Amnesty’s Dangerous Wishful Thinking on Prostitution

At the 2017 Unison Women’s Conference,  we ran a stall for Nordic Model Now! We got a great reception and many women stopped to find out more, or to tell us how happy they were to see us there.

Several women told us that they encounter women in prostitution through their work in rape crisis, domestic violence, addiction or children’s services, and how the devastating effects are self-evident: bruises, chronic abdominal pain, anxiety disorders, addictions developed as a way of enduring the unendurable, the fear of the pimps, who sometimes could be seen waiting outside.

They spoke quietly, calmly, but with an underlying sense of rage at the impunity given to the men who cause the damage and at how it is hidden and unacknowledged.

To these women, the Nordic Model approach of tackling men’s demand, while decriminalising the women and providing them with genuine routes out, was a no-brainer.

But it clearly wasn’t to the man on the Amnesty stall, who came over during a lull. He picked up one of our leaflets and, opening it out disapprovingly, said he’d be visiting our website to check the references.

Knowing that Amnesty supports the full decriminalisation of the sex trade, including pimps, punters and brothel-keepers, I asked how Amnesty could justify recommending this approach, when they hadn’t looked at what had actually happened in any of the countries, like Germany and New Zealand, that have implemented it.

“Amnesty conducted research in four countries,” he replied, rather pompously.

“Yes, but none of them have the fully decriminalised approach you recommend.”

“We did research in Norway,” he snapped.

“Yes, but Norway has the Nordic Model.”

He got irritated and I hardly managed to get another word in edgeways — to explain the catastrophe that has unfolded in Germany, for example; how dangerous practices have become more common in New Zealand, and that sex trafficking has increased everywhere full decriminalisation’s been tried. He leant forward, towering over me, and said: “It’s what the sex workers want.”

I tried to say that most women endure prostitution as they might endure war or famine; that they don’t all speak with one voice; that many have never heard of the Nordic Model, and if they have, they’ve often been told it doesn’t work.

Many think the choice is between decriminalisation and criminalisation — and indeed this is how Amnesty usually presents the arguments.

Those in prostitution know they want to be decriminalised themselves and if they are presented with a choice between decriminalisation and criminalisation, of course they’re going to opt for the former.

But they often change their mind when it’s explained that under the Nordic Model, punters know that the women can report them, and so are less likely to be violent and more likely to use a condom, and that high-quality services provide real alternatives to those who want out.

Amnesty man didn’t listen. He kept interrupting and repeating himself in an increasingly aggressive manner. In the end I told him to go away.

One of several women who’d been watching, open-mouthed, turned to me and said: “He must be a punter, and wants to be able to continue without a guilty conscience.”

Maybe she was right. I’ve seen this type of response too many times before — nearly always justifying buying sex and decriminalising pimps by the women’s choice or agency.

Does anyone on the left justify fracking like that? Of course not. It’s the employers, the capitalists, those with a vested interest, who attempt to justify oppressive and destructive practices by the choices of those with the fewest options.

What does this inability to see these logical inconsistencies tell us?

The history of Amnesty’s policy is instructive. The very first draft was written by a pimp, Douglas Fox, who then encouraged his friends who also profiteered from the sex trade to join Amnesty to ensure it got adopted.

There were a few concessions over the successive drafts — the original premise that buying sex is a human right was taken out, after it was realised that, er, it couldn’t actually be justified.

They inserted a section on “intersectional discrimination and structural inequalities,” which conspicuously lacks any discussion of the racism inherent in prostitution, or prostitution’s role in colonialism and maintaining the structural inequalities between the sexes, or the rights of women and girls to live free from commercial sexual exploitation.

The original reliance on advice from the Global Network of Sex Work Projects was downplayed after feminist writer and activist Kat Banyard exposed that its vice-president Alejandra Gil was a pimp who has now been jailed for 15 years for sex trafficking.

But the essence of the final policy remained as Fox first suggested: that all aspects of “consensual adult sex work,” including pimps and brothel-keepers (now called “organisers”), must be fully decriminalised in order to secure “sex workers’ human rights” even though, way back in 1949, the United Nations defined prostitution as incompatible with the human rights set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

How can this be explained except by the confluence of the vested interests of the men in Amnesty with those of the multibillion-dollar sexual exploitation industry? And many of the women in Amnesty, having been trained since the womb to put men’s needs before their own, that the best way to assure their own interests is to keep the men around them sweet, supported them.

And the other women — the ones who’ve come to see that deferring to men serves to maintain the system that keeps women subordinated, the working class divided, and gives impunity to the men whose violence lays waste to women and children’s well-being everywhere — were written off as biased and puritanical.

And so the policy prevailed and is now used to put pressure on governments all over the world to open up the commodification of their female population to the full fury and ruthlessness of the deregulated neoliberal markets. So much for fighting for the human rights of the most oppressed.

Members of Amnesty in Britain have an opportunity to help change this, because a group of members are bringing a motion calling on Amnesty International to reconsider the policy. If you are a member, please consider voting for it. [Editor’s note: This article is from 2017 and so this opportunity has passed. You can read about what happened at the AGM here.]

Anna Fisher

Further reading

This article first appeared in the Morning Star.

3 thoughts on “Amnesty’s Dangerous Wishful Thinking on Prostitution

  1. I would like it to be known that I was an active member of AIUSA for 39 years, and was Group Coordinator of local Group 49 (Providence, RI, USA) for more than 10 years. On December 28, 2016, I was expelled from AIUSA, with my membership in my local group rescinded, along with my role as Group Coordinator. My expulsion came after our local group invited a survivor( a member of Space International) as the Guest Speaker at our annual Write-a-thon for Human Rights (“Write for Rights”), in observance of International Human RIghts Day. I expressed the views of our group in favor of the Nordic Model, and opposed to the new Amnesty policy on “sex work” that was adopted at the ICM in Dublin in August, 2015. I was also expelled for making my views known publicly. The letter expelling me was signed by Ann Burroughs, Chair of the Board of AIUSA. I appealed and was told that I must wait one full year, after which I can re-apply for membership. Amnesty members should know about this. In the meanwhile, my group and I have become interested in the Peter Benenson Society, which does not take a position like that of Amnesty on the sex trade, and which unlike Amnesty International, does not have a gag order against public speech or public writing.
    Marcia R. Lieberman, Providence, RI (Rhode Island), USA

    1. Dear Marcia, this is so terrible. We did read about Amnesty’s treatment of you in the press at the time and were horrified. We send you our support and solidarity. Warmest wishes from all at Nordic Model Now!

      1. Thank you very much!
        My heart is with you, in all you do, all the time.
        Marcia Lieberman

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