in the industry influences rates of trafficking. Research out of various European states, including the London School of Economics, has shown that any legalization of the sex trade significantly increases the flows of sex trafficking. An international study of male sex-buyers found that fully one quarter preferred women under the age of 18, with a universal preference for young women. This is reflected in Thai estimates that the sex industry involves around 40% children. Research shows over half of the women in Sydney’s sex trade are from overseas and many lack English comprehension.
The Australian feminist media not only evades many of these issues, but effectively represses these women’s stories by focusing solely on Australians who engage in sex work of their own volition.
While the causes and solutions to sexual exploitation are complex and varied, the Australian feminist left leaves little room for any perspective other than their own – that is, the privileged, naive position that they so despise, yet doggedly espouse in equal measure. After all, the author who claims to have drafted Amnesty’s pro-pimp policy is Douglas Fox, a man with vested interest in UK brothels. The endorsement of sexual exploiters is now the purview of Australia’s feminist progressives. You find friends in the strangest places, right Sharky?