Submission to Amnesty International’s Global Policy Consultation on Sex Work

March 2014

  1. About the End Violence Against Women Coalition

End Violence Against Women (EVAW) is a UK-wide coalition (1) of women’s organisations, frontline service providers, survivors, human rights organisations, academics and activists who came together in 2005 to campaign for strategic approaches to all forms of violence against women and girls in the UK. We work to the UN definition of violence against women and girls (VAWG) as “violence directed at a woman because she is a woman or acts of violence which are suffered disproportionately by women”. (2)

Our members campaigned successfully for the Westminster, London and Wales Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) strategies and we run a network of experts on preventing VAWG. We campaign to end the prejudicial and sexist treatment of women across the media, and gave evidence to the Leveson Inquiry in 2012 with other women’s groups.

We are proud that Amnesty UK was a founding member of EVAW during the global Stop Violence Against Women campaign. We are grateful to Amnesty UK for providing us with the opportunity to respond to their consultation on a proposed ‘sex work’ policy and we hope that this is helpful in formulating such a policy. This response is from the EVAW Board and has been prepared by Dr Maddy Coy. (3)

  1. Starting points

EVAW supports the ‘Nordic Model’ of tackling the harms of prostitution and unequivocally supports the decriminalisation of those who sell sex, in order that support, including sexual and reproductive health care, can be legally and efficiently provided and security and dignity protected. Addressing the safety of women who sell sex is essential. As women involved in prostitution experience disproportionately high levels of sexual and physical violence and emotional abuse, specialised support services must be available and adequately resourced. Enabling women to leave prostitution is also crucial; one global study of 854 people in prostitution found that 89 per cent wanted to stop selling sex, but had no way of doing so. (4) UK research has also highlighted the importance of specialist support in creating options for women to exit prostitution. (5)

However, decriminalising the prostitution system, including the purchase of sexual acts, does not protect women’s human rights. The prostitution system as an institution of inequality and violence against women is incompatible with human rights, and is indefensible in the context of human rights provisions and values. Our submission is not based on a moralistic approach, but concerns human rights and particularly the human rights of women.

  • The prostitution system as cause and consequence of gender inequality

We consider the understanding that the prostitution system comprises ‘the selling and buying of consensual sex between two adults’ to be a flawed premise. Prostitution is not a myriad of individual acts of transactional sex. It is a highly organised industry, and the reality of that industry globally is that men are overwhelmingly the majority of those who buy sexual acts, and women and girls those whose bodies are bought. It is not an exchange between ‘similarly situated individuals who are making complementary choices: one to buy sex and the other to sell it’. (6)

Prostitution is a reminder of continuing inequalities between women and men: the gender pay gap; the sexualisation of female bodies in popular culture; histories of violence and abuse in both childhood and adulthood that underpin many women’s entry into the sex industry. The persistence of these economic and social inequalities around the globe is well documented in a wealth of research. Together these layers of disadvantage experienced by women mean that so-called ‘free’ choices – ‘consensual’ choices – in prostitution are actually decisions made in conditions of already existing inequality and discrimination. Women’s choices should not be measured simply by where they end up (in prostitution), but by the circumstances in which these choices must be made. Choices made in conditions of being unequal cannot be considered ‘free’. Recognising the discrimination and inequality of the system of prostitution means that it can be viewed as a violation of women’s human rights because it is built on and perpetuates women’s social, economic and cultural inferiority to men. Accepting the inevitability of prostitution means accepting the fiction that it is natural for men to buy access to women and children’s bodies for sexual release. The longevity of the institutions of prostitution should not be confused with inevitability. As the great liberal writer John Stuart Mill recognised 150 years ago, prostitution is not a profession but a system of violence and inequality, which is analogous to slavery, and is sustained by the acceptance of male sexual entitlement as natural. (7)

Decriminalising, and thus legitimising, the purchase of access to women’s bodies sends a powerful social message to women and girls that they are sexual commodities. The consequences of such a move affect the status of all women and girls.

  • Prostitution and human rights

The recent resolution adopted by the European Parliament on sexual exploitation and prostitution and its impact on gender inequality (8) drew on a number of human rights instruments. This resolution called on member states to recognise prostitution as cause and consequence of gender inequality and a violation of women’s human rights. It echoed an earlier European Parliament resolution which rejected the idea that ‘working as a prostitute can be equated with doing a job’. (9)

One of the earliest human rights formulations also recognised prostitution as problematic; the 1949 United Nations Convention on ‘the Suppression of the Trafficking in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others’ states that ‘prostitution and the accompanying evil of the traffic in persons for the purpose of prostitution are incompatible with the dignity and worth of the human person and endanger the welfare of the individual, the family and the community. (10) This therefore defines prostitution as incompatible with the UN Declaration of Human Rights 1948 which guarantees human dignity and integrity to all.

More recent human rights approaches refer to trafficking and ‘forced’ prostitution, but as many have argued, ‘force’ need not be coercion from a third party, but can also describe a lack of alternative means to support oneself and family. Article 6 of UN General Recommendation 19 on Violence Against Women recognises that poverty and unemployment ‘force many women, including young girls, into prostitution’. (11) If force or coercion can be exercised as conditions of poverty and unemployment, which disproportionately affect women and girls throughout the world, then gender inequality itself can be described as ‘force’. This cannot be described as ‘consent’ to sell sexual services. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Trafficking pointed this out in noting that ‘it is rare that one finds a case in which the path to prostitution and/or a person’s experience does not involve, at the very least an abuse of power and/or an abuse of vulnerability. Power and vulnerability in this context must be understood to include power disparities based on gender, race, ethnicity and poverty’. (12)

Intersecting inequalities of gender and race/ethnicity are also hugely significant in women’s entry into, and experiences of, the prostitution system. Studies consistently demonstrate the over-representation of women and girls from minority communities in the prostitution system and particularly in its most abusive contexts. (13) The Aboriginal Women’s Action Network on Prostitution in Canada has led a high profile campaign against proposals to decriminalise prostitution on the basis that disparities in socio-economic resources which make selling sex a gendered survival strategy are deepened for indigenous women. (14) Decriminalising the buying of sexual acts, which serves to legitimise the sex industry, fails to acknowledge these contexts of inequality that mean limited economic options – poverty and unemployment – disproportionately affect women of colour. In addition, racist stereotyping in the sex industry is pervasive.

Article 8 of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and Article 6 of the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (DEVAW) both require states to combat and suppress ‘all forms of traffic in women and exploitation of the prostitution of others’. While ‘exploitation of prostitution’ is not ‘prostitution’, those who exploit the circumstances which put women in prostitution (e.g. poverty, discrimination and abuse) are those who buy sexual acts, whose demand fuels the global sex industry. (15) Sweden, where the purchase of sexual services is criminalised on the basis that prostitution is incompatible with gender equality and the integrity of the person, describe their model as evidence of compliance with Article 6 obligations. The CEDAW committee have also applied this interpretation. (16)

Furthermore, commentary from the Committee on Articles 2 and 3 of General Recommendation 19 state that ‘attitudes by which women are regarded as subordinate to men or as having stereotyped roles contribute to the propagation of pornography and the depiction and other commercial exploitation of women as sexual objects, rather than as individuals’.17 Here again is an explicit link in a human rights framing which makes it clear that the depersonalisation of women both in the prostitution system and in each commercial sex encounter18 violates women’s human rights.

There is a great deal of evidence about the multiple harms that women who sell sex experience: sexual and physical violence; increased likelihood of murder; negative impacts on sexual, mental and physical health from living with risk, threats and the actuality of violence, including post-traumatic stress disorder; problematic substance misuse as a psychological survival tactic. (19) Given this evidence, and the gendered asymmetry of the sex industry, it is possible to view prostitution as meeting the definition of violence against women in the 1993 Vienna Declaration, as ‘gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women’. (20) In CEDAW’s formulation, such gender- based violence is a form of discrimination that ‘impairs or nullifies the enjoyment by women of human rights and fundamental freedoms under general international law or under human rights conventions’. (21) This places Amnesty International’s proposal at direct odds with international human rights obligations on violence against women and tackling gender discrimination and inequality.

Research also shows that significant proportions of those in the prostitution system were under the age of 18 at entry. (22) Young people are not exploited in separate sex markets to those of adult women, but within the same ones, specially where youth is eroticised and valued either as an aesthetic ideal and/or as a misguided ‘cure’ for HIV. Thus any approach which normalises prostitution and leads to an increase in sex markets is likely to be counter to obligations under the Conventions on the Rights of Child, which requires State parties ‘to protect the child from all forms of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse.’ (23)

In addition to these binding obligations, there are other precedents under which the prostitution system can be viewed as a violation of human rights.

  • The Declaration and World Plan of Action adopted by the first world women’s conference held at Mexico City in 1975 called on women all over the world to unite to eliminate sexual violence and prostitution as well as other violations of the human rights of women. (24)
  • Addressing demand

The approach of abolishing prostitution through addressing the demand for commercial sex is enshrined in a number of human rights protocols, e.g.:

  •  Strategic objective d.3 of the Beijing Platform for Action requires states to ‘take appropriate measures to address the root factors, including external factors, that encourage trafficking in women and girls for prostitution and other forms of commercialized sex’. (25)
  •  Article 9 of the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children (The Palermo Protocol) requires States Parties to ‘adopt or strengthen legislative or other measures, such as educational, social or cultural measures, including through bilateral and multilateral cooperation, to discourage the demand that fosters all forms of exploitation of persons, especially women and children, that leads to trafficking’.
  •  The UN Recommended Principles on Human Rights and Human Trafficking (2002) specify that ‘strategies aimed at preventing trafficking shall address demand as a root cause of trafficking’. (26)

Decriminalising the purchase of sexual services will not only weaken imperatives to discourage demand, but research shows that ‘legalising prostitution will therefore almost invariably increase demand for prostitution’. Attitudes shift where the purchase of sexual acts is criminalised, with surveys in Sweden for example consistently showing that a large majority of both men and women now think that the purchase of sexual acts is unacceptable. (27) Law is a powerful tool in defining and changing what is, and is not, socially acceptable behaviour.

Finally, there is universal consensus that trafficking is a grave violation of human rights. Systematic research that examined prostitution policy regimes and patterns of trafficking concluded that legalisation ‘leads to an expansion of the prostitution market and thus an increase in human trafficking’; ‘on average countries where prostitution is legal, experience larger reported human trafficking inflows.’ (28) In contrast, countries where the purchase of sexual acts has been criminalised have seen sex markets shrink, and trafficking reduced. (29)  Amnesty’s proposed approach to prostitution is also therefore at odds with binding human rights obligations to tackle trafficking for sexual exploitation.

We reiterate here that we wish to see the decriminalisation of those who sell sex, but support measures that criminalise others in the prostitution system: those who exploit including the buyers of sexual acts.

1. Members include Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit, Object, Rape Crisis England and Wales, Amnesty UK, Women’s Institute, Imkaan, Women’s Aid, Eaves, Zero Tolerance, Equality Now, Fawcett, Platform 51, Respect, Refuge, Rights of Women, TUC and others.

2 Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, General Recommendation No. 19 (eleventh session, 1992).

3 We are also grateful to Dr Helen Pringle, University of South Wales, for contributing.

4 Farley, M, Cotton, A, Lynne, J, Zumbeck, S, Spiwak, F, Reyes, M.E., Alvarez, D & Sezgin, U. (2003) Prostitution and trafficking in nine countries: Update on violence and posttraumatic stress Journal of Trauma Practice 2(3/4):33–74

5 Bindel, J, Brown, L, Easton, H, Matthews, R & Reynolds, L. (2013) Breaking down the barriers: A study of how women exit prostitution London: Eaves and London South Bank University (LSBU)

6 Leidholdt, D. (1993) Prostitution: A Violation of Women’s Human Rights Cardozo Women’s’ Law Journal 1993-1994: 133

7 Pringle, H. (forthcoming 2014) ‘Equality of Rights in Civil Life: Mill and the Prostitution of Women’ in Biswas, S. & Mallick, S. (eds) De-Coding the Silence! Reading John Stuart Mill’s the Subjection of Women Jaipur: AADI Publishers; McGlynn, C. (2012) John Stuart Mill on Prostitution: Radical Sentiments, Liberal Proscriptions Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies 8(2)

8 European Parliament resolution of 26 February 2014 on sexual exploitation and prostitution and its impact on gender equality (2013/2103(INI)).

9 European Parliament resolution of 2nd February 2004 on current situation in combating violence against women and any future actions (2004/2220(INI)).

10 See Turner, J. (2012) The Means of Delivery: the trafficking of women into prostitution, harms and human rights discourse in Coy, M. (2012) (ed.) Prostitution, Harm and Gender Inequality: Theory, Research and Policy Farnham: Ashgate.

11 General Recommendation 19, paragraph 15.

12 Huda, S. (2006) Report of the Special Rapporteur on the human rights aspects of the victims of trafficking in persons, especially women and children Geneva: United Nations E/CN.4/2006/62

13 See Farley, M. Lynne, J & Cotton, A. (2005) Prostitution in Vancouver: Violence and the Colonization of First Nations Women Transcultural Psychiatry 42(2): 242–271; Sepowitz, D.E. (2012) Juvenile Entry Into Prostitution: The Role of Emotional Abuse Violence Against Women 18(5): 562–579

14 See; abolish-prostitution;

15 MacKinnon, C. (2006) Pornography as Trafficking in Are Women Human? And other international dialogues Cambridge: The Belknap Press

16 Ibid

17 See Turner, J. (2012) The Means of Delivery: the trafficking of women into prostitution, harms and human rights discourse in Coy, M. (2012) (ed.) Prostitution, Harm and Gender Inequality: Theory, Research and Policy Farnham: Ashgate.

18 For a discussion of research, see Coy, M. (2012) ‘I Am a Person Too’: Women’s Accounts and Images about Body and Self in Prostitution in Coy, M. (ed) Prostitution, Harm and Gender Inequality: Theory, Research and Policy Farnham: Ashgate

19 Ibid

20 Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, Article 1.

21 General Recommendation 19, paragraph 7.

22 See for example, Cusick, L. (2002) Youth Prostitution: A Literature Review Child Abuse Review 11: 230-251; Farley, M, Cotton, A, Lynne, J, Zumbeck, S, Spiwak, F, Reyes, M.E., Alvarez, D & Sezgin, U. (2003) Prostitution and trafficking in nine countries: Update on violence and posttraumatic stress Journal of Trauma Practice 2(3/4):33–74

23 Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 34.

24 Leidholdt, D. (1993) Prostitution: A Violation of Women’s Human Rights Cardozo Women’s’ Law Journal 1993- 1994: 133


A Human Rights Scandal – by Kat Banyard

On Thursday 12th March 2015, 64 year old Alejandra Gil was convicted in Mexico City of trafficking and sentenced to fifteen years in prison. Gil reportedly controlled a pimping operation that exploited around 200 women. Known as the “Madam of Sullivan”, she was one of the most powerful pimps of Sullivan Street, an area of Mexico City notorious for prostitution. Gil and her son were connected with trafficking networks in Tlaxcala state – site of Mexico’s “epicenter for sex trafficking.”

Madai, a twenty-four year old woman who was trafficked to Mexico City, was one of those who gave evidence against Gil. Speaking to a reporter in Mexico she said, “[Gil’s] job was to watch us from the car. Her son or her took us to hotels and charged us fees. She kept records. She had a list where she kept records of everything. She even wrote down how long you took”. Madai met her trafficker when she was 19 years old. “He wooed me, made me fall in love, and I believed everything he told me. That I would go live with him, that he was going to marry me… He was the one who took me to Alejandra Gil and her son”. Héctor Pérez, the lawyer representing the victims in Gil’s case, told me Gil was handed a fifteen year sentence because “she received trafficked victims and deceived to exploit them through the exercise of [prostitution].”

Read more here.

Full Sex Industry Decriminalisation Puts Women’s Rights Last by Janie Davies

Prostitution is in the spotlight since Amnesty International joined a number of large organisations in recommending decriminalisation of all aspects of the sex industry. 

That’s not the Nordic model, which reduces demand by decriminalising only the sale of sex and promoting supported exit plans. Full decriminalisation would allow pimps and johns to proceed with their exploitation and abuse of women and girls, with a stamp of human rights compliance.

Full decriminalisation is defeatist, at best.

Our society is trying to normalise a concept of safe, happy “sex workers.” I don’t buy it and neither should you.

A study by Prostitution Research & Education shows that an estimated 89% of women in prostitution want to exit, that more than 70% have been assaulted and more than half have been raped.

It is estimated that the average age of those recruited into prostitution is 13-14 years old.

Still, Amnesty International’s policy has enthusiastic support from those who claim it would benefit prostituted women, protecting them from abuse by enabling regulation.

Instead, decriminalisation would empower the abusers. Research also shows that where decriminalisation takes place, trafficking rises.


You can read the rest of the article on the Huffington Post UK

120 Questions for Amnesty

On 24 August 2015, I published What Amnesty Did Wrong in which I laid out many errors that Amnesty made in developing its proposal for the full decriminalisation of all aspects of “consensual sex work”. This proposal had been passed as a resolution at a meeting of the International Council in Dublin two weeks earlier (referred to as “the resolution” in this article).

In September, members of an internal Amnesty USA discussion forum requested that Amnesty USA respond to all of the points that I raised in that article. On 22 September 2015, Terry Rockefeller replied to the forum on “behalf of the Board and the Priorities Subcommittee” declining to respond to the article because it was “filled with errors and rumors”. She failed to explain who made the errors or what she consider to be rumours. I believe Amnesty needs to clarify this. In order to make it easier for Amnesty to answer the points I raised, I have reframed them as simple questions and include additional questions that arise from Terry Rockefeller’s reply. Please note that this is not an exhaustive list.

I beg Amnesty’s International Board to honestly and seriously consider all of these points and answer the questions honestly and with an open mind before proceeding with the implementation of the proposed policy to fully decriminalise the sex trade. Please consider carefully whether it is ethical to proceed with implementing a policy to fully decriminalise the sex trade in the light of the issues raised in these questions.

  1. Did Amnesty consider the 1949 UN Convention on the Suppression of the Trafficking in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others when developing the draft policy? If not, why not?
  2. Does Amnesty agree that the resolution contravenes Articles 1, 2, 3 and 4 of this convention, and that this means that the resolution contravenes the legal obligations that states have under this binding UN convention? If not, why not?
  3. Does Amnesty understand that this UN convention defines prostitution as incompatible with the human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?
  4. Does Amnesty agree that the resolution therefore contradicts the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? If not, why not?
  5. Do you agree that Amnesty’s mission statement is: “Amnesty International’s vision is of a world in which every person enjoys all of the human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights standards. In pursuit of this vision, Amnesty International’s mission is to undertake research and action focused on preventing and ending grave abuses of the rights to physical and mental integrity, freedom of conscience and expression, and freedom from discrimination, within the context of its work to promote all human rights”?
  6. Does Amnesty agree that the resolution therefore also contradicts its very own mission statement?
  7. The resolution and the draft policy do not mention the legally binding obligation that states that have ratified the Palermo Protocol have to discourage the demand that leads to sex trafficking. (a) What is the explanation for this omission? (b) How does Amnesty propose to rectify it?
  8. Having regard to: (a) The observation of Sigma Huda, UN Special Rapporteur on Trafficking 2004–2008, that “prostitution as actually practised in the world usually does satisfy the elements of trafficking”; (b) The Palermo Protocol makes it clear that consent to the exploitation of a person’s prostitution is not relevant when any form of force, coercion, abduction, fraud, deception, abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability, or the giving or receiving of payments or benefits has been used to achieve that consent; and (c) Prostitution involves approximately 40 million people worldwide, three quarters of whom are between the ages of 13 and 25, and 80% of them are female. Why does the proposal focus on the small minority who are 18 or over and who have allegedly experienced no coercion at all, either from people or circumstances?
  9. Why did Amnesty not consider the body of research that shows that full decriminalisation of the sex trade invariably leads to an increase in sex trafficking?
  10. Did Amnesty consider the legislation in England and Wales that criminalises buying sex from someone who has been coerced and the lack of success of this legislation in practice? If not, why not?
  11. Does Amnesty agree that the vast majority (99% or more) of sex buyers (punters) worldwide are male?
  12. Does Amnesty agree that the vast majority of those bought and sold in prostitution worldwide are women and girls (perhaps as many as 80%)?
  13. Does Amnesty recognise that prostitution is therefore a profoundly gendered system?
  14. Is Amnesty aware of the body of research that shows that men who buy sex tend to have a degrading image of women, are more likely to have misogynist attitudes, and to commit sexually coercive acts and other acts of violence against women?
  15. Is Amnesty aware that prostitution entrenches women’s subordinate status generally and provides a disincentive to men as a class to fight to fix the enduring pay gap between men and women?
  16. Did Amnesty consider the message that decriminalising, and thereby legitimising, prostitution sends out to all men and boys?
  17. Did Amnesty consider the impact of decriminalising, and thereby legitimising, prostitution on the way all men and boys view women and girls?
  18. Did Amnesty consider the message that decriminalising, and thereby legitimising, prostitution sends out to all women and girls?
  19. Did Amnesty consider the impact that decriminalising, and thereby legitimising, prostitution has on the self worth of all women and girls – given that it suggests that they are legitimate commodities for men and boys to buy and sell?
  20. Did Amnesty consider the impact that decriminalising, and thereby legitimising, prostitution has on gender equality/inequality?
  21. If Amnesty answered no to any of questions 16 – 20, please explain for each one how this is consistent with its stated “overarching commitment to advancing gender equality and women’s rights”.
  22. If Amnesty answered no to any of questions 16 – 20, please explain this omission for each one, given the legally binding obligations of states that have ratified of CEDAW.
  23. If Amnesty answered yes to any of questions 16 – 20, please explain for each one how the proposal to fully decriminalise the sex trade is consistent with its stated “overarching commitment to advancing gender equality and women’s rights”.
  24. If Amnesty answered yes to any of questions 16 – 20, please explain for each one how the proposal to fully decriminalise the sex trade is consistent with the legally binding obligations of states that have ratified CEDAW.
  25. Did Amnesty seriously investigate alternative approaches to prostitution, such as the Nordic Model? If yes, please explain what form this investigation took. If no, please explain why not.
  26. Did Amnesty consider the European Parliament’s resolution of 26 February 2014 on sexual exploitation and prostitution and its impact on gender equality? If not, please explain why not. If yes, why did you disregard its conclusions and recommendations?
  27. Given that Amnesty claims a commitment to gender equality and women’s rights, did it consider that as 3 of the 4 most gender-equal countries in the world have adopted the Nordic Model, this approach should at least be investigated and taken seriously?
  28. Does Amnesty understand the research and thinking undertaken by the women in Sweden before the introduction of the Nordic Model in their country in 1999?
  29. Does Amnesty fully understand the Nordic Model? For example, does Amnesty understand that it has several planks: (a) The full decriminalisation of all prostituted persons; (b) High quality support services for those in prostitution including practical support to exit prostitution if that is desired; (c) Criminalisation of buying sexual services; (d) Training for police and those providing front line services; (e) Public information and education campaigns.
  30. If so, why did you not provide members and supporters with any unbiased information about it?
  31. If not, why not (given that the European Parliament recommends it and 3 of the 4 most gender-equal countries have adopted it)?
  32. Does Amnesty understand that (a) The success of the Nordic Model depends on the political will to carry through its implementation and to provide funds for the services for those in prostitution, for training the police and others, and for public information campaigns? And (b) That the introduction of the Nordic Model approach usually takes some time to bed in because it requires the police and those in public services to undergo a significant shift in attitudes?
  33. If so, why did Amnesty not undertake research on the approach in Sweden, which has the longest experience with it and where there has been the greatest political will to ensure its success, rather than in Norway, where it is still bedding in?
  34. Is Amnesty aware that the Nordic Model law is popular in Sweden and has been credited with changing attitudes of young men in particular and of reducing sex trafficking in that country, without an increase in violence towards prostituted persons?
  35. If so, why did Amnesty base its dismissal of the Nordic Model approach in the final draft policy on one piece of research (by Bjorndah on behalf of Pro Senter) that was conducted in Norway?
  36. Is Amnesty aware that the research in question has been discredited and that in 2012 Pro Senter publicly acknowledged that the statistical foundation of the report is unreliable and the data does not show that violence has increased since the introduction of the Nordic Model as the report claims but in fact the data suggests that violence has decreased? (See also page 13 of this Norwegian newspaper. Note that it is on page 16 of the PDF file.)
  37. Amnesty’s “Sex Work Policy Discussion Paper” stated that none of the consultation responses disagreed with the proposal to decriminalise persons in prostitution but many disagreed with the proposal to decriminalise pimps and punters. In view of this, why did Amnesty subsequently couch the arguments in terms of criminalisation versus decriminalisation, which gave the incorrect impression that some people were calling for the criminalisation of persons in prostitution?
  38. Does Amnesty understand what a straw man argument is?
  39. Does Amnesty agree that the presentation of the issues as criminalisation vs. decriminalisation is a straw man argument?
  40. If so, why does Amnesty persist in the use of such straw man arguments (e.g. in Terry Rockefeller’s response)?
  41. Why did Amnesty not state explicitly that it is advocating for the full decriminalisation of pimps and punters and instead wrap this fact in obfuscating phrases such as “operational aspects” and by lumping punters and prostituted people together?
  42. Do you believe that the resolution would have been passed if Amnesty had stated clearly that it was proposing the full decriminalisation of pimps and punters?
  43. If no, do you agree that this suggests that the resolution was passed on false pretences?
  44. If yes, why did Amnesty not state the facts of the proposal clearly?
  45. Why does the press release state that the resolution supports the “full decriminalisation of all aspects of consensual sex work” when it actually allows for the criminalisation of the “sale of sexual services” but not the buying of them?
  46. How does Amnesty justify the fact that the resolution therefore provides more protection to punters than to the prostituted, given its mission to protect the most vulnerable?
  47. Amnesty has acknowledged that the first draft policy on full decriminalisation of prostitution was proposed as a motion by the Newcastle upon Tyne Amnesty group, of which Douglas Fox, a well-known pimp, was a member. Douglas Fox subsequently encouraged his sex trade friends to join Amnesty to help influence its policy to their advantage. Did Amnesty take any steps to mitigate the effects of the internal influence of those with vested financial interests in the sex trade? If so, what steps did it take? If not, why not?
  48. Do you agree that the notes obtained by Julie Bindel of an Amnesty meeting in November 2013 were genuine and that these show that the International Secretariat (IS) had the clear intention of supporting the full decriminalisation of the sex trade prior to the consultation process and prior to conducting its so-called research?
  49. Do you agree that the IS maintained this position in spite of significant opposition to the proposal to decriminalise pimps and punters?
  50. Why did the IS not keep an open mind on the best solution to the problems that they had identified until after the consultation and research had been undertaken?
  51. Is Amnesty aware that many people who claim to be “sex workers” or representatives of “sex workers” are in fact pimps or have vested interests in prostitution or are involved in activities (such as dominatrix or sex phone line work) that do not involve penetration of their mouth, vagina or anus by a man’s penis?
  52. What steps did Amnesty take to ensure that the voices of such “sex workers” did not drown out the voices of those who are actually prostituted and endure men penetrating their mouths, vaginas and rectums with penises and other intimate physical contact on a daily basis?
  53. What steps did Amnesty take to ensure that the prostituted people who were consulted were fully versed in the various possible approaches to prostitution, including the Nordic Model?
  54. Does Amnesty understand that the Palermo Protocol implicitly recognises trafficking as an issue of sex, race, caste, nationality and class and covers situations where the person has no real alternative but to submit to the abuse involved?
  55. Does Amnesty recognise that when a person has no real alternative, the concept of consent is irrelevant?
  56. Does Amnesty recognise that the vast majority of those in prostitution worldwide were vulnerable when they started in it – because they were children or young adults, and/or were poor or destitute, and/or were from marginalised and oppressed racial, ethnic or social groups and castes, and/or had little or no family support, and/or had few or no formal skills, and/or had a history of being abused as children, and/or were female or transgender, and/or were coerced by boyfriends, family members or pimps?
  57. Does Amnesty understand that is almost always much easier to enter prostitution than to leave it?
  58. How does Amnesty reconcile this reality with its definition: “Sex work involves a contractual arrangement where sexual services are negotiated between consenting adults, with the terms of engagement agreed between the seller and the buyer of sexual services. By definition, sex work means that sex workers who are engaging in commercial sex have consented to do so, (that is, are choosing voluntarily to do so), making it distinct from trafficking. Sex work takes many forms, and varies between and within countries and communities. Sex work may vary in the degree to which it is more or less ‘formal’ or organised”?
  59. How does Amnesty propose that the small minority of those in prostitution who fulfil this definition are to be practically separated from those who do not?
  60. Is Amnesty aware of the body of research that shows that prostitution entrenches the disadvantages of those in it?
  61. Is Amnesty aware of the racist underpinnings of prostitution and how it echoes plantation owners raping women slaves and colonialists raping indigenous women?
  62. Is Amnesty aware of the research that shows that punters are undeterred by evidence that those in prostitution are under 18 or have been coerced or trafficked?
  63. Is Amnesty aware of the degree and frequency of verbal and physical violence that punters mete out to the prostituted?
  64. Is Amnesty aware that many survivors of prostitution describe “splitting off” their conscious self during the sex act in order to endure it and that this is similar to what child sexual abuse and rape survivors describe, and that this splitting off has long term emotional and psychological negative impacts?
  65. Is Amnesty aware that many people in prostitution resort to pain killers and illegal drug use to survive the repeated sex acts?
  66. Is Amnesty aware that the sex trade is a huge, ruthless, profit-generating system and that its easy and huge profits drive its expansion?
  67. Is Amnesty aware that mainstream industries (such as banking, IT, telecoms, and construction) are becoming increasingly dependent on the sex trade for their bottom line?
  68. If you answered yes to questions 66 or 67, please explain Amnesty’s strategy for combating these enormous neoliberal forces that exploit our humanity, have no regard for the well being of individuals, communities, or the planet, and prey on the most vulnerable?
  69. If you answered no to questions 66 or 67, do you accept that you need to do more research? We recommend in particular: Not a Choice, Not a Job by Janice G. Raymond, Pornland by Gail Dines, The Natashas and The Johns by Victor Malarek, Being and Being Bought by Kajsa Ekis Ekman, Paid For by Rachel Moran, and Not for Sale, edited by Christine Stark and Rebecca Whisnant.
  70. Is Amnesty aware that the prostitution system requires a continuous stream of new blood because women get used up and men demand new faces, and women who have real choices for decent, well-paid work seldom choose prostitution?
  71. Does Amnesty agree that it is the combination of this mismatch between the demand for prostitution and lack of women who actually have choices going into it and the huge profits that can be made that is the motivation behind sex trafficking and the grooming of (mostly) women and children into prostitution?
  72. If yes, why did Amnesty not propose a mechanism for addressing the demand that ultimately leads to the profits and the sex trafficking and grooming? If no, please explain this enormous gap in the proposal.
  73. How does Amnesty propose that states restrict the prostitution of children and trafficked persons in practice without putting restrictions on the buying of sex and pimps?
  74. Did Amnesty make any commitment (whether implicit or explicit, written, verbal or non-verbal) to a particular stance on these issues when accepting money from any major donor, such as the Open Society Foundation?
  75. In developing this proposal, did Amnesty consider that all men are beneficiaries of the patriarchal system and therefore all men have a vested interest in the continuation of its key plank, the system of prostitution?
  76. What steps did Amnesty take to ensure that the vested interests of the men within Amnesty itself, and its membership, funders and supporter base, did not influence its decisions on prostitution?
  77. Did Amnesty take any measures to prioritise the voices and opinions of independent women, women’s organisations, survivor organisations and organisations led by independent women and informed by feminist analysis? If yes, what were these measures? If no, why not and how does this conform to Amnesty’s stated commitment to gender equality and obligations under CEDAW given that the status quo is marked inequality between men and women?
  78. Why did Amnesty conclude that full decriminalisation of the sex trade would be a solution to all of the problems that it documented in its research when it did not carry out any research in a country that has taken that approach?
  79. The summary of the research states that Amnesty “did not find substantive evidence of police violence towards sex workers in Norway”. Why did Amnesty not conclude from this that the Nordic Model approach in place in Norway has brought benefits to the people in prostitution in that country?
  80. Did Amnesty investigate the result of full decriminalisation in countries like GermanyThe Netherlands and New Zealand?
  81. Does Amnesty realise that since 2002, when prostitution was fully decriminalised in Germany, at least 55 prostitutes have been murdered by punters or others in the milieu, and there have been at least 30 attempted murders and countless other acts of male violence against women in prostitution but there has been only ONE case of murder of a prostitute in Sweden since 1999 when the Nordic Model was introduced? In the light of this information, how does Amnesty justify recommending an approach similar to the one taken in Germany and campaigning against the Nordic Model approach taken in Sweden (as stated in Amnesty’s Q&A on the resolution)?
  82. Did Amnesty conduct any research into the experiences of women and girls living where prostitution is rife? For example, did they try to understand what it feels like to be a little girl growing up in a city where women are displayed in windows as if they are commodities? If not, why not and how does this conform to Amnesty’s stated commitment to gender equality? If yes, please explain the nature and outcome of that research?
  83. Did Amnesty conduct any research into the prevalence of sexual violence against women and girls in the general population in areas where prostitution is rife and how this compares to areas where there is little prostitution? If not, why not and how does this conform to Amnesty’s stated commitment to gender equality? If yes, please explain the nature and outcome of that research?
  84. How does Amnesty propose that states practically meet their legal obligations under the Palermo Protocol and CEDAW to reduce the demand that leads to sex trafficking and child sexual exploitation?
  85. Why did Amnesty claim that it had consulted with SPACE International when it didn’t?
  86. Why did Amnesty respond to the requests from Resources Prostitution to consult with them AFTER the resolution had been adopted?
  87. Have the people responsible for the resolution read Rachel Moran’s groundbreaking book, Paid for: My Journey Through Prostitution? If not, why not?
  88. Why did Amnesty, shortly after the adoption of the resolution on 11 August, refuse to debate the resolution head to head with Rachel Moran on the BBC World this Week?
  89. What has Amnesty got to be afraid of in talking to a single survivor of prostitution?

Additional Questions in Response to Terry Rockefeller’s Reply

These additional questions arise from Terry Rockefeller reply to the Amnesty International USA internal discussion forum in response to a request that Amnesty respond to the points I raised in my What Amnesty Did Wrong article. As Terry Rockefeller was writing on behalf of the Board and the Priorities Subcommittee, I request that Amnesty also answer these questions.

  1. What is Amnesty’s opinion on prostituted persons who are 18 or more years old but have been in prostitution since before they were 18? Does Amnesty consider that the earlier sexual exploitation they suffered to have an impact on their continuing presence in prostitution and therefore the validity of their consent?
  2. If yes, how does Amnesty propose to separate these prostituted persons from those who began in prostitution when they were 18 or older?
  3. If no, why not?
  4. How does Amnesty propose that prostituted persons who have been coerced are to be separated in practice from those who have not? You mention passports. Are you suggesting that punters must check the prostituted person’s passport before proceeding? If so, why did you not make this explicit in the resolution? Is this not an infringement of civil liberties? What about prostituted persons who are not migrants? What about other forms of coercion?
  5. Prostitution causes practical harms. The solutions proposed must be practical. Does Amnesty understand that the practical difficulties of distinguishing the child from the adult, the coerced from the uncoerced, the adult who was prostituted prior to her 18th birthday from the one who was prostituted after it, etc is a key argument for the Nordic Model?
  6. Languages have the handy concept of different words and terms for different things. This enables us all to communicate more effectively. In the light of this, did Amnesty decide to not use a specific term (such as pimp) for those who exploit the prostitution of others and such as punter for those who buy others for sex in order to obscure the implications of their proposal?
  7. If no, can Amnesty explain why they chose to use this obfuscating approach, given that they use the term “sex worker”, which, as we have seen, has shifting meanings?
  8. Does Amnesty agree that by not using specific terms for pimps and punters, they have obscured the agents who (along with traffickers) cause the most harm to prostituted persons? For example, the research summary gives the impression that some of the worst harm to prostituted women in Norway comes from female passersby, when in fact the greatest risk is from pimps, traffickers and punters.
  9. In the following sentence in your reply, there is an implicit suggestion that some people are arguing for the criminalisation of those in prostitution: “[Amnesty] did decide that human rights violations could occur as a result of state policies that criminalize sex workers’ lives.” Given that no one is arguing for this, do you agree that this is a straw man argument?
  10. Under the heading “2. How we understand agency and choice”, you twice suggest that people are arguing for the state to step in and tell prostituted people what they should be doing or not doing. Given that no one is arguing for this, do you agree that this is a straw man argument?
  11. Why does Amnesty believe that the material conditions of being a migrant and/or poor and/or marginalised are not sufficient to force or coerce people into prostitution?
  12. Is Amnesty suggesting that the circumstances of a mother who cannot feed her children are not coercive?
  13. Does Amnesty understand that the Palermo Protocol implies that material circumstances can force or coerce people into accepting the exploitation of their prostitution and that this does not count as consent?
  14. Why does Amnesty believe that is it correct on this matter and the Palermo Protocol wrong?
  15. Why does Amnesty believe that suggesting that material conditions can force or coerce people into prostitution “not only stigmatizes them further, but also opens them up to more human rights abuse (police violence and harassment, less safe working conditions, diminished ability to negotiate condom use, etc.)” Please explain this logic, because it is not obvious to us.
  16. Why does Amnesty suggest that an analysis that many people are in prostitution because of a lack of viable options rather than a real choice is an attack on the “agency” of those people?
  17. Does Amnesty use similar reasoning to justify any other human rights abuse?
  18. For example, in its campaigns against capital punishment and state torture, does Amnesty consider that banning capital punishment is an attack on the “agency” of state executioners and torturers? If not, why not?
  19. If the answer to 106 or 107 is no, why does Amnesty use this argument only for the human rights abuse of prostitution, which predominantly affects women and girls and gender equality?
  20. All of the research cited in the draft policy was one-sided and biased against the Nordic Model approach and in favour of a fully decriminalised approach. Having regard to (a) The success of the Nordic Model in making life better for those in prostitution (as I have mentioned earlier and you found in your research in Norway) and (b) The problems encountered in countries that have implemented a fully decriminalised approach, such as Germany. How does Amnesty justify the decision to exclude from the final draft policy reference to any research that was positive about the Nordic Model or negative about full decriminalisation?
  21. Under the heading “4. Opposition to the policy from outside Amnesty”, you say that responses to the proposal were roughly split between critics and supporters with “slightly more” supporters. Given that as mentioned above, the arguments were misrepresented, the language used was obfuscating, and the voices of those with vested interests were overrepresented, does this not suggest that Amnesty did not in fact have a mandate to introduce this far reaching and damaging proposal?
  22. You say that the practical reasons for entering the debate were that “Researchers were finding in the course of existing work widespread abuses against sex workers. Their findings and analysis indicated that decriminalization should be part of our recommended solutions, which human rights organizations and other experts in the field also indicate would be beneficial, but which Amnesty could not call for without further policy development, including as pertains to decriminalization.” What analysis indicated that decriminalisation should be part of the recommended solutions?
  23. Why did Amnesty not consider alternative analyses, such as the analysis that led to the Nordic Model?
  24. What qualifications did these researchers have to determine which was the most appropriate response to the problems they were encountering?
  25. What training did those researchers have in gender issues, male-pattern violence, and trauma induced by sexual violence?
  26. What training did those researchers have in race, class and caste inequality and the psychology and sociology of social, racial, ethnic, caste and economic exclusion?
  27. Does Amnesty recognise that without deep training in these issues and the politics of racism, sexism, colonialism, neoliberalism, structural oppression and the movements for liberation, researchers who have had luckier lives will invariably be blind to the realities and will therefore come to incorrect conclusions?
  28. Did Amnesty request assistance from the women working on Amnesty’s earlier Stop Violence Against Women campaign who had developed considerable expertise and analysis in this area; for example, the women who posted this article on an Amnesty blog: New Report on Prostitution and Trafficking of Native Women in Minnesota?
  29. If not, why not? If yes, please explain their contribution.
  30. You say that “The philosophical reason for immediacy is that, if criminalization of sex work does foster abuses of sex workers’ human rights, Amnesty, as a leader in the global human rights community, has an obligation to say so even in the face of opposition and criticism.” This again is using obfuscating language, because no relevant organisation is calling for the criminalisation of those in prostitution. In addition your own research in Norway found positive outcomes and the negative ones could not reasonably be blamed on the Nordic Model approach that is in place. In the light of this, do you agree that Amnesty has been hasty in pushing this approach through against such significant opposition?


  1. Is it ethical to proceed to implement the policy of full decriminalisation of the sex trade in the light of the points raised above? If the answer is no, it is wiser to admit mistakes, abandon the proposal and return to the drawing board.


An open letter to Salil Shetty Secretary General, Amnesty International by Harriet Wistrich

July 25th, 2015

Dear Mr. Shetty, Mr. Hawkins and the Amnesty International Board of Directors:

I am writing as a long serving member of Amnesty and a prominent human rights lawyer based in the UK, to object in the strongest possible terms to the proposed ‘draft policy on sex work’ which I understand is under consideration for adoption at your next International Council Meeting in Dublin this August. The policy seeks to promote the complete decriminalisation of the sex industry which I believe would lead to a significant increase in human rights violations worldwide particularly, but not exclusively, impacting on women and girls. I therefore see such a move as a disaster for the reputation of Amnesty and for the struggle for the guarantee of universal human rights world wide. This is an open letter which I hope others will endorse or write in similar terms urging you not to adopt this policy.

I was last year awarded Liberty Human Rights Lawyer 2014 in recognition of my legal work in the UK challenging the police and other state agencies around issues of rape, trafficking, immigration detention, deaths at the hands of the state and discrimination towards women within the criminal justice system. My work has often focussed on challenging the criminalisation of socially excluded individuals and groups, including victims of racism, violence and sexual abuse. Some of the cases I have acted for include, Emma Humphreys (a young prostituted woman convicted of killing her violent pimp/partner); the family of Jean Charles de Menezes (shot by the UK police ten years ago); some of the British men detained and tortured at Guantanamo bay; two of the victims of the serial rapist taxi driver John Worboys in a successful challenge against the police (which established a duty to investigate); women detained and sexually abused by guards at Yards Wood immigration detention centre; and a group of women that were deceived in relationships with undercover police officers.

My partner, Julie Bindel is a long standing feminist abolitionist and a board member of Space International, a survivor led human rights organisation calling for the end to the commercial sexual exploitation of women and girls in the sex trade. Space has been endorsed by former President Jimmy Carter, and a number of other prominent figures on the international political stage. In the course of her three decades of research, journalistic investigations, and campaigning in this area she has visited a number of countries and states that have legalised the sex trade. It is because she was convinced of the harm of such a regime in dealing with the abuse of women and children that she decided to expose, in the national press Amnesty’s plans to bring in decriminalisation through the back door last year.

I have had the opportunity to learn, primarily from survivors, of the great harm caused to prostituted women from the sex industry. Most of those who have sold sex have suffered serious physical and mental health damage as a consequence of ‘working’ in this industry and face the risk of being raped or murdered as an occupational hazard. Many who have managed to exit the industry are beginning to speak out in support of a growing abolitionist movement and against the so called ‘sex worker rights’ movement which they tell me is largely led by pimps, brothel owners and those not representative of the majority who are abused in prostitution, such as BDSM practitioners and gay male escorts.

I understand that many who advocate decriminalisation believe that any criminalisation of the industry stigmatises those who sell sex, and that the selling of sex should be regarded as a job like any other. It is thus argued that through decriminalisation there will be an opportunity to regulate the industry and thus promote harm reduction. However, there is a growing body of research that shows that in regimes in Germany, Australia, New Zealand, Nevada and the Netherlands, where prostitution has been legalised/decriminalised, there is an increase in demand which in turn has led to an increase in the trafficking of individuals from poor countries and of individuals coerced into prostitution. Such regimes thus lead to an increase in the legal as well as the illegal sex trade.

I recently had the opportunity to be shown around Down Town East Side a tolerance zone in Vancouver, by Summer Rain, a Native Canadian survivor of prostitution who lived there for many years from the time she was prostituted as a child. Whilst it is an area designed to offer harm minimisation services, such as free condoms and injection sights, it is in fact very clearly a dumping ground for the most damaged and socially excluded women and no coincidence that it is also the area from which many of the 1000 plus murdered and missing Native women have disappeared and/or been found murdered.

I would wholeheartedly support the decriminalisation of prostituted individuals and would further advocate for the erasure of criminal convictions arising from prostitution, not least because such convictions are a key barrier to exiting. However, I would strongly oppose the decriminalisation of third party profiteers such as pimps, escort agencies, brothel owners, and other exploiters. I would also support the criminalisation of the purchase of sex. I do not believe prostitution is inevitable, or that anybody has the right to buy sex.

I believe the only human rights approach to prostitution must be one that seeks its abolition. The proposed Amnesty resolution to decriminalise all ‘sex work’ is defeatist and will encourage the increased exploitation and abuse of the most vulnerable, disenfranchised women and girls in society.

Yours sincerely,

Harriet Wistrich

Swedish prostitution law is spreading worldwide – here’s how to improve it Michelle Goldberg

(originally published August 8th 2014)

In 1999, when Sweden passed a law criminalising the buying but not the selling of sex, many outsiders were dubious. It seemed a quirk of Sweden’s famously collectivist, earnestly feminist political culture. “In European countries, when we were talking about the Swedish model four or five years ago, people were actually laughing,” says Olga Persson, the head of a network of Swedish women’s shelters, who has pressed for other countries to adopt similar laws.

Some people still see things this way, but these days the Swedish model has lots of momentum behind it. Norway adopted it in 2008 and Iceland in 2009. Canada’s government recently proposed a version of it. Earlier this year, the European parliament approved a resolution by the British MEP Mary Honeyball calling for the Swedish model to be adopted throughout the continent. Should a Labour government be elected in the UK, Honeyball says, there could be a serious push for it.

This summer, thanks to a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, I travelled to the Netherlands and Sweden to write about this growing international campaign to criminalise those buying sex. It’s a complex issue. Supporters of the Swedish model say that in countries like the Netherlands, where pimping and brothel-keeping were legalised in 2000, trafficking has increased and the welfare of prostitutes has suffered. They are right. Opponents of the Swedish model, particularly sex worker advocacy groups, say that the law has increased the stigma on sex workers, with occasionally grave repercussions. They are also right. Deciding which model works better is as much an ideological as an empirical question, ultimately depending on whether one believes that prostitution can ever be simply a job like any other.


Read more here ….

Actors call on Amnesty to reject plans backing decriminalisation of sex trade

(originally published in Guardian on July 28th)

A host of Hollywood stars, including Oscar-winning actors Meryl Streep, Kate Winslet and Emma Thompson, have lent their support to a campaign demanding that Amnesty International reject a proposal to endorse the decriminalisation of the sex trade.

The global human rights group is set to review an internal policy document on sex work at a meeting in Dublin next month, according to the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW).

If the policy is adopted, Amnesty would “in effect advocate the legalisation of pimping, brothel owning and sex buying – the pillars of a $99bn global sex industry“, CATW said.

Over 3,000 members of the public have signed the petition since it was posted on last week, and it has been endorsed in a letter by women’s rights campaigners, former workers in the sex trade, and celebrities such as actors Emily Blunt, Lena Dunham and Anne Hathaway.

The letter, addressed to Amnesty’s secretary general, Salil Shetty; executive director Steven Hawkins, and the board of directors, says: “Every day, we combat male access to women’s bodies through power and control, from female genital mutilation to forced marriage; from domestic violence to violation of reproductive rights. The exchange of money for such access does not eliminate the violence women face in the sex trade …


Read more here …