On August 11th, the human rights organisation Amnesty International voted at its international council meeting in Dublin to adopt a policy that supports the full decriminalisation of all aspects of prostitution, including both selling and buying sex. This was very unfortunate. While decriminalising individuals who sell sex is essential to increase the protection of prostituted people's human rights, making it easier to buy sex risks having the exact opposite effect.
There are important reasons why it is a gigantic mis-step for Amnesty to advocate for the decriminalisation of sex buyers.
First, the empirical evidence of potential benefits from making it permissible to purchase sex is weak, while the costs may be enormous. New Zealand decriminalised prostitution in 2003 and yet the country's prostitution law review committee found in its evaluation that there was "continuing stigma " and "harassment by the general public" among prostituted individuals.
The government-commissioned review further reported that a majority of prostituted persons felt that the decriminalisation Act “could do little about violence [in prostitution]”.
By contrast, several studies have found that in countries where buying sex is decriminalised, sex trafficking is more prevalent. In the Netherlands, attempts have been made to regulate prostitution and treat it like any other industry. Yet a study commissioned by the ministry of justice concluded that managers of licensed brothels were annoyed with regulatory inspections, which both made them less likely to adhere to the rules and made it harder for law enforcement agencies to combat sex trafficking.
Second, decriminalising buying sex seems to be at odds with Amnesty’s core objectives. One of the reasons that so many of us that have strongly supported Amnesty for years is the organisation’s steadfast commitment to the fundamental rights of individuals, whether they are refugees, prisoners of conscience or victims of torture.
But buying sex is not a human right, and it is a truly insignificant one when weighed against the trafficking victim’s right to life and liberty.
I have long admired Amnesty for protecting individuals who are vulnerable and lack political influence. The organisation has given a voice to those who otherwise would not have been heard. Trafficking victims clearly fit this description. Sex buyers do not. On the contrary,
By many accounts these are men of privilege whose choice to buy sex directly funds the business of traffickers – far from the marginalised and vulnerable people Amnesty should be protecting.
Instead of adopting a harmful proposal, Amnesty should have learned from Sweden's prostitution policies, which include both our achievements and our shortcomings. In 1999, Sweden made it illegal to buy sexual services, but not to sell them – an approach that is now often called "the Swedish model".
The ingenuity of the Swedish model is that it protects those who are most vulnerable from being arrested and prosecuted. Nobody is forced to buy sex. But many individuals are coerced, deceived or threatened to sell sex.
In the United States, outrageously enough, victims of sex trafficking can easily be arrested for selling sex; in Sweden they cannot. At the same time, the Swedish model – because it targets buyers rather than sellers – curbs the demand for purchased sex, which is the key driver behind sex trafficking.
There is much debate about how effective the Swedish model has been at tackling commercial sex, but the best available estimates still suggest that the end-demand approach has had a desirable impact both in Sweden and in Norway (which adopted the model in 2009).
These results should be compared with those in Denmark, where prostitution was decriminalised in 1999. When the Danish government started measuring the number of individuals in prostitution in 2002, the headcount stood at 3,886 . By 2009, the number had jumped to 5,534 , an increase by over 40 per cent.
I am the first to admit that we Swedes have not done everything right when it comes to prostitution. While punishing only buyers and not sellers of sex is the right approach, it is apparent that we have not provided enough assistance to individuals in prostitution in terms of housing, education, health, and a way out of the sex industry. This is deeply regrettable.
After all, the purpose of the model is to protect vulnerable individuals, and so legislation is just part of the solution – the government has to do much more to help mitigate the risks and harms in the sex industry.
During its international council meeting in Dublin over recent days, Amnesty had a rare opportunity to build on lessons from Sweden and draft a new policy based on the Swedish model of punishing only the sex buyers, an approach that would have better addressed the stigma, harassment, health risks, and overall lack of services that are so prevalent among people in prostitution across the world. But in the end, Amnesty blew it.
Simon Hedlin is a former political adviser for gender equality and human rights at the prime minister's office in Sweden, and a recent graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org