How to manufacture consent in the sex trade debate

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.

John Dockerty and Douglas Fox, owners of Christony Companions.
John Dockerty and Douglas Fox, owners of Christony Companions.

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 María Rosario SánchezRaquel 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.

Raquel Rosario Sanchez
Raquel Rosario Sanchez

Raquel Rosario Sanchez is a writer from the Dominican Republic. Her utmost priority in her work and as a feminist is to end violence against girls and women. Her work has appeared in several print and digital publications both in English and Spanish, including: Feminist Current, El Grillo, La Replica, Tribuna Feminista, El Caribe and La Marea. You can follow her @8rosariosanchez where she rambles about feminism, politics, and poetry.

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  • Sarah Slamen

    Hands down, the very best analysis of this disastrous and cynical decision by Amnesty. Thank you, FC.

    • Raquel Rosario Sánchez

      Thank you all very much for the support 🙂

  • Georgia95Luciana Todesco

    Thank you Raquel for such an insightful article.

  • Sine FourEx

    Only 4 branches supported their original policy, and 2 of those 4 were selected to be included in their “research”, Argentina and Hong Kong. Douglas Fox bragged he had successfully courted Hong Kong branch and was working with them. Bias?

    Odd that Sweden and New Zealand are always held up as the preferred models, yet Amnesty made no effort to compare the outcomes of each.

    Both have been in force for more than 10 years, so they could have talked to women who were in prostitution 10 years ago, or 5 years ago, and asked them what they thought. It would have provided a much better perspective on the overall policy than talking to women in prostitution today.

  • david blane

    I would really like for someone opposed to decriminalisation, who formerly sold sex, to explain how criminalisation would have helped them. Or even someone who *currently* sells sex, although it seems very hard to find any opposed to decriminalisation.

    • Meghan Murphy

      You should look up Trisha Baptie, Bridget Perrier, Natasha Falle, Jackie Lynne, and Rachel Moran.

      • david blane

        Oh I know the names. I’d just love to see an actual argument from any of those people for how criminalisation would have helped them at the time.

        • Tired feminist

          How about “reducing male feeling of entitlement to rape and murder me?”

          How many women will still have to die until male entitlement to women’s bodies qualifies for your precious standards of what an “actual argument” against buying sex should be?

          Fuck off.

        • polina

          I’ll copy the comment by Si Llage, so that you can actually read it.

          “The following quote comes from researchers in Norway who support full
          decriminalization over the Nordic model yet whose own data reveals
          criminalizing john demand reduces the violence johns believe they can
          get away with,

          “Most of the women who said they would seek help to protect against
          violence said that they called or threatened to call the police when
          they found themselves in a dangerous or threatening situation. This
          would often scare the customers, or others, who were acting
          threatening/violent away.” “

          • Meghan Murphy

            Right. When men are criminalized, they know they are already doing something wrong. This puts them in a position of having less power in the transaction — they know that if they become abusive or refuse to pay, the woman can simply call the cops on them just for being a john.

        • Brooks Anderson

          The following passage from Kat Banyard’s tremendous book, Pimp State, quotes Marie, a woman who sold sex in Germany:

          The fact that Germany’s prostitution trade was state-sanc¬tioned was certainly a critical factor in Marie’s decision to enter it. ‘If it hadn’t been legal I wouldn’t have done it,’ she explained to me at her home in Germany. ‘My situation was complicated enough. So I wouldn’t, you know, as I wouldn’t rob an old lady or as I won’t steal at the shop or something like that. I wouldn’t have made this decision if it wouldn’t “have been so easy and legal. I really had wished that it wasn’t legal and the state – we say “father state” in Germany, you know we call the state “the father” – and I really had the wish that the father had protected me from that with a good law.’

    • Tired feminist

      As if 99% of currently prostituted women had any time and energy to write pieces on the internet… But anyway, check:

      • david blane

        That account seems to be learning a lot from @pastachips. Although I’d bet a large amount of money that it’s fake.

    • Marion Wallace

      Literally no one left-of-center is calling for prostituted women to be criminalized.

      “It seems very hard to find any opposed to decriminalization”

      If the only women you listen to are the white Western happy hooker 1% with blogs and twitter accounts whose rhetoric is indistinguishable from that of the pimp lobby, I’m sure this is true. If you read what prostituted women say, and researchers, and those working front lines in trauma counseling, you’ll get a very different story.

      If you have to ask why the law recognizing men buying and selling women as exploitation “helps” women more than turning pimps into “business owners” engaged in legitimate commercial trade, nothing anyone here says will help you.

    • Si Llage

      The following quote comes from researchers in Norway who support full decriminalization over the Nordic model yet whose own data reveals criminalizing john demand reduces the violence johns believe they can get away with,

      “Most of the women who said they would seek help to protect against
      violence said that they called or threatened to call the police when
      they found themselves in a dangerous or threatening situation. This
      would often scare the customers, or others, who were acting
      threatening/violent away.”

      • david blane

        That’s interesting. It certainly suggests the Nordic model is better than the American way. But it’s still worse for women’s safety than decriminalisation, because the methods of staying safe are precisely what’s illegal in Sweden: coworkers are classed as “pimps”, their premises are “brothels”. The Swedish police admit their system isn’t intended to make the workers comfortable. They just don’t get arrested for directly selling sex as in USA.

        • Sam Berg

          Prostitutes in Olso did not report relying on “co-workers” or “brothels” for safety, that is empty conjecture by people who want prostitution legitimized as a business. There are no recorded instances of Olso police harassing any of the prostituted women who spoke with the researchers, which means there is no record of “coworkers” claiming to have been unfairly targeted as pimps.

          Prostituted women in Olso said they threatened violent johns with the police and that de-escalated the johns. They did not threaten violent johns with, “There’s another woman in the room next door so you better stop!”

          Pro Sentret’s report showed that rape is actually higher in brothels than in street prostitution in Oslo.

        • JingFei

          1. Since when are pimps “coworkers”??

    • JingFei

      I was coerced and pressured into the sex industry as a teenager. I was targeted because I was suffering from undiagnosed PTSD and drowning in grief. Every girl I met in it was mentally ill to some degree. None were healthy. One was even schizophrenic. One john beat her and used her for 3 hours ( he was a GOOD john though, he let her have a 5 minute break for gatorade. She was 18, He was 52.). After reading your tone in the other comments, I’m quite certain you truly don’t want to hear what I have to say, but if johns and pimps had been criminalized ( and no, no one is advocating prostitutes be criminalized despite how badly you want to believe that), perhaps the men who coerced me would have feared some consequences. Maybe the johns demanding the youngest teens would have thought twice. Afterall, they have never had any consequences for their actions. I can only imagine how they’d fear a teenage girl having the power to expose them, and send them to jail in a heartbeat. Perhaps after, they would stop seeking the youngest of the young, as teenagers are not much known for being reasonable. If the Nordic model had been in place, I would have had support groups and people to talk to about what was happening to me. Maybe one of those support groups would have helped me. The night I was crying my eyes out, petrified I had contracted a disease, and thought I would rather kill myself, maybe someone would have helped me, looked me in the eyes and recognized I was ill, and swarmed by bottom feeders who wanted to manipulate me and use me up to line their pockets. Maybe there would have been more information out there and education for me on coercion tactics, when to know one is being exploited. The sex work lobby would never allow that and try to proclaim it “discriminates against them”. But in reality, education on just how horrifying prostitution truly is, is just bad for business. We cannot dream of educating young girls the dangers of such a path, we simply must continue hypersexualizing them. It generates billions.
      Now why don’t you tell me why you think decriminalizing pimps and johns, ensuring they have even less consequences for their actions than they do now, and more power over women and children would help anyone but men?

    • Well, I was trafficked as a minor in the ’70s, so I’m not so sure a change in the law back then would have made any difference, because ’70s. But some people did get rape convictions back then, so you never know. I would have liked it if the place that gave me the abortion at age 12 had been required to report it to police AND to keep their records forever instead of shredding them after 5 years, because then I’d have some evidence I could use now. (Reporting is required now, but I think the Morgantaler clinics still only keep records 5 years. I could be wrong about that, though.)

      The main advantage to having the Nordic model back then is it would have made it harder for my “clients” to justify their actions and also increased the chance that someone else would figure it out and report it. (Their assumption was that if they were paying for it, it was fine, because commerce.) Now, even just talking about it gets more people thinking and possibly noticing what’s really going on.

      But you probably only want to hear from people who started as adults. I’m not sure how many of those there are.

    • Raquel Rosario Sánchez

      Hey David Blane, I wanted to add that survivors and people who have been in the sex industry address this issue pretty thoroughly and have been doing so for a very long time, if you actually listen to what it is that they are saying. If you look at some of the links referenced in the page, you will see survivors explaining what the problem with “sex work” as a dominant narrative is and they explain why and how policies asking for the full decriminalization of the sex industry (including the demand side of the industry) would exponentially make matters worse. They also address what they see as alternatives. Many survivors are in favor of the Nordic Model and you’ll find that many are abolitionists, which is the end goal of the nordic model as a public policy.

      They may not use the exact wording that you are looking for or formulate the sentences exactly as you would want them, but if you pay attention you will see that they have been leading these discussions for decades.

      I am thankful that Anemone and JingFei decided to share their experiences and tell you in their own words why this issue is problematic. (Thank you both!) But I would discourage you from trying to discredit or any other survivor as it seems that you have no basis for saying that she is lying.

      But David, since you are willing to bet a “large amount of money” that it is fake, how about you use that money instead and donate it to struggling survivor-led, anti-violence organizations that are doing the work on the ground on this issue? I mean, since you are so passionate about the matter.

  • Hope

    I am really surprised that this simplistic, one very bad man swayed a whole organisation, analysis of the AI vote is thought plausible. Fox may talk himself up as some all pervasive manipulator, but the reality is far worse than that. The AI vote is the consequence of the backlash as women’s liberation feminism, and the increasing stranglehold that queer politics has had in universities. The consequence of which is that the fundamental principle of women’s liberation activism, that women share a common oppression because of the sex they are born, is no longer considered valid. Even if Fox had the power to influence policy, the reality is that people, particularly younger people, now view the world through the queer analysis. It is queer activists who have campaigned (and it is now media policy) to use the phrase “sex work” instead of prostitution. This started back in the 80s and has absolutely nothing to do with a capitalist exploiter of women’s economic discrimination.

    I am really sorry to see such an apolitical article being promoted as feminist. It is not just the war of words that feminists are loosing (eg another queer triumph is the total nonsense of saying sex and gender are the same, when in fact it is about erasing women’s identity) but the political credibility to be listened to.

    This myth about secret consultations is another activist cul de sac. It wasn’t secret to members.

    What is glaring obvious though is the AI having made a lot of public statements about how open and democratic their consultative process was, have not felt obliged to publish the voting figures on this policy. A number of women have asked on their facebook page, but they remain silent.

    It may well be that the vote wasn’t carried, as if some local groups abstained, as well as those who voted against, then it may well have only been passed on a minority pro vote.

    Now that does seem to be a secret.

    • Raquel Rosario Sánchez

      Hello Hope, just wanted to add two things. The first is that the point of the article was not to pin this entire policy on one individual but that we need to look at what and who is informing Amnesty International’s decision making, at the expense of other voices that would have been far more important to have at the tabel, for example the voices of survivors, survivor-led organizations and anti-violence organizations. I think that it is likely that if people like Douglas Fox, with his blatantly misogynist rethoric and background, was able to gain traction within the internal discussions of the organization, other may have been able to do the same.

      The reason why I address this person in particular is because I think it’s necessary to keep front and center the (mostly) men who are running the sex industry and how they are influencing public policy. I agree with your point towards the end that local groups abstaining may have influenced the final result. That being said, I would not share the idea that queer politics it’s to blame for this policy. A queer analysis and “queer politics in the university” did not caused this and if fact, it distracts from the issue at hand which is holding patriarchal power accountable. Amnesty International made a decision that supports an ideology that is detrimental to women and girls. This decision put capitalist interests and the interest of the sex buyers and pimps (who are overwhelmingly men) as a priority over the human rights and well-being of women and girls. It is this that we should focus on.

  • Buzz kill

    Brilliant. thank you big time Raquel Rosario Sanchez

  • Sandy

    Direct quote from Amnesty: “Our policy is not about protecting “pimps”. Third parties that exploit or abuse sex workers will still be criminalized under the model we are proposing.”

    • katherine ochoa

      So why are they talking about protecting the rights of men to buy women in their proposal? Why are they NOT talking about HOW they plan on protecting women, and sex trafficked women specifically. It’s clear to me that they’re putting the victims in the back burner and they’re just saying things like “our policy is not about protecting pimp” to save face.

      • Sandy

        “there are overly broad laws, like those against “brothel keeping” or “promotion” that are often used against sex workers and criminalise actions they take to try and stay safe. For example, in many countries two sex workers working together for safety is considered a “brothel”. Our policy is calling for laws to be re-focused to tackle acts of exploitation, abuse and trafficking – rather than having catch-all offences that criminalize sex workers and endanger their lives.”

        • katherine ochoa

          I already read what they wrote….My issue is that they are more concerned with the privileged sex workers who have a choice (who are the minority) and the Johns (men who buy sex). In their proposal they talk about how men buying women for sexual purposes need it for “health reasons”. I don’t care if they say they care about sex trafficked victims or women who are forced into it due to bad financial situations – from what I see they are putting us in the back burner. If they truly cared we would be their main focus. We’re the background noise in their proposal and we are the majority, and we are the actual victims who need the most help.

  • Thank you so much for this! All the links to external sources and academic research is truly enlightening! Thank you!

  • Anon

    Good analysis. I no longer support AI with monetary contributions. They missed the mark entirely and have adopted a position that ensures that women and girls stay enslaved. I support the Nordic model.

  • Brooks Anderson

    Excellent article.