I never imagined Amnesty International would make me aware of and passionate about a human rights issue by being on the wrong side of it. Now that I’m leaving Amnesty International over their “sex worker” policy (which decriminalizes not just those prostituted, who we all agree should not be arrested; but pimps and johns, by any other name), becoming discouraged and finding no hope of change from within, I’m going to start from the beginning (and the ending, for me & AI) with prostitution survivors.
I should note The Feministahood’s What Amnesty Did Wrong is an excellent starting point on this issue (with several follow up blog posts & articles now listed at the end). I’ll be getting into a lot of those issues in the future, but to me, it comes back to the survivors and the vast majority of those still in prostitution who want to get out and the human rights violations what AI calls “sex work” really involves.
Like a lot of people, I knew nothing of Amnesty International’s proposed policy on “sex workers” until the so called “celebrity letter” in July, just before the Amnesty International International Council Meeting (ICM) in Dublin. Except I tracked down the original letter from the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW), and realized there were over 400 signatures, most of them from leaders of organizations including anti-trafficking, women’s human rights and, something new to me at the time, prostitution survivor organizations – from as far away as the Philippines and Ireland to as close as Seattle – all trying to help women exit, talking of the real harms involved (in prostitution, not just trafficking, and that they aren’t so easily separated), and calling for the Nordic Model – decriminalizing of those selling themselves, but consequences for the buyers as well as the pimps and brothel owners.
Those survivor organizations started to speak out more as AI’s vote at the ICM in early August in Dublin came closer, from an op-ed in the Seattle Times co-written by Debra Boyer, the director of Seattle Organization for Prostitution Survivors (OPS) to a press conference in Dublin by SPACE International (Survivors of Prostitution Abuse Calling for Enlightenment). As Rachel Moran from Ireland points out in the video below “I think that Amnesty, if they were looking at this issue coming truly from a perspective of human rights, they couldn’t possibly arrive at this position…”
A couple quotes from Bridget Perrier, a First Nations woman from Canada especially stood out to me:
“Prostitution is very sad. It picks the girls. It picks the girls who are fractured.
“For me, it wasn’t work. It was abuse.”
Bridget was quoted also in an article in the International Business Times: Sex trade survivors: ‘Amnesty wants to decriminalise every human rights violation intrinsic to prostitution’ just before the ICM vote:
Bridget Perrier is the co-founder of public awareness organisation Sextrade101. A First Nations woman from Canada, she was lured into prostitution at the age of 12 and trafficked across the country for 10 to 12 years. She says prostitution places Canada’s indigenous women at risk.
“I was the perfect candidate for prostitution, based on my race and gender, and I was under pimp control for 10 years,” she says. “I live in a country where aboriginal and indigenous women are going missing and being murdered by the droves. I have seen serial killers targeting women specifically because of their high-risk lifestyle and their involvement in prostitution. Decriminalising the commercial sex industry does not make it any safer.”
Sadly, Amnesty International did not listen, and passed their DECISION ON STATE OBLIGATIONS TO RESPECT, PROTECT, AND FULFIL THE HUMAN RIGHTS OF SEX WORKERS in language so vague many are still hoping it doesn’t really call for the decriminalization of pimps and johns.
These questions are further answered (and the reality covered up) in their Q&A: POLICY TO PROTECT THE HUMAN RIGHTS OF SEX WORKERS.
Our policy is not about protecting “pimps”. Third parties that exploit or abuse sex workers will still be criminalized under the model we are proposing.
But there are overly broad laws, like those against “brothel keeping” or “promotion” that are often used against sex workers and criminalise actions they take to try and stay safe. For example, in many countries two sex workers working together for safety is considered a “brothel”.
So AI is for decriminalizing third parties (which generally means people like pimps and brothel owners), but only to protect “sex workers” accidentally accused of pimping or brothel owners and somehow there will be laws to distinguish third parties that exploit and abuse workers will still be criminalized.
The johns? The ones who drive the whole trade, including underage and trafficked women (or men)? They also have to be decriminalized supposedly to protect the women (totally misrepresenting the Nordic Model):
Even though sex workers are not directly criminalized under the Nordic model, operational aspects – like purchasing sex and renting premises to sell sex in – are still criminalized. This compromises sex workers safety and leaves them vulnerable to abuse; they can still be pursued by police whose aim is often to eradicate sex work through enforcing the criminal law.
In reality, laws against buying sex mean that sex workers have to take more risks to protect buyers from detection by the police. Sex workers we spoke to regularly told us about being asked to visit customers’ homes to help them avoid police, instead of going to a place where sex worker felt safer.
I didn’t quit in August, as there was hope we could change things through internal process at AIUSA (and ultimately AI, at the next ICM).
That was not to be with the “sex workers” union SWOP and the other “sex workers” having their own panel and being well organized (and having the ear of AIUSA leadership) and student groups, whether lobbied or it’s what they’re teaching in college, buying into it.
I couldn’t help but think being a “rent boy” who gets to choose your customers by whether they’re cute or being an American Courtesan (again selecting customers) is not the norm for the vast majority trapped in prostitution (the most conservative estimate I’ve read is 89% would leave if they could). I also couldn’t help but notice that even their three panelists has all either been initially trafficked or underage, and sadly one serious account of violence by a john (somehow blamed on End Demand/The Nordic model, not on the violent customer).
Survivors were there as well, and have something to say:
There’s a lot more to say on this issue, and it’s sad that AI is not the one championing those really trapped in prostitution, instead pressuring us to leave if we want to speak out. I will not be silenced. I joined AI to speak out for human rights, not for their prestigious name.