I have been a supporter of Amnesty International since 1970, when a young man at my high school organized an effort to pressure the Soviet Union to allow Russians Jews to leave the country. Suspicious of some of the projects Amnesty has undertaken recently, however, I have grown erratic in keeping up my membership.
My support of Amnesty ended today with Amnesty’s announcement that they would fight for “full decriminalization of all aspects of consensual sex work.” This tragic, and stupid, mistake suggests that the people running this organization do not know what they are doing. Perhaps for all their human rights work, they have never actually been to a developing country?
According to the NY Times, Amnesty says that “its research suggests decriminalization is the best way to defend sex workers’ human rights.” But a leaked early version of its proposal contended that “sexual desire is a fundamental need and that punishing buyers ‘may amount to a violation of the right to privacy and under the rights to free expression and health.’” Amnesty is arguing not just to decriminalize the prostituted person, but also to decriminalize the buyers and the pimps. In fact, they seem to be more concerned about the freedom and health of the john than that of the prostituted person.
Have any of the 500 delegates to the Amnesty conference ever talked to anyone involved in human trafficking? The more we learn about the sex trade, the more we learn that there is very little or perhaps no sex work that is actually consensual. Despite the “hooker with the heart of gold” and “Pretty Woman” myths, no one plans to become a prostitute. Most sex workers in American cities get started as girls (mostly) and boys (in increasing numbers) who ran away from abusive family situations and/or aged out of foster care. These vulnerable children are picked up by pimps, seduced, and then coerced into prostitution. These pimps are the very people Amnesty would be protecting.
Have the Amnesty delegates ever been to a developing country, where small girls are sold into prostitution by their impoverished parents, and beaten, starved, and raped into servicing dozens of men a day? Do they know the life expectancy of a prostitute? Has anyone at Amnesty ever read “Half the Sky?” And Amnesty wants to protect the human rights of the inhuman managers of these brothels?
The leaked proposal call sexual desire a “fundamental need ”- another expression of ignorance. Sex itself is certainly not a need. Sex is a drive, and a compelling one, but one can survive many long years without ever having sex. Calling sex a fundamental need comes close to calling in a right, which comes close to calling it an entitlement. No one has a need, right, or entitlement that allows them to violate the body of someone else. Even if they pay for it. Oh yes, that’s another thing we have learned – the sex worker usually gets nothing in exchange for his or her service. It all goes to the pimp or brothel owner.
In developing countries, it is difficult enough to get local police to enforce laws against prostitution. It is extremely naïve to believe that by decriminalizing the sex trade, it can be managed. Decriminalization will only legitimize the pimps and give them more power, the police less.
I also think of the impact of legitimizing sex work on the community. Burbank is an unincorporated area near downtown San Jose. Because of its unincorporated status, strip clubs and adult movie theaters and bookstores were allowed there. These businesses drew large numbers of the unattractive element whose human rights and sexual desires concern Amnesty. Residents regularly found used condoms, and sometimes “consensual sex workers” and their customers, on their lawns or in cars parked in front of their houses.
I agree with Salman Rushdie, who said in response to an earlier controversy at Amnesty International, “It looks very much as if Amnesty’s leadership is suffering from a kind of moral bankruptcy, and has lost the ability to distinguish right from wrong.”
Even more, I agree with Francis A. Boyle, a professor or international law and former Amnesty board member, who said, “We should be protecting human beings, and not sex work.” Being forced into sex work through poverty, abuse, or abandonment is already a violation of a person’s human rights. If Amnesty is concerned about the welfare of prostituted women and girls, they would do better to work to free them from the greed and lust of the people they now propose to defend.
If you have an opinion on this matter, go to Amnesty International USA Facebook page to express it.