The international trafficking of women has to be resisted at every level. It is all the more disturbing, therefore, that one of the world’s premier human rights organisations, Amnesty International, is under pressure to adopt policies likely to lead to more trafficking, not less. Its governing council, meeting in Dublin, is discussing a proposal for the complete decriminalisation of prostitution, and the repeal of all laws, of whatever kind and in whatever country, that seek to punish those involved in it. That includes the men who buy sex and the women who sell it, as well as those such as pimps and brothel keepers who profit from it. It means, in effect, licensing brothels wherever there is enough demand for the services they provide – and enough women to meet that demand. That gives every incentive to organised gangs to supply a steady flow of such women.
Child prostitution is its most disturbing aspect – and it is notable that research suggests that many adult prostitutes entered the trade when still under age. The British Government, in a mould-breaking partnership with the Catholic Church, is leading the world in the global campaign against trafficking and slavery, and prostitution is at the heart of that. Amnesty would have been a welcome ally.
There is an ideological and a factual fallacy behind the policy that Amnesty is being asked to endorse. The ideological assumption is that people should be free to choose whether to buy or sell sex – that it is a human right. But turning sexual intercourse into a marketable commodity necessarily entails the alienation of a woman from her own sexuality and sexual feelings, in short, from her personal dignity as a woman. Public policy can never condone such an abuse, even if the victims say it is freely chosen.
The factual error behind this proposal is that prostitution offers choice; in fact there is very little. The Amnesty policy document almost admits as much when it calls on governments to “take appropriate measures to realise the economic, social and cultural rights of all people so that no person enters sex work against their will”. Many prostitutes enter the trade to escape from poverty, but are held captive within it because of the poverty that awaits them if they leave. That is only a very limited kind of freedom. It is not the authentic human freedom for which the founders of Amnesty originally campaigned.
The debate is useful, nevertheless, if it draws attention to genuine problems arising from the way the law of most states treats prostitution. The most obvious is that it puts the burden of criminality on the female side of the trade – the more vulnerable and exploitable side. It lets off the customers, almost invariably men, who are exercising their economic power to reduce women’s bodies to objects that can be bought and sold. The so-called Nordic Model, based on practice in Sweden and Norway, reverses that bias. It has advantages and disadvantages that need to be discussed. Amnesty would be performing a useful service if it sponsored such a debate. But there is no sign it has seriously considered doing so.
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