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Amnesty International Backs Legalization of Prostitution in Historic Vote

CC-Jose Pereira

Carolyn Moynihan - published on 08/11/15 - updated on 06/07/17

‘The issue is harm, not choice’

The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women International (CATW) has a petition at with nearly 7500 supporters calling for a “No” vote on the proposed policy. An accompanying open letter is “signed by more than 600 national and international women’s rights groups, leading survivors of the sex trade, human rights advocates, medical doctors, Hollywood actors and directors, fashion designers, faith-based leaders and concerned individuals from over 30 countries”.
Amnesty’s own membership is divided over this development. Former staff member Jessica Neuwirth, who left Amnesty 25 years ago to found Equality Now, a women’s rights organisation dealing with issues such as trafficking, sent a letter to all AI senior officials in February 2014 denouncing the draft policy as a piece of advocacy that did not acknowledge the intrinsic harm of prostitution to women, even if they appeared to have consented to it.

“The issue is harm, not choice,” she wrote, comparing the choice some women make of prostitution to the choice of female genital mutilation by women and girls within a certain cultural context (something that Amnesty was slow to recognise as a human rights issue). People also choose debt bondage, she pointed out. “Does that make debt bondage a human right rather than a human rights violation? Is Amnesty International going to endorse the right to be exploited in the context of prostitution?”

Neuwirth here represents the mainstream feminist position, which sees prostitution (she rejects the term “sex work”) in terms of raw male power and the victimisation of women and girls, who are either forced into this exploitative sex by traffickers, or “choose” it because they have few or no other choices available to them to survive. The goal of policy therefore should be to shut down the sex industry completely and focus on supporting vulnerable women into proper jobs and a new modus vivendi.

The Nordic model: clamp down on the buyers

For this reason most women’s groups champion the law adopted by Sweden in 1999 which decriminalises sellers of sex but prohibits the buying of sex along with pimping, procuring and operating a brothel. Similar laws have been passed by Norway and Iceland (hence, the “Nordic model”), Northern Ireland and, most recently, Canada and France – the last, to the accompaniment of street protests by prostitutes.

Debate continues about the justice and effectiveness of these laws. A recent Swedish government report cited by the New York Times says street prostitution has fallen by more than half since 1995, and surveys suggest that the number of men who bought sex fell by nearly 40 percent. But free marketeers and other critics say the trade has simply been driven underground, making it more risky for the women who sell sex as they “do deals” too quickly — before the “client” gets arrested — and go to unfamiliar premises chosen by him. Feminists say full decriminalisation will increase trafficking, but supporters of the move point to New Zealand, which has had such a regime since 2003 and appears to have no such trend.

That is not surprising for an island nation thousands of miles from the nearest traffickable populations. However, it would be a mistake to think that prostitution is uncontroversial here, as ordinary citizens badger local governments to keep “sex work” out of their street and away from their businesses and children’s schools. And there were almost audible sighs of relief across the city last year as plans for a mega-brothel in downtown Auckland fell though. In a worrying trend, however, 

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