In Chicago, Amnesty International to debate legalizing sex trade

This weekend, Amnesty International USA is holding its annual meeting ­— Human Rights Conference 2014 — in Chicago, just as many organizations do.

Registration begins Friday morning at the JW Marriott on West Adams. As is common with such events, there will be awards and tributes, speeches and seminars, pizza and programs designed to “develop, sharpen, and practice organizing skills.”

Standard stuff. Except for one item on the agenda, from 6 to 6:45 p.m. Friday, a discussion on “Human Rights Policy: Consultation on the Decriminalization of Sex Work.”

In case you are tempted to stop by that conversation, you can’t: closed to the public.

You may, however, join the protest convening in the street at 5 p.m. Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan will be there, along with Cook County Commissioner Bridget Gainer, asking Amnesty International why it is using its good offices, usually found spotlighting torture and political oppression, to go to bat for pimps and johns.

“To me, as a woman, as the mother of two daughters, as the attorney general, I don’t want to live in a world where we say it’s OK to enslave or exploit women,” said Madigan, whose office works to combat child pornography and sexual trafficking. She said the “unspeakable horrors” her investigators uncover is why she is planning on personally attending the protest. “The reality is, no young girl dreams of growing up to become a prostitute. It’s not a choice.”

Amnesty says the whole thing is a misunderstanding — that it is firmly opposed to sex trafficking and child sex abuse. But . . .

“The evidence shows that best way to ensure sex workers’ human rights is to decriminalize the buying and selling for sex,” said Cristina M. Finch, managing director of Amnesty International USA’s Women’s Human Rights Program.

“Our goal is to find the best way to protect the human rights of millions of sex workers around the world,” the group’s Washington office said, in a statement. “Decriminalization of sex work involving consenting adults may assist in that effort.”

The issue pivots on that notion of consent. Is Madigan right, that prostitution is invariably the result of sex abuse and coercion? Or can it be a choice, a business transaction among consenting adults?

“We believe all policies regarding prostitution should be based on realities, not theories,” said Kaethe Morris Hoffer, executive director of the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation, who called the idea of prostitutes choosing that life “a myth.”

“The overwhelming majority were first prostituted before they turned 18,” she said, “The research makes it clear: Child sexual abuse is boot camp for prostitution.”

She said that not only do movies put a false, bright spin on prostitution, but often the prostitutes must do so themselves.

“A lot of girls and women in the sex trade, if you ask them, ‘Do you have a pimp?’ they’ll say no,” said Morris Hoffer. “But if you ask, ‘Do you have a boyfriend to whom you give all the money you make?’ they say yes.”

Amnesty International stumbled into this debate last year when a draft “background document” was posted online, which begins, “Amnesty International is opposed to the criminalization or punishment of activities related to the buying and selling of consensual sex between adults. Amnesty International believes that seeking, buying, selling and soliciting paid sex are acts protected from state interference as long as there is no coercion, threats or violence associated with those acts.”

The group is only discussing this proposal, behind closed doors, on Friday. The actual vote will take place in October.

Morris Hoffer said in the past Amnesty International has initially blundered when it comes to women’s issues, for instance claiming that female genital mutilation “was a cultural practice it shouldn’t take a position on.” Then the group reversed itself and became active in the fight against the practice. Those protesting hope they reverse on this issue too.

“Virtually all people who prostitute themselves were first prostituted as children and they see no alternative to survive,” Madigan said. “No child, no one’s son or daughter should ever have to engage in acts they don’t want. . . . There’s no dignity at all in being a prostitute.”

Even if some minority of prostitutes engage in the practice willingly, as adults, that isn’t an argument for permitting the trade.

“Prostitution needs to be illegal for the same reason child labor and heroin need to be illegal,” Gainer said. “Because they’re generally harmful and cause harm through society. All these women are forced, one way or another. This is not ‘Pretty Woman.’ ’’