Dude knows best

The Independent has an article defending Amnesty International’s plan to make sex work a human right, written by a man.

Can denying people the choice to decide what they do with their own bodies – or specifically when they consent to sex – ever be an advancement of their human rights?

That’s what a sensationalist campaign led by radical feminists is claiming.

Um…I’m getting increasingly tired of seeing the constant use of “radical feminist” as an unquestioned pejorative. I’m getting increasingly disgusted by this nonstop campaign against radical feminism. Tepid feminism is useless – the problem isn’t small enough for that.

They are protesting against Amnesty’s leaked proposal that consenting sex work should be decriminalised, and, bizarrely, the Your Sister campaign has garnered the support of a number of Hollywood A-listers, including Kate Winslet, Anne Hathaway, Lena Dunham and Meryl Streep.

Perhaps the latter’s experience of playing Fantine, a sex worker, in Les Miserables made her feel like she had a glimpse of the reality of life as a sex worker. As far as representations of sex work go, that film’s all-singing, all-dancing portrayal of early 19th century Paris is perhaps more accurate than the ludicrous distortion its star now finds herself attached to.

Well that’s remarkably condescending, coming from a young man. How much can he know about what sex work is like for a woman?


  1. sambarge says

    Any article on sex work usually devolves into screaming back and forth about “choice” and “coercion.” My only experience with it has been working with aboriginal women who have taken to prostitution to pay for drugs, alcohol and/or their children’s food & diapers. On paper, you’d say the chose to work in sex work but it’s not like they were offered a plethora of options. Still, for better or worse, this is their profession and I think legalization would be best for them. Legal recognition of their profession would give them recourse against rape, assault and robbery – all of which they experience with disturbing regularity.

    Or would it? I mean, our society doesn’t exactly have a stellar record on handling rape or treating women, gay men and trans people as fully human and entitled to rights accordingly. Perhaps that’s what Amnesty is attempting to address with this resolution? If so, good luck to them.

  2. dogeared, spotted and foxed says

    Sambarge @1

    “On paper” Exactly. If one’s best “choice” for employment is prostitution, there is something seriously wrong with the labor system.

    I support the Nordic model. As AI points out there have been problems in countries which have adopted it. Not surprisingly, these problems are primarily related to police using the law to harass/deport WoC and migrant workers. That aspect will not improve with blanket decriminalization. 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. (Sadly, in many countries, very few of those programs are available for any of those who need them.)

    The goal of the AI proposal seems to be de-stigmatizing all aspects of prostitution. I wholeheartedly agree that prostituted people should not be stigmatized. But it is impossible to separate prostitution from the very harmful idea that women’s bodies are consumables or that there should be a class of woman to deal with men’s baser nature in order to keep the “good” women safe. Decriminalization of buying sex does not address that, the Nordic Model does.

    Ophelia, I too am getting tired of seeing the world “radical” used to mean “extreme” when it comes to feminism. It’s as annoying as people who use communism and socialism interchangeably.

  3. Rob says

    Sorry about the long links. I’m not a fan of the Amnesty proposal. I do think that sex work should be legalised, because it reduces barriers to sex workers leaving the industry and improves outcomes while they are in the sex industry. It also enables those who choose the industry willingly. That’s damning with faint praise though as the overall experience for most sex workers still doesn’t look that great from the outside anyway. My opinion is based on the experience in New Zealand, where we have a supposedly small amount of sex traffic and forced prostitution and a relatively good social safety net. In countries where trafficking is common and/or the safety net is smaller or non-existent, well …
    The executive summaries alone of the documents linked below make interesting reading. These are NZ Government reviews or commissioned studies of the effect of legalising prostitution, and a review of the approach taken by a number of other countries.
    The biggest hole in the Otago University review is that workers who’s english was so poor that they required an interpreter were excluded from the study. It’s acknowledged that this results in a significant under representation of Asian sex workers (the group most likely to be trafficked or coerced). I assume that the use of interpreters was excluded to safeguard privacy and to ensure answers were not being filtered. It’s just a shame they didn’t have a study member who could speak either Thai or Mandarin.

  4. Rob says

    I should also add this quote from the Ministry of Justice website:
    “Sweden is the only country so far to criminalise the buyers of sex rather than sex workers. The aim was to end prostitution, rather than regulate it – since it was viewed as violence against women and a barrier to gender equality. Norway and Finland are now considering this approach.”

  5. says

    Just a quick note that the Ministry of Justice web page quoted above is quite old. Norway has since done as Sweden did. (I am not sure about Finland.)
    There seems to be some uncertainty about the effect of the law. Some say there is less prostitution now, while others say no, it has just been driven underground, and the prostitutes are less safe as a result. Possibly the truth is somewhere between.

  6. sambarge says

    I don’t think the book has been written on what can be included in decriminalization and the professionalization of sex work. Perhaps exit strategies can be part of it? Certainly, regulations could assist in getting sex workers the support they need both to be safe in their profession and to develop exit strategies if they want them. Housing and child care are currently not provided or ensured for anybody in my country but what a boon those guarantees would be fro everyone if we could get them. Citizenship wouldn’t be dependent on your profession but I can’t see sex trafficking being included in a decriminalization scheme.

    Certainly, decriminalization in my mind includes unionization for brothel or porn industry workers, extended group health benefits, pensions, sex industry health and safety regulations, minimum wages and working conditions, etc.

  7. anon1152 says

    dogeared, spotted and foxed @2:

    If one’s best “choice” for employment is prostitution, there is something seriously wrong with the labor system.

    I agree. I’d be more comfortable with the criminalization of sex work (or prostitution or whatever I’m supposed to call it) and arguments that “it’s not *really* a choice” if they were attached to policies to improve the labour system.

  8. sambarge says

    Well, I guess the idea is that if sex work is legalized, regulated and de-stigmatized, then people would enter it as a profession by choice – or as much as any of us enters a profession by choice.

  9. anon1152 says

    Has anyone here read much Michel Foucault? I’m not an expert. But I did read one of his essays called “The Subject and Power”. Or something like that. The argument was that power didn’t involve directly acting upon another person. Rather, power was about acting upon another person’s range of action… shaping the choices that they make. So power and freedom were two sides of the same metaphorical coin.
    Anyway. I have that in mind when I think about sambarge’s comment:

    Well, I guess the idea is that if sex work is legalized, regulated and de-stigmatized, then people would enter it as a profession by choice – or as much as any of us enters a profession by choice.

… I think I agree with this. But that still means that the choice to enter sex work could become (or could be made) more or less attractive. And I’d much rather we make certain jobs seem less attractive by giving more people more opportunities for decent employment.

  10. Seth says

    I have yet to see an argument against sex work (and direct transactive work rather than performative work in particular) which could not be applied, mutatis mutandis (and without a hell of a lot of mutandis, at that) to the ‘guest worker’ model of agricultural labour in North America and Europe. These are jobs that most educated and affluent people are willing to do, despite a growing ‘local’ movement among some subset of (mostly) affluent (mostly) white people to get more of their fellows involved in their own food production. There is trafficking of both human beings and narcotics involved along the same trade routes, and the traffickees often have little to no practical choice in the matter if they want to survive. There is immiseration and abuse and exploitation, both on individual and systemic levels. Working conditions are horrible and degrading, and the vast majority of profit from the labour goes into the hands of thieves under threat of political and often physical violence. Virtually everything you buy from a grocery store has been touched by a slave’s hands before it goes into your mouth.

    Obviously, food still has to be produced, by some method and means. Just as obviously, the system we’ve set up for that production is just about the worst one imaginable outside of re-establishing feudalism (or American-style slavery). Therefore, if we want to ameliorate the misery that our stomachs collectively cause, we must develop a more humane model. There have to be social and technical changes we could and probably should make to the production and consumption of food that would make a world of difference, both in economic and in psychological terms, for those most vulnerable to exploitation by the current agribusiness model. Criminalising the production and/or consumption of slave-grown food entirely and immediately is probably not the most optimal solution.

    But do ‘guest workers’ have a fundamental human right to the work they do? If so, can we honestly recognise it as a right when the whole system is set up with such coercion, degradation, and misery? Will such recognition lead us to a world wherein the only people engaging in food production are doing so with a standard of safety, dignity, and choice that is accorded to other economic (or even recreational) choices that we ensure for most other professions and hobbies?

    These are not easy questions, and I cannot pretend to know the answers. I’m inclined to agree that in principle a person has the right to engage in any economic or recreational transaction they wish that does not directly harm an uninvolved or non-consenting party, but I am uncertain how that ideal can be realised. On the other hand, roughly all of human history has taught us that neither sex work nor drug use can be abolished entirely, despite many different ways of trying; in some way, then, they are as inevitable in a given society as the consumption of food, if not necessarily as ubiquitous. Therefore it makes sense, at least to me, to try and find a way to eliminate as much harm as possible from the process; it is not at all clear to me that answering the proposition (i.e., that sex work is a fundamental human right) in the affirmative will do that.

  11. Diana Tortolini says

    I’m not at all comfortable with the legalization of sex work. It’s just another form of exploitation of women and girls (and boys), and may lead to increased human trafficking in countries where it’s legal. I’d rather see continued efforts in eradicating rape culture and this notion that men are entitled to sex by force or by purse, and more open discussion of cultivating healthy, non-monogamous relationships.

  12. says

    This is why “rights” is often such a terrible way to frame an argument like this. It too often leads to paradoxes. Do I have the right to sell myself into slavery? This seems to be nearly a logical contradiction, as slavery is more or less the condition of having no rights at all. Do I have the right to offer my landlord sex instead of paying rent? Maybe? What if that’s my only way of not becoming homeless? Is it still a ‘choice?’ This lens is just not useful for a lot of moral questions.

  13. says

    The trouble with making it illegal is that it makes it harder for the trafficked girls to escape, as they are technically criminals and liable to being jailed or deported. Also it makes it harder to unionise or organise for mutual aid. Legalisation is important to make it safer, though of course far from the only thing that’s needed.

  14. says


    “On paper” Exactly. If one’s best “choice” for employment is prostitution, there is something seriously wrong with the labor system.

    What you just said doesn’t make any sense.

  15. says

    Though I guess that’s just because you omitted some details of exactly what situation you meant to decry. Details such as there being literally no other choice available to some person who is in serious economic trouble. So I guess you’re basically right if I account for that.

    But then again, just describing those details shows the problem with the labor system, and since it is then a general problem, this reduces the utility of this kind of thing in an argument about prostitution.

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