Amnesty International voted Tuesday to urge the decriminalization of all aspect of the sex trade, and said the new policy was based on input from the World Health Organization and UN Women. The vote follows weeks of intense debate on an issue that has split feminists, celebrities, and experts who warn that prostitution is fueling the rise of human trafficking around the world.
While Amnesty focused its comments solely on “sex workers,” critics point out the policy primarily benefits pimps and johns.
Amnesty’s Secretary General, Salil Shetty, described the policy as protecting “the human rights of sex workers,” characterizing them as “one of the most marginalized groups in the world who in most instances face constant risk of discrimination, violence and abuse.”
“All countries should work toward decriminalization of sex work” according to a 2012 guidabce by the World Health Organization. The UN’s Special Rapporteur on Health called for decriminalization of both prostitution and abortion in 2011, and in 2013, UN Women affirmed a statement by UNAIDS calling for decriminalization. Prestigious medical journal The Lancet also sided in favor of “[a]ccepting and embracing sex work.”
Prostituted persons should not be prosecuted, critics say, but those exploiting them should. “[M]ore must be done to protect those sold in the sex trade but it’s equally critical to hold accountable sex buyers, pimps, and traffickers who perpetuate this predatory industry,” Ian Kitterman with Demand Abolition told Time.
The resolution calls on Amnesty to create “a policy that supports the full decriminalization of all aspects of consensual sex work.” This differs from legalization, which implies that prostitution would be subject to government regulations.
“Prostitution is not a human right, but sex workers have human rights,” said Amnesty’s Deputy Europe Director Gauri van Gulick. As Amnesty’s officials admit, the sex trade carries heavy risks. Whether legal or not, violence, diseases, and abortion are just a few of the downsides.
The Netherlands, which attempts to allow but regulate the sex trade, has not eliminated the underground sex market. The BBC reported in 2011 that three quarters of the prostitutes in Amsterdam were foreign, and very few of them were registered with the government, whether to avoid paying taxes or to cover up the fact that they were not there by choice.
Leading up to Amnesty’s decision, the UK-based Institute of Economic Affairs, a think tank that promotes the free market, published a paper on prostitution. In “Supply and Desire,” social scientist Dr. Catherine Hakim argues that the sex industry is inevitable because “[m]ale demand for sex invariably outstrips female demand,” a gap Hakim says is growing.
The paper mentions trafficking briefly, but only to argue that not all prostitutes are trafficked, and that most human trafficking is for labor, not sex. Instead, Hakim focuses on sex through a purely economic model of supply and demand.
Hakim argues that “[c]hanges in national sex ratios towards a numerical surplus of men helps women to reset the rules in their own favour in developed societies.” She mentions China and India as countries where the surplus of males is “large and well known,” but neglects to mention their smaller “supplies” of women is both a result and cause of discrimination against women. Sex-selective abortion and female infanticide bear out the devaluation of girls’ lives, and the lack of women, rather than increasing their value, drives human trafficking.