If Amnesty truly cared about ending trafficking they’d care about ending demand

An Amnesty International anti-trafficking poster.
An Amnesty International anti-trafficking campaign poster.

I’m going to hazard a guess and say that most people reading this do not believe that men are entitled to access women’s bodies for the purposes of their sexual gratification either by coercion or violence. I had a great deal more faith in the popularity of that proposition before Amnesty International adopted a policy advocating the decriminalization of pimps and johns last week, but my bet is that even in the face of that policy AI itself would at least pay lip service to it. The reason I say that is because even AI states that it sanctions only “voluntary” and not “involuntary” prostitution.

Sex work [sic] involves a contractual arrangement wherein sexual services are negotiated between consenting adults, with the terms of engagement agreed upon between the seller and the buyer of sexual services. By definition, “sex work” means that “sex workers” who are engaging in commercial sex have consented to do so, (that is, are choosing voluntarily to do so), making it distinct from trafficking.

If these volunteers for the sex trade exist, who are they, where are they, and does it matter? Beyond that, how does “protecting” them by decriminalizing the men who use their sexual services involve any risk to non-volunteers?

Globally, women live in a political, social, economic context dominated by racist patriarchal capitalism — a system that is, by definition, structurally racist, sexist, and classist. Voluntarism is an extremely troubled concept for the oppressed and exploited and women are, by definition, all oppressed and exploited. When women are also brown and black and Indigenous and poor, that oppression and exploitation takes place along more than one intersecting axis. This reality makes the whole notion of “volunteers” in the sex trade and “consent” to a commercial transaction for sex suspect from the outset.

Forget about feminist analysis just for a moment and look at how contract law — accepted in most of the Western world, in this case the United States of America — looks at the issue of consent to a transaction. Chunlin Leonhard explains:

“The volition requirement of consent ‘requires conditions free of coercion and undue influence.’ Coercion occurs when one person threatens to harm the other person in order to obtain consent. ‘Undue influence, by contrast, occurs through an offer of an excessive, unwarranted, inappropriate or improper reward or other overture in order to obtain compliance.’ Additionally, ‘inducements that would ordinarily be acceptable may become undue influences if the subject is especially vulnerable.’”

We are asked, through the rhetoric of “sex work,” to accept that there exists a large number of women around the world who are adults, who have not been coerced by violence or threats of violence, and who have made and continue to make choices sufficiently free of coercion and undue influence. This is meant to convince us that these women’s experiences meet some kind of standard (admittedly vague) that validates their consent to sex with men who are strangers to them, who pay them, sometimes very well, sometimes not very well at all, for sexual servicing. The coercion represented by poverty does not, apparently, count within this rationale, given that most women prostitute themselves for the money, again, by definition. The coercion represented by racism and sexism is excluded from this view of “consent” as well.

Amnesty International, like many of the groups formed by “sex workers,” pimps, and johns, has based its decision on an idealist, liberal, capitalist notion of autonomy, individual freedom (including freedom of contract), freedom from coercion, duress, and undue influence that simply does not apply to the oppressed and exploited people of the world, never mind women. This should be no surprise to us — AI is and always has been an idealist, liberal, capitalist organization, as are many of the world’s NGOs — take the Gates Foundation just for another instance.

To say that the conditions for this kind of individual autonomy and freedom to choose do not exist for most prostituted women in the world does not infantilize us as so many claim, but it does indicate that, for material reasons, we ought to be subjects of concern and efforts to protect us from the ravages of racist patriarchal capitalism. But there! I’m using words AI (and many others) would not accept in the first place. So where do we go from here in our efforts to convince people with some remaining goodwill towards women that AI’s adoption of a policy advocating the decriminalization of pimps and johns will not benefit, but will harm, women?

I think the answer lies in the commitment of Amnesty International and of most people (I hope) to stop the outright kidnapping of women into the form of prostitution known as trafficking, as well as to a general commitment to protect underage women from systems of sexual slavery. For without the support and collusion of states around the world, NGOs captured by them and by capitalist interests and by male pimps and johns for the sex industry, trafficking of women and girls would not be the problem it is. That’s because the number of “volunteers” for the sex trade will always be outstripped by demand until serious steps are taken to end, or at least discourage, that demand.

Let’s say — come on, do it — that there exists in the world some group of women who are sufficiently relieved of the realities of racist patriarchal capitalism, sufficiently autonomous and free, that they are able to volunteer for prostitution in a way sufficiently free from coercion, duress, and undue influence, that they can be said to be volunteers for prostitution. (Let’s do it for a moment even though we have evidence to suggest that certain male “human” rights advocates think that poor women are among them… As Human Rights Watch CEO Ken Roth said recently, “All want to end poverty, but in meantime why deny poor women the option of voluntary sex work?”)

What is the problem with that, even in Amnesty’s own terms? The problem is that the demand for prostituted women outstrips the supply. There simply are not enough volunteers for the sex trade to satisfy the demand, even in countries where all aspects of prostitution are legal.

Take Amsterdam.

Its sex industry brings in over 500 million Euros annually, of which the government receives a proportion through taxation. Jobs in brothels are advertised in job centres, and the first “naked gym” opened in 2011.

But apparently, not many Dutch women want to work in the sex trade, as evidenced by the fact that most prostituted women are not Dutch. The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATWA) has estimated that the number of women working in the sex trade in Amsterdam is about 30,000. But hey, let’s use the Dutch government’s numbers and say it’s between 20,000 and 25,000. The number of women from outside the Netherlands working in the industry is anywhere from 60 per cent to 80 per cent. At best, pimps have been unable to entice more than 40 per cent of Dutch women to “volunteer” for the Amsterdam trade and it’s likely fewer than that… The remaining women are from 44 different countries but mostly, since the fall of the Berlin Wall, they are from Bulgaria, Romania, the Czech Republic, and Poland. It’s estimated that anywhere from 1,000 to 7,000 of those women and girls are trafficked. Not only that, but many of those engaged in the sex trade are children:

“The Amsterdam-based ChildRight organization estimates that the number has gone from 4,000 children in 1996 to 15,000 in 2001. The group estimates that at least 5,000 of the children in prostitution are from other countries, with a large segment being Nigerian girls.”

Check out Germany, where all aspects of prostitution are legal. And guess what? Most German women don’t want to volunteer either. Once again, at least two-thirds of women engaged in the sex industry are from overseas. Of course, because they’re from overseas doesn’t necessarily mean that they have been trafficked but it increases the possibility. Statistics on the actual numbers of women and girls subject to trafficking for sexual exploitation are notoriously difficult to come by due to low rates of prosecution (in part, due to the fact that legalized prostitution makes it difficult to distinguish the volunteers from the detainees). Not only that but decriminalizing pimps and johns makes it much more difficult to catch the traffickers because law enforcement officers cannot gain access to brothels. Even if the women and girls set to “work” there have been trafficked — except where there age is an obvious issue — they are increasingly unlikely to volunteer the information that they are not there of their own “free will” because that’s the nature of being controlled by a pimp. Beyond that, the trade in women and girls is growing exponentially, all but overwhelming the limited ability of law enforcement to keep up with it.

“According to a report on human trafficking recently presented by European Commissioner for Home Affairs Cecilia Malmström, there are more than 23,600 victims in the EU and two-thirds of them are exploited sexually. Malmström, from Sweden, sees indications that criminal gangs are expanding their operations. Nevertheless, she says, the number of convictions is declining because police are overwhelmed in their efforts to combat trafficking.” [via SPIEGAL]

Further, it’s no accident that the countries that trafficked women and girls (and even “volunteers”) come from are those that are undergoing catastrophic levels of socioeconomic and political disaster. But hey, Amnesty International thinks those are the very women and girls whose right to volunteer for the sex trade should be protected. Ahhh contradictions.

Costs to traffickers

Surely this brief overview leads inevitably to the conclusion that there simply are not enough volunteers amongst the women of the world to satisfy the apparently insatiable (and encouraged) desire of some men for sexual gratification at any cost and with no regard for the sexual desire of the women themselves (for prostitution has nothing to do with women’s sexual desires). Once sex becomes a multi-billion dollar a year commercial transaction, with males as the providers and the payors of women and girls, the only kind of desire left to women is the desire to earn a living or, indeed, just survive.

Given the dearth of volunteers among women and the necessity to create a multi-billion dollar a year industry in trafficked women to satisfy male demand, surely it is obvious that the problem is, you got it, male demand. There is every reason to believe that doing nothing to curb demand is tantamount to giving social consent to the sexual enslavement of hundreds of thousands of female non-volunteers.

The criminalization of pimps and johns will not completely end the problem. No one is so naive as to suggest that. Only the end of patriarchal capitalism and its replacement with a socioeconomic system that values the lives of all people, above all else, regardless of race, sex, or economic status can possibly do that. Feminists who recommend the criminalization of those who sell women and those who buy them understand full well that criminal sanction provides only a flimsy bulwark between their bodies and the force of brute patriarchy. Those of us who have worked for decades in law and public policy on all the issues related to male violence against women are only too aware that, even in those places where we have good law and policy on the books, the rates of reporting, investigation, charging, prosecution, and conviction of men who violate women are pathetic. We continue to work on all those fronts with the full awareness that criminal law, on its own, will never make us safe. But it cannot be seriously suggested that those meagre protections should be denied.

We work to apply pressure upon the actors and systems responsible for our protection and the punishment of those males who threaten our bodily integrity daily. No less than that is required to combat the scourge of female sexual servitude. No less than the criminalization of male demand for access to our bodies, no matter the quality of our consent. I demand that much.

Elizabeth Pickett is an internet-based feminist freedom fighter, a mother and grandmother, a blogger, and a poet, seething in Whitby, Ontario. Her website is The Final Wave. Follow her @ElizPickett.


Guest Writer

One of Feminist Current's amazing guest writers.