Rights groups challenge U.N. push to legalise prostitution

Sunday, 22 September 2013 08:07 GMT

A sex worker talks to a man outside a hotel in the Geylang red light district in Singapore February 8, 2013. REUTERS/Edgar Su

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"Legalisation is unethical because prostitution is a crime against humanity,” says former sex worker who was lured into prostitution as a teenager

NEW YORK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Rachel Moran was a homeless, destitute 15-year-old when she was lured into prostitution. She sold sex in Dublin and other Irish cities for the next seven years until she finally freed herself from the trade.

She went on to get a journalism degree, published her memoir last April and now speaks on prostitution and sex trafficking - staunch in the belief that sex workers rarely go into the industry by choice. In her view, legalising prostitution is wrong and unproductive.

"Legalisation is unethical because prostitution is a crime against humanity,” said Moran, author of “Paid For: My Journey Through Prostitution”.

“To legalise it is to socially condone this crime. It is my belief that countries which have legalised prostitution will, in the fullness of history, be held to account for human rights atrocities," she told Thomson Reuters Foundation in an email from Ireland.

Moran’s conviction is not shared by many sex workers who say they choose to sell their bodies. Nor is it supported by advocates of legalising prostitution who argue that it protects sex workers from risks ranging from sexually transmitted diseases to rape, trafficking and sexual slavery.

Her stance also pits her against the United Nations, which helps shape policies around the world and in two recent reports has pressed for the legalisation of sex work.

But Moran’s views are backed by a leading women’s rights and anti-trafficking organisation, Equality Now, which has launched a campaign to convince U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that decriminalising prostitution is dangerous.

“What we’re asking is that the reports (advocating legalisation) be appealed or amended,” said Lauren Hersh, a former domestic violence prosecutor and head of Equality Now’s anti-trafficking programme.  

The reports published last year – HIV and the Law: Risks, Rights and Health and Sex Work and the Law in Asia and the Pacific – conclude that criminalising sex workers and their clients encourages punitive law enforcement practices that increase prostitutes’ vulnerability to HIV infection due to stigma and discrimination as well as restricted access to condoms, HIV services and other sexual health and education services.

Equality Now disputes those findings, saying both reports contain “incomplete and misleading information” on the effects of legalising prostitution and the Nordic model – an approach which lifts all punitive measures against people in prostitution while criminalising the purchase of sex in order to reduce the demand that fuels prostitution and sex trafficking.

The rights group, backed by 96 anti-trafficking organisations, is set to launch a campaign on Sunday to persuade the United Nations to reconsider its recommendations to decriminalise commercial sex and what it calls “inherently exploitative practices such as brothel-keeping, pimping and purchase of sex”.  

The NGO will demand the U.N. chief:

Call on U.N. agencies to update and re-issue the reports after incorporating a balance of views on the commercial sex industry and the impact of legalisation and decriminalisation. 

Ensure U.N. agencies include former sex workers and a wider range of groups working on prostitution and sex trafficking issues in discussions when developing policies and programmes on HIV/AIDS and other rights issues affecting people in the sex industry.


The U.N. Development Programme (UNDP), which led the two reports, said both had examined issues specifically in relation to the HIV epidemic.

“UNDP unequivocally condemns sexual exploitation of adults or children and any form of human trafficking since they are abhorrent human rights violations,” a spokeswoman said.

“The (HIV) report states that there is a need to ensure criminal sanctions against human trafficking, and that these should be targeted to punish those using force to procure people into commercial sex,” she added. 

The Asia report also states that anti-trafficking laws are vital for protecting girls’ and women’s rights “while noting that in some cases, the manner in which anti-trafficking laws are interpreted and enforced can contribute to vulnerability and violence,” she said.

There are at least two points on which both sides agree: Firstly criminalisation, where it exists, should exclude sex workers and be aimed at those who buy sexual services. 

There is also sometimes grudging acknowledgement that there can be a difference between those who say they voluntarily engage in sex work, which is now even unionised in some countries, and those often vulnerable women and girls who fall prey to the modern-day slavery of sex trafficking.

Considered one of the world’s fastest growing criminal industries, human trafficking is a $32 billion business involving an estimated 21 million people in forced labour and sexual exploitation, according to the HYPERLINK International Labour Organization (ILO), which will release its newest estimates this month. Of these, about 4.5 million are involved in forced sex work, 98 percent of them women and girls.

Legislation often makes a clear link between trafficking and prostitution. Many countries, including the United States, define victims of human trafficking as children involved in the sex trade, adults aged 18 and over who are coerced or deceived into commercial sex acts and anyone who is forced into labour or held against their will through force, fraud or coercion.

However the report on sex work in Asia warns: “Laws that conflate human trafficking and sex work and define sex work as ‘sexual exploitation’ contribute to vulnerability …This has resulted in abuses of sex workers’ human rights and undermining of HIV responses.”

Unionised or voluntary sex workers would agree. The Caribbean Sex Workers Coalition (CSWC) recently declared “sex work is work and must be recognised and treated at par with other professions where labor conditions are just”.

The apparent problems posed by either legalisation or criminalisation beg the question as to what difference any change in the legal status of prostitution would make. 

“The difference is: Do we really want a society to say that it’s OK for our most vulnerable people to be caught in this system? Do we really want to give it a stamp of approval?” trafficking victim Stella Marr told Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Penniless, afflicted by multiple sclerosis and forced to drop out of college at 20, Marr said she was enticed into prostitution first to survive and then out of fear of her pimp. After 10 years as a Manhattan call girl, she escaped and is now, at 49, executive director of Sex Trafficking Survivors United.

Marr said prostitution is never a choice. “We need to be saying this is not what we want for our most vulnerable people and we don’t want people to profit from this system.”

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