So Amnesty International voted in favour of adopting a policy that calls for the full decriminalization of the sex trade. Hurray? Once the celebration or despair subsides we are left we a troubling picture… And what that picture reveals is one of deceitful propaganda and misleading rhetoric.
Amnesty International has claimed that this decision was made in the interest of protecting the safety and human rights of sex workers and included a thoughtful and thorough consultation process that explored all viable alternatives. Salil Shetti, Secretary-General of AI states, “The research and consultation carried out in the development of this policy in the past two years concluded that this was the best way to defend sex workers’ human rights and lessen the risk of abuse and violations they face.” He adds, “We also consulted with our global movement to take on board different views from around the world.”
On its face, these efforts and intentions sound noble. Yet Amnesty International has concealed the cynical origins of the policy they are now selling to the masses.
Their press releases frame the conversation as one that happened as part of a “global movement,” when in fact only about 40 per cent of their own membership participated in the process (most members, in fact, weren’t initially made aware this policy was in development). Not only that, the organization has gone to great lengths to obscure the role that brothel owner, Douglas Fox, the man who crafted the original proposal on sex trade decriminalization and lobbied the organization to this effect, played in this process.
If you look beyond the façade of human rights for “sex workers,” what is revealed is a perfect example of an organization choosing ideology and profit over the well-being and human rights of women and girls.
Fox is the owner of England’s largest escort agency, Christony Companions Escort Services. It was during one of Amnesty International’s internal debates in Newcastle in 2008 that he drafted the original policy resolution which was subsequently leaked to Julie Bindel, who exposed the draft proposal-in-process. The outrage that ensued forced Amnesty International to distance itself from Fox. But regardless of the fact that the organization does not want to be connected to Fox — a man who attacks anti-violence activists and feminists for allegedly stigmatizing people in prostitution yet insists on referring to people in prostitution as “whores” — he continues to take credit for the policy that AI has implemented.
Fox is quoted as saying that Amnesty International’s internal violence against women campaign group was the key opposition to a decriminalization policy. He saw one of the “problems” within Amnesty as being that the organization has “(in some ways very effectively) campaigned against violence against women. The people and one woman in particular who has headed this campaign has taken what effectively is an anti-escorting stance and has quoted Melissa farley and Julie Bindel heavily in their literature.” Fox brags that he “challenged this position and the statistics used both on the Amnesty web site and at the conference where I basically caused a rumpus at the violence against women stall.”
Regarding concerns about decriminalization resulting in an increase in human trafficking, supported by evidence and research, he claims, “I was asked over and over and over again about fears that supporting sex workers would increase trafficking. I won them over very easily, however, which does show that getting the press/media on our side to give counter arguments is so important.” Fox then rallied his supporters to join Amnesty International as members in order to lobby for this policy. He said, “Getting Amnesty on side will be a huge boost to our morale… We need to pursue them mercilessly and get them on side.”
And it seems Fox was successful in pushing feminist anti-violence groups aside in order to convince Amnesty to advocate on behalf of men’s right to buy and profit from the sale of women and girls.
After the policy was approved, Fox was, naturally, thrilled. “It is exactly what I hoped for,” he said. “I am very, very pleased that Amnesty has taken this position.”
As an anti-violence and anti-trafficking activist, I find the callousness of Fox’s statements and the fact that the policy proposed and lobbied for by a brothel owner was eventually passed chilling and sickening.
And how was he able to get away with it? By adopting the term “sex worker.”
See, “sex work” rhetoric means that owning a large brothel in England and allegedly doing occasional sex work on the side qualifies people like Douglas Fox to speak on behalf of prostituted people worldwide.
Welcome to the dangerously deluded world of Amnesty International, an organization that did an about face on women’s rights. A world where brothel owners and pimps are equated with prostituted people (who are overwhelmingly women and girls) in order to ignore the voices and expertise of survivors, survivor-led organizations, anti-violence organizations and sex industry scholars, as well as evidence and research that shows their new policy supporting the full decriminalization of the sex industry leads to more trafficking.
But, in fact, throwing women under the bus is not new for Amnesty International. The former head of the gender unit in the organization, Gita Sahgal, told the Observer, after she was fired, that an “atmosphere of terror” prevailed inside the organization, that “debate is suppressed,” and that staff are cowed into accepting the party line. She also called the leadership of the organization “ideologically corrupt”, saying “there is a deep misogyny in the human rights movement and the kinds of issues that women have to face tend to bring that out.”
Now that we have this dubiously-concocted policy, initiated by a pimp and funded by a billionaire, the marginalization of survivor’s voices and feminists, an unwillingness to acknowledge the real meaning of this policy, and outright lies about the evidence behind their claims, what’s next?
What’s next is the silencing of critiques of the sex industry by implying that only “sex workers” can speak in this debate. Yet this policy was not approved by prostituted women and girls, but by Amnesty International, a so-called human rights organization run by people privileged enough not to have to prostitute themselves.
The policy states, “Many sex workers feel the term ‘prostitute’ is demeaning or misogynistic, and organized sex worker groups generally prefer the term ‘sex worker’ or ‘person in the sex industry.’” What they’ve failed to mention is that many more activists who have been in the sex industry reject the term. In fact, “sex work” is a very political term that intentionally erases the reality of who is prostituted and why, allowing men like Fox, who run the largest prostitution ring in north-east England, to call themselves “sex workers.”
By arguing that only “sex workers” can speak about “sex work,” you are effectively saying that only people who are in favor of decriminalizing pimps and johns have a valid opinion about policy, as it is only those who advocate for the full decriminalization of prostitution who use the term “sex work.” That is to say, sex industry advocates use the term intentionally as part of their efforts to normalize and degender the system of prostitution. If the sentence was altered to read “listen to survivors”, “listen to prostituted people,” or “listen to people who have been commercially exploited,” Amnesty International would have ended up with a different policy.
This argument narrows the debate to ensure an individual, tit-for-tat approach in which participants are forced into an Oppression Olympics-style rhetorical contest that ignores intersectionality in order to compete to see who is marginalized enough to have a voice. Experience and personal narrative can be crucial in many instances but also they, conversely, lack the broader contextual frameworks that a systems-level analysis requires. This kind of argument also erases the fact that the sex industry is not at all some sort of grassroots organization or collective but is, instead, a billion dollar industry driven entirely by male demand.
To be empowered as a sex worker in an industry that relies on the dehumanization and constant influx of the ever-younger bodies of mainly women and girls is a privilege. As an anti-violence worker and sex industry researcher, hearing people talk about how violence-free their experiences in the sex industry have been is encouraging. But even sex industry advocates know that this experience represents a very small minority of people in the sex trade. To use these few stories to promote a policy that has been proven to further marginalize and endanger women and girls globally is inhumane, oppressive, and counter to the purported goals of a human rights organization.
Raquel Rosario Sanchez is an activist and advocate from the Dominican Republic. Her efforts center around violence against women and girls, anti-human trafficking efforts, and death penalty abolition. She is pursuing a Master’s Degree in Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies in Oregon.