by Kathleen Barry, Ph.D.

As long as violence is a necessary criteria to determine whether or not those bought in prostitution by johns/punters are harmed, the burden for establishing that prostitution is a violation remains on those bought, the prostituted, and the question of violation will always revert back to women’s consent. And buying of women and children as sexual merchandise for customers remains an accepted practice. Even in the prostitution of children, it is assumed that because the prostituted human being is a child s/he is harmed. That’s it. No additional violence is required to make child prostitution a human rights violation. BUT, the reason that harming prostituted children is a violation of human rights is because s/he is not considered able to consent due to being a child.

For once and for all, let us remove the issue of the victim’s consent in every case of sexual crimes. In calling for new human rights law to make prostitution a violation of human rights, we are displacing the misogynist paradigm with a human rights one.

Why is prostitution a harm that must be recognized as a violation of human rights?

Protection of human rights worldwide under The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a fundamental governing document of the United Nations and entrusted to the United Nations High Commissioner of Human Rights, transcends mechanistic approaches injustice that involve measuring consent and goes to “the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family” as “the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” Inalienable rights originate in the dignity of the human person.

Objectifying a human being, reducing her to a commodity to purchase, is an abusive act of power. It violates the person’s human dignity and obliterates her human rights. One need not be beaten for their human rights to be violated. Nor do they have to prove they did not consent. Further, global human rights, unlike rights articulated under market economies, assumes that in conditions such as slavery or under apartheid, protection of human rights applies to everyone of that class.

Then many will ask, ‘where is the violation?’ Violating human rights begins by degrading a person’s humanity, reducing her into an object. In prostitution, the object becomes a commodity for market exchange, like any other object on the market. We maintain that rendering a human being into an object by buying her for one’s own sexual use is a violation of human rights. Objectification sets the stage and includes other seemingly non-violation behaviors that include humiliation, demeaning and degradation. This is where the purchase of prostitution begins. That motive for buying prostitution is confirmed by the buyers themselves in the research of Dr. Melissa Farley (Prostitution Education and Research) on why men buy.

In United Nations law as of today, prostitution is not treated as a violation of human rights, except in the case of prostituted children. By protecting the right to not be prostitute for one class of human beings, the United Nations implicitly treats prostitution of adults as acceptable which puts the United Nations in violation of the spirit of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In my own research and writing as a sociologist and almost forty years of my feminist activism on this subject, my interviews with women in prostitution all combine to tell me that women who have been in prostitution understand that the harm to which they were subjected was not confined to those moments when they were physically beaten (a routine practice) but to the whole of the prostitution experiences. (See Rachel Moran, Paid For, Gill and MacMillan, Dublin 2013).

In 1992, the Women’s Rights Division of UNESCO, the educational, social and cultural organization of the United Nations, sought to correct this problem and invited me to bring together a group of feminists researchers and policy makers from each world region to formulate new international law that recognizes prostitution as a violation of human rights. In five days of meetings, with intense study and analysis of the condition of prostitution, we found that prostitution is based on men’s power from their domination over women through which they provide for themselves the opportunities to buy prostitution. Through that power, they have enacted laws and social practices that make human beings, mostly women and girls, into commodities to purchase and use as sexual objects in whatever way they choose. We arrived at a definition of harm based on that abuse of power: (http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0009/000913/091355mb.pdf – report of that meeting in English and in French):

Sexual exploitation is a practice by which person(s) achieve sexual gratification, or financial gain, or advancement 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. (Part I, Article 1, draft Convention Against Sexual Exploitation) Prostitution of Sexuality, 1995 Appendix)

For those of you who are exited women and survivors of prostitution, as well as the many feminist and human rights activists working to end prostitution, you may read this definition and recognize that it does not apply exclusively to those who have been prostituted. And that is true. Because the sexuality of prostitution is now so normalized among non-prostituted people, modern day sexuality is increasingly being shaped by pornography into the prostitution of sexuality. That makes sexual acts that were thought to be confined to prostitution a widespread part of sexual experiences.

Sexual exploitation as defined in the draft Convention then applies to everyone who is sexual exploited. There is significant reason for not singling out prostituted women. That is, although they have been treated as such in law and by society, prostituted women are not different from other women, they do not arise naturally as separate caste on the human landscape. They are women who are or have been sexually exploited and that can be said of much of the whole class of women.

After we drafted the new Convention, I began to work on promoting this approach to prostitution, saw it adopted into law in Vietnam in 1993, and presented it to the United Nations Human Rights Commission. Then I saw Vietnam, when it turned to a market economy, change its laws to allow merchandising of human beings for prostitution. Before that, prostitution was so negligible in Vietnam one could say it had been eradicated. At the same time, I saw the United Nations Human Rights Commission ignore our submission for a new Convention Against Sexual Exploitation, turning instead to favor the intervention of the UN Ambassador from the Netherlands who country had legalized prostitution.

For me the brilliance of the “Nordic Model” is that it makes buying prostitution a crime. Full stop. No further qualifiers. As long as violence is not used to qualify why prostitution is a crime, we can confront male power and its use of human objectification to dominate and control.

In sending this to you and publishing it on the internet, I am calling for us to discuss the following draft convention. It is an evolving concept. It is not a perfect document. One of the beauties and wonders of the Declaration of Human Rights is that human rights are seen as always evolving, never static. Desperately we need the United Nations to not exclude any human rights violation from its purview, to no longer caste prostituted women to the degradation, humiliation and violence of being bought by men to serve them sexually. Choice and consent are irrelevant to this issue as they are to any form of slavery. As work is already underway with the draft Convention Against Sexual Exploitation, at minimum we can use this document to discuss how we want to formulate prostitution as a violation of human rights today. We hope to do that in conjunction with the relevant persons at the United Nations.

Kathleen Barry, Ph.D., Sociologist and Professor Emerita of Penn State University

December, 2013

Santa Rosa, California


For reference, please see the: convention against sexual explotiation.


  1. Pingback: » WHY IS PROSTITUTION A VIOLATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS? Sex Trafficking Think Tank

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