An estimated 16,000 girls and women in the Chicago area are involved in the sex trade, according to a 2002 study. The only way we can put an end to prostitution is by penalizing its purchase. (Chris Sweda, Chicago Tribune)
During its annual meeting this week in Chicago, Amnesty International is set to decide whether it should endorse a policy to legalize the purchase of sex. It is a sad, ironic twist for an advocacy organization renowned for preserving human rights around the world.
Supporters of the policy change allege that decriminalizing paying for sex is a solution to the harms associated with prostitution. They say decriminalization would protect the health and safety of prostitutes and ultimately would curtail the domestic and international sex trade.
But decriminalization does not change the ugly realities of prostitution. Prostitution is not a chosen profession -- no young girl dreams of becoming a prostitute when she grows up. And the concept that most prostitutes are liberated women who choose this line of work to earn a good wage is a perpetuated myth. Those who are being paid for sex, many of whom are underage girls and boys, are commonly held against their will, subjected to violence and almost always have no other way to survive. These circumstances raise the question of choice.
Research on the supply side of the sex trade has proved this reality: Virtually every person bought for sex -- boy, girl, teenager or adult --would not choose prostitution if they saw another way to survive. According to the results of several studies, the majority of women in prostitution were victims of child sexual abuse, and most prostituting adults were first sold for sex as children. Most end up addicted to drugs or alcohol.
Poverty pushes many girls and women into prostitution, but prostitution does not provide an escape route. Pimps pocket most of the profits.
Decriminalization simply does not solve the problems of prostitution. It does not protect or improve the lives of those being prostituted. It legitimizes the abuse of women and children, trapping them in a cycle of desperation, violence and poverty.
In fact, the only people Amnesty International's proposed policy would protect are those who are the root cause of prostitution and trafficking: the johns and pimps who buy and sell people for sex.
Amnesty International says it works to "protect people wherever justice, truth, dignity and freedom are denied." In our view, someone who is purchased for sex is a living, breathing example of the denial of justice, truth, dignity and freedom. Relabeling prostitution as "sex work" does not make it any less exploitative.
We must abandon the naive belief that decriminalizing the purchase of sex is a remedy for the ills of the sex trade. We urge Amnesty International, instead, to adopt a policy that states that people who are bought and sold for sex are victims of a crime.
The International Labor Organization estimates at least 12.3 million adults and children worldwide are in forced labor or commercial sexual servitude. A 2002 study estimated 16,000 girls and women in the Chicago area are involved in the sex trade. The only way we can put an end to prostitution is by penalizing its purchase. Buying people is a crime. Amnesty International, do not lend it your good name.
Lisa Madigan is the Illinois attorney general. Bridget Gainer, D-Chicago, is a Cook County Commissioner. Kaethe Morris Hoffer is executive director of the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation.
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