Over 400 women’s groups & advocates sign letter protesting Amnesty International’s position on prostitution

Amnesty International

The human rights organization, Amnesty International, has quietly been trying to pass a policy proposal calling for the decriminalization of the sex industry. It was only this month they announced their intentions but, while even the International Secretariat admitted the Amnesty International Council had made a mess of the consultation process, what really happened was that the organization ignored critical feedback and ensured many members were not even aware that there was a draft policy in the works.

When the draft was leaked early in 2014, there was uproar from feminists and survivors across the globe.

Members were consequently offered three weeks — from April 2 – 21, 2014 — to provide feedback on the document, a small window made even smaller by the fact that most members did not even receive notification that this process was available to them. This was followed, a few months later, by an updated draft which doubled down on their rejection of the Nordic model and the criminalization of any aspects of the sex industry whatsoever. More generally, the document reeked of libertarian ideology, bravely supporting individuals’ “right to seek, buy, sell or solicit paid sex… protected from state interference.”

God forbid the state intervene in men’s right to paid blow jobs.

On July 7th, 2015, an updated draft was released to its members, intended to “inform discussion and debate during the International Council Meeting 2015 of a potential policy on respecting, protecting and fulfilling the human rights of sex workers.” This sentence, in and of itself, conveys so much about the purpose of the document. No mention of the rights of women and girls not to have to provide sexual services to men. No mention of bodily autonomy outside of women’s role as sexualized bodies that men have the right to use and abuse at will. No mention of the myriad of factors that drive women and girls into the industry such as colonialism, poverty, sexual abuse, patriarchy, racism, imperialism, and coercion.

How can a policy on prostitution mention “gender equality” but fail to mention the entire foundation for a sex industry: gender inequality? Essentially, Amnesty International is advocating for our “equal rights,” as women, to prostitute ourselves, pretending as though this is a progressive move.

I mean, who wrote this, Dennis Hof?

In response to this policy proposal — which, in reality, supports those who wish to open and profit from legal brothels and earn the right to buy women, free of shame and stigma, not women’s rights (maybe Amnesty International should poll women and girls worldwide and find out how many of them think their liberation lies in their “right” to fuck strange men for money) — The Coalition Against Trafficking of Women (CATW) published an open letter signed by over 400 advocates and organizations was published on Thursday, calling for “Amnesty to stand on the side of stand on the side of justice and equality for all.”

Signatories include: Meryl Streep, Julie Bindel, Kate Winslet, Rachel Moran, Angela Bassett, Eve Ensler, Emily Blunt, Ruchira Gupta, Lena Dunham, Robin Morgan, Carey Mulligan, Lee Lakeman, Anne Hathaway, Janice Raymond, Sarah Jones, Kevin Kline, Lisa Kudrow, Kyra Sedgwick, Emma Thompson, and many, many more.

The letter points out that legalization has only resulted in “the explosive growth of legal brothels” and did not succeed in making the industry “safer” for women but rather resulted in an increase of trafficking in order to fill the demand. In Amsterdam, for example, up to 90 per cent of women in brothels “are Eastern European, African and Asian women who are being patronized by predominantly Caucasian men.” Germany has fared no better.

 …The 2002 German deregulation law spawned countrywide brothel chains that offer “Friday night specials” for men who have license to purchase women for sexual acts that include acts of torture. This prompted mainstream news outlets to tag Germany the “Bordello of Europe.” Last year leading trauma experts in Germany petitioned their government to repeal the 2002 law, underlining the extensive psychological harm that serial, unwanted sexual invasion and violence, which are among the hallmarks of prostitution, inflicts on women. Harm reduction is not enough, they explain; governments and civil society must invest in harm elimination.

Amnesty’s proposed position is similar as that taken by the HIV/AIDS sector such as UNAIDS and, in Canada, the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS and the Canadian AIDS society. This position is primarily rooted in blind support for simplistic harm reduction policies that allow governments to do as little as possible to help their citizens (i.e. provide free needles, but not housing, mental health services, detox beds and provide condoms but not viable employment, affordable post-secondary education, universal daycare, or exiting services for women in prostitution).

The primary goals of UNAIDS and other agencies that support limited harm reduction policies in the sex industry seem far more concerned with the health of sex buyers than the lives of prostituted and sex trafficked women.
Further, the letter argues that Amnesty’s support for the full decriminalization of the sex industry amounts to “gender apartheid,” in which more privileged women are offered education and employment opportunities that other women are not, offering marginalized women up, instead, for “consumption by men” and for the profit of pimps, traffickers, and brothel owners.
International laws and covenants recognize the abuse of power over acutely vulnerable populations — the poor, the incested, the transgendered, the homeless — as a tool for the purpose of exploitation. Disenfranchised women of color, including Aboriginal, Native, First Nations, African American and “Scheduled Castes” women, are overwhelmingly represented among the prostituted and the sex trafficked. Every day, we combat male access to women’s bodies through power and control, from female genital mutilation to forced marriage; from domestic violence to violation of reproductive rights. The exchange of money for such access does not eliminate the violence women face in the sex trade.

Amnesty International exists to uphold the human rights of everyone, globally. It is unconscionable that such an organization would offer anything less but opposition to the global objectification, abuse, rape, and enslavement of women and girls, worldwide.

With contributions from Simone Watson, a prostitution survivor and director of Nordic Model Australia Coalition (NorMAC).

You can sign the petition to ask Amnesty International not to adopt a policy that supports the full decriminalization of the sex industry at Change.org.

Meghan Murphy
Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, I-D, Truthdig, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and lives in Vancouver, B.C. with her dog.

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  • Human rights organisations try to be unbiased and only ever go after governments for their abusive actions, but this is not “unbiased”. It is as Meghan says, libertarian. I know libertarianism is not the official ideology of Amnesty International or any other charitable NGO, but it is the logical outcome of being unwilling to criticise corporations and religious organisations for their abusive practices. We need to stop singling out the big, bad government and start treating all powerful institutions (including, of course, the sex industry and the beauty industry) with contempt (or at the very least criticism.)

    And I am sick of this “gender equality” nonsense. There is no such thing as equality between those who conform to masculinity and femininity, just as there is no such thing as equality between capitalists and workers. We need to abolish thse roles, not make them equality. Those who play a subordinate role within a society or institution will never be equally powerful to those who play a dominant role.

    “But we can be equally valued” hyper-feminine liberals and conservative alike will scream (what is the difference, really.) Well guess what, some of us actually want to change the world, not receive self-esteem boosts from liberal or conservative men (again, what is the difference) and like it or not, changing the world requires power. Real power, not feelings of self-esteem that are based on people labelling you as pretty, sexy, nuturing or any of that.

    Screw gender equality. We need human equality (including biological sex equality and an end to class divisions.)

    • Mar Iguana

      Screw equality. Long live liberty.

    • Brylliant

      This shit is still going on? Women, organize and stop the male-fetishist-exploiter lobby from running this industry.

  • Hecuba

    Coalition Against Trafficking In Women is in fact the organisation responsible for obtaining 400 signatories demanding Amnesty International adopt the Nordic Model and advocate for criminalising males who believe it is their male sacrosanct right to buy women and girls in order to rape and/or subject them to sadistic male sexual violence.

    CATWR have now announced because this open letter ‘was so exceedingly positive that it is now a campaign on Change.org and is open for more signatures.

    Here is the link to the Change.org petition demanding Amnesty International cease being a supporter of mens’ pimp industry (sic)!


    • Meghan Murphy

      Thanks Hecuba!

    • hellkell

      Signed, thank you for sharing.

  • Nunnunun
  • Adam Sowa

    Wonder where authors get their ideas from?

    “Be good. Be pretty. Be chosen
    As a new adult edition of Louise O’Neill’s dystopian debut hits the bookshops, Gemma Fraser explains why every feminist should pick up a copy of Only Ever Yours”


  • Bronwen Davies

    As a longstanding and active member of Amnesty International UK I have being trying to find out more about this issue for nearly a week, since I first heard about it (July 2015). Thank you for this very detailed and useful summary of the position to date.

    I understand from a telephone conversation with someone in the AI UK office earlier this week that the AI UK AGM in April 2015 did not arrive at a clear consensus, so the UK Section representatives at the Dublin meeting do not have a mandate. I was told that a likely outcome is for further research to be carried out before moving to adopting a policy about “sex work”.

  • ArgleBargle

    Excellent, powerful article Meghan, thank you. You sum the AI position up perfectly: “No mention of the rights of women and girls not to have to provide sexual services to men. No mention of bodily autonomy outside of women’s role as sexualized bodies that men have the right to use and abuse at will.”

    As long as there are countries where it is legal for men to purchase the opportunity to rape women, and organizations like AI supporting those who enable these rapists, the human rights of all women are at risk.

    AI should change course before their reputation as a fighter for human rights becomes a laughing matter.

    • It is odd indeed, as rape and other sexual torture are systemic against the political prisoners Amnestie was founded to support.

  • Apparently the ONLY people who really matter worldwide are the Captains of Industry.

  • Sam

    Amnesty International seems to live in a fantasy world where if only prostitution was legal, somehow the violence of the johns and the violence inherent in sex work would disappear! Read the prostituted peoples’ own words at the end of the report. The job is inherently misogynistic, violent, awful. These unicorn “two consenting adults” who choose to have sex with one another as equals is a percentage of sex work that is so small as to be almost invisible (and honestly, not bloody likely to even exist at all).

    Why can’t we say prostitution is an awful, awful enterprise and we will do everything we can to eradicate it? Why is it 100% awful for children to be in sex work (per Amnesty’s report, “Amnesty International considers children involved in commercial sex acts to be victims of a grave human rights abuse.”), but for adults it’s OK? 17 years old? Grave human rights abuse. 18 years old? Agency!

    When do we stop caring for and trying to protect other people? 12 years old? 14? 16? 18 is somehow a magical number whereby people attain “agency” and can then make completely correct, rational decisions for themselves? Is it awful for a child to mow a lawn or a child to clean a kitchen? No. Is it awful for someone to prey on a child for sex? Yes. Because sex is different. No matter how much people want to see “sex work” as “work” it is not even remotely in the same ballpark!

    I’m probably not making sense & ranting, but this is so completely disheartening. At least Meryl Streep is still a badass.

  • Tao

    You forgot to mention how much financial support for this draft was provided by the pimp lobbies, many of them men owning brothels of women. Amnesty International disgusts me.

  • I.N.

    As someone who spent 6 years in prostitution and has now been out for several years, I am so grateful for the position of Amnesty International. I deeply wish you could see that sex worker rights advocates are equally driven by compassion and anti-poverty efforts, and believe that combined evidence points toward a different policy approach as more successful. And, as you all seem to be making this a question of numbers, this belief is shared by the Global Alliance Against Trafficking in Women, 60,000+ members of DMSC collective in India, over 300 hundred signatories to the Canadian parliament and 500+ NGOs that wrote to the European Parliament about decriminalization and human rights.

    Details available here:
    Combating human trafficking in the sex trade: can sex workers do it better? – article on DMSC from jpubhealth.oxfordjournals.org/content/36/4/622.short?rss=1

    • Meghan Murphy

      I understand that some groups that lobby for decriminalization truly believe this model will help women, but it doesn’t. Beyond that, I simply don’t believe that one can claim to be feminist and fight for gender equality while simultaneously protecting men’s right to buy sex, as Amnesty does. W/r/t the two links you’ve shared here, there are far more woman and equality seeking organizations that support the Nordic model http://www.straight.com/news/74235/open-letter-calls-nordic-approach-prostitution-canada. There is absolutely nothing about Amnesty’s proposal that will help stop the exploitation of marginalized women and girls.

      • I.N.

        The conversation about strength of evidence generally leads nowhere, in my experience, so I don’t see it as productive to pursue beyond the links I already posted (which summarize research in addition to providing numbers).
        However, I think it is important to comment on this point in your response:
        “Beyond that, I simply don’t believe that one can claim to be feminist and fight for gender equality while simultaneously protecting men’s right to buy sex, as Amnesty does.”

        The advocates whose work I follow do not care about men. That is, their opposition to the Nordic model has nothing to do with men’s “right” to anything. They only care about the indirect effects on sex worker safety, due to police violence and lack of anti-poverty measures. For example, in Canada, the funding for exit programs is a joke, and I’ve seen this problem acknowledged by abolitionist organizations as well. Obviously, any large movement will gather a lot of people, and I am sure some awful “allies” make this partly about men… But the entire linked document of AI’s position (July 7th, 2015 draft) is about reducing vulnerability and improving harm reduction for the people who sell sex, both when they stay in the sex trade or try to leave it. It had not a single argument that centered on protecting the buyers – only a few paragraphs about the increased risks people in the sex trade had to take to accommodate anxious buyers (because, once again, there is not enough funding in most places for meaningful alternatives, so the need to make money is still there).

        What I see reflected in the AI’s approach and the key argument of the advocates I follow is centering resources on anti-poverty and harm reduction measures: It’s ultimately an “end supply” approach (the “end supply” phrase is from here: titsandsass.com/a-tunnel-not-a-door-exiting-conditioned-generational-sex-work/ )

        • Meghan Murphy

          “That is, their opposition to the Nordic model has nothing to do with men’s “right” to anything. They only care about the indirect effects on sex worker safety, due to police violence and lack of anti-poverty measures.”

          The I guess you don’t know what the Nordic model is or what advocates are advocating for…

          “For example, in Canada, the funding for exit programs is a joke, and I’ve seen this problem acknowledged by abolitionist organizations as well.”

          You are correct.

          Criticism of harm reduction/decrim is mainly that it lets the government off the hook, as I noted in the post. It is decrim/harm reduction advocates who aren’t demanding more from the government, in terms of services and social safety nets, not feminists.

          The Nordic model doesn’t endanger women in prostitution, johns do. Decrim/harm reduction does not address this.

        • Sam Berg

          “It had not a single argument that centered on protecting the buyers – only a few paragraphs about the increased risks people in the sex trade had to take to accommodate anxious buyers”

          You need to go reread the document, then.

          Direct quote from AI’s Decriminalization of Sex Work: Policy Background Document (2013):

          “Sexual desire and activity are a fundamental human need. To criminalize those who are unable or unwilling to fulfil that need through more traditionally recognized means and thus purchase sex, may amount to a violation of the right to privacy and undermine the rights to free expression and health.”

          • nightcap

            The July 7th version of the draft omits the parts about sex being a “fundamental human need” and the terrible, horrible violation of denying men’s “right” to buy sex. It’s the usual whitewashing. Instead of “Men need sex,” the new draft pushes the “Consent is magic!” rhetoric.

          • Thanks for that update, and you’re right, it shows that no matter how hard Amnesty wants to hide johns under the blanket of consent, there they are plain as day to people who question what “agency” truly means in prostitution.

          • I.N.

            Yes, I only read the July 7th version. Upon rechecking, found the “fundamental need” in the footnotes, so I stand corrected (I did not check the footnotes attentively on my first read). However, this to me is interesting on its own. I don’t care about the rights of buyers, so I missed this entirely. I only care about safety and security of people who currently find themselves in the sex trade (not me anymore, but used to), and in my reading, this is the central point of the draft.

            One thing I keep thinking about in these discussions, is to what extent our original positions bias the reading of the texts. To you guys, this is white-washing rhetoric designed to mask how all of this is about menz. As someone who sincerely agrees with the bulk of AI’s arguments, I don’t see it. I also don’t see “consent is magic!” here, because of the detailed attention to poverty and vulnerability and how they affects people’s circumstances. So I don’t see “rhetoric”, I see sincere effort to change things for the better that provides a bunch of extremely convincing arguments for their approach (especially in context of multiple research papers from 2000+ I’ve read at this point from some time in academia). Yet you (a collective you) dismiss the entirety of these arguments for a footnote, and claim that a single footnote represents what the argument is about and everything else is just white-washing?

            I don’t know what else to say here, other than to point out these difference and wonder about it. I’ve read some bloggers who said that abolitionists care about men way more than sex worker rights advocates do and I always thought they were exaggerating, but this conversation is increasingly making me see what they meant… At the same time, I also think it is important that someone points out how the language of “fundamental rights” to sex can have negative consequences, so I am also glad you are doing it. All of this is a work in progress.

          • nightcap

            My comment about whitewashing was in regard to the stark contrast between the July 7th draft and the earlier draft policy background document. The latter contains the “fundamental need” footnote, positions buyers and sellers of sex as equals, and lumps men and women together as buyers of sex as if they do so in anywhere near equal numbers. The July 7th draft specifically notes its “refinement of positions on issues such as gender, violations perpetrated by third parties, overbroad criminalisation of operational aspects of sex work, and the overrepresentation of some groups in sex work.”

            While acknowledging that oppression may lead some marginalized people into sex work, the July 7th draft emphasizes personal power. Choice. Consent. Contract. Agency. The much touted principles of the (white, wealthy, male) sovereign self of classical liberalism. Thus the relations of power and dependence that exist in society are obscured. The demarcation between “coerced” and “voluntary” becomes simple. Did you consent? Yes/No. True/False. Black/White.

            I’m not trying to make it all about the menz. I just have to wonder how committed an organization is to addressing systemic inequality when they have to “refine” their position on an institution as blatantly gendered, classed, and racialized as prostitution.

        • Karina

          “It had not a single argument that centered on protecting the buyers”

          Then why are prostitution defenders unwilling to talk about MALE violence, i. e., the violence against women in prostitution perpetrated by johns? So-called “sex worker rights” groups usually don’t even use the term “male violence” – it always seems as if they are trying to protect the men, not the women.

          • I.N.

            Um, we must reading very different things. Most blogs I follow talk about patriarchy, systemic oppression, male violence and entitlement (including police violence – which is an aspect I don’t see addressed in the abolitionist blogs as much?) all the time? And I never got the impression you got? I wonder if it kind of depends on the filters and POV of the reader – what stands out? I mean, I’ve seen some extremely angry critics of abolition advocates from current workers, and from I have seen so far, there is a kind of mutual demonization that goes very far and both ways…

          • Non-PC RadFem

            “Um, we must reading very different things. Most blogs I follow talk about patriarchy, systemic oppression, male violence and entitlement [..]”

            Oh, did you, now!? Then, you’re right about one thing at least; yes, we’re sooo not reading the same materials. If you did, you would know that male-entitlement to sex is the root cause for both: rape and – wait for it… “sex work” and all its other grotesque mutations.

            Nice blind spot those blogs you frequent have goin’ …

  • Helen Pringle

    Great piece, thank you Meghan & Simone.

    “maybe Amnesty International should poll women and girls worldwide and find out how many of them think their liberation lies in their “right” to fuck strange men for money”

    might better read?

    “maybe Amnesty International should poll women and girls worldwide and find out how many of them think their liberation lies in their “right” to be fucked (over) by strange men for money”

    Just a small suggestion.

    • Meghan Murphy


    • ArgleBargle

      Yes, this issue impacts all women, and all women should have a say in it, those who have been prostituted (many of whom support the Nordic model) and those women and girls who may be prostituted in the future (I’d bet that most of whom would say they do not want to fuck strange men for money). Good point.

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  • Non-PC RadFem

    This is so utterly frustrating! Arghhhh!!! What’s so hard to understand?

    Prostitution is rape with a price tag attached to it.

    It has, and it never had anything to do with consent, especially when such “consent” is obtained under duress. In this case; that’d be the financial coercion exerted upon the prostitute[s] on the part of the rentier class, a.k.a. the feudalist class who expect payment/returns, for doing pretty much fuck-all apart from expecting payments and returns for doing… pretty much: fuck-all.

    If a person “consents” to sell his/her kidney for money to feed his/her family, is that also true “consent”? Really?!?

    How about we start taking confessions extracted under torture as admissible in court? “Well… he did ‘consent’ and ‘volunteered’ the information” that just happened to incriminate him/herself (or whoever the torturers want to frame), but don’t ever question the ‘methods’ they’ve employed to extract such ‘information’… that’s just a technicality.

    Yeah… just like it’s only a technicality to exchange money for rape and the long lasting trauma that comes with it.

    I wonder; how many “sex work” pro-decriminalization advocates are actually lobbing for legislation to make each and every single John personally liable for medical, psychological therapy and psychiatric bills?

    Going back to my original point… Prostitution is rape with a price tag attached to it. Rape: is rape > is rape and it doesn’t matter if you’re doing it for money (money =/= consent), or closing your eyes and thinking of England, it is and always will be rape.

  • sam

    “There’s a not-so-subtle undercurrent of sexism in the forced sex trafficking discussion. Time and again, women who say they willingly entered sex work have their experiences written off. This patronises women in ways that, frankly, would not happen to men. As researcher Laura Agustín comments, “[S]o entrenched is the idea of women as forming an essential part of home if not actually being it themselves that they are routinely denied the agency to undertake a migration.” Women going to often underpaid, perhaps exploitative, work are painted universally as victims regardless of their choices or options.
    The unchecked moral panic about trafficking infantilises women, for whom low-paid domestic labour and sex work are frequently the only options to people with few skills and little education. This is an argument that is about the numbers. But it also an argument that raises questions of how we define slavery, how we think about consent, (***) and how exploitative all paid labour has the potential to be.” (***)

    • Meghan Murphy

      “The unchecked moral panic about trafficking infantilises women.”

      The feminist movement and activism to end male violence against women is not a “moral panic.” Take your gross misogyny elsewhere.

  • Flavia

    Great piece! I have just discovered “feminist current” and I am loving it!