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Category: Feminism, International, Violence against Women

Abolishing Prostitution: A Feminist Human Rights Treaty

| August 28, 2012

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From a 2002 series of posters in a campaign coordinated by the Swedish government. Photo: The Swedish Government

The author, long active in global human rights, argues that the time is ripe for a UN treaty to bolster ongoing efforts to end prostitution.

Recently, catching up on email after a few days of hiking in the wilderness, my heart leapt at a headline “French minister seeks abolition of prostitution in France and Europe.”  She is Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, France's minister of women's rights. The new French campaign to abolish prostitution will have its naysayers:  “Impossible!”  “too idealistic," "so utopian it will never happen!"  And, of course, those who promote the sex industries will insist that "sex is work and women's choice."  I heard those refrains in 1991 when, as executive director and co-founder of the UN Human Rights NGO, the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, I began to launch a global campaign to criminalize prostitution customers, otherwise known as johns or punters.

France and every country in the process of changing their laws to abolish prostitution has solid ground for its campaign. Feminist activism in Sweden resulted in a law, taking force in 1999, that prohibits the purchase of sexual services, which, as part of the Swedish Violence Against Women Act, recognizes the harm of prostitution to women. According to Gunilla Eckberg, Swedish lawyer and chief advocate of new law, "The offense comprises all forms of sexual services, whether they are purchased on the street, in brothels, in so-called massage parlors, from escort services, or in other similar circumstances." 

Criminalizing customers only works if women in prostitution are provided shelter, support services, and job training.  By 2008, prostitution had been halved in Sweden and 71 percent of Swedes favor the law and more prostituted women are seeking support services.  The same year, in November, 2008, Norway criminalized sex purchasing, as did Iceland in April, 2009.  In 2012 the law has come before the Knesset in Israel, and in several more countries campaigns to abolish prostitution are under way.

In the United States prostitution is illegal, except for 11 counties in Nevada where it is legalized. Some state laws punish the act of prostitution, others criminalize soliciting prostitution, arranging for prostitution, and operating a house of prostitution.  In actuality, the women selling are usually the only ones arrested. But in May, 2012, New York City witnessed multiple arrests of johns when the Manhattan District Attorneys Office applied new state sex trafficking laws to customers who pay prostitutes for sex—an offense that can carry a sentence of up to one year in jail. 

In 1992, Normal Hotaling, a victim of prostitution, developed a unique, feminist approach to U.S. laws that treat the victims of prostitutions as criminals.  She founded SAGE (Standing Against Global Exploitation) in San Francisco, which helped step up the arrests of customers by offering a program for them for a first time offense.  They have the choice of taking the criminal sentence or attending a School for Johns directed and taught by prostitution survivors.  A second offense reinstates the fine and sentencing of the first offense  Over the 12 years that the program has been operating, only 4 to 5 percent of customers are rearrested.  The women arrested are referred to SAGE for supportive services.  If they go back to prostitution, they can return to SAGE at anytime. 

While both what has become known as the "Nordic approach" and SAGE's program are being replicated around the world, we now find ourselves in a similar situation of nineteenth century feminists who campaigned state by state to win women's right to vote.  State campaigns whether they are U.S. states or nation states are victories that inaugurate new, powerful changes.  But just as the feminists and later the U.S. Civil Rights movement learned, we will be left with partial victory until there is a national or, in the case of prostitution, an international law that encompasses all of prostitution everywhere.  

Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, by taking the abolitionist campaign from France to all of Europe, will be moving beyond the state-by-state approach even as she is working to abolish prostitution in France.  With an energetic and already committed new generation of feminists, this is the time to insist on a global treaty (treaties become state law when signed by the state). And a model law, the Convention Against Sexual Exploitation, is a good place to start.

The idea for international law to criminalize customers began in 1986 at a UNESCO meeting of experts in Madrid on prostitution. There I proposed that prostitution be treated as a violation of Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as being purchased and used for sex violates the most fundamental human right—to live in dignity and peace.

In 1991, at the request of Wassyla Tamzali, then UNESCO director of women’s rights and convener of the Madrid meeting, I called a new international meeting to develop human rights law on prostitution. Feminist campaigns against pornography in the 1980s were limited by a single issue focus and failed to reach their goals.  Aware of that failure, in the UNESCO sponsored meeting held at Penn State, we honed out the basic legal framework to make all forms of sexual exploitation a violation of human rights whether those violated are children or adults, or they are forced or claim to be free.

We had to define sexual exploitation inclusively and with reference to the power by which those who are sexually exploited are dominated. At our 1991 Penn State meeting, Professor Susan Edwards and I met to discuss and make notes on how to accomplish this. A few hours later, she returned to our meeting with this definition:

Sexual exploitation is a practice by which person(s) achieve sexual gratification or financial gain or advancement through the abuse of a person’s sexuality by abrogating that person’s human right to dignity, equality, autonomy, and physical and mental well-being.

With this definition, our proposed international treaty or "convention" stipulated not only that it is the right of every human being to live free of sexual exploitation, but that abusive and masculinist, sexual power is a class condition of women that supersedes all practices that treat prostitution as sex work and a free choice of women in it. 

In the fall of 1991, I proposed The Convention Against Sexual Exploitation to the United Nations Human Rights Commission Working Group on Slavery. In addition to arresting, jailing and fining johns, this treaty would requires state to provide women with health and training programs and jobs, the absence of which sends so many women to streets, brothels and to immigrate for work.  It would require that states prevent the sexual exploitation of women during wartime and insure the safety of migrating women. In other words, criminalizing customers must be accompanied with women's equal access to jobs and their special vulnerabilities to sexual exploitation (prior sexual abuse, poverty, immigration, war) requires state support.

That fall of 1991, Ms. magazine, published the elements of our new model law and hailed it "A Potential Landmark for Female Human Rights" (September/October, 1991). Having been engaged with the feminist anti-pornography movement, I assumed its support for this global law. But a few months later when I presented that work at a feminist conference at a U.S. university, my heart sunk when I heard some leaders, with applause from the audience, dismiss it for not putting power into the hands of women.

Then, in December 1993, explicitly ignoring the proposed Convention Against Sexual Exploitation, the United Nations adopted the "Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women," which neither had the force of a treaty nor criminalized those who buy sex. Instead it kept the onus on prostituted women instead of those who buy them.

Now in 2012 renewed feminist activism is building around the movement to abolish prostitution.  The Convention Against Sexual Exploitation, if brought by feminist activists and NGOs to the United Nations, would serve to support both the state by state approach and the regional approach such as the campaign France is taking to the European Union, and it offers a wide umbrella to make all forms of sexual exploitation a violation of human rights.

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