We at Demand Abolition are deeply disappointed with a resolution the International Secretariat of Amnesty International passed on August 11, calling for full decriminalization of all aspects of what it terms “consensual” prostitution. While we agree that women and men bought for sex should not be criminalized, we reject the idea that people should be able to purchase, for their own gratification, the bodies of those most vulnerable. Many of the world’s leading human rights organizations, gender equality groups, and advocates, including The King Center, Equality Now, the European Women’s Lobby, and former President Jimmy Carter, now stand arrayed against Amnesty’s misguided vote.
Amnesty first announced its intention to adopt a decriminalization policy in 2014, but after a backlash from feminist and human rights groups it postponed the decision for a year. During that time, the organization did not study all available data on the subject. When Amnesty revealed a revised position a few weeks ago, it also released new research supporting total decriminalization. This new data included a survey of only 70 people actively engaged in prostitution, from four countries that imposed some form of legal regulation or criminalization of paid sex, ignoring countries that have tried decriminalization. They failed to seek proper amount of input from those who had permanently left prostitution and might speak to its harms.
The limited, selective data raised serious concerns among many Amnesty members about the human rights implications of such a policy: Does decriminalizing the sex trade empower those within it, or simply legitimize the inhumane idea that sexual access to people, typically vulnerable ones, can be bought like any other commodity? Would decriminalization actually reduce violence and harm as stated, or would it result in increased abuse and exploitation? As the debates raged on, one thing became clear: this issue is complicated and controversial even among advocates who share some views.
Complicating matters further, the new Amnesty position does not actually call for the decriminalization of all aspects of prostitution. Unlike the versions drafted in 2014, the current Amnesty policy says that states can impose “legitimate restrictions on the sale of sexual services.” This stands in direct contrast to Amnesty’s own press release on the same policy, which acknowledges no limits to what can be decriminalized. Such inconsistencies from within Amnesty itself demonstrate that this resolution is still causing controversy and requires more careful consideration.
We can all agree on this: we must do more to support those in prostitution and ensure their human rights are protected. Amnesty’s acknowledgement that the prostitution industry is full of violence, both from the state and private sectors, is a start. And while we reject the notion that supporting full decriminalization of prostitution will achieve that goal, we are hopeful that the organization will eventually reject this policy and return to its former unassailable position as a true advocate for human rights.