Is prostitution a human right?

Back in August, Amnesty International put forward a policy to protect the human rights of sex workers, but not without criticism ranging from experts to Hollywood stars. Opponents to the policy say that it legitimizes pimping, and perpetuates the vicious cycle of sex trafficking.

Margaret Huang, the deputy executive director for Amnesty International, writes to MPR,

Criminalizing consensual sexual relations among adults is incompatible with internationally recognized human rights, including the rights to personal autonomy, bodily integrity, non-discrimination, privacy and work. Sex workers are one of the most marginalized groups in the world, and their rights should be protected. When sex work involving consenting adults is criminalized, sex workers are have little legal protection. They are reluctant to seek help when they are discriminated against, abused or excluded from health services because they fear arrest or a criminal record that will haunt them all their lives.

The decriminalization of sex work means that sex workers are no longer breaking the law. They are not forced to live outside the law and there is better scope for their human rights to be protected.

It’s important to note that decriminalizing sex work would not mean removing criminal penalties for trafficking or exploiting anyone, including children. Children involved in a commercial sex act are victims of sexual exploitation, entitled to support, reparations, and remedies, in line with international human rights law. States must prevent the sexual exploitation and abuse of children.

Those who traffic, exploit or abuse other human beings are criminals. Decriminalization allows sex workers to work with police to identify and end exploitation and abuse and to create safer working environments. It does not decriminalize anyone who is abusive or exploitative.

Laws against buying sex mean that sex workers are often forced to take more risks in order to obtain clients who fear arrest by the police. Sex workers are frequently asked to enter customer’s homes, have sex in unmarked rental cars, and travel to unknown places rather than be in a position to choose a location where they feel safer.

When we talk about decriminalizing sex work, we are talking about eliminating barriers to justice and critical services to those who are often cast aside and abused, sometimes even by the police. Our recent decision regarding the decriminalization of sex work, which echoes similar calls by the World Health Organization and the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health, neither promotes nor calls for the eradication of sex work. But it does call for policies that will ensure that those most in need of help will not be criminalized in the process.

Esohe Aghatise is the anti-trafficking manager for Equality Now, and is an internationally renown expert in the field. She writes,

Prostitution is intrinsically violent and there is no way to make it safe. Buying sex or benefiting from the sale of people in prostitution is not a human right.

Equality Now and the sex trade survivors and other organizations around the world we work with all call for the decriminalization of those selling sex, the provision of exiting services and support to them, while criminalizing pimping, brothel-keepers and buyers of sex – the demand which fuels sexual exploitation and sex trafficking. This is the ‘Nordic’ or ‘Equality’ Model, which has been successful in Sweden, Norway, Iceland. During the last two years, policy based on this approach has also been introduced in Canada and Northern Ireland, with growing momentum for it elsewhere.

The vast majority of people who enter the sex trade do it in the absence of real choices. Many are children – or were children when they first supposedly consented to it. Those who buy sex are the reason why violence and discrimination are part of the trade. They are the reason why younger and younger girls are trafficked into it and why organised crime is attracted to countries that decriminalize or legalize it.

Countries which have decriminalized or legalized the sex trade have been failed experiments. In Germany and the Netherlands, violence has increased, while the supposed benefits to the safety of those selling sex have not materialized.

Decriminalizing the demand which fuels the exploitative sex trade reduces the rights of those selling sex. It gives a layer of legitimacy to the violence within. The sex trade is closely linked to sex trafficking. Buyers do not know if a women or girl has been trafficked or not. They often prefer younger girls – particularly those under 18. Without the demand, there would be no supply. Without buyers of sex, the multi-billion sex trafficking trade would not exist.

International law reflects the need to end demand and suggests that the sex trade is not compatible with upholding the rights of women. In Europe, the Council of Europe and European Parliament have also recommended adoption of policy based on the ‘Equality’ Model.

It is vital that we protect the human rights of those selling sex, not those who exploit them and fuel the global sex trafficking trade.

Today’s Question: Is prostitution a human right?