Skip to main content

Does Amnesty International want legal prostitution?

By Robin Morgan
updated 2:43 PM EST, Sat March 8, 2014
A German prostitute, called Eve, waits for clients behind her window in the red light district of Amsterdam.
A German prostitute, called Eve, waits for clients behind her window in the red light district of Amsterdam.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Amnesty International put forth a document calling for the legalization of prostitution
  • Robin Morgan: Prostitution is selling and buying human beings, which amounts to slavery
  • Morgan: Prostituted women have high rates of PTSD, many are child abuse survivors
  • She says we should criminalize buyers. Amnesty should reject decriminalization

Editor's note: Robin Morgan, activist and author of 22 books, hosts the radio show/podcast "Women's Media Center Live with Robin Morgan": WMCLive.com and iTunes.

(CNN) -- What if the world's most distinguished human rights organization decided to condone pimping? Unthinkable, right? But that's what happened when Amnesty International put forth a document calling for the legalization of prostitution.

For 50 years, the global women's movement has been fighting the selling and buying of human beings, which has a name: slavery. For decades, feminists called for criminalizing the buyers while decriminalizing the women they buy; offering women support services ranging from safe harbor through drug rehabilitation to education and skills training; and enforcing laws that criminalize pimps, traffickers and brothel owners.

The response was that it would never work (and feminists were crazy, sex-hating Puritans).

Robin Morgan
Robin Morgan

The sex industry fought back, both openly -- It's the "oldest profession, always been with us"; it represents "sexual liberation" -- and covertly, through funding happy-hooker-type groups, rebranding prostitution as "sex work," and praising it as a career choice indistinguishable from any other. Have you ever met an 8-year-old who said, "Ooh, I wanna grow up to be a hooker"?

The numbers of prostituted women who suffer post-traumatic stress disorder are in the same range as combat veterans and refugees from state sponsored torture. They are also disproportionately survivors of child sexual and physical abuse, rape and battery, kidnapping, assault with a deadly weapon, and addiction to drugs and/or alcohol.

Vednita Carter, a survivor activist, has noted that every prostituted woman has been forced, whether or not she seems to "choose willingly." Racism, violence and poverty are ever present forms of coercion in the sex industry; consequently, poor women and women of color have a disproportionately large presence. And we're only now discovering the enormous impact of prostitution on women in native communities.

As the survivors succinctly depict it: $ Does Not = Consent.

There is, as Kathleen Barry pointed out in her classic, "The Prostitution of Sexuality," a single interrelated mega-enterprise of sexual exploitation.

We know the trajectory of, say, a young runaway from an abusive home: First, the offer of work in "films." Then, the "temporary" turning of a trick or two, which becomes a permanent deployment in prostitution. Finally, she finds herself being moved around as a trafficked commodity.

Despite this reality, the phrase "sex work" became fashionable among some well-meaning people who assumed that this term meant respect for the women involved -- when actually it signifies approval for the context in which such women were trying to stay barely alive, or from which they were trying to escape.

Nevertheless, progress seemed possible. Sweden, Norway, and Iceland passed legislation holding customers responsible for buying human beings for sex, criminalizing the buyers and offering the women support programs.

France's prostitution fight

This is known as the Nordic Model. The French parliament voted last December to follow Sweden's model; similar laws are pending in the parliaments of Belgium, Ireland, Scotland and Canada, and the European Parliament favored it with a strongly affirmative vote on February 24, 2014.

See, the model works. Since Sweden began enforcement, street prostitution has been reduced almost by half and trafficking has declined. This unglues the arguments of those who treat trafficking as a separate issue from "sex work." Is it less enslaving to be bought in your own country rather than another? Contrarily, countries with legalized prostitution have greater inflows of human trafficking, according to a study published in ScienceDirect.

Then, just when it seemed sanity was winning, the respected human rights organization Amnesty International appears to have come out on the side of the sex industry.

An Amnesty International document, "Decriminalization of Sex Work," argues that pimps and johns should be "free from government interference" and allowed to "exercise their autonomy."

It says governments have an obligation to establish an environment where pimps can operate freely to engage prostituted people; to do otherwise "threatens the rights to health, nondiscrimination, equality, privacy, and security of persons." The document also insults the disability community by claiming that men with disabilities require access to prostituted women to further their sense of "life enjoyment and dignity."

Amnesty International has argued that the document is a draft and is in the discussion stage. But Amnesty International representatives appeared at the Northern Ireland Assembly in January, lobbying to strike down proposed legislation that would criminalize customers for buying prostituted women.

What's even more stunning is that a former member of Amnesty, is proudly claiming credit for having first raised the issue of legalizing pimps and brothel owners at the organization, which he says resulted in the policy recommendation. A campaigner for the International Union of Sex Workers who and calls himself a "sex worker", he and his partner run a major escort service. Amnesty, however, denies his involvement in the draft document, saying he had "zero input." Amnesty came to this on its own, then? Hard to know which is worse.

It took decades for the global women's movement to convince Amnesty that human rights were not reserved for male people. Now, Amnesty International London has set things back by considering a shocking violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

But this time, the "crazy, puritanical feminists" can't be dismissed; we're backed by national governments who've proved our point—and saved women's lives. This time survivors must be heard.

On March 8, a mass protest will be held at Amnesty International's London headquarters, and a worldwide virtual protest is building online. A global petition to Amnesty and a Facebook page called Virtual Protest of Amnesty International has full information. We hope Amnesty will regain its soul -- and realize that survivors' rights are women's rights are human rights.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Robin Morgan.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:26 PM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT