Seeing sex as a ‘fundamental human need’, apparently men who pay for it should not be made to feel like criminals …

Early last month Amnesty International resolved to support the complete decriminalisation of prostitution. This was done despite the hundreds of women’s organisations, human rights and faith-based groups, victims of sexual exploitation and trafficking, medical doctors, actors and celebrities signing a petition urging Amnesty to refrain from this decision.

‘We recognize that this critical human rights issue is hugely complex’, the Secretary General for Amnesty International – Salil Shetty – stated in a press release. ‘That is why we have addressed this issue from the perspective of international human rights standards. We also consulted with our global movement to take on board different views from around the world’.

It’s for good reason that this has been such a highly contested opinion. Therefore, before deciding that it might be worth agreeing with this argument, here are a few statistics and academic opinions which are worth putting on the table.

Legalising prostitution legitimises pimps

While 1 per cent of the world’s women in high-end prostitution might work independently, the reality is that third-party control is highly common, with some estimates of pimping as high as 80 per cent of all prostitution.

In the Guardian, freelance writer and co-founder of the group Justice for Women Julie Bindel stated: ‘When Amnesty promotes the notion that the decriminalisation of sex workers will protect their human rights, they fail to explain that this would apply to all those whose business is associated with the sex trade: pimps, brothel-owners, pornographers, and others who profit from the sale of women’.

A free choice?

‘If prostitution is a free choice, why are the women with the fewest choices the ones most often found doing it?’ – Catharine MacKinnon, Women’s Lives, Men’s Laws

A study of women in street prostitution in Toronto found that about 90 per cent wanted to escape but could not and a five-country study found that 92 per cent of women, men and transgendered people in prostitution wanted immediate help to escape it.

Research conducted in nine countries found that 89 per cent of all those in prostitution said that they were in the sex industry because they had no alternatives for economic survival and that they saw no means of escape.

‘For most, prostitution is not a real choice because physical safety, equal power with buyers, and real alternatives don’t exist’, states clinical psychologist and researcher Melissa Farley. ‘These are the conditions that would permit genuine consent. Most of the 1 per cent who choose prostitution are privileged because of their ethnicity and class and they have escape options. Poor women and women of colour don’t have these options’.

To highlight this matter, the age in which women enter prostitution is also shockingly low. The worldwide average age for entering prostitution is 12 years. In the UK, approximately 50 per cent of women in prostitution began selling sex under the age of 18. The average age of entry into any kind of prostitution in the US is 13-14 years of age.

There are also a range of contributing factors which heavily influence this decision, including family disruption or dysfunction, sexual or physical abuse, alienation from school, running away and homelessness, and substance misuse. There are also well-established links between foster care experiences and routes into prostitution.

What if they say they enjoy it?

‘Women in prostitution must continually lie about their lives, their bodies, and their sexual responses. Lying is part of the job definition when the customer asks, “did you enjoy it?” The very edifice of prostitution is built on the lie that “women like it”‘.  –  Janice Raymond, ‘Ten reasons for not legalizing prostitution’.

The psychological state of sex workers in the industry is devastating. Two-thirds of women, men and the transgendered in prostitution in a nine-country study met diagnostic criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This level of extreme emotional distress is the same as that suffered by the most emotionally traumatised people ever studied by psychologists – battered women, raped women, combat veterans, and torture survivors.

Fulfilling a ‘sexual appetite’

Whilst this decision was still being made by Amnesty International, in 2014 a document was leaked addressing the issue. It stated that: ‘sexual desire and activity are a fundamental human need. To criminalise those who are unable or unwilling to fulfil that need through more traditionally recognised means and thus purchase sex, may amount to a violation of the right to privacy and undermine the rights to free expression and health’.

The statement made by Amnesty supports the idea that sex is a ‘fundamental human need’ which sex work exists to satisfy. In a sexual exchange of equal partners there is always the risk of refusal, disagreement and the need for compromise. However, the act of prostitution is structured by the desires and fantasies of the buyer, which have relatively little to do with the sexual desires of the person who is being bought.

Paying for sex from people in prostitution is less about sexual gratification and more about power gratification. Backing this: 85 per cent of US johns have regular female sexual partners and 60 per cent are married.

A 2011 study found that compared with a matched group of men who did not buy sex, sex buyers engaged more criminal activity (in addition to prostitution), had less empathy than men who did not buy sex, were more likely to say they would rape if they could get away with it, and admitted to having engaged in more sexually coercive acts with non-prostituting women than men who decided not buy sex.

Offering workers’ rights does not remove the stigma

Although they would have been earning retirement benefits if they registered, women in Dutch prostitution did not register as legal prostitutes because they are ashamed to be publicly known for it.

In Germany, the service union ver.di offered union membership to Germany’s sex workers. They would have been be entitled to health care, legal aid, thirty paid holiday days a year, a five-day workweek, and Christmas and holiday bonuses. Out of an estimated 400,000 sex workers, only 100 joined the union. That’s .00025 per cent of German sex workers.

In the grand scheme of things, it would be far better for Amnesty to seek measures which prevent prostitution, or prosecute traffickers, recruiters, pimps and buyers. They should also support any programmes which provide economic resources that enable prostitutes to improve their lives, and encourage schemes which offer help to those wanting to leave. There is more than enough evidence to indicate Amnesty’s decision in this matter was ill-founded and unworthy of genuine support.


If you would like to sign an open letter in rejection of Amnesty’s resolution, please do follow the link below:



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