Amnesty’s proposal to legalise prostitution is wrong – we can’t let men who exploit women off the hook

At the end of January I wrote for Mumsnet, the popular parenting forum, on the subject of prostitution. It’s a subject which really seems to have caught people’s imagination, and there was an extensive discussion on the Mumsnet forum afterwards. Some argued from a libertarian stand-point, and many others seemed to share my disappointment in Amnesty. Given that reports have suggested a rise in single-mums turning to prostitution following the 2008 crisis, I was particularly interested to see the different ways that mothers engaged with the issue.

My full piece is printed below:

An Amnesty International document leaked this week argues for the legalisation of prostitution. It says that approaches like the Swedish Model – which criminalise buying sex, but legalise selling it – are guilty of “devaluing” prostituted women and “criminalising the contexts in which they live”. In essence, the proposals say that most women who become prostitutes make a rational, informed choice – effectively , that they enter into a relationship of equals with the men who purchase their bodies.

I’m really disappointed in Amnesty. I’m a long term supporter of the Swedish Model and, for me, the idea that we should simply accept prostitution as a fact of life is totally wrong. It is particularly irresponsible at a time when it’s being reported that austerity is driving many women – and in particular single parents – into prostitution.

I believe Amnesty have got it wrong. Firstly, I don’t believe prostitution is, in most cases, “consensual sex between adults”, as the policy document describes it. The idea that women who go into prostitution are exercising ‘free choice’ just doesn’t stack up. Abuse and lack of alternatives are almost always a factor – many enter the sex trade young, and come from backgrounds fraught with suffering and abuse. Of course there are exceptions to the rule but, all things being equal, I believe most women don’t ‘choose’, in the true sense, to become prostitutes.

Secondly, I disagree with the idea there can be any real equality between a woman who sells her body and a man who buys it. As Amnesty admits, the conditions of the sex trade are “imperfect” to say the least. British ‘prostitute review’ sites like ‘Punternet’ – as well as the male-led ‘Hands off my whore’ campaign in France – show what so-called clients think of the women they buy sex from.

A large proportion of prostitutes say they experience aggression while working, and nearly seven in ten suffer the symptoms of post-traumatic stress. The dynamic between buyers and sellers of sex ranges from the disrespectful to the downright abusive – but there’s almost always an inequality at play.

Of course, there’ll always be some who say that prostitution is “the oldest trade” and that there’s not much we can do about it. But this argument is as untrue as it’s depressing. In Sweden, for example, stopping the purchase of sex changes social attitudes, making men less likely to purchase sex and more likely to support prosecutions for others – and there’s no reason why this can’t happen in the UK. Amnesty need to aim much higher. We can do better, surely, than just make the exploitation of women better regulated.

The role of charities like Amnesty should be to lift standards up, not drive them down. Amnesty are supposed to be an ambitious organisation. They shouldn’t just shrug their shoulders and say “c’est la vie”. Over the years they’ve done an indispensable job in ending exploitation, improving human rights, and reducing inequalities. Legalising prostitution runs counter to all these things. It has turned Germany into a “giant Teutonic brothel”, as the Economist puts it – and, according to Equality Now, has “empowered pimps and traffickers” in Amsterdam.

Women at risk or in economic need require more opportunities and better protection – not to be told their only option is a demeaning last resort. For the sake of women and mothers everywhere I sincerely hope Amnesty will rethink their position.

The discussion is still going on among Mumsnet users. You can read it in full by clicking here.

1 Comment

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One response to “Amnesty’s proposal to legalise prostitution is wrong – we can’t let men who exploit women off the hook

  1. I am unwilling to give straight endorsement of the Amnesty proposal, since I have not fully researched evaluation of the New Zealand approach.

    http://www.justice.govt.nz/policy/commercial-property-and-regulatory/prostitution/prostitution-law-review-committee

    http://www.justice.govt.nz/policy/commercial-property-and-regulatory/prostitution/prostitution-law-review-committee/publications/plrc-report/executive-summary

    I am not persuaded that the Scandinavian model avoids trafficking better than the New Zealand model.