CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — In many countries, including the United States, it’s no harder to buy a human being for sex than to get a pack of cigarettes. Now a leading human rights group, Amnesty International, is about to make it even easier to purchase sex by endorsing one of the most exploitative human rights abuses of our time.
At its bi-annual summit in Dublin on Aug. 7, “Irony International” will vote on a proposal advocating decriminalization of prostitution — not just selling, but also pimping and buying sex, worldwide. The rationale: women will be safer when all of those involved — including pimps, brothel owners, and buyers — don’t operate underground.
I’ve supported Amnesty for decades, yet I find no logical or ethical basis for the view that pimps’ and buyers’ rights trump the right not to be exploited when you’re scared, poor, and have suffered all kinds of abuse. Decriminalizing commercial sex overall isn’t reducing harm, it’s endorsing a system that exploits untold numbers of people worldwide.
It is certainly right to decriminalize the selling of sex, especially when we provide exit strategies to those who want to get out. (Most say that they want to leave but don’t see any choice.) But the evidence is clear: vindicating pimps and johns won’t improve the lives of “sex workers.”
In Germany and the Netherlands, with some of the world’s most profitable sex trades, legalization has led to an explosion in prostitution, without the promised reduction in trafficking. In fact, the mayor of Amsterdam has shut down half the red light district, because legal attracts illegal. There, girls and women being prostituted are mostly immigrants without protection from exploitation.
Amnesty leaders seem to believe that pimps and men buying sex from “consenting adults” have the right to exercise their autonomy. But who can tell if a seller is an adult? Or that she’s truly consenting? These aren’t questions that buyers ask after “how much for what?”
The vast majority of prostituted women have been forced into the trade (in the US, at age 15) because of economic desperation, violence, and/or psychological manipulation. The idea that they have real choice is absurd; only a handful are “happy hookers.” But these few — backed by a multi-billion dollar criminal industry — are convincing groups such as Amnesty that it’s progressive to support “sex workers,” pimps, and buyers’ rights, at the expense of the far more basic right of girls and women not to be abused.
Sound public policy does not protect the right of some to act in ways that cause crushing harm to others. That’s why we limit the sale of cigarettes. Why we should further limit access to guns. Why we force refineries to clean up emissions, and why we recall cars when one out of ten thousand brakes fail.
By framing this issue as “sex work,” Amnesty implies that prostitution is a labor issue to be fixed by getting “workers” better rights. But Harvard’s esteemed scholar of racial issues, Orlando Patterson, calls this “modern day slavery.” Let’s see this crisis for what it is: gender-based violence. The notion that someone in power (almost always a white male) has the right to buy another person’s body (usually females of color) is perverse entitlement. Being lured into sexual activity is not a career choice.
Not all of Amnesty’s policy is unsound. Some principles, including insistence that victims of prostitution be helped—not arrested—are vital to protecting lives. The non-profit program Demand Abolition advocates that we stop hunting down and punishing those being exploited—the sellers—and instead focusing on the true perpetrators: those who buy, those with the checkbook and the real choice to consent.
Amnesty would be wise to support a philosophy born in the (sexually liberated) Nordic countries and increasingly welcomed as the path to defending trafficking victims’ rights. Adopted by Canada, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, and more recently, Northern Ireland, the “Nordic Model” offers services to those driven into selling themselves for sex, while prosecuting buyers and educating them to the harsh realities of the global sex trade. Sweden, the country that pioneered the Nordic Model, has documented sharp reductions in prostitution, including sex-trafficking and related crimes.
Amnesty’s proposed approach suggests that boys will be boys, so we shouldn’t bother trying to stop them, just make them less harmful. What an insult to men, saying they can’t control their urges. And surely that sympathy means nothing to a “sex worker” purchased for sex ten times in one night, then sent out by her pimp who takes her money then sends her out for her next “job.”
Amnesty must vote against decriminalizing buyers and pimps; it’s criminal to do any less.
Swanee Hunt is the Eleanor Roosevelt Lecturer in Public Policy and Senior Advisor at the Carr Center for Human Rights at Harvard Kennedy School. She founded Demand Abolition, a non-profit working to end demand for illegal commercial sex.
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