A fundamental human need

Amnesty’s prostitution policy document.

Zip down to page 5, and read note 2.

 ²As noted within Amnesty International’s policy on sex work, the organization is opposed to criminalization of all activities related to the purchase and sale of sex. Sexual desire and activity are a fundamental human need. To criminalize those who are unable or unwilling to fulfill that need through more traditionally recognized means and thus purchase sex, may amount to a violation of the right to privacy and undermine the rights to free expression and health.

Ok wait. If sexual activity is a fundamental human need, then what happens in cases where there are no prostitutes available? What would happen if all women had job options they liked better than sex work, so there just were no women willing to do it?

If sexual activity is a fundamental human need, what happens in emergency situations, like earthquakes and floods, when people have to take refuge in shelters and thus have to have their fundamental needs met? Would the Red Cross and MSF and everyone else doing emergency work be expected to provide sex partners along with water and food and shelter and medical treatment?

If sexual activity is a fundamental human need, does that mean that straight men have a fundamental right to have access to A Woman at stipulated intervals?

If sexual activity is a fundamental human need, what right do married women have to say no to marital sex? They can’t starve their husbands, so why should they be able to say no to sex just because they don’t feel like it?


  1. says

    Sexual desire and activity are a fundamental human need.

    I’ve seen sex described as a “need” in abusive or controlling ways far too often to trust the word “need” being present without taking a closer look.

    Can you live without it? Why yes you can, so it’s not a fundamental human need. They are producing a document that applies to society and while it can be said that society needs reproduction, that is not a thing that I want to risk society making an obligation. Legal obligation or otherwise.

    “Personal autonomy and consent in sexual expression between individuals” is better.

  2. Erica says

    Gross! Even if you consider sex to be a need, there are still options besides partnered sex, so that’s not a good argument for legalizing prostitution anyway. And I reject any argument for prostitution that hinge on the consumers right to buy sex, rather than the prostitutes right to self determination.

    If prostitute was just a job like any other, would they be bound by anti discrimination laws?

  3. chris61 says

    I don’t see the problem. Food is a fundamental need too and you have the right to buy a potato from someone willing to sell you one but it doesn’t give you the right to walk up to someone on the street and demand they sell you one or to force them to give you one.

  4. sambarge says

    If sexual desire and activity are fundamental human need, where are the female clients of sex workers?

    I support the de-criminalization of sex work because official recognition and regulations will protect the people engaged in selling sexual services. But lets not pretend that sexual equality has been achieved and that sexual services are being provided to all in need of them or going without them involuntarily.

  5. qwints says

    What is this document? On google, I see references to a leaked document from 2014, but this does not seem to match the draft policy that’s circulating which has no such reference.

  6. moarscienceplz says

    This reminds me of when Bart Simpson went to work for Fat Tony, the Mafia boss:
    (From my memory, may not be exact)
    Bart: Isn’t it wrong to steal stuff?
    Fat Tony: If your family was starving, would it be wrong to steal bread to feed them?
    B: Well, no!
    FT: Well, what if your family doesn’t like bread? What if they like cigarettes instead? Wouldn’t it be wrong to NOT steal cigarettes to give to your family?
    B: Hey, you’re right!

  7. qwints says

    where are the female clients of sex workers?

    They exist, although the transaction may not be as explicit or common.

  8. chris61 says

    @ 5 Ophelia

    No you didn’t. But the examples that you did use appear to me to be in effect the same thing. The point being that there is a difference between compelling someone to provide evan a fundamental human need and prohibiting someone from obtaining those needs from those who are freely willing to provide them.

  9. says

    Also, the examples I use are not in effect the same thing. That’s why I used them instead of the one you cited.

    I don’t just write at random you know.

  10. chris61 says

    Then I don’t understand your objection to referring to sexual activity as a fundamental human need since AI’s policy document still makes it clear that they are talking about interactions between consenting parties. Although if you’re simply making the point that sexual activity is not a need in the way that food, water, oxygen and shelter are needs, I agree with you.

  11. sambarge says

    They exist, although the transaction may not be as explicit or common.

    That article specifically references sexual relationships that aren’t regarded as prostitution. I know a few women who hook up with “staff” on their vacations. They don’t regard it as soliciting prostitutes or sex workers. Neither do the men they hook up with.

    It’s not a relationship, everyone knows the deal is sex and gifts (possibly cash) and a limited time commitment.

    But that’s not bread and butter sex work and female patrons are not even close to proportional.

  12. Yaron Davidson says

    @Chris61 – If it’s a fundamental human need then preventing people access to it is a major human rights violation.

    So what, for example, about prisoners? An inmate in a prison in most (all?) countries doesn’t have the right to buy sex from someone selling it. Even prisons that do provide a local supervised store/commissary don’t stoke them with sex workers for hire. And sexual services are not provided several times a day, unlike food. So is that the same level of human rights violations as would be a prison that didn’t provide the inmates any food or water?

    And what about employers that don’t allow employees to have sex during work hours, or allow to take a break for it? Employers in most countries would find themselves in the aforementioned prisons if they won’t allow employees any access to food and drink during the entire workday. Or during longer periods in an enclosed/self-contained environment where employees can’t leave every day. Should I sue my boss for not letting me have sex at work?

    And people who decide to stop eating or drinking usually find themselves under forced medical care at some point. So what about people who decide to abstain from sex? Who would be responsible to force them to have sex for their own survival?

    At the global level, countries where large percentage of the population have difficulty accessing food and clean water are often heavily criticized if it’s due to the government’s/leadership fault, and offered foreign aid and assistance otherwise. Should some NGOs start monitoring sexual activity ratios and access to sex globally, and provide assistance where it’s low? Should governments that don’t provide enough access to sex be severely reprimanded and pressured to change, and rank lower in various human rights scales?

  13. Yaron Davidson says

    Oh, and what about minors? As a kid and a teenager I was completely dependent on my parents for food, before I started to work I didn’t have enough money to buy enough food to survive. Yet my parents never bought for me sexual services. Just how badly did they treated me, then, considering that they didn’t provided for me a fundamental human right when I was under their care and couldn’t have provided it for myself? I wonder if I can sue…

  14. David Evans says

    I was going to refer to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, as an example of a valid view of sex as a fundamental human need. But then I found that he puts it on the lower and most essential layer, which consists of: air, food, drink, shelter, warmth, sex, sleep.

    Not such a nuanced view as I had remembered.

  15. qwints says

    You’re absolutely right that women paying for sex is far less common than men paying for sex and that male sex workers are more likely to have male clients than female ones. The point of the article, however, is that the distinction between “bread and butter sex work” and “romance tourism” is an artificial one, informed by gender stereotypes. Plus, the article specifically did reference a minority of women who “are quite willing to enter into explicitly commercial sexual relationships.” (p.759)

  16. themadtapper says

    I’d like to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they just chose a bad wording. Sexual activity is not a fundamental need. Sexual autonomy, however, is a fundamental right. The immediate problem that comes to mind with their wording is repressive countries using this as a justification to continue or even expand sexual abuse of women. They would point and say “See, even those other countries recognize sex is a fundamental need.” And then “sex is a fundamental need” would quickly become “therefore women are obligated to provide it to men”. The concept of sex as a fundamental need would be used to further strip women of their right sexual autonomy.

  17. sambarge says

    The point of the article, however, is that the distinction between “bread and butter sex work” and “romance tourism” is an artificial one, informed by gender stereotypes.

    Yes. It was a really good article. Thanks for the link. Gender stereotypes are so regressive that I can’t see sex work as an equal choice for women.

    But I still support decriminalization. It’s safer for sex workers, IMHO.

  18. Dan says

    This ignores asexually. And I wonder what its writers would say to the idea of being drafted as gigolos to ancient women whose husbands have died and who need sex (you hear a lot about how deformed disabled or even just awkward men “need” sex workers, but somehow nobody talks about hideous women who really need hot guys to service them.)

  19. Dan says

    I think most women don’t hire sex workers not because they don’t crave sexual pleasure, but because women have to worry about their reputations more than men, plus women have to worry if they have sex with a stranger will they be physically safe. Plus our society still tends to define sex as all about the man’s pleasure. Much safer and more reliable to buy a vibrator.

  20. says

    They should make up their minds and not use contradictory language. Which is it, need or desire? And if it were solely about “needs”, they would be encouraging and teaching masturbation which creates no victims (if done in private), no STDs, and doesn’t involve money. The “argument” sounds more like a rationalization.

    Sexual desire and activity are a fundamental human need. To criminalize those who are unable or unwilling to fulfill that need

    What annoys me about this issue is most people and countries still refuse to admit that prostitution is a driven by demand. If there were no Johns, there would be no sex workers and no trafficked victims, yet the blame continues to be places mostly or solely on those doing sex work or on those forced into it and raped. It’s not akin to the drug trade where the sellers create the problem (“First one’s free!”). People are born with a desire for sex and seek it out, they have to be enticed into drugs.

  21. says

    I was surprised to read this, I had assumed that when people said ‘prostitution is a right’ they meant that people had a right to sell their services, not a right to buy. Can’t think what the relevant word might be though, solicitation maybe.

    To address the points in the article specifically, if there were less women willing to provide sexual services, the prices would go up. The notion that there could exist a situation in which absolutely no women would be interested in the profession at any price is, I think, absurd. If, however, the assertion is valid, then it would suck. That’s all. Certain people’s lives would be made measurably worse.

    The critical difference between sexual contact and every other need is that unlike almost all the others, sex requires a partner. You can cheerfully eat alone, sleep alone, paint alone, read alone, but you can’t have sex alone. (Masturbation does not fulfil the relevant need, which is for intimacy, not orgasm.) That means two things – one, that the need cannot be simply fulfilled and two, that if there is nobody willing to participate, you’re shit out of luck.

    In emergency situations, aid workers are trying to keep people alive. They don’t provide pens, paper, paints and internet access either. Nobody dies without sex, some people just wish they would.

    Nobody has a right to anyone else, any time, ever. There is no reason for that to be incompatible with people needing other people. If one person needs to have sex, and there is nobody around willing to satisfy that need, then it sucks to be that person.

    You are explicitly comparing sex and food in the last example, which casts your dismissal of Chris@3 in a poor light. A wife doesn’t have a right to starve her husband? Really? So if you’re married, you can demand to be fed, at any time, day or night, and it must be fulfilled? Please. A woman can absolutely refuse to either procure or prepare food and her husband can go to hell. What they can’t do is refuse to allow their husbands to get their own meals. Frankly, if you believe marriage gives someone total control over their spouse’s sex life, refusing sex actually sounds cruel. Even then, it’s still not acceptable to use force.

    In summary, there are many human needs the lack of fulfilment of which will not kill a person. Intimate contact is one of them, though the strength of the need differs from person to person. There are plenty of people who don’t feel it at all. For those who do, however, the inability to fulfil that need can be debilitating.

    I’d like to ask one thing, which is whether the opposition to this sentiment is due to a fundamental abhorrence of the act of prostitution itself, or because of the undeniable fact that the majority of prostitutes would much rather be doing something else? I personally have no interest in engaging the services of someone who suffers in any way from the transaction. It may be that the form of prostitution you are against is distinct from the form I am arguing in favour of.

  22. freemage says

    Ian King: A big part of the problem is that the prostitution you are arguing in favor of is a few steps shy of unicorn advocacy. It may actually exist in the real world, but it’s not common, and certainly not the dominant variety. At best, it’s a fringe element of the global sex-market, and even the sex market as it operates in supposedly enlightened Western societies. Can I picture a prostitution regime that would not contain (or at least not be dominated by) the more heinous and problematic elements? Certainly, and I’ll institute it right after I’m made Global Grand Poobah and Dictator For Life (and Also Immortal).

  23. freemage says

    (Apologies, hit send too early)

    Now, since that’s not likely to happen soon (or late), the next best thing is to move towards a better society overall. While legalized and regulated prostitution MIGHT make up some part of that better-ness, it is vital to not imbed problematic material into the very fixes being proposed. Casting sex as a ‘fundamental need’ (as opposed to explicitly calling consensual sex a fundamental right) does just that–it grants power to the language and framing of sex as something that someone can legitimately demand.

  24. oc says

    I can definitely see the problems with the idea that “sexual activity is a fundamental human need” leading to dodgy questions surrounding obligation by partners (putting to one side, quite reasonably I think, the lack of any addition regarding “sexual activity *with another person*”…)…

    …but I wonder whether there may be women (and men) who enjoy sex as an activity and would prefer to be paid for engaging in sexual activity (in safety obvs) to other employment options.

    Would there be a case for suggesting that people have a right to *offer* sexual gratification for money?

  25. freemage says

    oc: That’s actually a solution being supported by some feminists who dislike a completely glibertarian approach to the subject, actually. Prostitution is legalized for the prostitute, but is still a criminal offense for the client. This would at least partially address many of the worst abuses sex workers suffer from, because a lot of those abuses arise from the fact that they cannot go to the authorities with a complaint without identifying themselves as a prostitute (and thus subject to arrest). It would also give the prostitute more ability to control the initial approach–a client seeking a prostitute could still be caught by a sting operation, but a sex worker seeking a customer would be legally immune–and thus, there would be incentive for transactions to be initiated by the sex worker. (Prospective clients could hang out in suitable locations, and wait to be approached, if they wanted to be safe from sting operations, assuming normal rules about entrapment would still apply.)

    Mind you, even this reform still requires a considerable shift on the part of police and the courts–these institutions are notoriously reluctant to prosecute on behalf of sex workers even in blatant situations. But it’s one possible piece to the puzzle.

  26. sambarge says

    I think most women don’t hire sex workers not because they don’t crave sexual pleasure, but because women have to worry about their reputations more than men, plus women have to worry if they have sex with a stranger will they be physically safe. Plus our society still tends to define sex as all about the man’s pleasure. Much safer and more reliable to buy a vibrator.

    Are you telling me this because you think I don’t know?

    My point is these are all perfectly good reasons why, even if it is legalized, sex work (and by extension, sex workers) will never be treated with respect. We are still in the adolescence of our sexual maturity as a species.

  27. Jake Harban says

    Though poorly written, I agree with the sentiment of what I’m charitably assuming it’s trying to express.

    Specifically, that prostitution is not inherently wrong and should not be banned for its own sake. That banning prostitution entirely is a violation of the fundamental human right to privacy and freedom from government intrusions into the activities between consenting adults. That the fact that some/many/most prostitutes have been forced into sex work by trafficking or dire economic straits does not mean consenting prostitutes or their clients should face criminal charges.

    And for what it’s worth, sexual activity IS a fundamental human need for a great many people. Being minimally able to survive without it doesn’t make it stop being a fundamental need; after all, people can minimally survive without shelter. Of course, “sexual activity” doesn’t require a partner; the fundamental human need for shelter can be met without a palace and the fundamental human need for sexual activity can be met without a partner.

    Of course, the fundamental human right to sexual activity is irrelevant to the issue of prostitution and should not have been mentioned in the same paragraph.

    @Freemage 31: I’d recommend a slight modification to your approach— make SOLICITING a prostitute a crime, but not patronizing one. It retains the benefits of allowing prostitutes complete control over which clients to accept without penalizing the clients who are willing to follow the rules. Alternatively, we could use the red light district model, where prostitution is completely legal in certain designated areas with heavy security that can throw out unruly johns on a moment’s notice.

    @32 Sambarge: I’d say humanity is somewhere between adolescence and way-out-there perversion when it comes to sexual maturity as a species, but then my perspective is more than a little unusual on the subject.

    @23 Dan: Actually, plenty of (maybe most?) asexual people have the need for sexual activity as everyone else— we just don’t see why satisfying that need should require another person’s intervention. I don’t need anyone to cook for me, so why would I need someone else to satisfy my other basic needs?

  28. says

    @freemage – Thanks for the considerate response. You skirted the edges of something I avoided in my first comment…

    Even from my perspective it makes absolute sense to argue against prostitution in the general case. Even if attacks on the problematic majority will result in collateral damage to myself and people like me, ‘the good of the many’ is a solid principle.

    The issue I see is that when the lack of sexual intimacy causes significant mental and emotional distress, it becomes a crippling problem. Criminalising attempts to deal with that problem ethically (assuming it’s possible) is a terrible thing to do. Which is the point I assumed amnesty was making in the initial report.

  29. says

    Ok wait. If sexual activity is a fundamental human need, then what happens in cases where there are no prostitutes available?

    Is that like the hypothetical scenario where there is no food or water available?

    @Erica says

    I reject any argument for prostitution that hinge on the consumers right to buy sex, rather than the prostitutes right to self determination.


  30. Dark Jaguar says

    I too have never been comfortable with the whole “sex is a basic and fundamental human need” rhetoric.

    I’ve heard it used by a lot of progressive people when talking about homosexuality and religious chastity, and I can respect what they’re trying to say, but there’s way too much baggage about such an incredibly strong claim. Psychologically, I imagine the drive must be pretty strong considering just how much it dominates so much of society, but to call it a “need” on par with oxygen, food, water, shelter? That’s a bit much. When I look at those “hierarchy of needs” pyramids, I tend to want to mentally take sexuality and move it a bit higher up, since it’s simply a fact that no one has ever died from going without sex for too long.

    Again, I’m not speaking from personal experience, but as an alien wearing human skin, so maybe it really DOES feel like starving to death for sexually mature adults to go without, but considering there actually ARE some people with a functioning sex drive who manage to go decades without it, well, I doubt it.

    This all side-steps a very important point. I’m going to be crude here, but, even in the absolute worst cases, in those cases where going without sexual release is literally torture to a person, why not just masturbate? Seriously, even if they claim it doesn’t feel as good, at best they are arguing that getting a sandwich isn’t enough and they demand the right to a lobster dinner at a 5 star restaurant or their hunger drive isn’t REALLY being sated. Just eat the sandwich and be glad you aren’t starving!

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