In Germany more than one million men buy sex every day

Is prostitution a human right?

By Katia Hancke

Amnesty International has recently declared that “prostitution is a human right”. Amnesty are just the latest in a growing number of institutions, prominent individuals and even states who are influenced by the pressure to normalise the sex industry, an agenda ultimately pushed by and serving the interests of pimps and a growing global multi-billion dollar business.

The postmodern dogma that strips prostitution from all its concrete reality tries to reduce this complicated issue to an abstract question – who are we to tell anyone else what to do with their body? Or, even worse, how dare we have an opinion about this at all? Are all of us who oppose prostitution as a form of women’s exploitation burdened by Victorian mores, out of line with 21st century liberal ideals?

Sex Industry objectifies women

We base ourselves on the unfortunate reality that sex and gender based exploitation is worsening in a society in which the objectification of women is now big business and violence against women is justified and even promoted through the multibillion dollar industry of porn, video games, media and the like. Prostitution has to be seen in this context – what else is the selling of someone else’s body and the buying of someone’s body – but the ultimate objectification of a human being, man or woman? But let’s be clear, the overwhelming majority of those in prostitution are girls and women, including trans women.

Any furthering of the objectification of women affects every one of us, as it reinforces gender inequality. Just like we did not have to be part of the LGBTQ community to vote Yes in the marriage equality referendum, or trans to support legislation that allows trans people to self-identify regarding their gender. Working class communities across this country came out in their droves to vote Yes, as an act of solidarity with the LGBTQ community and also because we know how capitalism as a system thrives on division and discrimination.

How consensual is prostitution?

Equally so, we should expose the harsh reality behind the “happy, liberated sex worker” discourse. According to Amnesty’s statement “By definition sex work means that sex workers who are engaging in commercial sex have consented to do so.” But how consensual is prostitution really? A recent meta-analysis of the experience of sex workers across nine countries based on 845 respondents reveals this picture: 60% of prostitutes work in conditions of slavery, another 38% feel they have no way out because of a complicated web of poverty, racism, lack of opportunity and sexism. Only 2% of respondents felt they could leave the trade if they so wish. Not very consensual, then.

A human right to buy sex?

Decriminalisation of sex work should be supported. Criminalising the most vulnerable in the chain of the sex industry – the sex workers themselves – only gives the pimps even more control over those they exploit and is never acceptable. But a human rights organisation proclaiming prostitution to be a human right gives the impression that prostitution today can be free of exploitation. In fact, the upshot of Amnesty’s position is to say that it’s a human right for men to buy sex (as it is nearly always men who are the buyers, which is symptomatic of women’s oppression in society generally), and that it’s ok to turn women’s oppression into a profitable business.

Research in the Netherlands and Germany reveals that those profiting from other people selling their bodies – the pimps – benefit most from legalising the sex industry. Sex trafficking into those countries has actually gone up. The majority of prostitutes still live in conditions of illegality and are as vulnerable as ever to sexual and physical violence and other forms of abuse. In Amsterdam’s red light district alone, 7,200 sex workers work in conditions of illegality, under the thumb of a pimp. Despite the fact that over 220,000 “transactions” take place there every year, less than 100 police reports are filed reporting any of this.

So, is sex a human right? Yes it is – sex with yourself. Maybe if we were a bit more open about masturbation and sex education in general we would leave the next generation less confused and frustrated. But if you want to have sex with someone else, let it be based on consent in the true sense of the word – between two equals showing mutual respect, rather than allowing this system with its ferocious drive for profit to reduce even this universal human desire into a “for profit” transaction.

Prostitution – the facts

71% of prostitutes have encountered physical violence in prostitution

62% have been raped

89% wanted to leave but don’t see a way out or another option to survive.

65% to 95% of those in prostitution were sexually assaulted as children

Over 50% entered prostitution under the age of 18.

(Sources: meta-analysis of prostitution data internationally by Melissa McFarley;