‘Why the UN is wrong to recommend that all countries should decriminalise prostitution’

And why that led me to write a novel

By Brooks Anderson

Several UN bodies, including the World Health Organization (WHO), the Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), the UN Development Programme (UNDP), the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) and the International Labour Organization (ILO), advocate decriminalising prostitution. UNAIDS has even gone so far as to make one of the key targets of its five year plan getting the decriminalisation of prostitution adopted in 90% of nations globally.

And by decriminalisation, they mean full decriminalisation of the entire industry, including pimps, brothel keepers and sex buyers.

The ostensible justification for this is based on a mathematical model’s prediction, published by Kate Shannon et al. in July 2014, that decriminalisation will significantly reduce HIV transmission by ending violence, stigma, and discrimination against prostituting women.

In my own work developing documents for HIV prevention programs, I routinely cited this mathematical model. Initially, I simply accepted its prediction – it was reported in an article in The Lancet, after all – but the more I thought about it, the more improbable the prediction seemed.

I began to read widely around the issue and was influenced by the writings of Melissa Farley, Rachel Moran, Janice Raymond, Sheila Jeffreys, Rachel Lloyd, Kat Banyard, Robert Jensen, and Chris Hedges.

The more I read, the more I wondered what assumptions Shannon et al made in developing the model. When I read the article’s supplementary appendix, I discovered that the model’s prediction was contingent upon three peculiar assumptions.

First, the model assumed that, after decriminalisation, the number of women in prostitution would increase only at the rate of population growth minus the rate that women exit prostitution. In other words, decriminalisation would not increase the number of women in prostitution significantly.

Second, the model assumed that the number of clients would remain the same.

And third, the model assumed that, after decriminalisation, women’s “exposure to structural risks (e.g. violence, policing, unsafe work spaces) or the excess in risk of non-condom use associated with violence ceases immediately and/or that the policy that increase [sic] access to safer work environments for female sex workers has immediate effect and/or that the associated safer sexual practices (e.g. client condom use) is [sic] adopted immediately.”

The authors wrote, “For these reasons, our estimates reflect the maximum potential impact of the structural changes (e.g., interventions) modeled.”

These improbable assumptions made me disbelieve the model’s prediction that decriminalisation would significantly reduce HIV transmission. I realised that mathematical models could be rigged to forecast any future that one desired. UNAIDS and the WHO and other bodies cite the mathematical model’s prediction as if it is scientific evidence, or proof, that decriminalisation will safeguard public health. But this prediction isn’t evidence—it isn’t an empirical finding—it’s wishful thinking.

I was also troubled that public health scholars disregarded the high rates of PTSD observed in Melissa Farley’s studies of prostitution survivors. When I suggested including Farley’s findings in documents that I was working on for HIV control, I was told that we couldn’t mention such findings, because acknowledging prostitution’s harm would appear moralistic.

I found the contradictory and conflicting agendas of some of the organisations pushing this approach disturbing. They work to keep girls in school because of the importance of girls’ education for social progress, but simultaneously advocate for decriminalising prostitution, which surely will pull many young women out of school to enter the industry. Even though prostitution jeopardises girls’ health and educational attainment, the WHO advocates decriminalising it.

To me, the crude propaganda that is used to promote decriminalisation is problematic. Promoters use euphemisms, like, “sex work is work”, “prostitution is the same as any other job”, and “sex workers’ rights are human rights”, to whitewash prostitution’s harmful and demeaning nature.

For example, in her book The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century, Amia Srinivasan asserts, “… sex work is work, and can be better work than the menial work undertaken by most women.” But she doesn’t explain why she believes this.

I was alarmed by the experiences of the approximately 2,000 young women in the legal megabrothel in Daulatdia, Bangladesh. Their stories were courageously documented by Tania Rashid in her documentary, Sex, Slavery, and Drugs in Bangladesh, which shows clearly what happens when prostitution is normalised in such a setting. It’s not possible to watch that documentary and believe that the women interviewed in the Daulatdia brothel are engaged in regular labour or are empowered. They’re clearly being sexually abused and exploited by sex buyers and pimps.

Finally, I was disturbed that many public health scholars appeared to embrace decriminalisation because of their belief that society cannot be made significantly better. Such scholars don’t see it as their job to promote societal transformation. They regard prostitution as inevitable, and so they strive only for harm reduction – fewer women infected with HIV, fewer women murdered and so on – while denying the violation and humiliation intrinsic to prostitution. Such scholars dismiss the possibility of a world in which fewer women are compelled to sell sex for survival.

This attitude clashed with my understanding of the mission of public health, as described by Dr. Jonathan Mann:

“Once we acknowledge that the goal of public health, beyond HIV/AIDS, is to ‘ensure the conditions in which people can be healthy,’ and recognize the enormous burden of evidence which tells us that societal factors are the dominant determinants of health status, we realise that, ultimately, to work for public health is to work for societal transformation.”

In their book, The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone, epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett also advocate societal transformation:

“The evidence shows that reducing inequality is the best way of improving the quality of the social environment, and so the real quality of life, for all of us.”

Wilkinson and Pickett explain, “The more equally wealth is distributed the better the health of that society. … Inequality is associated with lower life expectancy, higher rates of infant mortality, shorter height, poor self-reported health, low birthweight, AIDS and depression.” They conclude, “The best way of responding to the harm done by high levels of inequality would be to reduce inequality itself.”

I believe that anyone interested in improving public health should be working for greater equality, not the normalisation of prostitution. The best way of reducing women’s HIV vulnerability is to ensure that they aren’t compelled to resort to prostitution for survival.

Object of Desire

When I understood that the model’s prediction wasn’t based on science, but upon science fiction, it occurred to me that I could use science fiction to predict entirely different consequences of prostitution’s decriminalisation, if I used more realistic assumptions. So I set out to write a novel to explore the aftermath of decriminalisation in a country like India, using assumptions that I found more believable.

That novel, Object of Desire, has now been published. I wrote it to express my concerns about the UN’s determination to normalise prostitution, the scholarship used by decriminalisation’s proponents, the widespread endorsement of prostitution’s decriminalisation by public health professionals and other scholars, and the deceptive propaganda that is used to advance this agenda. In the novel, I express these concerns by describing the impact that I believe decriminalisation would have on young women and society.

I hope that the novel raises people’s awareness of the UN’s decriminalisation campaign and the harm and suffering that it will surely cause.

I oppose prostitution’s normalisation because I believe it primarily benefits the exploiters and the oppressors, most of whom are men. It grants men greater advantage. I oppose it because commodification and commercialisation tend to result in the exploitation and desecration of everything the market fails to value.

We see this clearly in agriculture. Farming responsibly requires respect and care for nature and living creatures. But market forces create economic pressures that advantage the most ruthless exploiters of land, livestock, and labour. As a result, industrial agriculture is, in the words of Wendell Berry, a failure on its way to becoming a catastrophe.

Commercialisation’s consequences can also be seen in America’s incarceration industry. The privatisation of prisons has played a major role in making America the nation with the highest per capita incarceration rate.

Although fictional, Object of Desire is informed and inspired by real things. The megabrothels in the story are based on megabrothels in Germany. The dynamics triggered by decriminalisation, such as the fall in the price of sex, the pressure on women to perform dangerous acts, and the expansion of the sex trade, have been observed in settings that have legalised prostitution, as noted in 2023 by a prostitution survivor named Esther in her letter to The Lancet.

The Kanniyam intervention in the book is based on an actual intervention to keep girls in school.

The public uprising against decriminalisation in the novel is inspired by the large-scale, long-running farmers’ protests in India. The depiction of prostitution in the novel was informed by the testimonies of women who have been in prostitution, such as those collected and published by Nordic Model Now! 

References

Mann, JM. 1996. Human rights and AIDS: The future of the pandemic. J. Marshall L. Rev. 30(1) Article 6:195-206.

Shannon K, Strathdee SA, Goldenberg SM, Duff P, Mwangi P, Rusakova M, et al. 2015. Global epidemiology of HIV among female sex workers: influence of structural determinants. The Lancet. 385(9962):55–71. DOI.

Srinivasan, Amia.  2021. The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century. London: Bloomsbury.

Wilkinson R and K Pickett. 2010. The Spirit Level: Why Equality Is Better for Everyone. London: Penguin Books.

Further reading

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