Last week, Amnesty International approved a policy to advocate for the decriminalization of the sex trade worldwide. Some countries such as Sweden, Iceland and Norway have adopted what is known as the Swedish or Nordic model, which makes buying sex, pimping or operating brothels illegal, while protecting women who sell sex. Amnesty’s position is to advocate for decriminalization of both buying and selling of sex, as is the case in the Netherlands. Their position is that decriminalizing all aspects of consensual sex work helps create a legal and regulated market that would protect the rights of sex workers and allow access to services. Sounds simple, right?
If only. This policy has been incredibly controversial and triggered enormous debate, even leading members of Amnesty to quit over the resolution. I was also incredibly disappointed to hear about this decision. Let me explain why. ‘Sex work’ is a choice for the privileged few
Amnesty’s policy only applies to consensual adult sex work “that does not involve coercion, exploitation or abuse”. They seem to be talking about a situation where only fully empowered, consenting women freely choose to sell their bodies for money. The problem is, this nice libertarian ideal of individual choice completely ignores the power dynamics that drive the commercial sex industry. Things like race, poverty, childhood sexual abuse, coercion by pimps and the vast power imbalances between men and women in almost every society.
And we have evidence about how these things play out: studies show that between 65% and 95% of prostitutes were sexually assaulted as children, 95% have experienced sexual harassment that would be legally actionable in other job settings, while 85-95% want to escape prostitution but can’t get out or have no other options for survival. The majority of prostitutes enter the industry before they are 18 years old, and over two thirds have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
As pointed by the Guardian, There is nothing intrinsically repugnant to human rights in sex work if you exclude violence, deceit and the exploitation of children. But these aren’t fringe phenomena. They are central parts of the trade in most places round the world. To take as normative the experience of protected western adults is a morally disabling form of privilege.
One of Amnesty’s main arguments is that it is has carried out extensive consultations and is listening to, and representing the views of sex workers. Deciding which sex workers to listen to is problematic enough, and even more so when your definition of sex worker excludes victims of trafficking, those who have managed to leave and are no longer considered ‘sex workers’ or women who are not in a position to openly discuss their sexual histories in order to have their voices heard.
So what does a regulated market look like?
Unfortunately, the dismal statistics don’t get better in the type of legal, regulated market that Amnesty is fighting for. In countries such as the Netherlands and Germany, sex work has been legalized and regulated since 2000 and pimps are treated as any other businessmen who have the same rights to engage in politics and lobbying.
In the Netherlands, legalization has actually led to an increase in illegal prostitution and trafficking by these same ‘businessmen’. There, estimates show that between 50% and 90% of women working in the legal brothels are victims of trafficking. In 2008, the mayor of Amsterdam had to shut down a large part of its red light district, saying that “We’ve realized this is no longer about small-scale entrepreneurs, but that big crime organizations are involved here in trafficking women, drugs, killings and other criminal activities.”
It also seems at odds for Amnesty to condemn human trafficking as a separate, or unrelated issue given the astonishing numbers of trafficked women working in illegal and legal brothels. Even more so when we know that approximately 80% of all trafficking victims globally are women and children bought and sold for sexual exploitation.
And who are the ‘clients’ of this regulated market? The rates of physical and sexual violence are telling enough. If we need some more insight, we can look to the Netherlands where many popular websites have been established for men to review the prostitutes they use, “explain what ‘services’ they do, whether they can be pushed to have sex without condoms or anal, etc.. Remarkable is also that the men criticize prostitutes who don’t look like they enjoy it, who do not play pretend well enough.” Tackling the root of the problem: the Nordic model
Though not a perfect model, Sweden has seen a sharp decline in both prostitution and trafficking since passing its laws in 1999. In other countries, those numbers have increased.
Rather than normalizing the idea that men will inevitably continue to buy women, the Swedish approach was to address the root cause of the problem: the demand and the assumption that men have a right to buy women for prostitution. Prostitution is officially considered a form of male sexual violence against women and children that cannot be separated from, and is intrinsically linked to, trafficking.
Along with the laws decriminalizing prostitutes and criminalizing the buying of sex, the Swedish approach also included and budgeted for a broad initiative to address the core of the issue, including public education and awareness campaigns, exit strategies and job retraining for prostitutes, and methods to effectively prosecute criminals. These are crucial to addressing exploitation and abuse, but there is no onus on a government to do any of this where prostitution is deemed a legitimate profession like any other. Prostitution is incompatible with human rights
These arguments aren’t new. Along with other practices such as slavery and human trafficking, prostitution has long been recognized as incompatible with human rights under international law. In fact, decriminalization would violate at least three UN conventions:
The 1949 convention on trafficking recognizes that prostitution and trafficking are incompatible with the dignity and worth of the human person and contains a number of provisions requiring states to punish any person involved in various elements of the demand side of prostitution.
Violence against women cannot be a societal norm
Talking about ‘sex work’ and ‘markets’ normalizes the idea that the most privileged people in our society (usually white men) are entitled to purchase a woman’s body, and an astoundingly high proportion of the time, include rape and physical abuse as a normal part of that transaction. It’s seems cruel and degrading to refer to the sale of women’s bodies as a ‘market’ when studies show that 70% to 95% of women are physically assaulted and 60% to 75% are raped as a result of this ‘career choice’.
Finally, the issue is broader than just the people involved in the industry. The repercussions of a society that understands this reality and accepts violence against women as a norm extend far beyond the sex trade.
While watching the tv series Humans, I came across a powerful scene in which a prostitute addresses the ‘madam’ of the brothel as she escapes. She says, “Everything your men do to us, they want to do to you.”
The views reflected in this expert column are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent those of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law or Georgetown University. This blog is solely informational in nature, and not intended as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed and retained attorney in your state or country.