The human rights organisation has forgotten the importance of procedural human rights
Prostitution is not just an intellectual concept to many participants in the debate; it comes with real memories, trauma, smells, sights and feelings. It is a ‘debate’ felt in the body, and survivors of all kinds of sexual violence can come away from the discussion shell shocked
The ‘controversy’ and ‘battle’ over prostitution and pornography that prevails in public debate and academia might be fun for some. For those who haven’t been prostituted, whether or not one stands in solidarity with survivors or ‘sex workers’, the debate might be an engaging intellectual challenge that gives life meaning and purpose.
The terms of argument and rebuttal on the issue are certainly rigorous and potentially invigorating for some involved as bystanders. Some of these bystanders might even be stimulated at the sight of prostitution survivors vs. ‘sex workers’ battling it out in public, like a mud-wrestling match.
Discussion on ideas and policy approaches to prostitution and pornography touches on issues of life and death for millions of people around the world. Sexual violence, mental illness, drug addiction, disease and suicide are primary factors of consideration, no matter what policy approach is favoured.
Even those of us not prostituted may understand we are participating in a discussion that has serious human consequences. We might be in awe of survivors who speak out in their own names and mobilise and educate the public on their own behalf. We might want to support and facilitate their work at every opportunity.
And so we should. In fact, the lives of millions of women and girls around the world depend on us doing so. But I think our commitment to public debate on prostitution and pornography needs to be backed by an equal commitment to safeguarding the human rights of the population at issue in the conduct of this debate, whether they call themselves survivors or ‘sex workers’.
We might begin to protect these procedural human rights through encouraging forms of public engagement that do not pit prostitution survivors against ‘sex workers’. The unedifying sight of bystanders taking sides and cheering on survivors and ‘sex workers’ as they battle it out in public is surely something to be avoided on human rights grounds.
Prostitution is not just an intellectual concept to many participants in the debate; it comes with real memories, trauma, smells, sights and feelings. It is a ‘debate’ felt in the body, and survivors of all kinds of sexual violence can come away from the discussion shell shocked.
Regardless of whether these participants take a survivor or ‘sex worker’ view, the harms are the same, and can be serious. They are particularly serious when deniers of the harms of prostitution publicly attack survivors as ‘weak’ or ‘ill-suited’, and blame them for their trauma.
Amnesty International recently set up its own mud-wrestling match on prostitution when it sought feedback from members worldwide on a series of ‘policy background’ documents that canvassed the possibility of organisational support for decriminalising the sex industry and its customers.
Rhetorically, the consultation process was framed as a discussion about support for decriminalising people in prostitution, but there is almost no-one in the organisation who disagrees with this suggestion, and this was the existing policy of the organisation anyway, so this framing was just a red herring.
Rather, the consultation process sought to gauge membership resistance to the idea of supporting the ‘human rights’ of prostitution buyers. The mud-wrestling match that ensued was predictable, and should have been anticipated by Amnesty International. It caused prostitution survivors a great deal of time, money, energy and heartache in trying to convince the world that buying prostitution is not a human right.
Amnesty International paid no mind to this cost that would be worn by survivors when it lobbed its volley on prostitution into the international arena. The organisation did no advance groundwork to strengthen or support prostitution survivor organisations so they might be less burdened by the consultation process, nor did the organisation put in any structural safeguards or checks to make sure the consultation process wouldn’t unreasonably impose harm on survivors. There was no training or education of AI members in human rights approaches to engaging with survivors or ‘sex workers’, nor was the organisation even apparently aware of the existence of international prostitution survivor organisations before embarking on the consultation.
Amnesty members worldwide have no doubt benefited from the consultation process and all the knowledge and awareness of the ‘debate’ on prostitution it has brought them. But these benefits to members have come at the cost of prostitution survivors and ‘sex workers’. Amnesty International is a human rights organisation, but it forgot about the importance of procedural human rights.
A human rights approach to engagement with oppressed, tortured, violated and vulnerable populations does not further disadvantage these populations in the process, nor does it use these populations as tools of education and awareness about human rights issues. Amnesty did not uphold this important principle in its recent ‘consultation’ on prostitution, and for this the organisation needs act. The current consultation needs to be dismantled, and a new process respecting procedural human rights put in place.
Dr Caroline Norma is a lecturer in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies at RMIT University, and member of Amnesty Australia.
Please sign these petitions today!
An Indigenous ex-prostituted woman appeals to Amnesty: don’t support , MTR, June 2, 2014
‘Amnesty branches vote down pro-prostitution sex-industry agenda’, MTR, May 11. 2014
‘Two prostitution survivors describe how it feels to be paid to be raped. MTR , May 11, 2014