When Amnesty International put women last

Amnesty International recently recommended the decriminalisation of all aspects of the sex industry. This is not the Nordic model, which decriminalises those selling sex; Amnesty recommends pimps and johns proceed with their exploitation of women and girls, with a stamp of human rights compliance. Amnesty has the enthusiastic support of many people who claim that full decriminalisation will benefit those working as prostitutes. But it has less friends among sex trade survivors and feminists these days, since addressing this abusive industry with a policy that is defeatist, at best.

Women talked about the abuse and people didn’t listen.

When prostitutes and survivors document the horrific violence, abuse and degradation they suffered, they are quickly silenced by those championing sexual autonomy, the supposedly liberating opportunity to reclaim prostitution as a safe, enriching and empowering occupation.

But there are a number of reasons why prostitution is none of those things and why it will never be conducive to women’s liberation or to equality.

I realised this when I stepped back to think about what happens when I go to corporate events that are attended by strippers and escorts. I thought about the behaviour of the men at the events; men I know and interact with on a professional level. They become predatory and misogynistic around strippers and escorts, while women join in the “banter” to secure male approval and avoid appearing prudish. I’ve done it myself, I’m embarrassed about that. I’ve been to those events and been angry when the men who normally treat me as a colleague or client sleaze all over me and start to touch me suggestively or even sexually. I’ve said things like: “I’m fine with strippers being here as long as the guys don’t treat me as one.” Then I realised that what I was really saying was: “I’m too good for this, but she, over there, is fair game.”

That’s not equality.

I knew this deep down when I watched films and plays about women being saved from prostitution by brave, tolerant, loving heroes who happily paid a woman for sex because she was destitute and hungry. If prostitution is safe, enriching and empowering, what are these fictional heroines being saved from? Why can’t they join the ranks of the respectable wives and girlfriends of the heroes until they stop being prostitutes?

Why is our society, which has long since normalised the concept of saving women from prostitution, gradually trying to normalise the idea of safe, happy “sex workers” reclaiming prostitution in the name of intersectional feminism? I don’t buy any of it and neither should you.

I’m not fine with being objectified, sexualised and undermined because I am a woman. And I’ve been a woman long enough to know that if it can happen to women in general it can happen to me, or you. Are you fine with that?

If you’re one of those people saying decriminalisation is a good thing, have you really thought about the arguments you use to make that case? Have you thought about what those concepts mean for women as a class of humans? Have you thought about what you really mean when you say these things?

You might say: “Prostitution is necessary to prevent rape.” Must women always pay for the crimes of men? Do you really mean to say it is better for some women to be sacrificed than to tackle rapists and rape culture?

You might say: “Prostitution is a job like any other.” Would you want it for your daughter, your wife, your mother? Do you really mean to say the safety and dignity of some women is valid only when viewed through the lens of your connection to them?

No sentence should start with “rape is terrible, but” so if you are one of the people using reductive techniques to raise your voice over the women who have been raped in prostitution, again, think about what you’re really saying.

You might say: “Most prostitutes are safe and doing it out of choice.” Do you really mean to say that if you were at extremely high risk of being raped at work, you would choose to stay in that job and you would like to make it easier for your potential rapists to get away with raping you?

You may indeed really mean all of these things. But if so, please don’t encourage the decriminalisation of abusive men in the name of women’s rights. Please own your misogyny; your complete disregard for the human rights of the women you have “othered” for your subjective idea of freedom. Please accept that you are more interested in the entitlement of those who cannot or choose not to have sex with women who actually want to have sex with them.

And if you won’t, please at least consider that in your desire to be seen as progressive and liberal, you ignore the humanity of one of the most vulnerable groups of people surviving in today’s society.

Prostitution is the commodification of the bodies of women of girls. It is born out of the ideology that women are second class citizens raised to service men. Decriminalisation will reinforce that, shrieking the message that women rightly come last. If you think all that is acceptable, you do not stand for women’s rights, you do not stand for women’s liberation and you do not stand for equality.


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