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The WallenThe red light district De Wallen in the Netherlands, where prostitution, pimping and operating a brothel have all been decriminalised. Photo source: Wikipedia | Massimo Catarinella

By Peter Hilton, Global Correspondent for Safeworld. August 2015

*Trigger Warning

Amnesty International's Controversial Stance

In a recent policy statement, Amnesty International has caused outrage amongst many campaign groups by openly stating that it supports the legalisation and regulation of prostitution. The new policy directly and expressly opposes the criminalisation of activities related to the sex industry including the buying and selling of sex.

Proponents of the new policy claim that decriminalising the practice will increase regulation and make the kinds of abuse and exploitation that are rife within the industry easier to police.

This article seeks to examine what Amnesty International’s new policy supports, its efficacy, and whether the outcry by other prominent human rights groups is warranted.

Opposition to Legalisation

There are numerous accounts from women forced into prostitution, such as a girl referring to herself as Blu. At the age of 13, she was forced into prostitution following acts of violence and rape at the hands of an older boy who became her pimp. It is stories such as this which supporters of the new policy point to as evidence that legalisation and greater regulation (such as setting a minimum age of 18, and removing potential 'johns' [men who use prostitutes] from illegitimate and abusive pimps in favour of regulated and licenced brothels) is the most effective way to protect the vulnerable individuals involved in the sex trade.

Those in opposition have come out to claim that openly supporting sex work in this way legitimises the activities of pimps and johns, which are often abusive to women but also include activities related to violence and drug trafficking.

Examples from countries with legalised prostitution such as Germany tend to indicate that the biggest benefactor from legalisation is national governments who stand to profit from taxation, whilst actual prostitutes gain very few rights and virtually none enforce the protections in place for them.

Blu, the girl from the previous example used in support of legalisation and its protections states:

‘I’m told over and over that ‘some women like it’ and that means it should be legal and fine for men to demand sex via pay. I’ve been lectured by women working by choice on how illiberal I am for wanting to see demand for prostitution criminalised. Evidently these women either don’t, or don’t want to, see their privilege – most women in prostitution do NOT have free choice, they don’t have their wishes respected, and no is frequently ignored’.

This kind of overt criticism is echoed by many in, and formerly in, the sex trade.

Current Policies Globally

There are certainly arguments in favour of both approaches to controlling the sex trade, and strong advocates of both methodologies.

Globally, there are a variety of legal approaches to prostitution all of which have arguable levels of effectiveness. Worldwide, 49% of countries have legalised prostitution; these countries include the United Kingdom, Switzerland, and Israel.

Complete illegality is less common at 39% of countries with China, Egypt, and South Korea enforcing a blanket ban on prostitution. The remaining 12% have some form of enforcement on the practice but not a complete prohibition, such as Canada, the United States, and Japan, wherein the latter the act of selling sex is illegal but sexual acts are permitted.

Far fewer countries have fully legalised all activities relating to prostitution, such as pimping and brothel ownership. Countries such as the Netherlands are viewed as a beacon for the new policy put forward by Amnesty as all of these activities are completely legal, and brothels are heavily regulated and licenced by the government.

The Issue of Effective Regulation

The predominate argument in favour of Amnesty’s position is that by legalising all forms of prostitution and activities linked to it, they can more effectively regulate it and ensure that the women at the heart of the sex industry do not face exploitation. It states:

‘This policy is based on the human rights principle that consensual sexual conduct between adults - which excludes acts that involve coercion, deception, threats, or violence - is entitled to protection from state interference (bearing in mind that legitimate restrictions may be imposed on sex work).’

It then goes on to discuss the idea that criminalisation is more likely to lead to harassment and violence against women. There are also claims that criminal sanctions could be used by men to manipulate and control prostitutes, which is often associated with authority figures including the police.

Mimi, a 19-year-old prostitute working in San Francisco, reports the police engaging in lewd and disrespectful conversation such as ‘whether they shave their pussy, the size of their nipples, and how deep they can take it’; this overtly misogynistic and dehumanizing conversation is unfortunately the least of these women's trouble from the police.

In Mimi’s account, many prostitutes actively fear the police, and the article in which it is contained anecdotally references women being physically beaten and kicked in the stomach by police whilst pregnant, as well as obtaining sexual services from the women involved – followed by arresting them and taking their money back. Not only is this grossly inappropriate and rife with nepotism and sexual abuse but from a legal standpoint, it is also entrapment, which arguably should not be able to lead to a criminal prosecution.

A key example of a country in which this has arguably worked is the Netherlands, where prostitution, pimping and operating a brothel have all been decriminalised. The argument is that in decriminalising these institutions by statute, the Dutch government can implement policies that benefit prostitutes and try to protect them from the negative connotations of the industry.

There are numerous protections put in place for sex workers including health and fire safety protocol, mandatory provision of condoms and panic buttons within brothels. It remains a criminal offence to engage in sexual activity with those who have been forced to engage in sex work against their will, whilst those who choose to work have greater legal protection as the brothels must comply with labour laws. Within Amsterdam there are even designated lounges for prostitutes where they can rest, shower, and seek counselling.

The Netherlands has recently cracked down on a number of its licenced brothels in an attempt to prevent organised crime becoming prevalent within Amsterdam’s infamous ‘red light district’. The Netherlands is to refuse to re-licence over 30 brothels which constitutes a third of Amsterdam’s sex industry establishment, which will no doubt be seen by those in favour of Amnesty’s policy as evidence that legalisation and regulation can work.

However, conversely, there have been calls from many members of Dutch political parties to increase restriction particularly in relation to men who are visiting prostitutes forced to work against their will; the fact this is necessary implies legalisation may not be the most effective method as there are still women in need and the existing provision is not proving sufficiently effective.

A Victim of Legalisation

In relation to the contrasting arguments between legalisation and criminalisation is an illustrative profile of Lilly.

She was 18 when she began working in a brothel in New Zealand, in the same year the practice was made legal there. She came from an extremely unstable background featuring domestic and sexual abuse at the hands of her step-father, whilst her actual father had 21 other children with nine different women.

She talks of how she would never have entered the sex industry if it were illegal and how she only began as a means to get funding for her education and to escape an abusive relationship. She speaks of an initial feeling of empowerment that came with the money, but at the abuse of the hands of other girls who would try to rob her or at men for attempting to refuse to pay or steal the money back from her. Further to this, as she grew older her self-esteem declined and she states:

‘I didn’t realise how fast time was slipping by. When I look back I know I've wasted seven years of my life. I can only see negatives’.

She also remarks on legality in New Zealand claiming:

‘With prostitution legal, I feel like it's easier to enter into prostitution and more difficult to exit. I think that underage prostitution has increased, and I saw more families prostituting together’.

Finally, she surmises that to end the practice of prostitution the most effective method is to target the buyers, whilst simultaneously educating girls and addressing the issues of abuse and poverty that make many turn to prostitution.

Criticisms of Amnesty International's Policy

It is stories such as this which mean that despite the number of protections put in place in locations with legalised prostitution such as Amsterdam, the outcry against Amnesty has been extensive. A letter publicly opposing the policy has gained the signatures of 400 advocates and organisations the most notable of whom include Anne Hathaway, Kate Winslet, Lena Dunham, and Meryl Streep.

Those who oppose Amnesty’s policy present a number of arguments opposed to it, including the idea that it legitimises the violence of johns within sadomasochistic practices which can lead to serious mental health implications of the women involved, as well as claiming that legalisation reduces the obligations on governments by simply allowing them to do the minimum required to protect the basic safety of the women. The latter of these arguments claims that provision of condoms and basic facilities for women is not sufficient, and that legalisation absolves governments of needs to provide further and more effective protections.

There are extreme situations in countries such as Indonesia where prostitution is completely legal and barely addressed by the law at all, including the extremely high numbers of child sex workers and proliferation of organised paedophile rings. Although this is in no way what Amnesty is suggesting, it is an example of why a policy of blanket legalisation can be disastrous for the most vulnerable in society.

Much of the outrage comes from the desire to completely decriminalise the sex industry purported by Amnesty whereas many believe a system which decriminalises the act of selling sex whilst prosecuting pimps and johns would be the most effective. This is the policy adopted in many countries including Switzerland and the UK.

In Switzerland, prostitution is legal as is brothel ownership; this allows a greater freedom for women but provides a preventative measure against pimps and others who seek to exploit the women. However, similar measures in the UK have come under criticism as plans to prosecute men who engage in sex with prostitutes under the influence of others, i.e. pimps, would be too difficult to police.

Public Statement from Prostitutes

SPACE (Survivors of Prostitution-Abuse Calling for Enlightenment ) are a group of former prostitutes who have composed a public statement in opposition to Amnesty’s policy stating:

‘We know, through the experiences of our own lives, that the Sex-Trade is a damaging, dehumanising and demeaning system of exploitation which should *never* be decriminalised. We support and endorse the Swedish Model, which decriminalises only the exploited person in a prostitution exchange’.

This clearly endorses a mixed model of criminalisation which highlights the protection of women. SPACE, which arguably represents the views of many prostitutes with members in several countries, is vehemently opposed to Amnesty’s policy, claiming AI's policy seeks to protect the men gaining sexually and financially from the vulnerable as well as completely ignoring the suffering and desperation which often drives women in to the sex trade.

Women's Empowerment and Safety is Crucial

Overall, it is an immensely complicated issue and the risks to women are apparent. Any solution must promote the empowerment of women whilst simultaneously implementing protections to try and reduce the violence and harassment of the vulnerable women who are often exploited as a result of the sex industry.

The current rate of homicides per 100,000 female prostitutes in the USA is 204, which is a drastically high figure. Faced with statistics like this, it is evident that a united policy must be adopted, taking into account the opinions of the women involved within the sex trade to present a pragmatic approach to protecting the interests of the most vulnerable.


Prostitution Pro-Con.Org – Netherlands Policy

Prostitution Pro-Con.Org

SPACE International