By Owen Lloyd / Deep Green Resistance News Service

Dear Amnesty International,

As the world’s largest human rights organization [1], you can’t claim ignorance of the figures. Let’s review a few of them.

Researchers, interviewing 854 prostituted people in 9 countries, the vast majority of them women [2], found that:

  • 89% wanted out but had no other options for survival
  • 71% were physically assaulted by pimps or johns
  • 63% were raped by pimps or johns
  • 75% had experienced homelessness
  • 68% met diagnostic criteria for PTSD

If anything these figures must be regarded as conservative, for as one prostitution survivor has said, “There’s a protective denial. You have to convince yourself and everyone around you that it’s great. You tell the lie– ‘I like it’– so much that you believe it yourself. You make it OK by saying, ‘I haven’t been beat up today. I haven’t lost all my money today.’ Women have to justify it: they can’t tell themselves or anyone else the reality of it or else they’d die.” [3]

You claim prostitution is “work”, but would you tolerate figures like these coming from any other industry? Would you tolerate these figures from sweatshop laborers? Would you tolerate them from IBM or Target or Nestle? Of course not. The difference, as you point out in a repulsive footnote is that:

Sexual desire and activity are a fundamental human need. To criminalize those who are unable or unwilling to fulfill that need through more traditionally recognized means and thus purchase sex, may amount to a violation of the right to privacy and undermine the rights to free expression and health. [4]

This is nothing more than a carefully worded defense of rape as a human right. The first line translates to “Men need to fuck women.” The second line translates to “If women won’t let men fuck them, men have the right to coerce them to.” Under no circumstance is rape a human right. This is as true when men use economic force as when they use physical force.

You seem to believe that legalization will make the problems of underground prostitution disappear. But the situation for women is no better where brothel prostitution is legal. In Germany, 59% of respondents said legalization made them no safer from rape and physical assault. [2] In several of Nevada’s legal brothels, women are “allowed” to leave the brothel for only four hours a week; for the remaining 164, they are expected to be available for sexual use by johns on demand. At another, women are not allowed to own cars. The johns are untested for venereal disease, but the women are; if she tests positive for HIV, she is fired. If she continues to solicit she is charged for attempted murder, while no law restricts an HIV-infected john from paying to abuse women. In legal brothels from Nevada to the Netherlands, pimps literally brand women with tattoos marking them as property. [3] [5]

And surely you must hear the voices of the women you work with. Voices like the Canadian woman who told researchers that “What rape is to others, is normal to us.” Or the woman who said that “I feel like I imagine people who were in concentration camps feel when they get out… it’s a real deep pain, an assault to my mind, my body, my dignity as a human being. I feel like what was taken away from me in prostitution is irretrievable.” [2] Or the Nevada brothel survivor who, asked to describe her experience, said “The first words that come to mind are: degraded, dehumanized, used, victim, ashamed, humiliated, embarrassed, insulted, slave, rape, violated.” Or another who said, “It’s like you sign a contract to be raped.” [3]

Have you not heard the voices of women of color who have spoken about the connections between prostitution and racism? For instance, the indigenous woman who was told by a john: “I thought we killed all of you.” [6] Or Sarah Mah, who has pointed out the vast overrepresentation of people of color within prostitution. [7] Or Fatima Nat Dhuniya, the trafficking survivor, who has declared that “As long as there is a buyer, the prostitution system can never be dismantled.” Or Cherry Smiley (Nlaka’pamux/Dine’), who told the UN that prostitution is a “system of colonization” and rejected the term “sex worker” in favor of “prostituted women”, because that term “recognizes the forces like colonization, racism, patriarchy, and capitalism that are funneling women into prostitution.” [8]

If you can’t hear the women, maybe you can at least hear the men who use them? For instance the john who said “Guys get off on controlling women, they use physical power to control women, really. If you look at it, it’s paid rape. You’re making them subservient during that time, so you’re the dominant person. She has to do what you want.” Or the one who said “Prostitution says that women have less value than men.” Or another who told a woman, “I paid for this. You have no rights. You’re with me now.” [3] If even johns can admit they are rapists, then why is it so hard for you to do the same? Far from calling them the perpetrators of a human rights violation, you have claimed them as victims.

While you qualify your support for prostitution with the condition that “no coercion, threats or violence [are] associated with those acts”, if you took this condition to heart you would be able to recognize that prostitution is everywhere dependent on exactly these things. That prostitution is a coercive institution in particular should be obvious, for the simple fact that women are bribed into participating in it. Melissa Farley has compared this economic dependency to the situation of battered women:

For many reasons people may ‘choose’ what is deeply harmful to themselves, sometimes because they’ve grown up seeing themselves in a limited or damaged way. Because they had no alternatives, battered women for many years were assumed to be freely choosing to return to violent partners when in fact they were terrorized into returning under conditions of restricted economic resources. [3]

This economic coercion is further exacerbated by drug addiction: one study found that 78% of women began using crack cocaine while involved with prostitution, and 84% were high more than half the time they were soliciting. [9] Drug addiction is known to be “a common tactic used by pimps and traffickers to control prostitutes”. [1] That a small minority of women would choose to stay in the industry does nothing to negate the fact that most do not have the means to escape. Your advocacy of a world where men can prostitute women without “threats or violence” is a fantasy. To quote Melissa Farley again:

Pimps themselves certainly don’t believe the bogus myth that prostitution is a job choice which is why they find it necessary to employ extreme tactics to deceive, entrap, overpower, and brainwash women. Like military torturers, pimps use forced impossible choices as a way of driving people to hopeless despair. Women are told to choose between harming another person and being beaten up herself. They are pressured to consent to prostitution or their family members will be harmed.

Prostitution is also dependent on the trafficking of children. The average age of recruitment into prostitution in the United States is 13 to 14 years old. [2] According to UNICEF, there are more than 250,000 prostituted children in Brazil, a country where prostitution is legal. Some of these children are no more than seven years old. [10] Less than two years ago, when the Supreme Court of Brazil acquitted a man who raped three 12-year old girls with the claim that they were “sex workers”, you put out a press release calling the decision “outrageous” and “a green light to rapists”. [11] Today, it seems, you have inched closer to declaring it a “human right”.

In your draft document you ruled out the possibility of the Nordic model, under which punishment would be reserved for pimps, madams, and johns, and not applied against women who are prostituted. As stated earlier, you have based this position on an apparent concern for men’s “human right” to sexually access and exploit women. This is an assessment that you may want to reconsider. That is, if you hope to retain any part of your image as an organization dedicated to social justice and the survival rights of women and other oppressed groups, rather than as another front group for pimps, johns, and the sex industry.


[3] Melissa Farley, Prostitution & Trafficking in Nevada: Making the Connections
[5] Sheila Jeffreys, The Industrial Vagina
[9] Margaret A. Baldwin, “Living in Longing: Prostitution, Trauma Recovery, and Public Assistance” in Melissa Farley, ed., Prostitution, Trafficking, and Traumatic Stress

An Italian translation of this article is available here: