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Decriminalizing Prostitution

In the 1990s when I was in my 20s I used to hear certain brilliant elders in Lahore, my hometown, speak about many a subject while I rolled my eyes without letting them see me do it. I had just graduated from Oberlin, the utopic womb of all things progressive and liberal, and the vigour of youth, exploration and discovery was in ascension. Over the years, most of what they said proved to be true and one by one bitter pills had to be swallowed: Zionist plots do exist, banks enslave the poor and then some through varying schemes which lasts till the end of time, slowly but surely religion will be wiped off the face of the earth, media is the most important tool of influence and control, to name just a few.

One of the earliest and still outstanding prophecies yet to be realised, probably the most controversial in my mind and least likely to be borne out, came back to me the last week of August. Simply stated it was this: “International non-profit organisations/NGOs (mostly) exist for the purpose that has less to with promoting human rights and more with advancing western imperialism”, which these days may take the form of atheism, sexism and racism depending on how the shoe fits. To my amazement, the case in point was played out by the great Amnesty International.

Amnesty, on some occasions rightly, champions itself as the lead non-profit defending global human rights. Their best work has been in the realm of exposure of war crimes and injustices that are a direct result of foreign invasions as well as advocacy for the protection of journalists who might be targeted, tortured, arrested or killed while on assignment in hot spots by the crazies or governments themselves. Then this August in Dublin, Amnesty held a vote within its organisation over a highly controversial policy choice: decriminalising prostitution. The result of the vote would form the organisation’s pledge to influence countries all around the world to come to their side of the argument, which, to put it mildly, sparked a furor.

The sharpest critiques came from organisations such as the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women that in response collected thousands of signatures, including those of Hollywood heavy hitters like Meryl Streep and Kate Winslet, amongst many others arguing that decriminalising prostitution “will in effect support a system of gender apartheid”. It would bring more and more women in harm’s way by increasing trafficking to countries where the laws were changed. The group, like many other women’s rights groups, also believes that prostitution, in and of itself, is a “cause and consequence of gender inequality and that full decriminalisation would endorse this inequality”. Forever.
Amnesty maintains a confounding position that trafficking and prostitution should not be connected and that they remain “opposed to human trafficking, which should be criminalised ‘as a matter of international law’ going on to explain, “We have chosen to advocate for the decriminalisation of all aspects of consensual adult sex — sex work that does not involve coercion, exploitation or abuse…We do not consider a trafficked women who is forced to sell sex to be a ‘sex worker’. She is a trafficked woman and deserves protection as such.” Sounds like a lot of arbitrary lines in the sand to push a specific agenda.

What percentage of sex work, other than that depicted on HBO and Showtime that habitually glamourise prostitution, does not include coercion, exploitation or abuse on this planet? But let us take a step back and consider what one article said: “Strong arguments exist on both sides, but can hinge on whether their proponents believe that prostitution should be treated as a job like any other, or whether it should be discouraged.” So essentially for all of us to answer the question as we would for ourselves and our loved ones, is it a normal way of life for anyone to sell their body to earn their livelihood?

Germany decriminalised prostitution in 2002 and the ‘experiment’ has been denounced as a massive failure. Despite the 13 years and counting that the law has been enacted, the press (German and non) states that prostitution is certainly not “a job like any other” despite the farce of it with benefits, insurance and welfare programmes. Hardly any women officially registered as prostitutes contrary to what was widely expected. It turns out few women want to come out and identify themselves as sex workers with pride. Their personal security did not improve and they continued to be exploited by their pimps/punters aka ‘managers’ with no control over their bodies or their clients. Meanwhile, 12 story brothels went up, sex tourism raged as did the inflow of poor girls from Romania and other eastern European countries.

The essence of the argument towards decriminalisation is that it would remove the stigma society associates with prostitutes if their work were legalised. That somehow they would be treated differently than they ever were, inside and outside their ‘work’ construct. And, unsurprisingly and much to the fury of most editorials covering the issue, it was a total disaster. “The theory that stigma would evaporate on contact with legitimacy turns out to be nothing but fantasy, itself simmering into nothing once exposed to the real world.” The Huffington Post reported in 2013 that “experts, government reports and academic publications are increasingly confirming what survivors have been saying for a long time — that the legalisation or decriminalisation of the commercial sex industry does not reduce stigma, does not eliminate violence and fails to make things safer for people in prostitution.”

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