Here is a challenge. You are Amnesty International. You want to take a position on sex work. It must not, however, have an impact anyone else’s human rights, in particular the “human right” of men to purchase sex. Therefore whatever your research throws up, your conclusion has been set in advance. How can you get from A to B, at least without openly treading on the corpses of too many trafficked women and girls?
Fear not! For now you can read Amnesty’s own draft policy doc and work out how it’s done …
Define your terms
Worried about how to deal with that whole issue surrounding trafficking, exploitation and coercion? Why not point out that “by definition, sex work means that sex workers who are engaging in commercial sex have consented to do so”? Sorted! Sure, as definitions go, it’s a bit “no true Scotsman.” You have, “by definition,” cut off all engagement with a deeply problematic part of what the term “sex work” is used to justify. Almost all those who buy sex will tell themselves that “by definition” it is consensual. In reality they have no idea. But we’re not dealing with reality, are we? Just a definition.
Do not acknowledge any fundamental link between patriarchy and the sex trade
There is a long, long history of men policing women’s sexual availability, physical agency and reproductive choices. Rape, marriage, the threat of violence, compulsory heterosexuality, the appropriation of material resources … all of this is relevant to why, in 2015, most people who buy sex are men and most people who sell it are women. It’s relevant to why the people who have fewer economic options tend to be women. It’s relevant to why sex can be reduced to leisure for men and work for women. These things are all related. But it’s incredibly messy to have to admit this and deal with the deeply tangled consequences.
It’s easier to say, on the one hand, that “women face entrenched gender discrimination and structural inequality in most societies and bear a disproportionate burden of poverty” and on the other that “intersectional discrimination and oppression have an impact on the lives of many sex workers and can play a role in an individual’s decision to engage or remain in sex work.” Do not, under any circumstances, suggest that the link between disadvantage and sex work is anything other than one-way. Don’t suggest that a world in which women are reduced to objects is necessarily a world in which women will remain unable to do anything but “face entrenched gender discrimination and structural inequality.” I mean, sure, the two-way link is obvious to anyone who bothers to look, but most people don’t. To look would make it obvious that patriarchy is the problem rather than, um, that form of “entrenched gender discrimination and structural inequality” that affects women specifically but somehow never has anything to do with anyone, anywhere, exploiting the sexual and reproductive labour of women as a class.
You could also mention that “transgender people and men who have sex with men also account for a significant proportion of sex workers in many states.” Ha! Take that, feminists! Of course, the feminist response would be “yeah, that’ll be patriarchy again – see above.” But w/evs. They’re always going on about patriarchy as a source of oppression as opposed to, um, oppression itself.
Do not engage with the potential negative impact of your proposal on trafficked women and girls
This is easy because such women and girls are “by definition” not sex workers, hence your proposal has nothing to do with them. Not even if, as one recent Guardian piece supporting the Amnesty proposal suggested, decriminalisation will increase demand (more choice for the privileged sex worker, more surplus demand to be catered for by … Well, not, “by definition,” sex workers, so not within your remit, right?).
If people persist with the “what will happen to trafficked women?” line (yawn) it may be helpful to indulge in a little whataboutery. Say something like “the disproportionate focus on trafficking into forced prostitution by some governments also ignores the human rights violations suffered by people trafficked into domestic work, construction, agricultural work, or other forced work.” Obviously trafficking within agriculture has less to do with the sex industry than, say, sex trafficking, but people always get stressed and guilty when you accuse them of ignoring another form of marginalisation just because that’s not the one they’re talking about at the time.
Remind people that your “longstanding position that human trafficking into forced prostitution, or any other aspect of non-consensual sex, should be criminalized as a matter of international law” has not changed. There, that’ll do. What more do people want? Coherence?
Blur the boundaries between marginalisation, stigma, criticism and violence
What boundaries, you say? Indeed. It’s all much of a muchness, isn’t it? When you think about it, men who dehumanise, rape and beat sex workers – drawing on that history of patriarchal regulation of female sexuality that we don’t talk about – are exactly the same as women who think it’s a bad idea to support an industry in which the dehumanisation and abuse of sex workers is considered an occupational hazard. It can all be filed away under the heading STIGMA, rendering women who campaign against violence essentially the same as men who perpetrate it. They’re all, like, funny about sex and stuff. Say things like “Sex workers are frequently judged to have transgressed social norms of sexuality and gender and can subsequently be portrayed as deserving of punishment, blame and/or social exclusion. […] Conversely, sex workers can also encounter stigmatisation from those who purport to help them. The frequent stereotyping of all sex workers as victimised and/or psychologically damaged individuals is harmful and disempowering to sex workers, and unsupported by evidence” (remember, sex workers are “by definition” not disempowered, so any such view of sex workers would indeed, “by definition,” be unsupported by evidence.) If you shove all this in one paragraph, it makes it sound like those who hate sex workers – people like, say, Peter Sutcliffe – are fuelled by the same misconceptions as those who hate Peter Sutcliffe. Whorephobes and agency-deniers, one and all.
Such an approach is especially useful if you don’t really have a fucking clue what to do about male violence other than treat it as one of those things that is sent to try us all. Don’t worry; you don’t have to address this at any point. Just make vague pronouncements like “violence is a manifestation of the stigma and discrimination directed towards sex workers” (hint, hint: it’s all the fault of Andrea Dworkin).
Do not under any circumstances entertain the idea that there could be a link between male violence against women and the belief that penetrating and ejaculating in a woman, any woman, is a man’s “human right.” Since we have already established that patriarchy and men’s subjugation of women doesn’t have any place in this discussion, ignoring the fundamental misogyny which drives both male violence and male sexual entitlement ought to be a piece of piss.
Blur the boundaries between legalisation, decriminalisation and criminalisation when discussing what “the bad people” think
This will enable you to ensure that whenever you mention an obviously bad thing, people reading your document will think that people who do not support your view wholeheartedly necessarily support the bad thing. In particular, try to avoid distinguishing between the decriminalisation of selling and the decriminalisation of buying wherever possible. It makes it sound as though the do-gooders (who are basically Jack the Ripper in a twinset and pearls) really are just trying to punish sex workers due to their own sexual hang-ups (not that we want to simplify the debate too much. But come on, implicitly invoking the spectre of the frigid bitch just works).
Point out that you’re not taking a “moral position” on the sex trade
God forbid anyone take a moral position on an industry which, according to one’s own evidence, puts women and girls at a high risk of abuse and even death every single day. God forbid anyone take a moral position on one of the many visible, violent manifestations of male dominance over women. We’re not Mary fucking Whitehouse here, are we? Moral positions are TOTES NOT COOL .
And anyhow, in not taking a moral position, you’re simply restating how your organisation is “opposed to criminalization of all activities related to the purchase and sale of sex”
Sexual desire and activity are a fundamental human need. To criminalize those who are unable or unwilling to fulfill that need through more traditionally recognized means and thus purchase sex, may amount to a violation of the right to privacy and undermine the rights to free expression and health.
Although if anyone points out that such a “right to sex” argument still essentially boils down to rape apologist bullshit, just indulge in some smart-arsed sophistry with “Amnesty International is not considering a policy on the right to buy sex” (well no, because you already have one).
I mean, seriously, who cares whether what you say one day is consistent with what you say the next? There are human rights, there is the threat of violence – and then there’s just the women.
And with that, you’ve won. The only losers were, by definition, excluded from the game right at the start.