Should prostitution be decriminalized? Few questions attract such heated debate, and few are as likely to divide people and organizations that believe they are championing the best interests of vulnerable people. In the next few days our colleague in human rights work, Amnesty International, will be tackling this question at its International Council Meeting in Ireland. We who work with sex trafficking victims urge the delegates to vote no. To do otherwise would let pimps and johns off the hook for acts of violence and exploitation.
We recognize that there are people who participate in sex work of their own free will, for their own profit (often out of desperation to meet basic needs when there are few other options). We agree that they must be kept safe from disease and violence, and must be allowed to protect themselves from exploitation, including from law enforcement. These are the folks Amnesty International's proposed decriminalization policy aims to protect, but they are very different from those we see at our doors.
Each year at our homeless shelters in 27 cities in six countries and our new safe house in the New York area, Covenant House sees devastated prostituted people, mostly young women, who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome as a result of being raped repeatedly in the sex trade, most often for someone else's profit. Recent studies at our New York and New Orleans shelters have shown that almost a quarter of surveyed homeless young people have either been trafficked for sex or felt compelled to trade their bodies for food or a place to sleep.
We know pimps and traffickers target homeless young people, believing that no adult is looking out for that runaway at the bus station, and that a young person who has recently aged out of foster care may have nowhere safe to stay and scant opportunities for supporting him or herself. We see people with few resources and weak support systems, like Muriel, from our book Almost Home: Helping Kids Move from Homelessness to Hope, whose pimp kept her working with a combination of cocaine and the date rape drug, a chemical concoction that kept her in a cruel, artificial state of high libido and high energy.
By protecting from prosecution people who purchase sex and who manage stables of bodies for sale, Amnesty International's proposed policy would encourage their work and thus drive up demand, leaving exploiters with more motivation to use coercive means to compel vulnerable people, like the ones in our shelters, into selling sex.
We support the Nordic Model, in which the traffickers and johns are punished, while prostituted people are offered help in leaving the sex trade. Ideally, they receive medical and mental health services and the chance for a better, safer life. It has been adopted by Sweden, Norway, Iceland, and Northern Ireland, and is under consideration in many other countries.
We spoke with Margaret Huang, the deputy executive director of campaigns and programs at Amnesty International USA, who said their research showed that sex workers still experienced difficulties with police and violations of their rights in countries that used the Nordic Model, and that Amnesty International is concerned with protecting the rights, and especially the right to health, for vulnerable populations like sex workers.
Much of the debate over decriminalizing prostitution has to do with how much agency or free choice a prostituted person has. In the shadowy world of the sex trade, there is no way of knowing exactly how many people sell their bodies, let alone how many do so by choice. But one question from Maud Olivier, a French lawmaker supporting the Nordic model, has stuck with me: "One prostitute declares herself free and the slavery of others becomes respectable and acceptable?"
On the issue of decriminalization, we must listen to those who have escaped from prostitution, who know it first-hand. SPACE, Survivors of Prostitution-Abuse Calling for Enlightenment, an international coalition founded in Ireland, firmly describes its position:
Prostitution is abusive and exploitative sexual violence against humans, most often women and girls, carried out by other humans, usually grown men, who are in positions of relative social, racial and financial privilege to the human beings whom they buy for sexual use and abuse. ...Everywhere on earth those who endure prostitution are found, in staggering numbers, to be the economically disenfranchised, the educationally disadvantaged, the emotionally vulnerable, the sexually abused, the racially marginalised and the socially dispossessed.
We urge Amnesty International to take into account how dangerous life is for a prostituted person: a 2004 study in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that the homicide rate for prostituted women was almost 13 times higher than the rate for the general population.
We see buying and selling another person's body as a crime. It is a crime against women -- the predominant victims, though we recognize boys and transgender youth are also particularly at risk -- and it is a crime against humanity. It is not a victimless crime, as we see from talking to victims about the beatings, rapes, psychological manipulations, threats, and other dangers they faced, and the medical care they were denied. They need help healing, help coming to believe that they deserve happy and healthy lives. They - not their exploiters -- are the ones who deserve the protection and assistance of the law and social services.
We at Covenant House stand with the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women and the signers of its open letter, urging Amnesty International to reject its proposal. Please join with me in signing an online petition asking for a similar outcome. The kids we see every day need to know that we have their backs.