Amnesty International has voted in favour of adopting a policy that supports the “full decriminalization of all aspects of consensual sex work.” That is to say, they will be developing a policy that supports the decriminalization of pimps, brothel-owners, and of men who buy sex, as well as the degendered “sex worker.”
For those unfamiliar with the debate, opponents of full decriminalization and of Amnesty’s position advocate for a model that decriminalizes those who sell sex (mainly women and girls) but that criminalizes those who exploit and otherwise harm prostituted women (i.e. pimps, johns, and brothel-owners).
A press release published today specifies: “The policy will also call on states to ensure that sex workers enjoy full and equal legal protection from exploitation, trafficking and violence.” This sentence certainly sounds positive, in terms of Amnesty’s desire to end exploitation, but is naive at best. There is no way to ensure “legal protection” of those in prostitution when you legalize the very abuse and exploitation that the sex trade is based on. At its root, prostitution is about exploitation — that is, a scenario wherein a man pays a desperate and/or marginalized woman to provide him with sexual services because she has no other choice. The very idea of prostitution is one that says women are not fully human, that they are things that men have the right to use and abuse, that men’s sexual pleasure is more important than women’s humanity. The relationship between a john and a woman he buys is not one of equality — he is, in fact, paying for the right not to respect her.
It is not possible to legalize the purchase of sex while ensuring prostituted women are protected from exploitation, trafficking and violence. The industry requires exploitation and violence is inherent to the system of prostitution. The system is violent. It is exploitative. It is about male abuse of female bodies. Prostitution is harm.
What Amnesty has left out of their statement is women’s rights, as well as an analysis of how poverty and racism make poor women of colour particularly vulnerable to exploitation.
In fact, they didn’t mention women at all.
Amnesty’s repeated, insistent use of the term “sex worker” might sound neutral, but is far from it. The term is politicized as it intends to normalize and decontextualize prostitution. Its purpose is to erase the fact that the sex industry requires patriarchy, as well as capitalism, in order to maintain its existence. To erase the fact that, without inequality, prostitution would cease to exist. To erase the fact that, if human rights were a priority and reality in this world, there would be no such thing as prostitution. “Sex worker” erases systems of power, presenting women in prostitution as simple labourers, as though bodily penetration by strange men is comparable to working at General Motors. “Sex work” ensures men remain invisible and unaccountable in all of this, despite the fact that it is only men who drive the industry and only men who are responsible for the harm.
The press release reads, “Sex workers are one of the most marginalized groups in the world who in most instances face constant risk of discrimination, violence and abuse.” But saying that “sex workers” are marginalized, as a group, because they are “sex workers” erases the entire context surrounding the existence of a sex industry at all and the reasons why women and girls are prostituted in the first place.
Amnesty wholly accepts the existence of the system of prostitution and, in their statement and position, effectively denies that “sex workers” are marginalized because they are women in prostitution. That is to say, the only reason that women and girls end up in prostitution is because they are marginalized in the first place as females and that prostitution epitomizes that marginalization. That marginalization, though, starts long before entry into the industry.
“How do women end up in prostitution and why?” is a question Amnesty has intentionally avoided addressing, as is the question of why it is acceptable that this industry exists at all.
While their statement says, “Amnesty International considers human trafficking abhorrent in all of its forms, including sexual exploitation, and should be criminalized as a matter of international law,” they have not acknowledged that trafficking exists only because women do not want to be in prostitution. It exists because prostitution exists. It exists to feed demand. If the sex industry were something freely chosen by women and girls, there would be no need to traffic them. Amnesty’s efforts to draw a clear line between “sex work” and trafficking only shows how deeply ignorant they are, in terms of the realities of the industry. Or, alternatively, that they simply don’t care.
“This is a historic day for Amnesty International,” the statement reads. And indeed, here are some Amnesty staff members cracking a bottle of champagne over the objectified, exploited, abused, and dead bodies of women and girls everywhere. Now that we’ve moved a step closer to further entrenching men’s rights to access the commodified bodies of women, free of guilt, accountability, or any barriers whatsoever, it’s time for a glass of bubbly, amirite? I assume Amnesty will be sending over a few crates to our sisters on the Downtown Eastside?
— Azmina (@SnazzyAzzy) August 11, 2015
In refusing to acknowledge gender, race, or class as key factors, Amnesty has abandoned women and girls, globally, and has shown they cannot be trusted in their position as advocates for human rights. Despite this, feminists everywhere will continue to insist on women’s humanity. We won’t be abandoning this fight, Amnesty International can be sure of that.