UN Open Letter

Deutsch Français Español  Hrvatski Polish  Korean  Romanian


By Kathleen Barry*

Kathleen Barry, a sociologist and feminist human rights activist is Professor Emerita of Penn State University and the author of Female Sexual Slavery, Prostitution of Sexuality and Unmaking War, Remaking Men as well as other feminist books. www.kathleenbarry.net

Part One: The Problem

Although the United Nations is responsible for enforcing and monitoring the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, on November 4, 2013, UN AIDs issued a policy directive asking nation-states to decriminalize prostitution and treat it as “sex work.” Feminist human rights advocates and prostitution survivors are shocked and angry as promoting prostitution is usually the work of pimps and the sex industries. The UN AIDS policy directive clearly violates its own governing law in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which establishes that all persons are “born free and equal in dignity and rights” and that in that dignity and with those rights everyone is to be protected from “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” (Article 5)

Why have we not heard from the Secretary General Ban Ki Moon on this? Does not silence from UN leadership condone the UN AIDS policy?

You need only read or hear the testimony of women who have been bought for prostitution to find that, day in and day out, what men do when they buy women is “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.” Men pay to ejaculate and urinate on women’s faces, to hurt and humiliate them with any other kind of sexual perversion they had in mind, to not wear condoms. That is the ordinary sex bought in prostitution as psychologist Melissa Farley in her 2011 study of prostitution customers. She found that they “dehumanize and commodify women, view them with anger and contempt, lack empathy for their suffering, and relish their own ability to inflict pain and degradation.” These are men’s stated reasons for buying prostitutes (hyperlink to Newsweek, Melissa Farley “The John Next Door, Newsweek, July 18, 2011) and the damage inflicted on those they purchase includes but goes far beyond post-traumatic stress disorder. It crushes the human spirit. Because of a growing feminist movement of survivors around the world and the gains won by feminists in many countries to have customers arrested and heavily fined, many women are finding support for recreating their lives when they get out, but some never recover, are lost forever.

Why has the major media missed this story? Because prostitution is about men buying sex, something men protect for themselves and each other? But the media does relish their salacious sex trafficking exposés.

Globally, state-by-state and locally sex trafficking is illegal which is so right and correct that even most of those in the sex workers lobby who promote prostitution endorse this position. It affirms their belief that they have not been forced but have “chosen” prostitution. As with any form of slavery, “forced” and “free” prostitution are false distinctions. In many states, feminists have worked for decades to remove force as the final arbiter of other crimes of sexual violence such as date rape or in wife abuse. These groups, including some feminists, still want to hold women in prostitution to a different standard when they refer to harm only as sex-trafficking.

Bringing humanitarian compassion to those who are purchased, feminists in Sweden, Norway and Iceland have won new laws that take the onus off of women in prostitution by arresting and heavily fining customers for the crime of buying human beings for sex. Known globally as the Nordic Model (see K. Barry, Abolishing Prostitution, Women’s Media Center, http://www.womensmediacenter.com/feature/entry/abolishing-prostitution-a-feminist-human-rights-treaty) these laws criminalize the buyers and provide support programs for those they have bought. Similar laws are before parliaments right now in Belgium and Ireland and this week has just passed one house in the French Parliament. The Women’s Lobby of the European Union has brought the “Nordic Model” to the European Parliament for an upcoming vote.(hyperlink http://www.policyreview.co.uk/tackling-prostitution-and-sex-trafficking-through-eu-policies) The success of the Nordic Model is shown by the fact that in Sweden, since this law went into effect, the incidence of prostitution has been reduced by one half. Importantly, the Nordic Model does not even reference sex-trafficking to justify this new law. But, as commodity markets go, trafficking will be significantly reduced anyplace where customers are penalized for buying. It just not good business practice.

However there is much resistance from the sex industries and legislators to losing the commodity market in mostly female bodies for sex. Men will go to absurd extremes to make prostitution available to themselves that they produce ridiculous laws to get around the Nordic Model. Denmark is a case in point. Against valiant feminist organizing for the Nordic Model, Denmark went so far as to criminalize customers but only if the women they had bought had been trafficked into prostitution. Of course the law cannot be implemented because trafficked women, by the conditions of their enslavement, are not available to give testimony against those who buy sex from them. The law is dead in the water.

The present UN AIDS directive to nation-states, if successful, will overturn the Nordic Model by making no part of the prostitution exchange illegal. The United Nations will be putting itself in the position of insuring men of the availability of women to buy and use. That is a United Nations slap in the face to the courageous survivors of prostitution who dare to tell the world what the experience of being bought for sex really is. UN AIDS, purportedly to “improve health outcomes in the context of sex work,” admits that “female sex workers are 13.5 times more likely to be living with HIV than women in the general population” (hyperlink: UNAIDS/ Mon, Nov 4, 2013 at 9:20 AM Michel Sidibé) and leave it to women to have condoms available for customers. BUT, they fail to mention that most customers refuse to wear condoms or offer to pay more money not to use them which fits with the profile of prostitution buyers in their contempt for women.

But feminists are creating another approach to universal human rights for prostituted women. Part Two continues with our activism.

*          *          *


Part Two – Global Feminist Action

December, 2013

To my Feminist Sisters,

This open letter began as a letter to prostitution survivors and the feminist and anti sex-trafficking movement to say that I’m back, that I’ve recovered my health even though aging keeps trying to claim it, and, most importantly, that I have returned to where I left off in the late 1990s – working to make prostitution a universal violation of human rights that is recognized as a form of sexual exploitation and violence against women.

I found that I’ve come back to a new generation of radical feminists who are all over the globe and who, instead of trying to invent feminism anew by discarding what came before them, read our works, welcome us into their activism while they chart their own course. I excitedly watch us going into a future to radical feminism stretching far beyond my own horizons, and they, radical feminists and prostitution survivors reach out to each other, all having a stake in abolishing prostitution.

Abolishing prostitution! Before I even finished writing this letter, I received the UN AIDS letter that notified us and nation-states, that they and the World Health Organization, United Nations Population Fund are ready to turn the United Nations into an arena for the global promotion of prostitution, to undermine the abolitionist approach of the Nordic Model that criminalizes those who buy prostitutes, to ignore the experiences of survivors of prostitution and to base all of their policy on promoting prostitution for sex workers.

In light of this new UN initiative, I now turn my letter from an announcement to an URGENT CALL FOR ACTION TO STOP THE UNITED NATIONS FROM PROMOTING PROSTITUTION AND TO RECOGNIZE THAT PROSTITUTION IS A VIOLATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS. In order to lay the groundwork for effective global action that we need to take right now, I want to clear up some confusion that has come to plague and compromise both human rights and feminist movements approach to abolition.


Of what?


Keep in mind that sex-trafficking is only one of the means by which women and children find themselves in prostitution. It is not prostitution, and it by no means accounts for all that is prostitution. Rather it is how women and children are moved from where they were found to the location where they are prostituted.

How have we arrived at a point where non-governmental organizations wage vigorous campaigns to end sex-trafficking but not prostitution. Some limit their efforts even further to the sex-trafficking of children only as if adult women are not being violated when they are trafficked. Others focus on adults and children in the Third World, particularly those living in extreme poverty, an easy recruiting ground for traffickers as if women in their own countries are not trafficked. Imagine the incongruity of punishing those who traffic human beings for slave labor but turn a blind eye to those who use them in slave labor. Again we face the irrationality when practices are configured to enable male customers to buy women for sex.

This is nothing other than a missionary approach which stems from pity for the “other”: those poor children, those poor Third World women and children rather than a commitment to their human rights. The missionary approach of European and American do-gooders offers paternalistic benevolence which brings to mind Nicholas Kristoff of the New York Times with a camera crew at the ready to record his daring rescues of children in a brothel. The worst thing about missionaries is that they know they know what is best for the poor and unfortunate. In rising up through feminism and the anti sex-trafficking movement, when these anti sex-trafficking missionaries dangerously leave prostitution untouched, they leave the gates open for the sex workers lobby.

Feminists have always known better, we recognize that men’s violation and subordination of women through their power and privilege, riddled with hateful misogyny is confined to NO class, NO race, NO country, NO part of the world, NO group of people. A long time ago, feminists discovered that women who are raped, discriminated against, forced into poverty by dead beat dads, all experience the horrors of these conditions. Culture, state, economic class may create variations on the commonality of women’s experiences of subordination, but they do not change the fact that a raped woman in a park in New York City is as raped as a raped woman in the Congo.

In the same way that there is commonality to women’s experiences of male domination, so too do global human rights belong to, are vested in all people. Human rights cannot be bifurcated by splitting human beings into different groups, those who are harmed and those who are not by, in this case, prostitution. That is why I chose early on in the 1980s to focus my activism on prostitution globally approaching it through universal human rights. (See Prostitution of Sexuality, 1995) Global human rights, as they are articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, are consistent with global feminism. From forty years of work on this issue, I arrive at this formulation that recognizes prostitution as a violation of human rights:

Prostitution is buying any human being to use their body for sex, sex being anything the buyer has in mind from the worst forms of violence, to the depravity of pornographic sex, to mimicking a loving encounter with a human being who is only better than a pornographic doll because she can be made to react in whatever form is demanded of her by the customer. In this exchange, to the buyer she is merely an object who is without humanity and instead is his commodity like the new tire he purchased for his car.

As no human being should ever be treated that way, it follows then that PROSTITUTION IS A CORNERSTONE OF ALL SUBORDINATION OF WOMEN AND DISCRIMINATION AGAINST WOMEN WORLDWIDE. It supports sexual exploitation which is what customers buy. It is a reserve labor force that allows the economy to not have to fully employ all women seeking paid work. Prostitution structures families differentiating between wife and whore, pitting women against each other in ways that protect male dominance in the family as well as on the streets and in brothels. The list is as endless as is male domination and patriarchy. It is based on the recognition that women are a class hence what affects women in prostitution affects all women. To that end, to see that prostitution is recognized as a universal violation of human rights is to assert the right to human dignity in all of its meaning….. whether or not it is chosen or coerced, whether or not it is trafficked or pimped or is self-imposed by women themselves.

Before I withdrew to attend to my health I had been working on promoting the adoption of a new feminist human rights treaty, the Convention Against Sexual Exploitation, January, 1994 (Appendix of Prostitution of Sexuality) Working with UNESCO, we identified sexual exploitation as an act of power which violates human rights:

Sexual exploitation is a practice by which person(s) achieve sexual gratification, or financial gain, or advance, through the abuse of a person’s sexuality by abrogating that person’s human right to dignity, equality, autonomy, and physical and mental well-being.

That is where I left off in the late 1990s. It is a beginning to think about prostitution and human rights, to break the patriarchal disconnect between wife and whore by including prostituted women in the class that is exploited by sex, and it lays out the human rights law that supports criminalizing the buyers of prostitution in every state. A beginning whose time has come!

Kathleen Barry, December, 2013



In light of the United Nations initiatives to promote prostitution, we ask the Secretary General of the United Nations to initiate a UN Convention to make prostitution a violation of human rights.

Please email The Secretary General of the United Nations with copies to the High Commissioner of Human Rights and the Director of UN Women (phone, address, email at the end of this document) let them know that the normalization of prostitution is the normalization of violence against women, and that we are asking for new human right law from the United Nations while we oppose any attempts to legalize or decriminalize prostitution.  

Send your protests and concerns to:

United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon Phone: 1-212-963-1234, FAX 1-212-963-7055

With copies to:

Chief Navi Pellay, United Nations High Commissioner of Human Rights, Email: InfoDesk@ohchr.org

 Executive Director of UN Women is Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Tel: +1 646 781-4400, Fax: +1 646 781-4444

Join the discussion...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s