Australian feminist, environmental activist and whistleblower Isla MacGregor gave a compelling case against Amnesty International’s “Sex Work policy” at the Women’s International League For Peace and Freedom (WILPF) forum in Hobart, Tasmania today .
MacGregor was invited to speak by Human Rights Award recipient Linley Grant.
The talk by the self- described “retired activist”, (who recently won the Volcano Art Prize for her evocative photographs of the environmental impacts of mining on both the earth and community) was “well received”and praised as “informative and mind-changing” by attendees at the forum.
MacGregor’s talk has been taken as a case to the WILPF branch of the United Nations.
“How will Amnesty International’s Sex Trade Policy
Impact on Human Rights,
Poverty and Violence to Women Globally?”
Talk by Isla MacGregor for the
Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom
Forum in Human Rights Week, Hobart 4 December 2015
Thank you Linley for inviting me to give this presentation during the 2015 Human Rights Week events in Hobart.
(Julian Burnside AO QC is an Australian barrister, human rights and refugee advocate, and author.)
The subject I am about to talk about is not one that receives much public or media attention. Nor is it a topic of ‘polite’ in depth conversation amongst members of social justice or human rights groups.
But the inherent harms to women in a globally expanding sex trade urgently need to be brought back into public discourse – especially now, when the White Ribbon campaign to end men’s violence to women is attracting so much media attention.
Recently, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said –
All violence against women begins with disrespecting women….and further….. men need to take action.
There are many urgent questions that must be addressed by the human rights community. Most importantly, the voices of survivors of all forms of violence against women, including in the sex trade, must be heard. They must not be silenced or threatened.
Why does the debate about men’s violence toward women not include the violence perpetrated by men against the 40 million women worldwide who are part of the $99 billion dollar per annum sex trade? Many of these women have been trafficked, tricked or coerced into transactional sex as a result of war, poverty, terrorism, ecological disasters, or socio-economic disadvantage. Most have little or no education, many are homeless, and a disproportionate number have been sexually abused as children.
Society accepts the commodification of women’s bodies and its ensuing harms for the purpose of providing sexual access for men. Why has that not been considered as a contributing factor in the broader debate about the root causes of violence against women?
Why are the relentless multi-media pornification and hypersexualisation of our cultures, and the increasingly overt sexualisation of young girls not being widely questioned?
How could Amnesty International develop a policy that is incompatible with the 1948 UN Declaration of Human Rights, the 1949 United Nations Convention on the Suppression of the Trafficking in Persons and on the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others, and the 1979 UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW)?
I will begin by discussing what has been considered by many in the human rights movement globally as one of the most retrograde steps any human rights organisation has taken on the issue of women’s rights – Amnesty International’s new policy on what they controversially refer to as ‘sex work’.
Amnesty International began its consultation process on the issue of prostitution in 2008, largely in response to lobbying by the Amnesty Newcastle UK branch, and AI member and known pimp Douglas Fox. Fox stated publicly that he would pursue Amnesty International ‘mercilessly’ to develop a policy supporting full decriminalisation of the sex trade, including sex buyers, pimps and brothel owners.
Amnesty was roundly condemned for fast-tracking the sex laws policy and for dishonestly misrepresenting the alternative to decriminalisation – the Nordic Model – in the material distributed to members. They described Nordic Model laws as a ‘criminalisation’ of the sex trade, and ignored their true rationale – the decriminalisation of sellers of sex, and criminalisation of buyers, pimps and brothel owners.’
The Hobart branch of Amnesty International, for example, did not facilitate any meetings on the issue or invite input from proponents of different legislative approaches to the sex trade. At the 2014 Tasmanian Branch AGM, however, the issue was hotly debated when a resolution was moved by members who stacked the meeting in support of Nordic Model laws – not necessarily a democratic result, but it made a strong point about Amnesty’s decision making processes. Amnesty failed to invite submissions from international women’s human rights groups, or circulate information to members, on all alternative legislative approaches to the sex trade. The members were not fully or properly informed.
Prostitution survivor and National Director of the Nordic Model in Australia Coalition (NorMAC), Simone Watson said –
The proposed Amnesty International Council policy calling for the decriminalisation of sex work released at the Amnesty International Australia AGM held in Sydney last weekend (July 2014), has been roundly condemned by human rights, women’s and survivor groups and Amnesty members all over the world.
This is an appalling abuse of due process by the Amnesty International Council. Amnesty International is an organisation that has become increasingly top down in its consultation processes with members.
The International Secretariat previously admitted after receiving responses in 2013 to their Sex Work policy discussion paper that –
‘There is no question that the consultation process could have been handled much better.’
Of the 29 Amnesty sections that submitted consultation responses, nearly all were from Europe and North America but few responses were received from sections in developing nations or those where indigenous populations have proved to be at high risk of human rights abuses in the sex trade.
With just under 60% of Amnesty International sections not submitting any response on the Sex Work Policy and only four sections giving support to the policy, it is appalling that Amnesty persists with their policy direction.
Of the 40% of sections that submitted written feedback on the policy, all supported decriminalisation of sex workers.
Twenty eight per cent of sections that responded said they needed more research to be conducted by Amnesty to inform their views. And further, 38% of respondents called for an extension to the consultation process. Others found the consultation process to be flawed.
NorMAC submitted a formal and detailed complaint to Amnesty International Secretary General Salil Shetty seeking an independent investigation into the conduct of the International Secretariat during the policy development process. NorMAC also expressed concern about the lack of proper membership and stakeholder consultation for the policy. Contrary to normal Amnesty procedures, Salil Shetty took no action.
Amnesty declined to offer any response to questions about the omissions from their final report to the International Council Meeting in Dublin in August this year.
For example, there was no reference to research critical of decriminalisation/legalisation outcomes in Germany, the Netherlands and New Zealand. Neither was there any mention of positive outcomes for the Nordic Model in Iceland, Norway and Sweden. The latter three countries are in the top five nations on the Global Gender Equity Index.
As I mentioned earlier, survivors’ voices and their experiences need to be heard. Simone Watson has written of her experience in the sex trade –
The first harm of prostitution arrived the day I took on the first ‘john’ and needed prescription medication to endure it. Far from being risqué and ‘kinda cool’, I experienced the need for dissociation, inhibiting of vomit-reflexes and humiliation. This did not end even after I left the industry, due to PTSD. It flares up to this day.
Writing the words ‘vomit-reflexes’ I am aware many will take that as the reality of being orally penetrated, and it is. Further, I mean to make clear that having been raped prior to, during, and after my time in the sex trade, nausea is commonly associated with rape, particularly when one is not able to engage the natural fight/flight response and thus experiences the ‘freeze’ response. As I was being paid, these natural reflexes where inhibited by way of my, quote, ‘job description.’ Prescription medication became my instant best friend.
I did not meet one woman, man or transperson in the sex trade who was not taking some form of medication, including, but not limited to, diazepam, xanax, alcohol and illicit drugs, outside of or during our ‘working’ hours.
I often hear that disabled men need access to prostituted people, and that women such as myself are therefore providing a service to these men, much as we do to soldiers, and any other group of men. The fact that those of us in prostitution end up with disabilities as a result of being sexually used by men seems irrelevant to the discussion and apart from being patronising to disabled men, I think that the prostituted matter and thus our right not to be bought and sold is in keeping with the same principle which demands one marginalised group of people should not be pitted against the other.
The research on the harms of prostitution is damning. The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW) posted a letter from survivors of prostitution on their website. It said –
The average age of entry into prostitution in the US is 13. By the time an ‘average’ girl in prostitution turns 18, she has been abused countless times as a minor by adults. Turning eighteen does not magically change the poverty, sexual violence and abuse, lack of education, racism, sexism, homophobia, and disability, which lead to and are perpetuated by the prostitution trap.
The European Women’s Lobby recently reported that –
80% of registered victims of trafficking are women and girls, and 69% are trafficked into the sex industry. Nearly all of these victims are women, who, in addition to the human rights violations they have already faced due to trafficking, are receiving very limited support, protection and attention from European legal systems.
NorMAC’s analysis of the sex trade is useful –
Research in 2003 looked at the prevalence of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) amongst women in prostitution across nine countries. It was found that 68% of those in the sex trade experienced PTSD. This rate is comparable to the trauma faced by rape survivors and survivors of state-sponsored torture.
In 2005 the National Drug and Alcohol Research centre published an article titled ‘Mental health, drug use and risk among female street-based sex workers in greater Sydney’. The project interviewed 72 women who had been involved in prostitution for 3 months or more, and the statistics highlighted the following –
One quarter of the identified as being Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander.
More than half left home before the age of 16.
The median range for school completion was year 9.
14% had no fixed address or were currently homeless.
Nearly half the sample reported being homeless within the past 12 months.
Three-quarters of the sample experienced child sexual abuse before the age of 16.
Almost two-thirds reported that after the age of 16 someone had sexual intercourse with them despite them making it clear they did not consent.
One third of participants reported moving into prostitution before the age of 18.
Two thirds of respondents found sex work stressful with half stating that the clients were the cause of this stress.
85% of women reported experiencing violence in prostitution, particularly physical assault (65%), rape with gun/knife (40%), rape without weapon (33%) and attempted rape (21%).a little over half (39 respondents) reporting severe depressive symptoms. A little over half of this group (54%) reported having attempted suicide and one-quarter of these had been before the age of 18. Half the sample also screened positively for a diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) with approximately half the total sample also meeting the criteria for PTSD with 31% of respondents reporting current PTSD symptoms.
‘Stigma’ is a word we often hear in conversations about the sex trade. Sex trade advocates often cite ‘stigma’ as one of the major issues for women in the sex trade and charge that abolitionists are doing nothing to ameliorate the problem of stigma for those in prostitution. But who is doing the stigmatising? What do men say about the women they use in prostitution?
Here are some examples –
No big deal, it’s just like getting a beer.
You pay for the convenience, a bit like going to a public loo.
Prostitution is like being able to masturbate without doing any of the work.
We’re living in the age of instant coffee, instant food. This is instant sex.
Look, men pay for women because they can have whatever and whoever they want. Lots of men go to prostitutes so they can do things to them real women would not put up with.
Prostitution is being able to do what you want without the taxation.
Ironically, today’s neo-liberal feminists support the arguments of ‘agency’ and ‘choice’ put forward by the sex trade lobby as justification for decriminalisation. Are they aware they have been co-opted by those who benefit from the sex trade? Not the prostituted persons, but the punters – the men who buy sex- the pimps and the brothel owners.
A study published this year in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence co-authored by UCLA Professor Neil Malamuth profiled men who buy sex. It found that men who buy sex are more likely to report having committed rape and other aggressive acts.
Professor Malamuth, a professor of communications studies and psychology, said –
Our findings indicate that men who buy sex share certain key characteristics with men who are at risk for committing sexual aggression. Both groups tend to have a preference for impersonal sex, a fear of rejection by women, a history of having committed sexually aggressive acts and a hostile masculine self-identification. Those who buy sex, on average, have less empathy for women in prostitution and view them as intrinsically different from other women.
Men who work in law enforcement in decriminalised/legalised jurisdictions have a unique perspective on the relationship between sex buyers and prostituted persons. A senior German Police Officer giving evidence to the European Parliament in Brussels said –
This is precisely what we had to experience in the course of investigations against a brothel in Augsburg a few years ago. We had found that the women were subjected to very strict rules and regulations by the brothel operators. For example, they had to be at the disposal of the punters for 13 hours running, they weren’t allowed to leave the brothel earlier, they had to walk around stark naked, they weren’t even allowed to decide on the prices for their services. Prices were unified and set. They partly had to offer unprotected sex. And they had to pay fees to the brothel for the infringement of any of these rules. These conditions are of course incompatible with human dignity. But the court declared all of this to be legal now, because of the new Prostitution Act.
The Nordic Model
As part of a hearing in the European Parliament recently, Jonas Henriksson, a Swedish Detective Sergeant who works combating prostitution and trafficking, referred to the model of prostitution legislation implemented in Sweden in 1998. He said –
The goal is to damage the market and to starve it of its buyers.
Also at the hearing, a member of the European Parliament, Malin Björk, who organised a workshop on the Nordic Model said –
I am happy to hear you will be focusing on addressing demand for trafficked women, but what exactly is this demand? Brothel owners, pimps, but also men buying sex. The Nordic Model has been very effective in addressing the issue of demand, so what will the Commission do to tackle this?
Nordic Model laws decriminalise all people who sell sex and provide exit programs for those who wish to leave the sex trade, including services aimed at providing housing, health, education and employment support. The prostitution law is part of broader legislation know as the Women’s Peace and Sanctuary Laws. As a result of criminalising buyers of sex these laws have had a marked effect on cultural attitudes to women, especially men’s attitudes, and has been effective in reducing sex trafficking.
In February this year the European Parliament voted in support of Nordic Model laws on prostitution. Recently, Northern Ireland implemented Nordic Model laws and it is expected Eire will follow soon. In Scotland there are moves to reintroduce a Nordic Model style bill next year. Along with Sweden, Iceland, Norway, and South Korea have introduced these laws, with Canada passing similar laws earlier this year. France and Israel are set to follow.
Prostitution and war
Many of you here might remember the shocking case of the whistleblower and American policewoman Kathryn Bolcovac. Kathryn exposed international humanitarian employees, UN police and NATO troops as regular buyers of sex from minors and trafficked women in Bosnia in 1998. She further revealed that UN police were involved in the trafficking of women. Her role was intended to stem the incidence of forced prostitution and sexual abuse in Bosnia but instead she ended up fighting for protection under public interest disclosure laws.
Another example of the sex trade flourishing in times of conflict is documented in the book Base Nation: How U.S. Military Bases Abroad Harm America and the World by Associate Professor of Anthropology David Vine at the American University in Washington, DC. He wrote –
As World War II came to a close, U.S. military leaders in Korea, just like their counterparts in Germany, worried about the interactions between American troops and local women. ‘Americans act as though Koreans were a conquered nation rather than a liberated people’, wrote the office of the commanding general. The policy became ‘hands off Korean women’, but this did not include women in brothels, dance halls and those working the streets.
U.S. military authorities occupying Korea after the war took over some of the ‘comfort stations’ that had been central to the Japanese war machine since the 19th century. During its conquest of territory across east Asia, the Japanese military forced hundreds of thousands of women from Korea, China, Okinawa and rural Japan, and other parts of Asia into sexual slavery, providing soldiers with ‘royal gifts’ from the emperor.
The arrangements were further formalized after the 1950 outbreak of the Korean War. ‘The municipal authorities have already issued the approval for establishing UN comfort stations in return for the Allied Forces’ toil’, wrote the Pusan Daily. ‘In a few days, five stations will be set up in the downtown areas of new and old Masan.
The ‘camp towns’ became deeply stigmatized twilight zones known for sex, crime and violence.
Former camp town former sex worker, Aeran Kim recalled –
Women like me were the biggest sacrifice for my country’s alliance with the Americans. Looking back, I think my body was not mine, but the government’s and the U.S. military’s
They urged us to sell as much as possible to the GI’s, praising us as ‘dollar-earning patriots’. Our government was one big pimp for the U.S. military.
The links between war and the normalisation of sexual abuse and harm to women in prostitution remains a case of business as usual for male privilege and protection today.
Amnesty’s ‘sex work’ policy is a band-aid solution that ignores the lack of real global action on poverty and violence to women in the sex trade since the Nairobi Women’s Conference in 1975. This conference concluded that –
Men own 90% of the world’s wealth and women do 75% of the world’s work.
According to documents leaked in 2013, and prior to any consultation process, the Amnesty International Secretariat had already decided to push through with a full decriminalisation position. But who, other than 80 people claiming to be sex workers, did Amnesty consult with? Certainly not survivors of prostitution – not one was consulted.
The organisation, Abolish Prostitution Now (APN), provides a useful reference point on the Amnesty decision. Recently it posted the following –
Claudia Brizuela, a former leader of the Association of Women Prostitutes of Argentina and a founder of the Latin American-Caribbean Female Sex Workers Network, was arrested and charged for sex trafficking a year ago.
The latter network was also represented by Alejandra Gil in Mexico, also charged with sex trafficking this Spring, found guilty and condemned to 15 yrs. Both groups were funded by UNAIDS and referenced by Amnesty International in support of the policy it intends to adopt, where trafficking is described as not to be conflated with pimping and brothel-managing.
Taina Bien-Aime, Executive Director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, summarised the issue in an article in the Huffington Post in October this year, titled ‘The Framing of Gender Apartheid: Amnesty International and Prostitution’.
What would happen if every country decriminalized prostitution? Not just the few that have already disastrously done so, but what if every government legitimized pimps and brothel owners and failed to hold men accountable for purchasing human beings for sex? Would the United Nations and its member states launch a 2050 Agenda for Investing in the Sex Trade as a Solution and Sustainable Development for Women and Girls, Especially the Most Indigent?
What marketing slogans would ensue? Might public agencies launch poverty alleviation campaigns? ‘First Nations, Indigenous, Aboriginal, African-Americans and Global South Populations: Are you Poor, Young, Incested, Transgendered, Homeless? With our help, the Sex Trade will provide you with shelter, food, free condoms and the opportunity to contribute to your (or a foreign) country’s Gross National Product. No experience or education required’.
Women have the unequivocal right to make decisions about their health, body, sexuality and reproductive life. Men, on the other hand, do not have the fundamental right to gain access to that body in the sex trade or in any other sphere, despite Amnesty’s premise to the contrary. Amnesty is refusing to admit that the prostituted suffer at the hands of buyers regardless of the legal environment, wilfully ignoring johns‘ own accounts of their predilection for dehumanization, and research showing their propensity for sexual violence.
Think of this: over three million women and girls are sold to men on a daily basis in mega-brothels in India. Under Amnesty’s plan, that number would exponentially increase with legalized demand and cultural acceptance of prostitution as a viable livelihood for poor, low caste and invisible girls and young women. A vote to endorse the global sex trade would wipe out any progress to advance women’s rights that Amnesty might have made in the past years.
The Afrikaans term apartheid means ‘apart and aside’ and evokes one of the most brutal regimes in modern history. By encouraging governments to enshrine the sex trade as just another potential employer, Amnesty is promoting gender apartheid, the segregation of women between those who deserve access to economic and educational opportunities and those who are condemned to prostitution. Make no mistake: as long as women are for sale, no woman will be viewed as equal in corporate boardrooms, in the halls of legislature, or in the home.
A visionary human rights organization crafts its mission on what we’d like the world to be, not accommodate the untold suffering that exists. But until Amnesty rights this wrong, its legitimacy is tarnished; its soul, lost; its candle, extinguished.’
And this decision by Amnesty International comes at a time when women in Greece – a country experiencing a dire financial crisis – have been forced to sell themselves for the price of a sandwich. When the spectre of climate change means an impending human and ecological disaster and the mass migration of women from rich food growing coastal belts to urban ghettos, with few options for survival available to them.”
I would like to especially thank Simone Watson, Matthew Holloway and Bronwyn Williams and all those who dedicate time to work on achieving an end to the sex trade, justice, peace and freedom for all women.”