Is prostitution a human right?

Prostitution in Silom District, Bangkok, Thailand

Prostitution in Silom District, Bangkok, Thailand

Not long ago, my family welcomed a young homeless woman to stay in our home during the final stages of her pregnancy. She had been living and working in a local brothel.

"When I was 14 years old my mother got sick," she told me, "The only way to pay her medical bills was for me to come to the city and do this work."

Listening to her story, my heart broke. I could recognize immediately that this was not "sex work". This was a 14 year old girl who saw no other options but to engage in sex for economic reasons. Men with money took advantage of her vulnerability. The best word for that is rape. 

Amnesty International has been under fire this month for arguing that prostitution is a Human Right. As laws on prostitution are being revised around the world, it's important to understand why Amnesty's stance is such a problem for vulnerable women and what you can do about it.

Our pregnant friend is now around 20 years old, and though Amnesty might promote her "Human Right" to engage in prostitution, literally only her age has changed. She still sees prostitution as her only economic option.

I've lived much of my adult life in slums and inner cities where prostitution is a source of income for too many of my neighbors and friends. We've run medical clinics and drop-ins for these women. In Amnesty's eyes, they have made a legitimate choice to pursue this form of so-called work.

In Amnesty's eyes they have the Human Right to be exploited. 

But what is "choice" when you have to feed your family, or buy medicine for a dying loved one? What is "choice" when your baby needs diapers and you've only ever worked in the sex industry? There is no choice when you see no other options. That is not freedom. It is exploitation.

When confronted with the dramatic capture of a woman being punished for breaking the sexual laws of the time, Jesus immediately stepped in and protected the vulnerable woman from physical harm and the legal consequences (John 8:3-11). 

"Let he who is without sin cast the first stone," Jesus declared - thus ruining the gleeful stoning party that was about to take place. He was showing them that all of us are implicated, including the mysterious missing man who she had been sleeping with.

In Jesus' day, men and women were treated differently - and in this case it seems only the woman was being punished. Still today, prostituted women are much more likely to be arrested than the men who buy sex. Yet it is men who drive the demand for prostitution.

A report came out a few weeks ago accusing UN Peacekeepers in Haiti of sexually exploiting more than 225 desperately poor women and children in exchange for food and medicine. The official report explains why hundreds of these Haitian women were willing to make the trade: “For rural women, hunger, lack of shelter, baby care items, medication and household items were frequently cited as the ‘triggering need.’”

Those young women needed the food and the medicine for their families and they felt trapped in a situation where they had no choice but to sell themselves to get it. In many cases they were laying down their own lives for their children and siblings. A tragically selfless act.

The world rightly condemned those UN peacekeepers, because we saw that this was a group of men taking advantage of poor women's vulnerability. In reality, all prostitution is inherently exploitative. 

What Amnesty International gets wrong in their argument around prostitution as a Human Right is this - they ignore the massive power differential between women who feel this is their only economic option, and men who have the resources to take advantage of their situation. 

Thankfully, a handful of countries have been using an alternative approach that shows great promise for protecting and supporting women.

The Nordic Model

The Nordic or Swedish model (also adopted by Iceland, Norway and Canada) is based on the idea that we should decriminalize the women in prostitution so that they can get help and support whenever they need it. And at the same time, criminalize the actions of those (mostly men) who seek to exploit, purchase sex or otherwise pimp women out.  

Countries like Sweden that have criminalized sex buyers, have seen a significant drop in sex trafficking. Sweden is now seeing far less sex trafficking than Denmark and Germany – nearby countries where buying sex is legal. Sweden also saw street prostitution halved and Norway saw similarly major decreases when they criminalized sex buyers and pimps.

But this is only part of the picture. Advocates of the Nordic Model also stress that support and exit services are an important part of addressing the root causes of prostitution. Clearly, if women are there for economic reasons, then a broad range of economic initiatives are going to be important to make sure their basic needs are being met.

You might feel there is nothing much you can do to influence the big players around these issues. But people are beginning to speak up. Former President Carter has urged Amnesty International to reconsider their stance and this petition at is a good way to lend your voice to this effort. 

Jesus reminded the group of men readying themselves to condemn the woman for her violation, that they were also not innocent. As men, we need to recognize that this is not just a women's issue. Men are responsible for almost all the demand for prostitution. We need to speak out and say that exploiting women is never OK. Together, we can stand with women on this. Each of us has a part to play.

The pregnant young woman who stayed with us moved on soon after our conversation. We helped her find a place with an organization that would help support her with the newborn baby. We hope and pray that her child will grow up in a different world to the one her mother has known  - one where our most vulnerable members of society are not exploited and used for the pleasure and profit of others. 

If we work together, men and women, we might just see that world come about.