On Aug. 11, the human-rights organization Amnesty International voted at its International Council Meeting to adopt a policy that supports the full decriminalization of all aspects of prostitution, including both selling and buying sex. This was very unfortunate. While decriminalizing individuals who sell sex is essential to increase the protection of prostituted people’s human rights, making it easier to buy sex risks having the exact opposite effect.
There are important reasons why it is a gigantic misstep for Amnesty to advocate for the decriminalization of sex buyers. First, the empirical evidence of potential benefits from making it permissible to purchase sex is weak while the costs may be enormous. New Zealand decriminalized prostitution in 2003 and yet the country’s Prostitution Law Review Committee found in its evaluation that a majority of prostituted persons felt that the decriminalization act “could do little about violence [in prostitution].” At the same time, several studies have found that countries where buying sex is decriminalized, sex trafficking is more prevalent.
Second, decriminalizing buying sex seems to be at odds with Amnesty’s core objectives. One of the reasons that there are so many of us who have strongly supported Amnesty for years is the organization’s steadfast commitment to the fundamental rights of individuals, whether they are refugees, prisoners of conscience, or victims of torture. But buying sex is not a human right.
Instead of adopting a harmful proposal, Amnesty should have learned from Sweden’s prostitution policies. In 1999, Sweden made it illegal to buy sexual services, but not to sell them – an approach that is now often called “the Swedish model.” The ingenuity of the Swedish model is that it protects those who are most vulnerable from being arrested and prosecuted. Nobody is forced to buy sex. But many individuals are coerced, deceived or threatened into selling sex.