There was controversy recently when Amnesty International voted to support the full decriminalisation of the sex trade. Supporters said it marked an important step in the fight for sex workers' rights, but opponents claimed it was a backwards step, which effectively legitimises exploitation. Here, Catriona Grant argues against Amnesty's stance.
There has been much hue and cry about Amnesty International’s recent vote to decriminalise prostitution.
Amnesty should be congratulated on seeking 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”.
So why are many feminists and some voluntary sector organisations such as Zero Tolerance, Women’s Aid and Women Support Project so upset with this policy? Feminists and organisations campaigning against violence against women are upset because rather than give sex workers rights, it legitimacies to the sex industry. It gives permission to the escort agencies, strip bars, pimps and punters to carry on as they were.
There is no accountability given to those who buy sex or facilitate the prostituted (mostly) women. It does not address the issue of demand for the sex industry.
The policy makes the pimps and punters who buy sex invisible, creating invisible men (and whilst they are not exclusively men, they are the massive majority). It lets those that cause the demand for sexual services off the hook, it offers them legitimacy.
Amnesty's policy doesn’t address the demand issue - why are men wanting to buy sex from women?Catriona Grant
The Nordic Model, now adopted in Canada, Sweden, Norway, Iceland and Northern Ireland and being discussed in many European countries, promotes the decriminalisation of the seller of sex but criminalises and holds accountable the buyer of sex.
It recognises the wide range of reasons women find themselves working in the sex industry - unemployment, poverty, debt, trauma, addiction, previous experiences of violence and abuse but that these human rights violations against women are not the cause of prostitution.
The cause is men’s demand to buy sex (mostly) from women. Amnesty states that “sex workers are one of the most marginalised groups in the world who in most instances face constant risk of discrimination, violence and abuse”.
Any humane person would agree with that; but prostitution is about the unequal status of women in society, prostitution cements women’s inequality and discrimination. In the attempt to see prostitution and “sex work” as a workers’ rights issue, it fails to see it a violation of women’s human rights.
But would decriminalisation make women safer? The majority of “sex work” is about women selling sex to men. Who is being violent and abusive to the “sex workers”? The men who are buying sex; the pimps who push them to get on with it; their partners who may be coercing them; the police who fail to protect them. Prostitution involves violence and abuse. Amnesty's policy doesn’t address the demand issue - why are men wanting to buy sex from women?
Amnesty's problem is not its call for the decriminalisation of those who find themselves in “sex work”.
It is to be condemned for purposefully ignoring the pimps, brothel keepers, pornographers and the men who buy women’s consent and sexual desire. By doing so they collude and legitimise the human rights atrocities committed to millions of women across the globe. Amnesty has got it very wrong.
Catriona Grant is a social worker in the voluntary sector, writing in a personal capacity.