From back alleys to Backpage.com, suburbs to cyber sites, human beings—especially women and girls—are bought and sold for sex. No matter the medium, there’s one constant—rampant demand.
Demand Abolition is eradicating the illegal commercial sex industry in the US—and, by extension, the world—by combating the demand for purchased sex. The most efficient approach to ending sexual exploitation is targeting sex buyers: when they stop buying, the entire system of degradation collapses.
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Amnesty International is on the verge of approving a misguided resolution calling for total decriminalization of commercial sex. Demand Abolition stands with human rights activists and organizations from around the world opposing this policy. Such a move would legitimize the sexual exploitation of people across the globe, especially women and children.
Amnesty’s decision-making entity, the International Council Meeting (ICM), meets every other year to direct its International Board. This year, the ICM meets in Dublin, Ireland August 7 to 11. On the agenda is a “Draft Policy on Sex Work,” which endorses decriminalization of sex-buying, pimping and brothel-owning – not just selling.
The draft policy does make some valuable recommendations: People sold for sex are typically desperate and vulnerable. We agree with Amnesty that they should not be arrested, but need help escaping prostitution, including services for housing, treatment for substance abuse, job training, and medical care. But there are many troubling aspects of the resolution’s wording which must be addressed before it’s allowed to move forward.
For instance, the proposal suggests that buying sexual access to a person is fine as long as it’s “consensual.” But far from consenting, most prostituted people perceive themselves as having no choice. The vast majority enter the sex trade as minors, or because of economic desperation, psychological manipulation, threats, or actual violence. Decriminalizing all aspects of the predatory practice that keeps them vulnerable isn’t “harm reduction,” as Amnesty claims—it’s an endorsement of a system that exploits hundreds of thousands of children and adults each year.
Kenya – Survivor of Human Trafficking, Advocate, Photo: Lynn Savarese
Equally damaging is Amnesty’s description of “sex work.” Being coerced into the sex industry via force, manipulation, or a lack of options is not a career choice; it’s exploitation of the worst kind. As Vednita Carter, founder of the survivor-led organization Breaking Free, puts it:
“Prostitution is not ‘sex’ and it is not ‘work.’ It is a harmful practice steeped in gender and economic inequalities that leaves a devastating impact on those of us who were or are ‘in the life.’”
Those who profit from the sex trade may claim that total decriminalization makes life safer for “sex workers,” but research says otherwise. Reports from Germany and the Netherlands, countries with some of the world’s most profitable sex trades, shows that the legalization of commercial sex leads to an explosion in prostitution, including the sale of trafficked women and children, without a reduction in violence.
However, countries like Sweden, Norway, and Iceland—where buyers are criminalized but prostituted people are protected and offered help—have substantially fewer instances of sex trafficking and related crimes. But the research Amnesty has shared with its delegates makes little note of this successful approach, known as the Nordic Model.
Amnesty nearly passed a similar proposal in 2014, but thanks to public outcry from human rights advocates the vote was delayed—until now. On Aug. 7, Amnesty’s International Council will vote on the revived proposal for decriminalization.