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Human Rights

Survivors Question U.N. Focus on Legalising Sex Work

Seventy percent of France’s 20,000 sex workers are migrant women. Credit: A.D. McKenzie/IPS

UNITED NATIONS, Sep 26 2013 (IPS) - The age-old debate over how to regulate sex work has led to a rift between the United Nations and anti-trafficking organisations, which are pressuring the world body to rethink its position following two reports that advocate decriminalising all aspects of prostitution.

“When we saw the reports we became very concerned,” said Lauren Hersh, New York director of Equality Now, which is leading the public campaign that launched this week. “To have U.N. agencies call for brothel-keeping is egregious,” she told IPS.

“People in prostitution need to be recognised as trafficking victims… We don’t believe anyone chooses.” -- Stella Marr of Sex Trafficking Survivors United

The coalition of 98 groups is asking the U.N. to update and reissue the reports, which were published last year, to reflect the experiences of survivors of prostitution, and include a wider range of views on the impact of legalising of the sex industry.

The two reports, Sex Work and the Law in Asia and the Pacific, backed by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the Joint United Nations Programme of HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), and HIV and the Law, published by UNDP’s Global Commission on HIV and the Law, are focused on reducing HIV/AIDS while simultaneously protecting the rights of those involved in prostitution.

Survivors say that addressing the demand that keeps the cycle of prostitution in motion is imperative and is not adequately addressed in the reports.

Asked for comment, a spokesperson for UNDP said in a statement that the reports examined the issues of sex work through a specific lens of the HIV epidemic and strongly condemned sex trafficking.

“UNDP advocates and promotes the respect of human rights for all, especially the most excluded and marginalised. The report on Sex Work and the Law in Asia and the Pacific… clearly distinguishes between adult consensual sex work and human trafficking for sexual exploitation,” the spokesperson said.

Spokespersons from UNFPA and UNAIDS told IPS that the UNDP statement accurately reflects their agencies’ position.

The reports also see decriminalisation of the sex industry as a way to promote the ability of prostitutes to negotiate condom use, but Equality Now says that for many women in prostitution, there is an economic dependency, thus pressure, to have sex without a condom as clients will often offer more money for sex without one.

If women are trafficked or controlled by a pimp, they have less ability to insist on the use of condoms.

In a statement, UNDP said that the criminalisation of sex work increases vulnerability to HIV and limits access to condoms and sexual health services.

But Hersh says that, “Often it’s the pimps and buyers that dictate condom use as women can get more money from not using one.”

Hersh emphasises that the coalition is not trying to undermine the efforts of the campaign against HIV/AIDS. Equality Now has spent nearly a year reaching out to the U.N. through internal channels, including sending a letter co-signed with over 80 organisations, to Michel Sidibe, executive director of UNAIDS.

Prostitution is legal in many countries, including Switzerland, where “sex boxes” were recently introduced in Zurich to promote the safety of prostitutes in what the city considers a more pleasant environment. But the situation for men and women in countries where prostitution is legalised and decriminalised remains dire, according to Equality Now.

“One of the major issues is that the reports did not consult with our partners on the ground, particularly survivor-led organisations,” Hersh told IPS.

Stella Marr, executive director and one of the co-founders of Sex Trafficking Survivors United, an international organisation of over 100 survivors of prostitution, is herself a survivor, first trafficked at age 20 and involved in prostitution for 10 years.

“If we don’t address demand, there will always be trafficking,” Marr told IPS, adding that she is “saddened” at the reports.

Marr believes the best solution is the Nordic model, which criminalises the purchase of sex, but decriminalises being a prostitute.

Marr left prostitution after a buyer offered to help her, giving her a safe place to live for two years. She is the only person she knows who this has happened to.

“The fact that I got out doesn’t mean I was strong. I was lucky,” Marr said.

Survivors of the sex industry do not have their voices heard as loudly as those who are currently involved due to the amount of shame around it, said Rachel Moran, a founding member of Survivors of Prostitution-Abuse Calling for Enlightenment (SPACE) International, who was prostituted from age 15 until she was 22.

Another facet of the reports Equality Now wants to address is the definition of “trafficking” by the U.N. In 2000, in the U.N. Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, commonly known as the U.N. Trafficking Protocol, members states agreed on a broad definition of trafficking that reflects a variety of experiences from sex trafficking survivors.

The 2012 U.N. reports recommend narrowing down and redefining the definition, which could mean many trafficked persons would no longer be considered victims and their traffickers would not be held accountable.

“I understand that it’s difficult… you have to have a way to help people out of that life,” Marr said. “People in prostitution need to be recognised as trafficking victims… We don’t believe anyone chooses.”

Equality Now is optimistic about future reports, including a recent study from Asia and the Pacific, launched by UNDP, UNFPA and U.N. Women, that reports the purchase of commercial sex in the region is strongly associated with widespread rape and sexual violence against women.

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  • Tracey Tully

    The recent study you refer to in your last paragraph refers to transactional sex, not commercial sex. So its quite a leap to be making a connection between prostitution and rape. But that’s exactly what Equality Now does – misrepresents data and deliberately ignores the evidence. They have no expertise in HIV programming. Neither do their handpicked “survivors”. Sex workers, with an interest in their communities who are building a global solidarity movement, do.

  • xevly

    I endorse the previous comments made here. and it is also irresponsible of IPS to say “anti-trafficking organisations” as a whole in this report. There are anti-trafficking organisations that work with a human rights based approach and ground their work through evidence. You can visit for example and also look at what sex workers themselves say too for example please google Empower-Thailand

  • Lucy Westcott

    Hello Tracy, and thank you very much for your comment. The article is not intended to criticise any work that is being done to combat HIV, by anyone. As the United Nations has been in the spotlight recently due to the General Assembly and the crisis in Syria, to name two recent examples, the story focuses more on how people and groups go about holding UN agencies accountable for some of the language and definitions they use in their reports, and why it’s important to sometimes question this and start a dialogue. Again, I appreciate your comment.

  • Nswpcomms Officer

    The two reports in question acknowledge the human rights of sex workers, be they current or former. The two reports attacked by Lauren Hersh and Equality Now do in fact deal with HIV, sex work and the law. The recommendation for decriminalising sex work is made in recognition of the fact that punitive laws, discriminatory and brutal policing, and denial of access to justice from people most at risk of acquiring HIV are fuelling the epidemic. These reports were written with extensive input from current sex workers – the people who are currently affected by the issues that the reports address. Contrary to Equality Now’s apparent disregard for the voices of current sex workers, we do not believe it is constructive to deny sex workers their agency and autonomy when it comes to policy making. Nor do we believe that current sex workers are not the experts on their own lives.

    The charge that the UN is calling “for brothel-keeping” is an utter and deliberate
    misrepresentation of the recommendation for decriminalising sex work in its
    entirety. Equality Now would do well to study the UNAIDS Guidance Note on HIV
    and Sex Work and Annexes 2012 and endeavour to understand its contents. It is
    imperative that they do so before they embark on a campaign to undo ten years
    of progress that the UN, other agencies and organisations on the ground who
    work in the field of HIV have made. It is utterly irresponsible for Equality
    Now to be wading into this global health issue and deliberately start
    conflating sex work with trafficking in order to push an agenda which
    ultimately seeks to eradicate sex work.

    Equality Now cite figures suggesting that sex trafficking in Sweden decreased as a result of introducing the Nordic Model by enacting the Sex Purchase Act in 1999. The Swedish government collected no data on trafficking prior to the implementation of the law, and therefore it is difficult to know what the impact of the law has been on sex trafficking, not to forget that trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation accounts for 22% of all persons trafficked for exploitation in the private economies
    according to 2012 ILO estimates. Furthermore, the claim that sex trafficking
    has decreased in Sweden after the introduction of the law is premised on the
    idea that a drop in ‘demand’ has taken place. Unfortunately there are no data
    available on ‘demand’ prior to the law being introduced as the Swedish
    government collected no such data. It is therefore, again, not possible to know
    what the effect of the law has been. With regard to the number of sex workers
    in Sweden pre and post introduction of the law, the Swedish government stated:
    “we cannot give any unambiguous answer to [this question]. At most, we can
    discern that street prostitution is slowly returning, after swiftly disappearing
    in the wake of the law”. It concluded, “no causal connections can be proven
    between legislation and changes in prostitution”. It is clear that to treat
    this model as a success – even on its own terms, by the admission of the
    Swedish government itself – would be a profound error. In the context of
    evidence-based policy, a lack of evidence of success (or failure) of the Sex
    Purchase Act should seriously draw into question the appropriateness of the
    Nordic Model.

    Finally, findings from the recent study from Asia and the Pacific referred
    to by Equality Now appear to have been misinterpreted. The finding that men who
    reported they engaged in some form of transactional sex (which is not limited
    to sex with a female, male or transgender sex worker) were more likely to
    report that they used violence against women. The higher likelihood of
    committing violence against women is not caused by the fact that some men
    engage in transactional sex. I.e. transactional sex (in whatever form) in
    itself does not cause men to commit violence against women. The findings in the
    report, the authors argue: “point to a need to address gender inequalities and
    men’s sexual entitlement over women as part of a comprehensive response to
    violence against women”.

    We find it shameful that Equality Now would publically misrepresent evidence. By doing so they undermine not only the effort to stem the tide of gender inequality but
    also the human rights of sex workers.

  • Thierry Schaffauser

    Why would the UN listen to 100 “survivors” who no longer work in the sex industry while the NSWP represents hundreds of thousands of sex workers?

  • BG

    Just to usual holy crusade of right-wing Christian and feminist extremists to “save the poor victims” through manipulations and misrepresentations of studies and “facts”.

  • Tracey Tully

    Thanks for your response Lucy. Yes, it certainly looks like campaign was released to coincide with the General Assembly, though a petition campaign has been going for months, since the release of both reports. Here is APNSW’s rebuttal to Equality Now’s campaign.

  • Nicole Wellman

    Great point Thierry, I was wondering the same thing. Maybe they were 100 hand selected former sex workers who validate their point of view. I was just reading another related article at that addresses this issue well I think.

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