menu

SMALL STATES - Our series exploring how the UN and others can better serve these countries →

Prostitution: Righting a Wrong at the UN

LEAVE A COMMENT

A new study on prostitution by a UN special rapporteur strongly rebuts the unrealistic “sex work” narrative by linking prostitution to the “patriarchal norms and the accompanying abuse of power and sexual demand by men.” She presents her findings to the Human Rights Council this week. CREATIVE COMMONS

Prostitution is directly linked to patriarchy and its abuse of power and male sexual demand, says a new report. To be presented to the United Nations Human Rights Council on June 21, “Prostitution and Violence Against Women and Girls” provides much-needed clarity on the inherent nature of prostitution as a form of violence and its inextricable link to sex trafficking. The report compellingly calls for the abolition of prostitution.

In her study, Reem Alsalem, the special rapporteur on violence against women and girls, who was appointed by the Council, connects prostitution with the “patriarchal norms and the accompanying abuse of power and sexual demand by men.” She rightfully declines to use the term “sex work,” noting that it “wrongly depicts prostitution as an activity as worthy and dignified as any other work” and fails to consider the human rights violations inherent in prostitution.

Alsalem’s analysis is a welcome, stark contrast to the approach of the UN working group on discrimination against women and girls, which in December published a “Guidance document on eliminating discrimination against sex workers and securing their human rights.” Discrimination and violence against prostituted people, especially women, is rampant, and protecting their rights must be a critical priority of the human rights movement.

Don't miss a  story,  Subscribe to PassBlue


But the working group’s promotion of “sex work” ignores the reality, as noted by the committee of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (Cedaw) as well as the special rapporteur, who say that prostitution is by its very nature discriminatory and directly linked to sex trafficking, a multibillion-dollar scourge that profits from the commodification of human beings, mostly women and girls. Promoting the decriminalization of sex buyers and pimps, as the working group does, is misguidance rather than guidance.

Hopefully, Alsalem’s definitive new report will help the UNAIDS agency and others in the UN system to get back on track by focusing on prostitution as a lifelong harm for women and girls rather than as a welcome job opportunity. The special rapporteur’s approach is embedded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which proclaims that “all human beings are born equal in dignity and rights.” The 1949 UN anti-trafficking convention states clearly that prostitution is “incompatible with the dignity and worth of the human person and endanger[s] the welfare of the individual, the family, and the community.”

The new report builds on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and numerous UN human rights treaties, including Cedaw. Its Article 6 prohibits the trafficking in and exploitation of prostitution of women. In 2020, the Cedaw committee adopted General Recommendation 38, which recognizes such violations as a “phenomenon rooted in structural, sex-based discrimination, constituting gender-based violence.” It recognizes the links between trafficking and sexual exploitation as “indivisible.” Like the UN Palermo Protocol on Trafficking, it notes that where the forces of poverty and violence are inherently coercive, consent is “irrelevant.”

A human rights-based approach to prostitution must begin with the premise that women and girls have a right not to be prostituted, a right to education and employment and a life that honors their dignity and fulfills their potential. The idea embraced by the working group that “sex work” is a fulfillment of this right has been strongly rejected by sex-trade survivors, who have contributed invaluable first-hand experience to the understanding that prostitution is neither sex nor work. Nor is it compatible with any notion of gender equality or women’s empowerment. The buying of mostly women by mostly men is rooted in inequality and a dramatic illustration of the intersection of sexism, racism and classism.

The special rapporteur’s study reviews the various legal frameworks governing prostitution by characterizing regulation and decriminalization approaches as based on the premise that prostitution is inevitable. Research conducted across 150 countries shows that the male demand for prostitution increases when the system of prostitution is legalized or decriminalized. These frameworks also lead to higher rates of sex trafficking, violence, abuse and rape.

Based on these findings, as well as expertise provided by 300 organizations and specialists, the UN report supports the abolition of prostitution, also known as the “equality model,” the “Nordic” model in Europe or the “Sankara” model in Africa. This approach decriminalizes prostituted people, recognizing them as victims of systemic exploitation and offering them comprehensive services, while it criminalizes the buyers, the pimps and other third parties who profit from the exploitation of prostitution, holding them accountable for their predatory crimes.

As Alsalem notes, countries that have adopted this approach — including Sweden, Norway, Iceland, France, Ireland and Canada — have seen concrete positive results in reducing violence against women and eroding harmful gender stereotypes.

As one of the women’s rights advocates who proposed the creation of the working group on discrimination against women and girls almost 15 years ago, I was taken aback by their “Guidance document” promoting the legalization of an industry that embodies violence and discrimination against women and girls. This document has been widely circulated, although it has never been presented to the Human Rights Council or discussed by member states during its sessions.

Yet, the document received a UN General Assembly document distribution number and was formatted to look like an official report, which misleadingly suggests that it is a document of the Human Rights Council. Although it did not consult any survivor groups, the working group cites the Global Network of Sex Work Projects and its members more than a dozen times in the document.

The UN’s internal staff rules, known as the zero-tolerance policy, explicitly ban the exchange of money for sex, recognizing sexual exploitation as a “violation of international legal norms and standards.” Yet some years ago, UNAIDS started to use the term “sex work” and to promote the decriminalization of the prostitution industry. A much better approach to reducing HIV/AIDS would be to abolish the sex trade, which is an HIV/AIDS superspreader.

Alejandra Gil, a key advocate who originally steered UNAIDS in the “sex work” direction as co-chair of its advisory group on HIV and sex work, was later convicted of sex trafficking and is now serving a 15-year prison sentence in Mexico. Meanwhile, the UN Population Fund and other UN agencies have taken their cue from UNAIDS by advocating the “sex work” approach.

The special rapporteur’s report is an opportunity for UN member states to make their views known on the decriminalization of pimps, brothel owners and those who use their power and privilege to prey on those who are victimized by violence, discrimination and poverty. They should be guided by international law, human rights principles and an understanding of the harms of prostitution to women and girls. They should ensure that all of the UN does so as well.


This is an opinion essay.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts on the UN rapporteur's report?

Jessica Neuwirth

Jessica Neuwirth is the Rita E. Hauser Director of the Human Rights Program at the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute of Hunter College and a former director of the New York office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

We would love your thoughts. Please comment:

Prostitution: Righting a Wrong at the UN
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

20 Comments
Newest
Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Dr Bilali Camara
Dr Bilali Camara
5 days ago

Let us accept the reality: let us right a wrong at the UN. This is a deep analysis leading to a very useful conclusion! Let us respect human beings! Sex work is not a work and prostitution is not a profession!

Susana Chiarotti
Susana Chiarotti
11 days ago

Excelente articule that reserves to be real along with Reem Alsalem’s report. Finally some oxygen for women all over the workd, but especially latín American women

Rachel Moran
11 days ago

Enormous thanks to Jessica Neuwirth for this comprehensive overview of the prostitution system, its obvious harms, and detailing of the important points made in the report that’s just been presented at the United Nations Human Rights Council. Myself and the other women I know who’ve survived this system are mightily relieved to finally see the report by Reem Alsalem, and articles like the one above that stand as a counterbalance to the propaganda we’ve had to endure all the years we’ve been speaking out against the system in which we were abused and exploited.
We feel that a new day has dawned, when prostitution has been recognised in a UN Report as a human rights violation in and of itself. This shifts the conversation in a way we’ve been working towards for decades. It puts a major dent in the fantastical pro-prostitution narrative. It lays out clearly what we’ve always known: There is no such thing as “consent” to a human rights violation.

Cherie Jimenez
12 days ago

Thank you, Jessica Neuwirth, for calling attention to this ground-breaking report that speaks to what prostitution is. I write this not only as a survivor of prostitution but the founder and director of an exit program here in the US. For almost twenty years, I have had to bear witness to the countless number of those that were ravaged by the sex trade, wanting out of it. And don’t think that there are clear lines between prostitution and trafficking, it’s all messy. I know.
A lot of us have witnessed first-hand the increased numbers of those considered disposable here in the US. This includes a growing number of those that aged out of systems at 18 only to be rendered homeless, with no viable skills thrown into a savage world of commodification that is unlike anything previously imposed. 
I am not surprised by the comments, in order to justify prostitution, we had to believe it was just another form of work, a lot of us bought into this until we couldn’t, not surprising, we left poorer than we went in, lost years to unimaginable cruelty, violence and inhumanity.
We need to envision a different way, our neoliberal way of reducing everything to a market culture is not sustainable; we need to envision a future that does not imitate the present. So, thank you Reem Alsalem for this report and proposed solutions!!

Marwa Bachar
21 days ago

Sex work is not synonymous with trafficking. It’s essential to recognize that consensual sex work is legitimate labor, and those who choose it as their profession deserve full labor rights and protections. It’s time to respect sex workers’ autonomy and ensure they have access to the same rights and safeguards as any other worker.

R. MEERA
21 days ago

Sexwork is not trafficking and not all sexworkers are trafficked this is from our grassroots work experience. There is violence in sexwork, but sexwork itself is not violence. Trafficking and Violence should be decoupled as many women walk in and walk out of sexwork. It is not slavery or bondage, it is like any form of informal work, they exchange sex for money. SR VAW report is unacceptable for many sexworkers for whom sexwork is livelihood
MS.R.MEERA
supporter of Network of sexworkers in AP, INDIA

Sushila Sharma,Writer from Nepal
Sushila Sharma,Writer from Nepal
21 days ago

Yes your opinion is partially true. But how can we deny the the sex work as an oldest profession of the world and there are existence of the Female sex workers in the world. We talk about the human right of the women but as a women choice of her work if she is adult and has the consent we should not ignore the sex workers right.

Bhawana tamang
21 days ago

I m bhawana tamang from hamro sangathan street base sex workers organization in Nepal.I m proud of my profession.This profession is not a compulsion for me.This profession is my need .me and my friends not selling our body in street.we are just service providers like beautician massage palor.my profession my dignity.

Shanti Tiwari
21 days ago

Prostitution(sex work) is the oldest profession in the world.Admiring this truth The UN also have mentioned it the decent work. From the adult consent work we must not ignore the right of sex workers.

Meena Seshu, Joanne Csete, Aarthi Pai
Meena Seshu, Joanne Csete, Aarthi Pai
21 days ago

It is disheartening to see this commentary from a former UN human rights official that recycles the tired argument that sex workers are nothing but victims without the agency to make decisions about their livelihood. This too is the main theme of the unfortunate report of the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, which rejects a UN consensus approved by member states that sex work is not the equivalent of trafficking, that punitive laws are a major threat to sex workers, and that sex workers should enjoy the rights of all workers. This opinion ignores the basic tenet of human rights – there is no greater human rights violation than the deliberate exclusion and misrepresentation of marginalized voices. In four countries of South Asia alone, over 200,000 workers participated in the process of responding to the Special Rapporteur’s call. Over 4000 signed the petition sent to her. Peer-reviewed research has repeatedly shown that punitive criminal laws against sex work are often the most important determinant of violence and discrimination against sex workers. The allegedly “inextricable” link of sex work to trafficking has also been refuted for most sex workers in most countries. As for the assertion that the so-called Nordic model of criminalizing others involved in sex transactions but not the sex worker, when studies have included evidence from the first-hand experience of sex workers themselves, it has often been found that they are not in fact “decriminalized” in these arrangements but very often caught in a criminal net. The contention that sex work is a “super-spreader” of HIV is refuted by evidence from many countries showing that where sex workers are allowed to organize to ensure that safer sex practices are the norm, HIV transmission levels do not differ from those of other populations.
The Special Rapporteur’s report is strikingly out of step with reality and with anything resembling a human rights-centered discussion of this issue. Her referral to countries that would “legitimize” sex work as “pimping states” should be insulting to any UN member states where organizations of sex workers have been well understood to be important players in responding to HIV and other challenges. Indeed, the sex worker organizations in India, for example, have proven to play an important role in protecting women from trafficking.
Meena Seshu, Joanne Csete, Aarthi Pai

Jessica Neuwirth
Jessica Neuwirth
15 days ago

Honest disagreement and debate always welcome, but the reference to the UN in this statement is simply false and misleading:”a UN consensus approved by member states that sex work is not the equivalent of trafficking, that punitive laws are a major threat to sex workers, and that sex workers should enjoy the rights of all workers.”
I and others have not equated prostitution and trafficking but said only that they are linked, which is exceedingly evident as all sex trafficking victims are sold in prostitution. The equality model supports decriminalization of women and men in the sex trade, only advocating sanctions for those who buy and sell them – the same people who in fact constitute the threat of violence and harm to them. And it is obvious that there is not a UN consensus that sex work is work, as evidenced by the positions of UN Women, OHCHR and all the member states who said otherwise in the interactive dialogue of the Human Rights Council – by far a majority of those who spoke.

Brooks Anderson
Brooks Anderson
22 days ago

This is a tremendous piece by Jessica Neuwirth. Thank you for publishing it.

Good Reason
Good Reason
23 days ago

It’s a disgrace that any element of the UN system should be trying to normalize prostitution as “sex work.” I am so grateful for Al Salem, and also for Neuwirth for trying to point out how wrong that perspective is. Prostitution and surrogacy are profound violations of human rights. No one’s body should be for sale or rent, period. The UN has an obligation to stand against these evils.

Ena Aguilar
Ena Aguilar
24 days ago

Great article, congratulations, as we move forward into making visible the invisible on gender discrimination and the normalization of activities built over women and girls. Thank you for writing it as clear to make us see how the decriminalizition takes it back again into the reality of women human rights

Elaine Biollo
Elaine Biollo
25 days ago

I think this is a very good article. Things are clear and no one is spoken of in a demeaning way. If I were to choose one article on this topic to give to people in any educational situation, I would choose this one. Thank you for the work that went into it and for all the thinking and time behind it.

Agnete Strøm
Agnete Strøm
25 days ago

Very, very useful. Will use your last # when we contact Norways representative in Geneva.

PassBlue
Admin
PassBlue
25 days ago
Reply to  Agnete Strøm

What are you referring to?

Philippe Serge Degernier
Philippe Serge Degernier
25 days ago

Hi, very interesting. Where can we find this report? The link provided does not work.

PassBlue
Admin
PassBlue
25 days ago

I see it’s a UN technical problem. Keep trying. Thanks

Related Posts
Search

THIS WEEK'S MOST POPULAR

Global Connections Television - The only talk show of its kind in the world

Subscribe to PassBlue

 

Don't miss a story

Subscribe now to send the smartest news

on the UN directly to your inbox.

We respect your privacy and take protecting it seriously