The Stream discusses Amnesty International’s new prostitution policy

Yesterday, Al Jazeera’s online TV show, The Stream, featured a segment about Amnesty International’s decision to adopt a policy that supports the full decriminalization and/or legalization of prostitution.

The show featured Catherine Murphy, Policy Advisor at Amnesty International, Maxine Doogan, President of the Erotic Service Provider Legal, Educational, and Research Project, and Simone Watson, Director of the Nordic Model in Australia Coalition and an exited prostitute.

The host, Femi Oke, began by asking Doogan how decriminalization would have made her life or the life of her “colleagues” better. As we’ve come to expect from media (and thanks to the manipulative advocacy of sex work advocates), the host failed to make clear that, in fact, what we are talking about cannot be simply presented as “decriminalization vs. criminalization.” The conversation and the feminist critique of Amnesty’s decision is not about whether or not to decriminalize prostituted people, but whether or not to decriminalize pimps and johns, which effectively made all of Doogan’s responses irrelevant, in terms of this debate.

Nonetheless, Doogan was allowed to go on about how criminalization of “sex workers” is  bad thing.

She discussed the difficulties of approaching the police when in need of assistance under a criminalized regime, which is something advocates of legalization often reference while failing to acknowledge that the Nordic model addresses just that. But when your argument hinges on this convenient angle, it’s hard to avoid. As such, Doogan argued that women in the industry are treated badly by the police when they are criminalized… which is true! But it is also true that the Nordic model is the only model that makes reeducating the police so that they treat prostituted women with respect and kindness a priority.

The hosts didn’t interrupt Doogan or challenge this framing, and went on to ask Watson to respond to tweets arguing for the full decriminalization of the industry based on the same pointless and misrepresentative arguments:

Watson is forced to reiterate the obvious: “With the Nordic model, that’s a given.” She goes on to explain that if you’re selling sex under the Nordic model, “you’re not doing anything illegal and you have access to the police.” Watson also makes clear that she agrees with Doogan in that police should not be harassing anyone who sells sex, calling said harassment “reprehensible” and saying that “the stigma should not be laid on us but on those who buy and sell us.”

“The issue for me,” she says, “is that this is not decriminalizing prostituted people, this is decriminalizing pimping and buying.”

Murphy is asked is explain how “decriminalization” works and immediately repeats Amnesty’s claim that laws against exploitation remain intact when pimps and johns are decriminalized and that “coercing anyone, forcing anyone — any kind of coercive action in a decriminalized system needs to still be a crime.” How she plans on tracking down women who are exploited under a legalized regime isn’t addressed, likely because it’s mostly impossible to criminalize exploitation when you’ve decriminalized the act of exploiting desperate women.

“The issue that Amnesty International has with the Nordic model,” Murphy says, “is that under the Nordic model sex workers are still criminalized in a number of ways.” A funny thing to claim when surely she is aware, what with all the research Amnesty did, that it is actually a legalized model that leaves prostituted women criminalized and subject to harassment by police.

But she sticks to the same rhetoric pushed by all of those who wish to avoid addressing the actual goals and impacts of the Nordic model: “Under sex work law, it is not just the direct sale of sex which criminalizes sex workers; it’s also laws on organizing sex work, on living off the earnings of sex work, brothel-keeping, soliciting… In some parts of the world ‘manifesting prostitution’ — so just looking like a sex worker — is a crime.” Murphy then goes on to claim that laws against living off the avails and promoting prostitution are used against “sex workers.”

Now, if Murphy has defined pimps as sex workers then yes, she is right about the laws against living off the avails and brothel-keeping. (But no, no one is criminalized for “looking like a sex worker” under the Nordic model, that’s ridiculous.) And this is, of course, part of the problem and the strategy of sex work advocates. They’ve redefined “sex worker” to include pimps and brothel managers in order to argue that “sex workers” are still criminalized under the Nordic model all the while ignoring the fact that under legalization, the most marginalized women (who are actual prostitutes) are the ones “forced underground,” criminalized, and exploited — that thing Amnesty has feigned concern about.

Murphy seems to have missed the point, so Watson responds: “I don’t think that people should be living off the earnings of other people’s prostitution.” She adds, “You can couch that in as much anti-discrimination rhetoric as you like, but if people are profiting from it and governments are taxing it, then to me that’s a violation of human rights and quite reprehensible.”

Watson goes on to say that she’s spoken to sisters in Sweden and Norway who confirm that harassment and violence has decreased, women are more likely to go to the police, and buyers are more careful about how they treat prostituted women seeing as they are already doing something illegal.

The other host, Malika Bilal, responds with the following tweets (here you’ll see the sole tweet featured that came from an abolitionist):

Murphy responds by saying that if you want to reduce the number of people in the industry, it’s more complicated than simply changing the laws. That is to say you have to look at things like social safety nets, employment options, ensuring women don’t have criminal records so that they can leave the industry, etc. “The idea that the criminal law is a silver bullet which can reduce sex work is a mistake.”

Of course, abolitionists agree with Murphy’s concerns, but her arguments, again, misrepresent the goals of the Nordic model, which is not simply about criminal law. Rather it is about social safety nets, education, and employment options. Certainly it is a priority for advocates to ensure women don’t have criminal records so that they can leave the industry and get other jobs. I mean, the last thing anyone thinks is that the criminal law is a silver bullet. Abolishing the sex industry is a long and complex process that involves changing people’s views, social structures, and values as well as ensuring that men are held accountable for buying sex and exploiting women.

Murphy claims that the Nordic model “simplifies a very complex issue,” but it seems as though those who argue “sex work” will magically become “safer” if you simply decriminalize the entire industry, leaving it to the whims of the market, are the ones who are oversimplifying.

While Watson and many others have pointed out that we need a “huge allocation of funds” in order for the Nordic model to be effective, advocates for the full decriminalization of the industry have demanded nothing from the state aside from a hands off attitude towards the sex industry.

The hosts continue to show more antagonistic and misleading tweets, conveying a bias that’s difficult to ignore at this point:

Watson points out that these claims simply aren’t true and points out that countries that have adopted the Nordic model are also those that rate highest on gender equality throughout the world.

At this point Oke becomes frustrated that Watson continues to use research to back up her arguments and asks her to focus on her personal experience. Immediately after saying this, she turns to Murphy and asks her to tell her about the research Amnesty did.

After explaining what Amnesty found, Watson counters with research that shows that, for example, decriminalization in New Zealand has only resulted in an increase in illegal prostitution and violence, and the host interrupts her again.

“I realize people are asking me not to talk about research, but they’re quoting research at me,” Watson responds. “The research done by Amnesty International is about as unbiased as a mining company’s impact report.”

“The research they got was sent out in the form of questionnaires to brothel owners who call themselves sex workers,” she says. You can barely hear Watson as the host talks over her, but at this point she points out that Doogan herself has a conviction against her for running an escort service. So while she calls herself a “sex worker,” she’s actually in a management position.

While Bilal acknowledges that responses online are “split down the middle” in terms of the debate, the show was obviously biased both in terms of guests as well as in terms of the comments and tweets they featured throughout the show, which were almost wholly in favour of Amnesty’s position.

Beyond that, it strikes me as a little condescending to have a guest on who is an exited prostitute, but ask her only to discuss her personal experience, as though she isn’t qualified to talk about the research. But if their intent really was to limit Watson’s input to her personal experiences in the industry for whatever reason, they should have invited another guest on to speak about the research challenging Amnesty’s position.


Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist from Vancouver, BC. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including The Spectator, UnHerd, Quillette, the CBC, New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and is now exiled in Mexico with her very photogenic dog.