A proposal to recognize prostitution as a human right

We’ve heard enough about TERFs for one while, let’s move on to the shouts about SWERFs by way of refreshment. Human rights lawyer Jessica Neuwirth in the Guardian explains:

Has Amnesty International been hijacked by proponents of the global sex trade? When the human rights nonprofit convenes its International Council Meeting next week in Dublin, delegates from around the world will be asked to vote on a proposal to recognize prostitution as a human right.

Amnesty is arguing that prostitution is a matter of free choice, a stance heavily promoted by the multibillion-dollar commercial sex industry. The group is putting forth the view that sex work is compatible with the principle of gender equality and nondiscrimination, as if it were a job like any other.

“By definition,” Amnesty’s proposal states, “sex work means that sex workers who are engaging in commercial sex have consented to do so.” This definition fails to take into account the dire economic need, the childhood sexual abuse, the brutal coercion employed by pimps, and the vast power differences of sex and race that drive the commercial sex industry.

And gender identity, too. Remember that Fresh Air interview I posted about recently? With the trans woman, Mya Taylor, who had to do sex work because she could not get another job because she was trans? She hated the work.

Amnesty contends that “such conditions do not inevitably render individuals incapable of exercising personal agency”. This argument ignores the reality for the vast majority of individuals exploited by the commercial sex industry. When United Nations personnel trade food for sex, these transactions – called “survival sex” – might technically be consensual, but can hardly be considered examples of free will. Almost all prostitution is some form of survival sex. There is no choice in the absence of the freedom to choose otherwise.

That’s a tricky argument, because it applies to most jobs…but still, we know very well that there are some jobs no one would do if they had any other choice at all. That’s why the South relied on slavery – the work in that climate was horrific.

Sweden has made a legal distinction between those driven into the sex industry by poverty and discrimination and those who buy sex as an exercise of power and privilege. Its model law criminalizes only the buying of sex and offers support services to those who are bought. This progressive feminist method aims to decriminalize prostituted women without legitimizing the men who buy them.

In the book Paid For, a compelling analysis of author Rachel Moran’s experience in the sex trade, she describes three types of men who patronize prostitution: those who assume the women they buy have no human feelings; those who are conscious of a woman’s humanity but choose to ignore it; and those who derive sexual pleasure from reducing the humanity of women they buy. Is Amnesty really going to defend the rights of such men to buy women?

It’s a heartbreaking moment for those of us who love Amnesty International. Former US president Jimmy Carter, who made human rights a centerpiece of US foreign policy, has started an online petition urging the group not to endorse commercial sexual exploitation as a right. The concept of human rights itself – not to mention sex equality – is at stake.



  1. Josh, Official SpokesGay says

    My thoughts on this are provisional and not very well-formed. Lots of terms are in inverted commas, but that’s only because I know the terms are tendentious. I don’t mean each instance of a word inside inverted commas to convey “I think this word is a fake characterization.”

    I wonder how much of the push to characterize it as “sex work”, and the accompanying insistence on recognizing the agency and “choice” of sex workers comes from an overrepresentation of relatively privileged women. Largely Western, and with access to at least some degree of freedom and structural protections that are not available to women in the rest of the world. It’s undeniable that the vast, vast majority of women selling sex are in dangerous positions with no social or legal protections and few, if any, other avenues to make a living. It’s just not true that even a sizeable minority of all the sex workers in the world are perfectly free, content, and happy to be working at their chosen job.

    How can it be, when most of the world is set up to treat women as property that can be killed for the entertainment of men?

    On the other hand, it’s easy to see why sex workers who choose their line of work and are happy with it would chafe at what seems like (and often is) patronizing attitudes from people who say they want to “save” them. But really, just how big a concern is this? Just how many women are being materially harmed—by legal and social structures—by having their “agency” not “recognized”?

    By analogy, it seems like Islamic head coverings. It’s all well and good to cavort around in the UK or the US as a woman who chooses to wear a head scarf and then insist that it’s a liberated or feminist choice. But when you go further and insist that society at large has a duty to take your claims at face value, and by extension, a duty to see head scarves as neutral on their face no matter what part of the world you’re talking about, that’s bullshit. That’s protecting your own personal narcissism (being a Western woman who can make this “choice” or the opposite with relatively few consequences) on the backs of millions of women who don’t have anything resembling a choice. There are a lot more of them. By a staggering proportion.

  2. sambarge says

    I’m of 2 minds when it comes to legalizing sex work.

    On the one hand, I think sex work is a reality and criminalizing it only drives desperate sex workers into more desperate situations. Legislate it, regulate it and taxate it, I say. It protects the workers and the clients while eliminating the need for pimps. It would also make illegal, coerced, child exploitative prostitution easier to identify and its propagators easier to arrest and punish.

    On the other hand, I would feel a lot better if the clients of sex workers were equally divided by gender. The disproportionate use of sex workers by men leaves me wondering if we, as a species, have arrived at a level of maturity in our attitudes towards sex that would allow us to treat it like any other commercial transaction.

    I mean, I hear sex workers talk about the good they do providing lonely, socially awkward clients a sexual and physical connection. I do question the level of shyness a person can be suffering from though, when they are willing to call a prostitute and not that nice woman they met through mutual friends but, never having been stricken with debilitating shyness, I don’t know how it manifests itself. In any case, I believe the sex workers but where are the lonely, socially awkward female clients? I know there are lonely, socially awkward and not getting any sex women out there. Why isn’t there a concomitant supply of sex workers servicing that market? If there is no demand, why not? Then again, maybe there is a proportional servicing of women by sex workers and it’s just not reflected in (1) sex workers’ testimony, (2) arrest records of sex clients, or (3) the broader cultural dialogue on sex work.

    Regardless of my waffling, I do think legal recognition and regulation of sex work is a good idea. It protects sex workers and regulations would make coercion and exploitation easier to ID and end. Sex workers should have the opportunity to live normal lives, with pensions, health benefits and other social wages/benefits of employment without being shamed for their work or unnecessarily endangered by it.

    I just hope my lonely, hard up sisters can get a piece of the action.

  3. Jean says

    Looking at western nations, if the main goal of the legal status of prostitution is the safety and health of women (since they makes out the majority of sex workers) why is it that the New Zealand example is not considered more instead of the Nordic model? How can having a transaction where one participant is doing something illegal be safer that one where both are doing something legal?

    That is what has been discussed in Canada with the sex workers arguing for the New Zealand model while the feminist organizations arguing for the Nordic model. In Canada and other western countries, it would be much easier to prevent the abuses and health issues related to prostitution with it being completely legal. And you would then have the same issues of deciding to do a job that many consider crappy for whatever reason people choose to do crappy jobs.

    It seems to me to be more of an issue due to sex being a taboo and prostitution being so stigmatizing. The attitude would not change immediately with legalization but that would be a first step. And why is it that using your body in your work as your tool would be worse that, for example, being a masseur where you have direct physical contact?

    Having said that, I don’t think it would be a good idea to make legal prostitution the international norm. The status of women in too many countries is precarious at best and I don’t think it would actually improve the situation. But I might be wrong. It would be interesting to have a discussion on this without the inevitable presupposition that sex work is bad and always the worst choice.

  4. brucegorton says

    Personally, I think criminalising sex work does more harm than good.

    First there are always going to be those for whom the victim narrative is insulting bullshit. But with those for whom the narrative fits, I don’t see criminalising sex work as helping them.

    I mean you look at the issues being raised here, does banning prostitution really do anything about dire economic need, childhood sexual abuse, brutal coercion employed by pimps, and the vast power differences of sex and race?

    It sounds an awful lot like we are going to try to save people by throwing them in jail. Or by making so that if they ever want to do anything else – they have criminal records sticking like sore thumbs when they apply for jobs. Or by making it so that the cops have an open license to harass and extort them.

    And that last one is a weakness even if one only criminalises the Johns, because how willing is a sex worker going to be to go to the police if it puts their clients at risk?

    What one has to realise is that the worst abuses are often in the most corrupt societies, societies like my own, and in such a society laws often don’t get enforced so much as abused.

    And laws banning sex work, are easily abused.

    So is a ban really the solution here?

    Making it legal at least there is a path out, and making it accepted work, at least people can more easily go onto other things.

    I don’t think anybody actually thinks the prostitutes themselves are the actual problem – at least that is what I get from the majority of both pro and anti sex work advocacy.

    So shouldn’t we be addressing those drivers of sex work, rather than punishing the sex workers?

  5. dogeared, spotted and foxed says

    Since Germany decriminalized prostitution in 2002, things have gotten worse. So bad in fact that a group of trauma therapists have been petitioning the government to repeal the law.

    “‘Prostitution is in no way a job like any other. It is degrading, torturous, exploitive. On the side of the prostituted, there is a lot of horror and disgust at play, which they have to repress in order to get through it at all.’ So says Michaela Huber, psychologist and head of the German Society for Trauma and Dissociation.”

  6. Josh, Official SpokesGay says

    Bruce, I think the question here is not whether to legalize or ban sex work. The question is whether Amnesty International should declare sex work a recognized human right. Those aren’t the same question, and it’s crucially important to recognize that.

  7. Dunc says

    Hang on a minute there… AI can’t “declare sex work a recognized human right”. They’re a respected NGO (in certain circles, at least), but they’re not the UN – and even the UN have trouble actually influencing legislation, which is what really counts. All they can do is declare that they think it should be a recognized human right, and campaign towards that end. Whether anyone with any actual legislative competence agrees with them is another matter.

    It’s also maybe worth bearing in mind that most of the places where sex workers suffer the worst are places that don’t give a damn about the opinions of AI, the UN, or the concept of human rights in general, unless they happen to find it convenient.

  8. quixote says

    As Josh (and Ophelia in the post) point out, this isn’t about the nature of “sex work.” It’s about whether buying women, humans, is a human right. Others may be able to imagine a more extreme mockery of the whole concept of human rights. I can’t.

    As to the decrim vs Nordic issue, dogeared said it very succinctly in the Dude Knows Best post:

    “The harm of prostitution comes from the men who buy sex, traffickers, and pimps. Decriminalization grants them a vague general pardon instead of holding them responsible for harm. Decriminalization does not provide any income to fund exit strategies, job training, drug rehab, housing, child care, citizenship, or any other support that a prostituted person would need.”

  9. Jean says

    dogeared, spotted and foxed says,
    The New Zealand situation seems to be different: http://www.justice.govt.nz/policy/commercial-property-and-regulatory/prostitution/prostitution-law-review-committee/publications/impact-health-safety

    If the issue is violence and no-consensual activities or related to issues of illegal immigration in addition to stigmatization due to cultural pressures, then the problem is not prostitution per se. I don’t know the German situation but your link has a picture totally unrelated to the subject which sets off alarms and makes me doubt the objectivity of what is presented there.

  10. sambarge says

    dogeared’s insistence on referring to sex workers as “prostituted people” suggests they are not objective on the issue either.

  11. smrnda says

    My complaint is with the language. Though there may be rare examples of higher earning, privileged sex workers who may have *chosen* such work ‘sex work is a human right’ makes as much sense to me as ‘working in dangerous industries is a human right.’ Nobody should be penalized for sex work, but I think the fact that the vast majority of sex workers are being pissed and shat on both by their pimps, customers and the police should be the main focus.

  12. =8)-DX says

    Logically, it seems to me that there are two basic components that need to be present: a social safety net robust enough to ensure survival sex is not an issue and then a set of regulations and provisions that would make sure the only to profit directly be the sex worker that johns who are violent/ignore consent are registered, reportable and face the consequences.

    But a human right? Women have a right to use their bodies anyway they see fit, but no one else has the right to buy and sell them. Not sure what the right is supposed to be…

  13. says

    The title of this piece is misleading, “A proposal to recognize prostitution as a human right.” Amnesty International isn’t fighting for the right of men to procure the services of sex workers. They are advocating for protecting the human rights of sex workers. Here’s an excerpt from a recent document explaining their position in these matters:

    REQUESTS the International Board to adopt a policy that seeks attainment of the highest possible protection of the human rights of sex workers, through measures that include the decriminalisation of sex work, taking into account:

    1. The starting point of preventing and redressing human rights violations against sex workers, and in particular the need for states to not only review and repeal laws that make those who sell sex vulnerable to human rights violations, but also refrain from enacting such laws.

    2. The harm reduction principle.

    3. That states can impose legitimate regulations on sex work, provided that such regulations 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.

    4. The principle of gender equality and non-discrimination

    5. Amnesty International’s longstanding position that trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation should be criminalised as a matter of international law; and, further that any child involved in a commercial sex act is a victim of sexual exploitation, entitled to support, reparations, and remedies, in line with international human rights law, and that states must take all appropriate measures to prevent sexual exploitation and abuse of children.

    6. Evidence that some individuals who engage in sex work do so due to marginalisation and limited choices, and that therefore Amnesty International should urge states to take appropriate measures to realize the economic, social and cultural rights of all people so that no person enters sex work against their will, and those who decide to undertake sex work should be able to leave if and when they choose.

    7. The obligation of states to protect every individual in their jurisdiction from discriminatory policies, laws and practices, given that the status and experience of being discriminated against are themselves often key factors in what leads people into sex work.

    8. States have a duty to ensure that sex workers from groups at risk of discrimination and marginalisation enjoy full and equal States have a duty to ensure that sex workers from groups at risk of discrimination and marginalisation enjoy full and equal protection under relevant international instruments, including for example, those pertaining to the rights of Indigenous Peoples and ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities.

    9. The evidence from Amnesty International’s research on the actual lived experiences, and human rights impact of various criminal law and regulatory approaches, on the human rights of sex workers.

    You can read the rest of the document here (pdf document):

  14. Rebecca H says

    This paragraph is both misleading and insulting to women.

    “In the book Paid For, a compelling analysis of author Rachel Moran’s experience in the sex trade, she describes three types of men who patronize prostitution: those who assume the women they buy have no human feelings; those who are conscious of a woman’s humanity but choose to ignore it; and those who derive sexual pleasure from reducing the humanity of women they buy. Is Amnesty really going to defend the rights of such men to buy women?”

    Rachel Moran’s experience of the men who pay for the services of women doing survival sexwork is anecdotal evidence, and you, as a skeptic, should know better than to quote a passage suggesting that the anecdotal evidence is representatives of men who pay for sexual services. Though it may well be an accurate description of the kind of men who pay a destitute teenager who, due to age, is both legally and moral incapable of consent, there is absolutely no reason to believe that the three types described are representative of men who are clients of women who choose sexwork out of multiple options.

    In addition, women who exchange sex for money are no more “bought” than women who exchange other services for money. Am I “buying” the woman who I’ve hired to copyedit my book? Did my widowed aunt “buy” the housekeeper who helped raise her children while she worked to support them? Did my wife “buy” the teenage girl who was paid minimum wage to make her sandwich? What kind of person talks about women being bought simply because the service they sell is sexual in nature?

    The jump to Amnesty defending the right of men to buy women is most misleading of all. Amnesty is defending the right of women to control their own bodies and the right to choose the sort of work they do without being arrested, tried and incarcerated.

    Someone I love was raped. The rape had nothing to do with her work, but because she was working as a prostitute at the time, she was afraid to report the rape to the police, to go to a hospital, or to seek counseling. If her work had been legal, she tells me, she would have sought help.

    Kidnapping, slavery, rape and especially child-rape are the crimes we must be fighting to end. We can do that without containing a woman’s right to choose what do do with her own body.

  15. Rebecca H says

    How very irritating to read my own post hours later and see typos. “Containing” in the final sentence should have been “constraining.”

  16. EigenSprocketUK says

    I’m well out of the zone of competence here, but I do wonder if Amnesty’s call to legalise is tantamount to legalising the industry, and thereby doing sod all for the workers who ‘benefit’ from the right to work in it.
    Julie Bindel wrote last year describing the outcome of legalisation in Holland and Germany:
    Why even Amsterdam doesn’t want legal brothels
    Also Legalising prostitution is not the answer – The Guardian July 2010
    (And, yes, I know that Julie Bindel’s feminism causes many feminists to spit feathers and nominate her as Designated Officially Ostracised Member)
    German mega-brothels spang up chock-full of poverty-stricken migrant sex workers in sordid situations – the polar opposite of the high-paid fully-legal tax-paying fully-voluntary professional sector that the industry legalisers would have you believe. When self-declared proponents of the sex industry tell you that it affords rights and protections to the workers, they’re hiding the fact that it’s not making any of the violence and degradation go away, nor is it driving away the pimps and ‘boyfriends’, and the punters still have exactly zero respect for the workers and they’re legally allowed to think that way because ‘it’s legal’.
    It’s not a job that you’d expect your 18-year old child to be introduced to at the careers fair.

  17. Cas says

    I think the Swedish Model is highly damaging and not advocated for by Sex Workers. I think the most important thing in any discussion around this to actually, y’know, speak to the people involved in Sex Work. The New Zealand model of decriminalisation (rather than legalising sex work – which is the model Germany and the Netherlands follow leading to abuse by brothel owners) so far seems to be working well: http://time.com/3005687/what-the-swedish-model-gets-wrong-about-prostitution/

  18. EigenSprocketUK says

    What seems pretty clear is that there’s an awful lot of people apparently advocating for sex workers who … aren’t sex workers: they’re sex industry, and they’re really advocating for themselves and the growth of their industry. Even at the least dishonest, they’re former sex workers who’ve moved up into management and are quite happy to exploit in exactly the same way they were exploited. A lot of circumspection needed.

  19. EigenSprocketUK says

    Oh dear, I read the Time article and it seemed to be flailing about with its logic. From the outset, the claim is that

    Making the purchase of sex a crime strips women of agency and autonomy

    It states this twice, but doesn’t make it stand up in the context of the headline criticism of the Nordic model. Then it muddles up criticism of the Nordic model (buyer only criminalised) with criticism of the model where both sides are criminalised.
    Then this bit blew my mind (ahem)

    Under the Swedish model, men “are defined as morally superior to the woman,” notes author and former sex worker Maggie McNeill in an essay for the Cato Institute. “He is criminally culpable for his decisions, but she is not.” Adult women are legally unable to give consent, “just as an adolescent girl is in the crime of statutory rape.”

    So there you have the best argument in the article – that Sweden’s implementation of the Nordic model subordinates, subjugates, and demeans the sex worker, makes the everyday punter indistinguishable from a child-raping monster, this is very very bad, so something else must be done, and the only other thing to do is fully to decriminalise the whole industry.
    I don’t think I’m buying this line of logic, and I don’t think I trust the objectivity of the journalist nor the quoted, noted, author and former sex worker.

  20. enkidu says

    Just in case anyone is interested in following up the New Zealand Situation I include a link to New Zealand Prostitutes Collective
    Full disclosure: I live in NZ, have never used the services of a sex worker and don’t really follow the news about it but while we have plenty of sex crime here, I don’t remember much involving sex workers since decriminalization.

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