Prostitution “a form of violence against women and girls”: UN Special Rapporteur calls for abolitionist model + cites Collective Shout

Reem Alsalem, United Nations Special Rapporteur on violence against women and girls, its causes and consequences has delivered her report on prostitution, examining violence against women and girls “as a form, cause and consequence of prostitution”. We welcome her findings, which condemn prostitution as a form of male violence against women and her call for a human rights abolitionist approach to the sex trade. 

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Ms Alsalem reviewed 300 submissions (including ours) from around 60 countries, including submissions and consultations from sex trade survivors before publishing her report. We were pleased to be cited in her final report.

In her concluding statements, she said:

I have complied with the obligations to consult widely and to listen. However, this Council has not asked me to listen only, and not listen to those that speak loudest but also to bring in my independent and impartial analysis from a human rights perspective.

Prostitution as a form of male violence and a human rights abuse

In the report and her address (watch the video here) Special Rapporteur Ms Alsalem identifies prostitution as a form of violence against women and girls:

I categorically conclude that prostitution is a system of inequality and discrimination based on sex and other intersecting grounds.

Prostitution is intrinsically linked to different forms of violence against women and girls and constitutes a form of violence in and of itself.

Prostitution thrives on sexualising and racializing poverty, targeting women, particularly those from minorities and marginalised backgrounds.

Prostitution results in egregious human rights violations and multiple forms of violence against women and girls, where they are often dehumanised and perceived as persons without rights. Prostitution violates the right of women and girls to dignity and often constitutes torture, inhuman and degrading treatment.

Special Rapporteur rejects ‘sex work’ terminology

Ms Alsalem “categorically” rejects ‘sex work’ and ‘sex worker’ terminology – while acknowledging her approach is at odds with the language used by some United Nation entities – on the basis it wrongly depicts prostitution as work, it gaslights survivors and trivialises violence against them:

The Special Rapporteur considers that the term is neither recognized nor defined in international law. In addition, the term wrongly depicts prostitution as an activity as worthy and dignified as any other work; it fails to take into account the serious human rights violations that characterize the prostitution system and “gaslights” victims and their experiences.

Ms Alsalem instead uses the terms “prostituted women and girls”, noting that women and girls are prostituted by the system and by others, and that they do not prostitute themselves.

I also wish to emphasize that the term “victim” is not derogatory nor demeaning. Victims is a legal status that means that women and girls of prostitution have been wronged, have suffered human rights violations, are entitled to reparations, restitution, justice, and accountability.

Calls for Abolitionist legal approach to prostitution

Ms Alsalem recommends that States “adopt the abolitionist legal framework”, sometimes known as the Nordic or Equality model, which includes:

  • decriminalising of women in prostitution
  • providing comprehensive support and exit pathways
  • criminalising the purchase of sexual acts
  • criminalising all forms of pimping
  • implementing sensitisation campaigns for sexual act buyers

In terms of best practice and policies, as I was asked by a number of countries, after a careful assessment of the different models, the abolitionist model is the one that offers the best human rights and gender-sensitive approach and response to violence against prostituted women and girls. However, it needs to be applied comprehensively and not in piecemeal.

We have been calling for the Australian Government to implement the Nordic/Abolition model, endorsed by the European Parliament as best practice for tackling sex trafficking and gender inequality, since 2011. (You can read our past submissions here.)

Ms Alsalem noted that some countries continued to push for decriminalisation of sex buying, pimping and brothel-keeping, despite the demonstrated harms to women in the sex trade.

In terms of proposed policy model, I was surprised that despite the clear demonstration I have tried to make in the report of the horrific physical, mental and economic consequences for prostituted women and girls, some countries choose not to comment on this, but to pretend that this is made under the guise of moralistic approaches…

And as I said in my report, there is clear evidence, including from 150 countries, that legalizing all aspects including demand, including pimping, begs more violence, brings more violence and is not the way to go. Demand of sexual acts creates a demand and supply of pimps and embolden buyers of sexual acts leading to more violence. Moving forward, I also call on different organizations, including the WHO, to do a full assessment on the consequences before continuing to adapt partially informed positions.

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On consent and the "freedom to choose"

Sex industry defenders claim prostitution is a transaction between two consenting parties, and that the women consent to it, therefore it cannot be harmful. But Ms Alsalem notes how forces like violence, poverty and discrimination serve as coercion.

On the issue of consent and freedom to choose: Many who are adults in prostitution today entered prostitution as girls, so speaking about consent is not appropriate in this context. Those who are sheltered as adults consent must be seen in the context of surrounding circumstances, not only apparent force and coercion, but also gradual psychological manipulation, pressure, poverty, history of violence, structural discrimination. This invalidates what they understand as free and informed consent. The overwhelming majority were not aware of the spectrum of violence and exploitation they have faced, and the vast majority have not been able to exit because of safety considerations or real alternatives to prostitutions.

Ms Alsalem also highlights some States that benefit financially from the sale of women and girls:

In any case, by continuing to focus on a tiny minority who say they are free in prostitution, when compared to all women and girls that have been victims of prostitution, you hold women and girls hostage to no action, and allow States and societies to get away with addressing underlying causes that push women and girls into prostitution. And in some cases, as I say in the report, States make financial benefit from prostituted women and girls.

Pornography as filmed prostitution

Ms Alsalem identifies pornography as filmed prostitution, and argues that pornography normalises violence against women in the sex trade by “[erasing] the boundaries between what counts as sex and what counts as sexual violence”.

Despite its global impact, she argues, pornography (as a form of sexual exploitation) has not been adequately addressed in international law.

States must avoid becoming “pimp States” by abolishing laws that allow, tolerate or condone the violence and exploitation in the prostitution system and pornography. Moreover, States have a responsibility to protect, assist and protect victims of prostitution in a gender-sensitive manner, and to provide reparations. They must also address the underlying causes of violence against women, such as those perpetuated by the prostitution system, including by eliminating demand for prostitution by addressing socioeconomic inequalities, discrimination and marginalisation.

[States should] recognise prostitution with its connected variations, such as pornography, as a system of exploitation and violence, in part by considering the full spectrum of international human rights standards that apply in the context of prostitution (e.g., prostitution as a crime of rape, a crime against humanity, torture, slavery or femicide); States that consider prostitution a taboo issue must engage in its recognition.

Pending the abolition of pornography, apply a strict age verification system on all online pornography, rigorous moderation, labelling and warning systems, and mandated filtering by Internet service providers with options for adult opt-in; and sanction pornography and social media sites for hosting illegal pornographic sites.

The tide is turning!

Special Rapporteur Ms Alsalem’s report identifying prostitution as a human rights abuse against women and girls and calling for States to implement the Abolitionist model is a significant victory for women and girls’ human rights. For many years, we have been fighting an uphill battle where our own Government has endorsed men’s paid sexual access to women’s bodies as a form of work like any other. Australian states have legalised and decriminalised men’s compensated sexual abuse of women in the sex industry under the guise of harm minimisation, ignoring those who exposed the inherent violence and abuse of the trade in women’s objectified bodies – including sex trade survivors.

We hope this report marks a change, where politicians can no longer dismiss commercial sexual exploitation of women and girls as work, a choice, or ‘empowering’, but that they are forced to engage with the reality that prostitution is a human rights abuse.

We welcome Ms Alsalem’s recommendations on pornography – “a system of exploitation and abuse” – and hope that the Australian Government will act accordingly.

See also:

Input for UN Human Rights Council SR VAWG's report on violence against women and prostitution - Our submission

What we know about men who buy sex

Men’s paid sexual access to women in the sex trade sanctioned in law: Victorian Government decriminalises pimping and sex buying

Our Submission into Victoria Review into Decriminalisation of 'Sex Work' 

Vic Government review to decriminalise pimps excludes sex trade survivors

Over 300 human rights groups across 40 nations calling on Associated Press not to use the term 'sex worker'


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  • Caitlin Roper
    published this page in News 2024-06-30 14:23:34 +1000

You can defend their right to childhood

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