The pro-prostitution position was recently taken by Amnesty International at a meeting in Dublin, and now people of good will who care about human rights are taking opposing positions on the issue. Dr Annette Lawson OBE, past-VP of the European Women’s Lobby, explains the critical factors causing the division.
First, let’s get the gender bit out of the way – across the world, the vast majority of human beings selling their bodies for money are women; the vast majority of buyers and those who profit from the global sex trade, are men. It is my belief that if you do not put that in front of your eyes, you might think the Amnesty International Position is the one to follow.
So what are the two positions?
Alongside Amnesty, this position, in my opinion, is taken by too many UN agencies and people placing a medical view in pole position. This position says that ‘sex workers’ (the term preferred by many of those currently in the sex business), deserve to have their human rights protected because when women sell their bodies for money, they are working, and this is ‘work, like any other work’. They need to be free to engage in a trades union, have working rights protected and be less stigmatized. They also need access to health care, in particular access to good HIV/AIDS protection and treatment. The position admits that these women are vulnerable, among the poorest on the planet and do the work for money and survival for them and their children/families.
This group does not really talk about the buyers who buy and control what it is the seller must do to satisfy them. Nor do they generally talk about the global sex trade in which they are, by definition, participating.
This group makes a concrete division between trafficking for sexual exploitation, and prostitution; trafficking is not voluntary, but they pose the idea that non-trafficked sex work is a free choice of the person selling and the person buying – i.e. consensual sex between adults.
The abolitionist position
This group does not accept that selling one’s body to satisfy the sexual desires of others is ‘work like any other’. Rather, it is a degrading, last-resort effort by marginalised and poor, often destitute women to earn money. Globally, it leads to girls and women, especially from indigenous, lower caste, and ethnic minority backgrounds being sold into the business of prostitution. Prostitution is an extremely violent system with the women in it exposed to high risks of death and injury, and psychological and social scarring. The average age of death is 34 years old for a woman in prostitution; her chance of being murdered is 51 times higher than a woman working in a liquor store—the most dangerous occupation for a woman when this mortality research was conducted.
Feminists have argued from the beginning that the right of males to access, own, beat, maim and control them is in absolute violation of women and girls as equal human beings. Prostitution cannot continue if gender equality – women’s equality with men – is to be achieved.
On the whole, the women leading this position and telling their stories are survivors of prostitution and do not want to be called ‘(ex-) sex workers’. A few insist on using the word ’prostitute’ because, they say, it is a degrading and appalling activity and needs to be stigmatised. The survivors say that sex workers who are still working in the trade cannot speak of the dissociation they have to engage in to do the ‘work’. They say a woman has to become ‘not there, not in the present’.
This group makes no clear division between trafficking and free choice prostitution except to say that there will always be some who choose to sell their bodies, and when there is trafficking of girls and women that involves kidnapping, removal of passports, forced journeying from one city to another for ‘fresh meat’ to satisfy the customers, we may speak of the extremes of coercion. However, many women become involved in prostitution out of impossible and dangerous situations and may feel at that time it is a good choice, but rarely hold that position for long.
In any event, there is no other answer to the question, ‘why are women and girls trafficked for sexual exploitation?’ than that there is a market for them. If there were no market – no demand – there would be no trafficking, no sellers, no prostitution.
The preferred outcome for the pro-prostitution group would be to decriminalize the whole sex trade between what they call ‘consenting adults’. That is both sellers and buyers should be free to engage with neither side at risk of prosecution or penalty. This position underpins the process that often follows, though it is not necessarily desired by the proponents of this position.
It leads to legalised brothels, registration for access to health care and regulation. It leads to an acceptance of the trade in women’s bodies as lawful, accepted as if men’s right to access women’s bodies as and when they please, requiring the women to perform to their demands and pleasures without regard to the women selling, is now the new gender equality. She wants it. He wants it. Money is exchanged. Fine. The evidence on reduced harm is against this system; the evidence on better health care is mixed.
The abolitionist group wants, like the pro-prostitution group, to see all the sellers de-criminalised, and not penalized for selling their bodies. This recognises the desperation behind much of the ‘choice’. Recognising the needs of the women, this group also want to see access to good, free and high quality health care, plus exit services, training and support for the women wanting/needing to leave.
But, far from decriminalising the buying, they want to see the purchase of women’s bodies – that is, the buying of another human being’s body for sex - made unlawful and to be penalised and become wholly unacceptable. These three aspects form part and parcel of the Nordic Model.
Against the Nordic model, ‘sex workers’ argue they lose their buyers and that it makes prostitution more dangerous. There is no underpinning logic to this because police and social workers in countries with this system are trained to see the women as victims of the buyer and are ready and prepared to intervene on a report by any woman of danger from a client and to offer services to her.
There is evidence from countries that have instituted the Nordic model that danger is not increased. A 2014 study of the Norwegian version of the law concluded it has reduced sex trafficking: street prostitution in Oslo, the country’s capital where 30% of the population lives, decreased by 35-60%. Indoor prostitution decreased by 10-20%. The study found that violence against women did not increase following the law’s enactment—an argument sometimes made by those who oppose demand reduction. Trafficking into those countries is also reduced because they are hostile environments.
However, since the end point of the abolitionists is to see an end to prostitution, this group does, indeed, seek to restrict the demand.
Hence the #EndDemand programme – an alliance led by UK Feminista and many women’s rights organisations. In fact, almost all organisations in the UK working to end and prevent male violence against women and girls (VAWG) support the abolitionist and pro-Nordic model position.
The EndDemand alliance seeks a new Sex Buyers’ law for the UK. Northern Ireland has already taken the first step.