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Taina Bien-Aimé, CEO, CATW

We call for the decriminalization just of the prostituted persons, not their exploiters.

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

July 2018, by Sandrine Goldschmidt

CATW is the coalition for abolition of prostitution : what are its main goals and means of action, and its analysis of the phenomenon of prostitution ?

The Coalition Against Trafficking Women, or CATW, is one of the oldest international organizations that works to end all forms of trafficking against women and girls. We are the first to address globally sex trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation, including prostitution, as forms of gender-based violence and discrimination and sex inequality.

The New York office primarily engages in legal advocacy at the local, national and international levels, and awareness raising. We collaborate closely with grassroots organizations, frontline service providers, sex trade survivor leaders and national groups that work toward the prevention and protection of women and girls from sexual exploitation. CATW also has small offices in Mexico and the Philippines that also advocate for strong laws and policies and work with victims of sex trafficking. They also engage young men and boys to educate them about harmful masculinities, the male demand for prostitution, and gender equality.

One of CATW’s primary goals is to ensure that every jurisdiction enacts laws that decriminalize people (who are mostly women), bought and sold in the sex trade, and target the demand for it, namely sex buyers.

In 1999, Sweden was the first country to officially recognize that the sex trade, including prostitution, is a cause and consequence of gender inequality and gender-based violence and that it is feeds into the growth of sex trafficking. In a world where prostitution is accepted as a cultural practice, women will never have equality with men.

This legal framework was known as the Swedish Model, but now that a number of countries have enacted demand-focused legislation, the push is to call it the Equality Model.

What are most important issues that you are confronted with internationally ?

The underlying ideological resistance to recognizing sex trafficking and prostitution as forms of male sexual violence against women for third party profits is the same across the board, whether we are dealing with the issues internationally or nationally. For example, within the complex UN system, a number of agencies and governments are aggressively pushing for a redefinition of human trafficking, such as “modern slavery,” that in effect excludes sexual exploitation from the framework and erases internationally recognized law that governs human trafficking. “Modern slavery” is an easy way for the general public to quickly understand the phenomenon of human trafficking, but it is not a term defined under international law; it doesn’t offer a structure of perpetrators and victims, or mechanisms of justice. What is dangerous about this increasingly ubiquitous phrase is that it erases, among other things, the notion that the abuse of power of traffickers and pimps over individuals that have acute vulnerabilities is one of the main drivers of trafficking and sexual exploitation.

A concerning aspect of this “modern slavery” framework is the International Labour Organization’s recent reports estimating that 25 million people around the world are trafficked for “forced labour.” No, that is not the case, unless people who are trafficked for the sex trade are not included in those numbers. The Palermo Protocol (the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children) specifically lists different types of exploitation in trafficking, including sex, labour, organs, slavery and slavery-like practices. If now, governments adopt uncritically this notion that those 25 million people are trafficked for forced labour, the extension of that is that sex trafficking is integrated into labour trafficking and that commercial sexual exploitation – and prostitution – is a form of work. Prostitution is on the spectrum of violence and discrimination against women, upheld by the male demand for sexual access to women’s bodies. The notion of prostitution as work violates international law and the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which enshrines the right of every human being the right to live a life of dignity and life free of violence. Equality between women and men will never come to fruition with a vibrant sex trade. I have worked for decades to end harmful cultural practices that maim or even kill women and girls, such as female genital mutilation. The sex trade, including pornography and prostitution, is our harmful cultural practice. It is extremely difficult to change laws and societal attitudes that negatively affect women and girls.

What could you say about the current situation in the US ? WIth SESTA FOSTA, is there a move in US politics towards prostitution ? What are the limits ? Is the focus starting to be on the sex buyer and less on the victim ?

The good news is that we are gaining ground at a legislative level. The “Equality Model,” which targets sex buyers and decriminalizes only prostituted people while offering them services is spreading around the world. The United States has enacted a number of strong anti-trafficking laws in the last two decades, at both the federal and state levels.

FOSTA-SESTA (Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act) is the latest of helpful tools to combat trafficking for sexual exploitation and pimping. The law amends Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA), which protects from liability internet service providers that post third party content. The CDA was enacted in 1996, years before anyone knew what the Internet would become. Sex traffickers and pimps flourished on the Internet and some websites, like the classified ads website Backpage.com, facilitated that sex trafficking smelling the profits involved. A United States Senate Committee found that Backpage would edit ads sex traffickers and pimps would post to hide the age of their victims or embellish the descriptions. One of the owners of Backpage admitted to money laundering and promoting pimping online. Reports indicate that Backpage reaped $500 million in prostitution-related ads. A number of women and girls were murdered by sex buyers who found them on Backpage. It was critically important to end the impunity to these horrific crimes.

FOSTA-SESTA only targets websites that knowingly facilitate sex trafficking, a very high burden to prove in a court of law. FOSTA-SESTA also allows victims of online sex trafficking to seek civil remedies.

Where we face the most challenges in within the culture. Often we feel like we’re losing in helping the public understand that prostitution is neither “sex” nor “work,” but part of a multi-billion dollar institution that profits from the buying and selling of the most vulnerable people in the world: women and girls of color who have histories of childhood sexual violence, homelessness or foster care, absence of choices.

We live in societies where the commodification of women and the glamorization of sexual violence permeate every aspect of our culture, from Hollywood to commercial ads to art. When the Women’s March or prominent “feminist” leaders say “I stand with ‘sex workers’” – do they even know what that means? We all stand with prostituted women – we call for an end of their arrests and criminalization, an end to police brutality against them, and to the violence perpetrated against them. What they don’t understand is that the term “sex work” was invented by the sex trade to mainstream and mask the harms of prostitution, and to profit from the prostitution of others. People don’t understand that calling for the decriminalization of “sex work” is calling for the legalization of pimping, brothel-owning and sex buying. We call for the decriminalization just of the prostituted, not their exploiters.

What do you think of the “Survivors Movement” ?
Laws aren’t enough to change this tide, which is why we must support the growing survivor movement. Sex trade survivors speak the truth about the horrors of prostitution, stripping and pornography. Their narratives include the degradation, violence and dehumanization sex buyers paid to exercise over them. They are survivors because death, by murder, substances overdoses or suicide, struck so many of their sisters they left behind in the sex trade. We have an urgent responsibility to support these survivors who are ready to contribute to policy and law-making, as well as inspire the public to recognize that prostitution is not an exception to violence against women; it exists because women are still not deemed as full human beings worthy of equality.


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