The question of what should be done about prostitution is as old as the profession itself, but the issue is now front and center again, as a leading human rights group proposes decriminalization, while some countries push toward harsher penalties for those who pay for sex.
In France, England and Ireland, lawmakers are considering new measures — and in the cases of Northern Ireland and Canada, are enforcing new laws — that impose penalties on clients, using a model adopted in Sweden in 1999.
But the effort to crack down on a largely male clientele while sheltering a mostly female work force is taking place just as the human rights group Amnesty International is advocating a new course: decriminalizing all prostitution, both for buyers and sellers.
At an international conference next week in Dublin, about 500 Amnesty delegates from more than 80 countries will vote on whether to advocate the elimination of all penalties for prostitution, based on “evidence that the criminalization of adult sex work can lead to increased human rights violations against sex workers.” The proposal has been denounced by women’s groups like the New York-based Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, and celebrities like Meryl Streep, Kate Winslet and Gloria Steinem.
Prostitution has always been considered a domestic matter, and now Amnesty could elevate it to a point of international human rights law,” said Francis A. Boyle, a professor of international law at the University of Illinois and a former Amnesty board member in the United States. He called that development “significant.”
“But why is the resolution so broad?” he asked. “Everything should be organized around that basic principle of protecting the women and girls. We should be protecting human beings, and not sex work.”
In June, the French National Assembly voted to support a law to penalize clients of prostitutes. The legislation still faces a vote in the Senate. Last month, Northern Ireland started enforcing new regulations that carry 1,000-pound fines (about $1,500) and prison terms for buyers. Canada instituted similar laws this year. Politicians in England and Ireland are also exploring the so-called Swedish or Nordic model to make paying for sex a crime. Sweden passed its law focusing on buyers 16 years ago, and street prostitution in major Swedish cities has dropped by more than half since 1995. The number of men who said they purchased sex fell, as well, by more than 40 percent in that period, according to a report this year by a Swedish government agency.
But Amnesty International, formed in 1961 to bring attention to political prisoners, argues for a different approach in a leaked proposal that has circulated widely. That document contends that sexual desire is a fundamental need and that punishing buyers “may amount to a violation of the right to privacy and undermine the rights to free expression and health.” The group also cites the benefits for buyers with physical and psychological disabilities who “feel safe to express their sexuality” and “develop a stronger sense of self with their relationships with sex workers.”
Amnesty also sides with the argument, made recently by prostitutes in France, that penalizing customers would drive prostitution further underground, making the workers more vulnerable to dangers.
The policy vote comes as greater attention is being paid to human trafficking, which often results in forced prostitution, or prostitution as a means of survival. Pope Francis has been outspoken on the issue, calling it a plague on humanity and urging legislation to penalize traffickers and help victims recover.
The decriminalization stance has roiled some of Amnesty’s two million paying members. Some complain that the draft policy was conceived at Amnesty’s headquarters in London. Over the last two years, various versions have been reviewed by the organization’s national chapters, and a consensus emerged supporting decriminalization for just the prostitutes, according to minutes of organizational meetings. Amnesty says it has refined its proposal even further, but declined to release the latest version because it is an internal document.
The issues raised by the Swedish model are all relevant, said Thomas Schultz-Jagow, a London spokesman for Amnesty, who added that the organization is not discounting them.
“We are looking at decriminalization of sex work in a very comprehensive way that goes beyond the Nordic model,” he said. “We have looked at the pros and cons of various models.” If a majority approve the decriminalization proposal at next week’s conference, it will be shaped into a final form by Amnesty’s board. The stance will not have any immediate impact, except it will be the organization’s official position as it lobbies on issues in various countries.
Nevertheless, women’s groups have been sharply critical, arguing that such a position by an organization of Amnesty’s stature could sway policy and ultimately result in legalized brothels and owners free to recruit women from poorer countries as prostitutes.
“It really undermines the whole concept of human rights to call it the rights of men to buy other human beings for sex,” said Jessica Neuwirth, a former Amnesty member and the founder of Equality Now, an international women’s rights group.
She said there are suspicions among the opposition groups that the sex industry helped shape the proposal.
Last year, Amnesty’s British chapter issued a denial in response to questions about the role of Douglas Fox, who works in the sex industry and claimed credit for pressing for decriminalization through the chapter in Newcastle, England. Amnesty said, though, that he had not been a member for years and had “zero input” on its sex work proposal.
In an interview, Mr. Fox described himself as a male escort. After joining Amnesty in 2008, he said that he lobbied the group to decriminalize prostitution. He said he quit the organization the following year after it sent him letters asking him to stop promoting himself as a member.
“The fact that they are looking to decriminalize is basically what we were proposing,” he said. “They are supporting it for all the same reasons.” He added that targeting buyers amounted to “manufactured moral panic.” He said: “They think that if you are a foreign sex worker that you are trafficked. We feel they are actually economic migrants.”
Niki Adams, a spokeswoman for the English Collective of Prostitutes in London, said that her group has submitted information to Amnesty’s chapters in England and Scotland to support decriminalization for all. The organization, which represents women in the sex industry, has also organized a petition drive.
“The really crucial element,” she said, “is that it defines sex workers as exchanging sex for money as opposed to characterizing them as victims of violence.”
But some former prostitutes say they feel betrayed. Rachel Moran, the author of “Paid For,” which describes her seven-year experience as a prostitute in Ireland, is involved with a group organizing to oppose Amnesty’s proposal.
“It’s wrong because decriminalizing pimps and johns has been shown to massively inflate the market,” she said. “With an inflated market you have more abusers and, as an obvious consequence, more abuse. This has played out in Nevada, Australia, New Zealand, Holland, Germany and everywhere else the sex trade has been legalized.”
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