Cogito

Amnesty International and the prostitution debate

Outlaw poverty not prostitution photographer Steve Rhodes.

Over the past month, there has been much debate about an ongoing process within Amnesty International to establish a new policy on prostitution.

Amnesty’s processes

On 11 August, 2015, the organization’s International Council Meeting passed a resolution requesting that the International Board develop “a policy that seeks attainment of the highest possible protection of the human rights of sex workers, through measures that include the decriminalisation of sex work”.

Amnesty’s International Board will, in turn, discuss this resolution at its next meeting in October 2015.

Amnesty International has a complex organizational structure. However, the Board is responsible to the International Council, and it will surely respond positively to the Council’s request. In doing so, it will need to consult widely before it adopts a final policy. We should expect continued public scrutiny of Amnesty’s deliberations, with much internal and external debate as the issue goes forward.

Full decriminalization?

Nonetheless, the International Council’s resolution requests that the policy’s measures “include the decriminalisation of sex work”. Furthermore, it seems clear that this wording is intended to mean so-called “full decriminalization”. Contrast the “Nordic model”, under which it is illegal to purchase, but not to sell, sex.

In an FAQ document, Amnesty decisively rejects the option of the Nordic model: “Even though sex workers are not directly criminalized under the Nordic model, operational aspects – like purchasing sex and renting premises to sell sex in – are still criminalized. This compromises sex workers safety and leaves them vulnerable to abuse; they can still be pursued by police whose aim is often to eradicate sex work through enforcing the criminal law.”

It seems, then, that the Board’s formal policy will call for the decriminalization of selling and purchasing sex, and of renting premises for the purpose. It will not necessarily oppose all regulation, however, and it may even advocate offences aimed at deterring pimps, such as an offence of living off the earnings of prostitution. Given the detailed considerations set out in the International Council’s resolution, the final policy will also include proposals to address exigencies (particularly poverty) that pressure women into prostitution.

Many issues arise from all this, such as whether Amnesty International is even an appropriate body to deal with such an issue, and what moral or technical authority it has when it does so. As a disclaimer, I once belonged to Amnesty International, but I left many years ago when it moved away from its focus on prisoners of conscience to take a much wider role in advocating for human rights issues. While there is clearly a place for organizations with that wider role, there was also, in my opinion, a place for an organization with a tight focus on prisoners of conscience - an issue where I was in full agreement.

I do not necessarily agree with any particular policy that Amnesty International develops these days: I look at Amnesty’s actions and policies on their merits. I don’t believe the organization is more authoritative than many others once it steps outside its original, specialized purpose.

How should we regulate sex work?

Still, my interest for current purposes is not so much in what Amnesty should or should not do, or in what policies it ought to adopt. Amnesty’s involvement has highlighted the larger question of how, if at all, prostitution and other kinds of sex work should be regulated by the state.

At one end of the spectrum would be a policy of relentless effort to eliminate prostitution (and perhaps other practices, such as strip clubs and pornography) including comprehensive use of the criminal law to punish both the sale and purchase of sex. At the other end of the spectrum would be some kind of highly libertarian approach. The state might turn a blind eye to sex work, including prostitution, unless there are associated activities that are independently criminalized (such as kidnapping, drug offences, and acts of violence such as rape, murder, and battery).

In between there is the Nordic model, with its own rationale, and various other approaches that involve regulation without sweeping criminal prohibitions. These approaches include, for example, various kinds of zoning and licensing.

This raises questions about the role of the law: e.g., whether it should enforce popular morality, whether it should be used to express moral positions, whether it ought to emphasize harm reduction, and whether legally permitting an activity is, in itself, a kind of social or political endorsement of the activity.

Philosophers have an interest in clarifying and teasing out these questions, irrespective of which policy approaches they end up supporting. Indeed, philosophical analysis sometimes leads to the dismal conclusion that more information is needed to support one or another policy position. For example, if we believe that the law should emphasize harm reduction we need to obtain some kind of answer to the question of what policy would (probably) be most effective in reducing harm. (If, alternatively, we seriously want to enforce popular morality, we need to know what that actually is in a particular case.)

Philosophers on the prostitution debate

The philosophy blog Daily Nous has published a post in which several prominent philosophers comment on public policy in relation to prostitution - responding, of course, to Amnesty’s deliberations. Not surprisingly, for anyone who is familiar with philosophy and philosophers, the responses are thoughtful and interesting. Also unsurprisingly, there is nothing like a consensus. Responses run the entire gamut from fierce hostility toward prostitution (and toward any policy of full decriminalization) to an almost rhapsodic affirmation of prostitution’s benefits.

This illustrates both the strength and the limitations of philosophy as an academic discipline. The various philosophers who responded to a request from Daily Nous are clearly intelligent people. All of them make useful observations for the purpose of clarifying what is at stake. Yet they come to a wide range of conclusions, with no realistic prospect that they could ever converge on agreement.

As so often with philosophical debate, we can see that the participants are all operating with deep preconceptions about values, priorities, morality, and the role of law. Generally speaking, their responses are quite logical if you accept their preconceptions, but how do we establish which of these are the right ones?

Much work in academic philosophy involves an intellectually rigorous effort to solve exactly that problem. I certainly don’t suggest that it is impossible, and perhaps we do make slow progress. In practice, however, it’s extraordinarily difficult. If philosophers - or other people - are to reach agreement, sooner or later they must identify some shared premises from which they can reason and argue. But even professional philosophers find this difficult when engaged in moral, political, and social or cultural controversies, such as what we should do about prostitution.

Conclusion

As for what I think about prostitution… I think it’s a difficult issue, I change my mind frequently (at least about the details of a wise policy approach), and I think there are considerations that can pull in different directions. I’ve tended in the past to support full decriminalization, in the sense discussed above, but I doubt that it can be the whole story or that prostitution deserves our rhapsodies. It’s possible, too, that we need more empirical data, and that what might work in one society (if we’re mainly seeking harm reduction) could fail in another.

I’ll return to this - I promise. Meanwhile, Amnesty has brought an important issue to public attention, and whether we agree with its direction or not it has given us much to think about.

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