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Does decriminalising pimping further women’s rights?

Amnesty International delegates have voted in favour of adopting a policy for the full decriminalisation of prostitution. This represents not only the “decriminalisation of sex work”, as proponents have claimed, but also the decriminalisation of pimping, brothel-keeping and sex-buying. It is a move some feminists have labelled a “betrayal of women’s human rights”.

Many sex industry groups and other human rights organisations have openly supported Amnesty International’s decision. Human Rights Watch executive director Ken Roth tweeted his approval:

But the policy has been met with scathing criticism from a wide range of women’s groups, sex trade survivors’ groups, and grassroots organisations working at the frontlines of ending men’s violence against women.

These include: the Institute for Feminism and Human Rights, the European Women’s Lobby, Equality Now, Eaves charity for women, nia, the London Abused Women’s Centre, Terre Des Femmes, Resistenza Femminista, SPACE International, Kvinnofronten, Sex Trade 101,Vancouver Rape Relief, AF3IRM, Apne Aap and the Victims of Prostitution and Poverty Alliance, and the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women – to name but a few.

All of these organisations agree with Amnesty International about the need to decriminalise prostituted persons. But, there is deep disagreement about anything beyond that.

Do human rights include women?

The schism on this issue between organisations that focus on human rights and organisations that focus specifically on women’s rights is telling. It has again raised prominent law professor Catharine MacKinnon’s incisive question: “Are women human?”

Originally posed in a piece reflecting on 50 years of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, MacKinnon points out that men and men’s experiences are embedded in the document. This starts with Article 1, which calls on us to “act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood”.

Lest this be dismissed as mere semantics, MacKinnon asks men to imagine how included they might feel if the Universal Declaration of Human Rights enjoined us all to act in a “spirit of sisterhood” instead.

Catharine MacKinnon says human rights documents exclude women. Coalition for the ICC/Flickr, CC BY

And so it is that women – more than half the global population – are seen as too specific to be indicative of humanity as a whole. We may have “women’s rights” but these do not always fit well into an existing framework of “human rights” that assumes a white, European man as its centre.

This marginalisation of women has generated decades of debate among feminists, particularly in political science and international relations, about the gender bias in existing human rights frameworks. In practical terms, this has meant disagreement about whether it is best to try and reinterpret rights to incorporate women’s experiences of violation or to try and create specific rights instruments, based – from the very beginning – on the material realities of women’s lives.

Amnesty International’s decision brings into sharp focus the problems with the first approach. The current version of policy is justified on the grounds of “harm reduction and the human rights principles of physical integrity and autonomy”.

But, it should be noted that background documents on an earlier version of the same policy supported sex-buying under the rights to privacy, free expression and health.

Prostitution, autonomy and bodily integrity

Autonomy is framed in terms of the individual’s right to be free from abuses of the state. Feminist theorists have often critiqued this emphasis in traditional human rights approaches.

Women are much more likely to suffer violence and violation at the hands of non-state actors in private – even in their own homes. Thus, there have been moves to try and understand rape and domestic violence as a form of torture, or to expand the understanding of torture to at least include non-state actors.

And autonomy is already curtailed by the material realities of women’s lives. The Amnesty International policy dictates that governments should not enact laws that restrict “the consensual exchange of sexual services for remuneration”.

But, at the same time, as Amnesty International admits in its own publicity:

… we know that gender inequality and other forms of inequality and discrimination are forcing, or pushing people into the sex industry.

What does individual autonomy and consent really equate to in this context of force, systemic poverty, discrimination and gender inequality? Should poor and marginalised women be grateful, as Ken Roth suggests, that wealthier men will pay to penetrate them?

It is as though we are expected to believe the fallacy that the interests of a pimp, or the interests of a sex buyer, are automatically the same as the interests of a woman in prostitution.

It is also a bitter irony that Amnesty International has chosen the “right to bodily integrity” as a defining feature of their policy. Feminists, women’s rights campaigners and survivor groups have spent years furthering the understanding that systems of prostitution are fundamentally about violating women’s rights to bodily integrity. Prostitution has been prominently theorised as a rights violation in terms of torture and inhumane or degrading treatment.

Most Amnesty International delegates clearly chose to ignore all of this.

The Amnesty International decision this week, and the apparent deafness of many human rights organisations to the concerns of those focused on the needs and rights of women – both within, and outside of, prostitution – has left feminists asking the same question that MacKinnon finishes her impassioned treatise with: “When will women be human? When?”

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