The vast majority of prostitutes are women—anywhere from 80 to 98 percent, depending on the study. Almost all of the johns and pimps are men. It is impossible to examine Amnesty International’s proposal for the decriminalization of prostitution without seriously considering these facts and their implications for women’s rights and equality. Amnesty claims that it is advancing the “human rights of sex workers” and the freedom of women to control their bodies. But this proposal is not just about the right to sell sex. It is also about the right of men to buy sex. And it is about the right of mostly male pimps to sell women’s bodies for sex.
For a long time, many human rights, women’s rights, and anti–human trafficking groups have pushed for the Swedish or Nordic model, which criminalizes the purchase but not the sale of sex. The Nordic model understands that prostitutes are victims of sexual exploitation who need protection instead of prosecution, that human trafficking and prostitution are not identical but are inextricably linked, and that they can only be reduced by a focus on decreasing demand. But in Amnesty’s framework, prostitution would be legal not only for prostitutes themselves, but also for pimps (or, as they were referred to in a draft of the policy recommendation, “controllers”) and for johns or customers.
By embracing—indeed, establishing—the right of men to buy and sell women’s bodies for sex, Amnesty supports an industry defined by brutality and violence against women. In a study of 854 prostituted women in nine countries, 63 percent of the women said they had been raped by a john or a pimp, 71 percent said they had been physically assaulted, and 68 percent suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (a number only matched by treatment-seeking combat veterans and victims of state-organized torture). Eighty-nine percent of the women wanted to escape. The American Journal of Epidemiology in 2004 published a study of two thousand prostituted women showing they had a mortality rate two hundred times greater than the general population. Another study by Prostitution Research and Education showed that prostitutes suffer a “workplace homicide rate” fifty-one times higher than that of the next most dangerous occupation.
Most prostitutes enter the industry at a very young age. Almost all studies put the average age of entry under eighteen. Amnesty and its allies frequently contest the controversial 2001 study by Richard Estes and Neil Alan Weiner that found the average age of entry in one sample group to be twelve to fourteen, but even most critics of that study say that the average age of prostitution entry is actually fifteen to sixteen. Other statewide studies from Illinois, Washington, and New York found the average age of entry to be around fourteen to fifteen, at which point these young women are victims of sex trafficking under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA). Yet, on Amnesty’s view, this sex-trafficking victim becomes a legal prostitute on her eighteenth birthday; her rapists become legitimate customers and her trafficker an entrepreneurial business owner.
When I was in Thailand doing research on human trafficking in the red-light district of Bangkok, a common “show” was simulated beatings of prostitutes, while men eagerly looked on. Prostitution, along with pornography, desensitizes men to violence against women, while feeding a sense of entitlement to women’s bodies. As pornography becomes increasingly extreme—often involving rape fantasies, “barely legal” teens, “pornstar punishment,” and BDSM—johns seek to act out their escalating desires with prostitutes.
Amnesty often rejoins with catchphrases: “the human rights of sex workers” or “sex worker rights are human rights.” Everyone agrees that “sex workers” have human rights, but people disagree that there is a “human right” to degrade oneself, that there is a “human right” to buy someone else for sex, and that there is a “human right” to sell someone else for sex. Amnesty’s proposal is premised on the idea that sex is an activity like any other, and has no special moral significance. But sex is not simply “work”; it is a uniquely private, personal, and intimate act.
Amnesty’s policy reflects the broad idea of “sex positivity”—the view that any restriction on “consensual” adult sex is a violation of rights. Under this view, sex should be unrestricted, even when sold as a commodity. George Soros and the Open Society Foundations (OSF) have put a great deal of money behind this view. Over the years, Soros has funded practically all of the one-sided reports and research that formed the basis of Amnesty’s final policy recommendation. And unfortunately, that campaign has worked. Amnesty is no longer an outlier in pushing to decriminalize prostitution. Some of the most influential human rights and development organizations, such as UNAIDS, UNDP, UN Women, Human Rights Watch, and ACLU, share Amnesty’s view.
Many members of anti–human trafficking and women’s rights organizations, such as Equality Now and the Coalition Against Trafficking of Women, have watched with dismay as an ideology pushed and funded by Soros has sidelined well-established experts and decades of research that show the pervasive violence in the prostitution industry, the link between sex trafficking and prostitution, and the high costs of decriminalization and legalization. These experts complain that Amnesty failed to consult with them, deciding to confer with pimps instead, and that Amnesty seems to sympathize with the purchasers of sex more than with the victims of prostitution. As Jessica Neuwirth, who co-founded Equality Now and started Amnesty’s Women’s Rights division, wrote in an open letter to Amnesty International about the “background document” in which it first proposed this new policy,
The Background Document dismisses [the Swedish model] without saying what is wrong with it other than to sympathize with some circumstances that drive men to buy sex. The document suggests that a significant component of prostitution is the sexual servicing of people with disabilities, and that we should support men who “develop a stronger sense of self in their relationships with sex workers, improving their life enjoyment and dignity,” without consideration of the negative impact of prostitution on the sense of self, life enjoyment or dignity of prostituted women. Is this really a statement you want to make as a human rights organization?
Girls Educational & Mentoring Service—an NGO in New York City that works to empower young girls who have survived commercial sexual exploitation—has a campaign called “Girls Are Not For Sale.” The Amnesty proposal flips that on its head: “Girls Are For Sale.” And Amnesty wants an open market for men to buy them, largely free from government regulation and oversight. It argues for “the removal of laws and policies criminalizing or penalizing sex work . . . including laws and regulations related to selling and buying or organizing sex work.” This would create an unregulated utopia for johns and pimps, all in the name of the girls who can now be bought and sold.
I think back to my time in Thailand. One late night as I was heading home, a young girl approached me. She had not found a john for the night. She grabbed my hands, and just stared at me. She did not say a word. She just begged with her eyes. I do not know if she was driven to prostitution by drugs, or physical abuse, or plain poverty. I do not know if she was a victim of sex trafficking. What I do know is that she was asking to be violated for money, to be treated as an object instead of a person. As men, we must say no. As a society, we must say no. Our goal should be to end the prostitution industry, not feed it. Our goal should be to offer girls and women an alternative to prostitution and to stand with the victims of sex trafficking and prostitution. It is time to oppose Amnesty’s proposal and restore sanity to the human-rights movement.
Darren Geist is an attorney in New York. He was a senior policy and legal fellow at the Polaris Project, and a consultant for UNICEF in Sierra Leone.