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Opinion Pieces

UN Rights Experts Make False Promises About Prostitution

todayMarch 14, 2024 10

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The essayist, an expert in human trafficking, writes that a guidance paper produced by a UN human rights group on eliminating discrimination against “sex workers” actually “advocates for policies that will endanger women and girls.” TONY WEBSTER/CREATIVE COMMONOpinion By


The United Nations working group on discrimination against women and girls published a paper last year that not only fails to address the widespread human rights violations caused by prostitution and pornography, but also advocates for policies that will endanger women and girls.

The guidance paper, “Eliminating discrimination against sex workers and securing their human rights,” now circulating in the UN system, ostensibly offers ways to address the violence women endure in prostitution, but the use of the terminology of “sex work” raises red flags. The theme of the 68th annual Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), the UN’s largest gathering on gender equality, is investing more in women to lift them out of poverty, among other goals. One proposal, however, that is circulating among member states to endorse the paper contravenes the goals.

Instead of dealing with the scourge of prostitution within a human rights framework, the paper urges countries to decriminalize the sex trade, including all commercial sex establishments, sex buying, sex tourism, and pimping — actions that would corrode women’s rights and spur more sex trafficking. The working group states that its intent is not to define “sex work,” which is telling; doing so would have required them to list every player that profits from this sordid “business,” online and off.

The drafters of the paper — independent experts selected to serve on one of the Human Rights Council‘s 59 working groups — are not employees of the UN and seem to be accountable to no one. The paper relies on primary sources with links to groups and networks that promote the sex trade as a viable employer for marginalized women, especially of African descent, from national minorities and from the global South.

The paper’s premise — that legalizing the multibillion-dollar global sex trade shields women from violence and discrimination — is preposterous and contradicts longstanding human rights law, including calls on states “to suppress all forms of traffic in women and exploitation of prostitution of women.”

“It is beyond comprehension and very dangerous that any UN body encourages pimping and patronizing, and not consult any prostitution survivors or their allies to inform them of our lived experiences and the truths about prostitution,” said Cherie Jimenez, the executive director of SPACE International, a global survivor-led network.

“If they truly cared about the millions of prostituted women, they would advocate to end our arrests, offer us services and help us exit, not applaud a system that condemns generations to sex buyers and to dehumanization.”

It is well documented that women in the sex trade, which includes all forms of prostitution, including escort services, illegal massage parlors, pornography, strip clubs, “sugar dating” and street prostitution, face pervasive discrimination, unjust criminalization, brutal physical and psychological harm and even torture by both state and nonstate actors.

Prostitution is not labor (as the term “sex work” entices us to believe), but a harmful cultural practice. Its inception parallels that of other forms of gender-based violence, such as female genital mutilation or domestic violence. It is a system that relegates women to second-class status and offers men the opportunity to purchase domination. From Bangladesh to the Netherlands, from South Africa to Colombia, and every country in between, the sex trade generates significant profits for both those who exploit women and the state.

The #MeToo movement has revealed the egregious, lifelong damage sexual harassment and sexual violence inflicts on women. However, if money is exchanged (as in the system of prostitution), our culture paints this abuse as a consenting act with no harm done.

The Human Rights Council’s independent experts are responsible for presenting reliable and objective information in accordance with internationally recognized human rights standards and ratified conventions. Their assertion that the prostitution of women promotes equality gaslights civil society, confuses member states and dangerously compromises the legitimacy of international covenants.

Although the guidance paper doesn’t have the weight of a General Assembly resolution, its publication under the auspices of the Council fosters what political scientists call “norm erosion.” International law and human rights norms mandate states to eliminate sociocultural patterns and conduct that lead to the notion that women are inferior to men; instead the paper appears blind to these tenets or distorts them.

Women’s rights are inalienable, whether a woman is engaged in prostitution or not. By endorsing the sex trade as an employer for disenfranchised women, the guidance paper also encourages governments to forgo investment in girls’ education and women’s employment. It reinforces attitudes that lead to a false understanding that women “choose” prostitution and perpetuates the status of women and girls as subordinate to men, a notion antithetical to principles of equal justice, opportunity and dignity.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres and UN Women have stated that “gender equality is growing more distant, putting the track to reach it 300 years away.” The guidance paper, which promotes regressive and dangerous ideas about how marginalized women can reach their full potential, pushes that timeline even further into the future.

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