Whose human rights? 1

The issue of prostitution is under close scrutiny at the moment, so here’s a quick review (with many links!) of some recent events. If you know of other developments, especially in countries other than the UK, we would welcome your comment.

For radical feminists, the institution of prostitution is both cause and effect of women’s oppression and we have always found it problematic to frame prostitution as work like any other (see All in a day’s work? by Celia Jenkins and Ruth Swirsky in T&S Issue 36). The fact that poor women, victims of child sexual abuse and incest, women with drug addictions, and women from ethnic and racial minorities are over-represented in prostitution is a clear indication to us that prostitution exists within a patriarchal context of oppression.

The Swedish model

When Sweden adopted a radical new approach to prostitution in 1999  – decriminalising the people in prostitution and offering them significant help in exiting, and at the same time criminalising the people exploiting them, including the “buyers” (see Not for sale by Angela Beausang and Eva Hassel-Calais in T&S Issue 38) – many feminists adopted this as the best compromise solution within our current systems. The Swedish model was explicitly framed as an issue of gender equality, not an issue of violence against women.

Radical feminists do not want to see women in prostitution criminalised. Criminalisation makes women vulnerable to harassment by police and the public, fines for offenses just increase women’s poverty, and incarceration punishes women (and their children) for crimes committed against them.

Amnesty International and sex as a human ‘need’

On January 24th 2014, Julie Bindel publicised a document circulated to Amnesty International UK members as a discussion document for an upcoming vote on Amnesty’s position on prostitution (An abject inversion of its own principles, Daily Mail, January 24 2014) in which she noted:

Amnesty tries to pretend that women selling their bodies is similar to other forms of labour – with one passage in the document explicitly drawing a parallel between women who ‘choose to become sex workers’ and ‘miners and domestic foreign workers’.

It turns out that Amnesty International is “in the process of considering a global policy on sex work”, and part of the reason is that:

The draft policy proposes the decriminalisation of activities relating to the buying or selling of consensual sex between adults, on the basis that this is the best means to protect the rights of sex workers and ensure that these individuals receive adequate medical care, legal assistance and police protection.

Obviously, abolitionists have no problem with decriminalising the “selling of consensual sex between adults” (although that begs the question of what “consensual sex” actually is within the context of prostitution transactions), but we have huge problems with decriminalising the “buying”.

The Amnesty UK discussion document referred to by Julie Bindel goes even further than that, however. A footnote to a paragraph about the Swedish model says:

As noted within Amnesty International’s policy on sex work, the organization is opposed to criminalization of all activities related to the purchase and sale of sex. Sexual desire and activity are a fundamental human need. To criminalize those who are unable or unwilling to fulfill that need through more traditionally recognized means and thus purchase sex, may amount to a violation of the right to  privacy and undermine the rights to free expression and health.

The Twitter hashtag #QuestionsForAmnesty exploded. The idea that criminalising johns could be construed as a violation of their human rights is antithetical to radical – and other types of – feminism.







Many noted that the language in the document sounded like it was written by a pimp. Indeed, Martin Dufresne posted Douglas Fox’s claim that he was responsible for Amnesty UK’s pro-prostitution position, a claim that Amnesty UK rejects completely.

Douglas Fox and the organisation IUSW (International Union of Sex Workers) which he fronts has been the subject of feminist scrutiny before. Julie Bindel’s article, “An Unlikely Union” explores her contention that the IUSW is neither a “union”, nor is it comprised solely of “sex workers”, since it welcomes the membership of anyone, including johns and pimps. Cath Elliott has also covered Douglas Fox  and the IUSW.

The Amnesty consultation document is fundamentally at odds with all human rights conventions where trafficking and ‘the exploitation of prostitution’ is considered. Very few countries decriminalise pimping, procuring and profiting from the prostitution of others. Few, if any, decriminalise all prostitution in all contexts. It seems, however, that Amnesty is seriously considering this position and putting it to a vote.

EU vs Amnesty?

On February 27th, the European Parliament voted on a motion to support the Nordic model when considering legislation around prostitution.

A letter of support of Mary Honeyball’s Report on sexual exploitation and prostitution and its impact on gender equality, and objecting to the Amnesty International position, started by London Metropolitan University’s Maddy Coy and University of New South Wales’s Helen Pringle, received 79 signatures.

In complete opposition to Amnesty’s apparent starting position on prostitution, the EU parliament passed the motion, a development which the End Violence Against Women coalition here in the UK welcomed.

In addition, an All-Party Parliamentary Group report recommending the Nordic model was launched in the UK on March 3rd.

What you can do

  • Sign the petition asking Amnesty to reject its support for pimps and johns. This petition was started by Canadian activist Jennifer Kim.
  • If you’re an Amnesty member, get involved! The Amnesty UK AGM is April 12-13. These are the resolutions being voted on – see A2. If you’re not in the UK, find out what is happening in your country and make Amnesty support the human rights of women, not johns and pimps.
  • If you’re not an Amnesty member, keep posting relevant questions to the #QuestionsForAmnesty hashtag.

Other links

Coalition Against Trafficking in Women:

More information about the Swedish model

Feminist Current:

The Nordic model is the only model that actually works. ‘Duh,’ says Sweden

New research shows violence decreases under Nordic model: Why the radio silence?

Ten myths about prostitution, trafficking and the Nordic model

Space International (a group of Irish prostitution survivors):

Public statement in support of the Honeyball Report

The Telegraph:

An article published in the Telegraph in 2013 describes the conditions for prostituted women in Germany where prostitution has been legalised. In it, a multi-millionaire brothel owner is asked if he would be happy for either of his two daughters to work at Paradise (the brothel):

Rudloff turns puce. “Unthinkable, unthinkable,” he says. “The question alone is brutal. I don’t mean to offend the prostitutes but I try to raise my children so that they have professional opportunities. Most prostitutes don’t have those options. That’s why they’re doing that job. He pauses and looks away.

“Unimaginable, he repeats. “I don’t even want to think about it.”


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