Written submission to UN Women's Consultation on Prostitution by FiLia

Written submission to UN Women's Consultation on Prostitution, October 2016

FiLia is a charitable incorporated organisation (CIO) working towards gender equality and the advancement of women's human rights. In preparation for this submission, FiLia has consulted with grass roots activists and expert women’s organisations. FiLia has also met with and listened to survivors of prostitution. FiLia supports the analysis of the Nordic Model Information Network.

Prostitution is found everywhere resting on a principle found nowhere in any human rights instrument and few legislative systems that entitles men to buy women's sexual consent to satisfy their own sexual desires and not hers.

FiLia considers that women’s empowerment, advancement and equality is undermined by the system of oppression and violence that is prostitution. FiLia opposes the description of the sex trade as ‘work;’ sex is no longer regarded as labour performed by a woman for a man in exchange for financial support outside the sphere of prostitution and such an attitude towards sex is regressive. There is no bright line between trafficking, of women, girls and boys, and prostitution. The market is fuelled by demand.

1) The 2030 Agenda commits to universality, human rights and leaving nobody behind. How do you interpret these principles in relation to sex work/trade or prostitution?

1.1 The principle of universality of human rights is the cornerstone of international human rights law and has been reiterated in numerous international human rights conventions, declarations, and resolutions.

1.2 Human rights include a prohibition on degrading treatment and on slavery or servitude. Specific principles relating to the rights of those involved in prostitution are set out in the Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others (1949). Until 1960, UN Conventions had no monitoring mechanisms, leading to poor implementation. But later conventions with regular monitoring have been more effective. Article 6 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW, 1979) stipulates that “States Parties shall take all appropriate measures, including legislation, to suppress all forms of traffic in women and exploitation of prostitution of women” while the 2000 ‘Palermo’ Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children makes ‘trafficking for prostitution’, not simply for “forced” prostitution, a primary form of sexual exploitation.

1.3 Nothing within the Universal Declaration entitles any person or group to engage in any activity aimed at the destruction of another's rights or freedoms.

1.4 The majority of women in prostitution wish to exit. About 50% of women in the sex trade entered before they were eighteen and up to 95% of women in street prostitution are problematic drug users. Vulnerable migrants are disproportionately involved: figures from the UK show that 81% of women selling sex in flats, parlours and saunas are originally from outside the UK. 80,000 women work in ‘on-street’ prostitution in the UK. As many as 85% women in prostitution in the UK report physical abuse in the family, with 45% reporting familial sexual abuse.

1.5 Most organisations that work on the issue of all forms of men’s violence against women and girls recognise prostitution as a form of violence (VAWG), as do a wide range of other organisations and government departments including the UK’s Crown Prosecution Service.

1.6 Disability rights activists have expressed disquiet at the presupposition that this is the only way that disabled people can enjoy sexual relationships.

1.7 Women in poverty, women who have been in care and girls who are in care, women who have been in prison, and migrant women are disproportionately involved in prostitution. This indicates that the least advantaged are the most affected. FiLia calls on the UN to ensure that these voices are heard through survivors' groups and outreach projects.

1.8 One main push factor driving women and girls into prostitution is poverty.  Nobody should ever be in a position whereby her choices are poverty or prostitution.  Such a choice is no choice at all and constitutes an assault on the dignity of the person in defiance of the primary goals of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.  FiLia calls for renewed efforts to end poverty and particularly women's poverty as part of a holistic approach to ending the harms caused by the sex trade.

2) The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set out to achieve gender equality and to empower all women and girls. The SDGs also include several targets pertinent to women’s empowerment, such as

a)      reproductive rights

b)      women’s ownership of land and assets

c)       building peaceful and inclusive societies

d)      ending the trafficking of women

e)      eliminating violence against women.

How do you suggest that policies on sex work/trade/prostitution can promote such targets and objectives?

2.1 Women's empowerment must be understood within the context of women achieving power as a class. It should not be viewed solely through the prism of individuals' financial gain. There are numerous options which may be lucrative for the individual but are disempowering for a group as a whole, and prostitution is one of these.

2.2 Women are disproportionately affected by sexual violence. One key factor behind this is male entitlement: the belief that financial expenditure entitles a person to sex. This attitude feeds the cultural belief that males are superior to females, that their sexual desires are uncontrollable, must be satisfied, and are more important than those of women. These beliefs undermine goals for the advancement and equality of women and girls. Such attitudes are known collectively as “rape culture.”  This is neither peaceful nor inclusive.

2.3  Similarly a societal attitude which prioritises male sexual desire above women's sexual desire is one which promotes rape culture. FiLia seeks a model of sex and relationships in which the parties involved in sexual intercourse give free and enthusiastic consent, through mutual desire, and not because one party's reluctance can be overcome by financial consideration.

2.4  Trafficking is defined by Article 3(a) of the Palermo Protocol as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.”

2.5  It follows that where there is a “position of vulnerability” - inter alia poverty, insecurity of employment, debt, drug dependency – any third party who harbours or recruits a prostitute is involved in trafficking. Where under eighteens are involved there is no need for any such coercion whether by threat or by circumstance.  

2.6 Accordingly, FiLia is deeply opposed to legalisation or decriminalisation of “management” or pimping because there is no bright line between trafficking and pimping. 

2.7 Sex buyers prioritise their desires ahead of the safety or security of those involved in prostitution. The demand for women's sexual consent, particularly that of young women, fuels abuses. Where there is a market for prostitution, trafficking and violence will flourish. Where there is no market, traffickers and pimps will operate elsewhere (see 2.11 below).

2.8 Efforts to separate “consensual” adult prostitution from trafficked and child prostitutes were made within s.47 and s.53A of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, which create the offences of purchasing sex from a child and purchasing sex from a trafficked woman respectively.  There have been no prosecutions annually since 2012 under s.53A and fewer than ten under s.47.  This is a clear indication that the current legislation does not work. There is no way to end trafficking for prostitution, to end child prostitution and to end violence against women in prostitution unless demand for prostitution itself is ended. A focus on men’s attitudes is essential to achieve this.

2.9 This is further borne out by a comparison of the Leeds “red light zone” where decriminalisation was trialled against Ipswich where the Nordic model was trialled. In Leeds there were two rapes and a murder.  In Ipswich the Nordic model trial was a success

2.10        Looking abroad, a similar overview can be seen:

2.10.1.           In Germany there have been at least 55 murders of prostituted women by                                     clients and 29 attempted murders since legalisation in 2002. 

2.10.2.           In Denmark there have been 9 such murders since decriminalisation in                                          1999.

2.10.3.           In the Netherlands, 28 murders since legalisation in 2000.

2.10.4.           In New Zealand, at least 8 since decriminalisation.

2.10.5.           In Sweden, zero and Norway, one since the implementation of the Nordic                                    Model.

2.11        Across countries, trafficking is shown to reduce where the Nordel Model is implemented and to increase where buying sex is legal. For example in Denmark there were four times the number of trafficking victims than in Sweden despite Denmark having only half the population of Sweden.

2.12        Since the implementation of the Nordic Model in Norway, rapes of prostituted women halved.

2.13        FiLia supports the Nordic Model as the only policy model proven to reduce harm.

3) The sex trade is gendered. How best can we protect women in the trade from harm, violence, stigma and discrimination?

3.1 FiLia supports the Nordic Model which is a tripartite model designed to

3.1.1.             Decriminalise the sale of sex;

3.1.2.             Criminalise the purchase of sex;

3.1.3.             Provide safe, adequate and meaningful exit programs

3.2 Decriminalisation of the sale of sex ensures that women are not the target of law enforcement measures. It also tilts the balance of power towards the seller of sex should she need to report abuse. This should be supported with efforts to keep prostituted women out of the criminal justice system for ancillary offences such as drugs, soliciting, or anti-social behaviour. This will reduce stigma and discrimination. 

3.3 The third element of the model is crucial but difficult to implement because it requires resources. The purpose is to provide women with viable alternatives to prostitution if they wish to pursue them.  When successful, the whole society progresses towards ending the poverty and stigma which trap women in prostitution.

3.4 Criminalising the purchase places the legal and social responsibility for prostitution on those who have a real choice about their participation: the sex buyers. There is no human right to buy sexual consent. Doing so enhances the sense of absolute power and control leading to demands and acts that are harmful, violent and even fatal for those bought.

For a fully referenced copy of this submission please contact us at info@feminisminlondon.co.uk