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A review of the UNFPA’s propaganda promoting prostitution’s decriminalization

November 11, 2022

“The time has never been more appropriate for serious discussion of what propaganda is and its careful study by the people generally.” – Mark Crispin Miller

NYU professor of media, culture, and communication, Mark Crispin Miller, has argued here, here, and here that the ability to recognize and critically assess propaganda is a vital skill, because, throughout the Covid pandemic, people everywhere have been continuously subjected to an unprecedented global propaganda juggernaut that keeps “millions upon millions in ferocious ignorance.”

Miller warns that, if the public is unable to recognize and reject propaganda, “Looming sequels to the Covid propaganda [will] also inflict a vast amount of further suffering on humanity.”

Propaganda is used to deceive, divide, silence, terrify, and confuse the public in order to align their beliefs and behaviour with the agenda of those in power.

Propaganda can be recognized by its hallmark, censorship. Miller points out that, “Propaganda always entails censorship. It must, because propaganda does not seek to persuade. It seeks to push you into a particular point of view. So, it doesn’t try to make arguments. It doesn’t try to make a reasonable case. It doesn’t use reason at all, actually. It tends to be almost a neurological manipulation.”

The purpose of censorship is to create and preserve an illusion that consensus exists around an official or authorized plan or story. That is, censorship shields the official story from debate and dispute.

Shir-Raz et al. have examined the use of censorship and suppression to silence, exclude, denigrate, and discredit doctors and scientists who have challenged Covid propaganda.

One such scientist and physician, Dr. Robert W. Malone, has expanded on the work of Shir-Raz et al., drawing on his own experience.

Malone concludes, “The Chinese Communist Party censorship policies and practices which we once ridiculed, the ham handed propaganda of the former Soviet Union, have become assimilated and normalized throughout the west.”

Propaganda promoting the decriminalization of prostitution

While documenting public health programmes that aim to prevent HIV transmission, I became aware of and concerned about the use of propaganda by the United Nations and other organizations that are campaigning to decriminalize prostitution, ostensibly because they expect that decriminalization will empower people in prostitution to access comprehensive HIV prevention and treatment services and to seek help from the police when they are the victims of crime or violence.

According to UNAIDS, “Decriminalisation of sex work should include removing criminal laws and penalties for purchase and sale of sex, management of sex workers and brothels, and other activities related to sex work (e.g., pimping, the production and distribution of pornography, exotic dancing, etc.).”

An example of such propaganda is the UNFPA’s State of the World Population 2021 report, My Body Is My Own: Claiming the Right to Autonomy and Self-Determination.

In a section called “When sex is work”, the UNFPA uses testimony from only two women in prostitution—Liana in Indonesia and Monika in North Macedonia—to support the following key messages:

  • prostitution is compatible with bodily autonomy,
  • sex workers freely choose to do prostitution,
  • sex workers want prostitution to be decriminalized, and
  • sex work is work.

Because it is propaganda, the report excludes testimony from people with experience in prostitution who disagree with these messages.

Nordic Model Now! has collected and published testimony by women about their experiences in prostitution. These testimonies demonstrate that the UNFPA’s report presents an unbalanced and therefore misleading impression of the views of sex workers.

Here I provide excerpts from these testimonies and from other sources to illustrate views that UNFPA’s propaganda censors.

Bodily autonomy

The report defines bodily autonomy as, “the power and agency to . . . decide whether, when or with whom to have sex. It means making your own decisions about when or whether you want to become pregnant. It means the freedom to go to a doctor whenever you need one.”

Although bodily autonomy is the theme of the UNFPA’s 2021 report, and the report promotes prostitution’s decriminalization, the report does not explain prostitution’s compatibility with women’s bodily autonomy. The UNFPA either feels this compatibility is axiomatic or inexplicable.

Instead of explaining how bodily autonomy exists in prostitution, the “When sex is work” section opens with the following remark from Liana:

“Knowing that I have a say and that I’m in control of my own body, I really only learned those things after becoming a sex worker.”

Apparently, the UNFPA expects readers to accept, on the basis of Liana’s remark, that prostitution does not compromise or jeopardize women’s bodily autonomy.

The UNFPA excludes the voices of women who testify that prostitution and bodily autonomy are not compatible, such as the following examples.

Chrissy wrote, “It didn’t take long for the false sense of control to wear off. I had no choice on who I had to fuck or how they wanted to fuck me. They called the shots. My body was no longer my own. Finally, I got away from the brothels. . . . I’ll never be who I should have been, because someone sold me the lie of taking control.”

In Any Girl: A Memoir of Sexual Exploitation and Recovery, Mia Döring wrote, “Being paid to have sex on someone else’s terms is the farthest thing from sexual autonomy that exists.”

In Paid For: My Journey Through Prostitution, Rachel Moran wrote,Sexual self-governance is only possible for anyone where they are not influenced to make decisions regarding their sexuality based on circumstances beyond their control. Quite clearly, the necessary conditions for authentic sexual autonomy do not exist in the prostitution experience.

Choice

The UNFPA acknowledges that “sex trafficking is a serious concern within the industry [and] many entrants into sex work have . . . a history of childhood poverty, abuse, and family instability, as well as barriers to the formal economy, including lack of education,  . . . conditions that undermine their free and informed consent.”

Liana and Monika entered prostitution at difficult moments in their lives—Liana entered when her baby was four months old, her husband had died, and her income did not stretch far enough, and, at the age of 19 or 20, Monika “became a sex worker after she lost her job and got divorced”—but the UNFPA sees no connection between the women’s circumstances and their entry into prostitution. Instead, the UNFPA is oddly emphatic that Liana and Monika “freely chose” sex work.

The UNFPA excludes the views of women who condemn the weaponization of their “choice”.   

Chelsea Geddes, who spent more than 20 years in prostitution in New Zealand, where prostitution was decriminalized in 2003, has argued, “This is what’s being said by the propaganda to facilitate a massive switch of blame, from the perpetrators of the abuse onto the victims. The unspoken part of ‘it’s a woman’s choice,’ is ‘therefore, it’s her fault.’”

Tara similarly regards “choice” more as an accusation than an explanation:

“When I first started telling people about the time I spent in a brothel, being paid to submit to what I can only describe as sexual abuse, I was made to feel ashamed when people would ask ‘Why did you go back then?’

I was assaulted on my first night. So why did I go back?

Well, I was homeless and couldn’t afford to feed myself, so there’s obviously that. If I had been properly supported by the benefits and housing system, I would never have been [in prostitution].

But it was also because of the very same shame that rises up in me when I’m asked that question. Shame that comes from the stories people tell about ‘prostitutes.’

Like ‘once a prostitute always a prostitute.’ Or ‘some women are made for it.’ Or ‘you can’t rape a prostitute.’

To put it simply, once it had happened, I thought that I would never be good for anything else ever again. That no-one would ever want me ever again.

By positing prostitution as a choice rather than coercion, it is not a huge step to see how women in prostitution could be accused of choosing to take risks, just as women are so often blamed for what they wear, where they go, or who they talk to.

The stigma experienced here is that of being ‘a victim.’ It is a much-documented phenomenon that while the fact of having been a victim of abuse should be a statement of an event that has occurred rather than a slur on one’s character, there are few more reviled words.

Victim blaming, particularly of women who have experienced sexual violence, assault or exploitation, is widespread in our society across all classes and sectors. By seeking to reject the fact that prostitution is violence, lobbyists often employ a particularly acute form of victim-blaming that goes unchallenged in a way it would not in any other context.

When pro-sex trade campaigners seek to shame and silence sex trade survivors speaking up about often horrific exploitation, this is victim shaming and gas-lighting at its finest.

Trying to erase abuse for one’s own agenda, however well-meaning, ultimately means siding with the perpetrator. As any former victim of abuse knows too well, being silenced or disbelieved can be as emotionally traumatic as the abuse itself.

As prostitution survivors, we know this only too well.”

Ella Zorra’s testimony makes it clear that her “choice” of prostitution was forced (as was Tara’s):

“I was alone in London at eighteen. It was the lack of options and choice, the inability to see a way out, [that] pushed me into survival mode. I was running from destitution and to this day remain terrified of homelessness. I entered prostitution because I needed money. I had three options: sleep in the street, sleep with my abusive ex-boyfriend, or sleep with men for money and support myself. I was eighteen and I couldn’t support myself with a 9-to-5 minimum-wage job.”

These testimonies indicate that the UNFPA’s emphasis on “choice” to explain why Liana and Monika entered prostitution fails to acknowledge the strength and variety of factors that drive and constrain women’s decisions.

The UNFPA censors women such as Chelsea and Tara, who argue that the “it was her free choice” explanation is a dangerous and inaccurate simplification of many women’s entry into prostitution.

The UNFPA excludes questions that women have raised about the adequacy and accuracy of “choice” as an explanation of women’s entry in prostitution.

For example, Rachel Moran has suggested, “It would be useful to question why, if prostitution is a choice for women which can be taken with such ease, so many women have to be deceived and enslaved in order to do it.”

And Catharine MacKinnon has asked, “If prostitution is a free choice, why are the women with the fewest choices the ones most often found doing it?”

Decriminalization

Although the UNFPA provides no quote from Liana or Monika calling for prostitution’s decriminalization, the report claims that Liana and Monika “want to see the criminalization—and prosecution—of sexual violence and exploitation rather than sex work.”

The UNFPA excludes testimony from women who oppose decriminalization, creating the illusion that sex workers only support decriminalization.  

But testimony from women in prostitution makes it clear that some strongly oppose the complete decriminalization of sex work, which the UN promotes. In some of the following examples, it is clear that the women oppose decriminalization because prostitution deprived them of bodily autonomy.

Alice Glass, who spent 10 years in prostitution, has documented the views of such women. In conversations with four women—Laura, Chelsea, Alisa, and Rebecca—Glass asked if they or women they know support decriminalization.

Laura, who was in prostitution in the UK, responded:

“I do not agree with full decriminalisation at all.  I have worked in around 20 or more brothels over the years. It’s women lining up in lingerie to be picked. It’s degrading and humiliating and should never be legal. Also the tiny amount of money you make per customer in brothels, once management take their cut (cut taken is at least a third by more generous bosses and half by others) means you have to see lots and lots of men per day, one after the other.

The prices are set by the brothels themselves and are usually very cheap to encourage high customer numbers. You only get breaks when there are no customers. And you can’t choose to refuse customers except under very exceptional circumstances (and that’s only with better bosses). If you do, you would not be allowed to work there, even if you refuse customers because they are rude or smelly.”

Chelsea, still working in a decriminalised brothel in New Zealand, described her experience:

“My experience at the brothel is of terrorism. It is a constant battle to uphold even the most minimal personal boundaries such as safer sex practices like condoms and dental dams and no saliva transference (kissing) and not doing the deed more than once for a guy without being paid more than once. I definitely find it extremely difficult to even get bookings because most of the time I attempt to assert these minimal of boundaries.”

“What do her current prostitution contemporaries thinks of decriminalisation?” Glass asked.

“I’m skeptical that any prostituted women supporting full decriminalisation even exist at all,” Chelsea said. “I’ve never met a single woman with that view in my 15 years in the industry and I’ve met hundreds of other prostituted women.”

Rebecca was particularly scathing:

“I tend to believe the sex work lobby is speaking for punters (i.e., sex buyers / clients) and sex trade profiteers, and have no interest in the mental, physical, and sexual welfare of the prostituted. So when they speak about decriminalisation, it is so the sex trade makes more profit, and to make the violence of punters more invisible.”

Alisa, a campaigner who is on the board of directors for The Organisation for Prostitution Survivors, in Seattle, summarised:

“I think [decriminalization] comes down to a normalisation of sex buying as an acceptable practice. When we see something as OK, we are more accepting of it and more likely to do it. Demand therefore balloons and there are not enough women under-privileged enough to enter the sex trade without coercive forces; it is inevitable that trafficking follows to feed the newly increased demand for women’s bodies.

[Decriminalization] creates a legitimised market for both buyers and traffickers and turns the pimp into the reputable business man peddling flesh. It’s evident that keeping women on their backs is profitable by just looking at the organisation and people who support it (madams, pimps, pornographers, traffickers). It’s sick that this argument even exists.”

Other testimonies in which women address decriminalization include the following:

“My name is Jaime and I am the hidden result of the real horror behind the closed red doors of the sex trade industry here in Australia.

Decriminalizing prostitution in countries that I know, like Australia and New Zealand, has sent the message that it’s OK to buy and sell people like pieces of meat at market. My observations of it since leaving 20 years ago is that it’s caused an explosion in men or women with large amounts of money, mostly obtained through illegal activities, to invest in the creation and building of more brothels to fill the demand of men who want the freedom to abuse and commit violence towards people.

They target the most vulnerable ones in our societies and exploit them for profit that fills their wallets.”

Siobhan submitted the following, in which she described her experience in the legal sex trade in New Zealand and Australia:

“I live (and work) in a country / city where this industry is legal. People think this means it is regulated and therefore safe for both punters and workers. But this is an ideal, not the reality. The reality is the men who buy sex are most often not respectful, and if they rape or assault they do not face consequences (which I believe is why they feel able to rape a prostitute in the first place).

I believe that legalised prostitution simply strengthens and emboldens misogynistic attitudes and actions in the men of that society.

Because it’s a legal industry and there’s no threat of arrest, these men feel free and safe walking into the brothel and delight in dismissing, mocking and laughing in the faces of the women working there. Or worse. They book a session and they rape or assault the worker.

The response of punters to the worker setting boundaries is almost always incredulity or fury. Because of the confidence they feel due to it being a legal industry, these men see paying for sex as a service or product like any other, and often truly believe a boundary of ‘No, I don ’t consent to that being done to my body’ is tantamount to bad customer service, and indeed ‘theft’ of their money.

Human rights of workers are not enforced in legalised prostitution (despite what the pro-sex work community desperately wants you to believe). If they were, the majority of buyers would eventually be banned from venues, the police would be called constantly.

Legalised prostitution is not progressive, and it hurts everyone in the society in which it exists.

I hope we will eventually see the Nordic Model in New Zealand and Australia, so sex buyers finally face consequences for their choice to display and willingly act on their misogyny, entitlement, and lack of empathy.”

“Sex work is work”

The “When sex is work” section concludes with Monika’s declaration that “Sex work is work,” and excludes the views of women who disagree. In the following testimonies, women express their view that prostitution is not work.

Jaime, whose testimony also addressed decriminalization, wrote the following:

“It is my lived experience that gives me the right to say that sex work is not a job like any other job and nor should it ever be seen as such. The deaths and long term mental and physical illnesses caused by this industry are ever growing and uncountable in monetary terms for society as a whole.

There is a minute percentage of people who may come out unscathed from their time in it, but I’m here to tell you an unpopular truth: I’ve personally met well over a hundred women over the years who will never have a normal life again. Beaten, bashed, raped, killed – and that’s just me.”

Sara Smiles started in prostitution in New Zealand in 1988 when she was a homeless 14-year old. She eventually escaped in 2010 when she was in her late thirties. She therefore experienced the sex trade in New Zealand both before and after it was fully decriminalised in 2003. Sara wrote, “Prostitution is not a life and not work. Definitely not work. Paid rape most definitely.”

Jessica entered prostitution when she was 22. She wrote, “I regret having ever entered the industry. And I don’t think any woman should ever enter the industry. It is a truly sick and disturbing industry. No, sex work is not work.”

Liliam Altuntas, a Brazilian survivor of human trafficking and prostitution, observed,

“It is easy to say, ‘This body is mine and I do what I want and prostitution is a job.’ Only that body is not yours at some point, because when the client pays for those minutes, ‘your body’ is the client’s and he will do what he wants…

The sex workers that call for prostitution to be considered a job are mostly middle-class women who prostitute themselves for a new dress, a fashionable phone, and to make a good impression on a walk downtown on a sunny day…

And the men who are in favour of legalization are like ill-educated children who do not want to lose their ‘toys.’

I say this because a real prostitute—a woman who was coerced into it or entered because of the precarious conditions of extreme poverty, or because it’s the only way she knows how to survive after being deceived into believing the Pretty Woman fairy tale—knows that this is not a job.”

Chelsea Geddes wrote, “Decriminalised prostitution is being aggressively marketed to young girls as ‘sex work’, as an equal exchange between consenting adults, as harmless fun for men, and even as empowering for women. Well, it’s not.”

Other writers whose critiques of the “sex work is work” platitude are excluded by UNFPA include: Lori Watson, Dana Levy, IUF Asia/Pacific Regional Secretary Dr Muhammad Hidayat Greenfield, Esperanza Fonseca,  Jasmine Grace Marino, Julie Bindel, and Rachel Moran, who wrote,

“The truth is, there was no ‘work’ involved in what was done to us in prostitution. Prostitution is neither sex nor work. Sex does not just involve mutuality; it necessitates it. The sex of prostitution is devoid of mutuality, and cash is introduced to fill the breach. In prostitution, the cash is the coercive force, the evidence of the coercion, and the great silencer all at the same time. What right to complaint is a woman seen to have when she’s been compensated for her own violation?”

My question here is not, Which view of sex work is correct? I think that’s clear.

My question is, Why is the UNFPA publishing propaganda to normalize the flesh trade and censoring the many women who, because of their experience in prostitution, oppose decriminalization?

Chelsea Geddes has clearly described what’s at stake if we don’t recognize and challenge the UN’s propaganda:

“The sex industry’s propaganda machine could potentially derail a whole generation of women’s success. Snatching young women on the brink of greatness capable of forging real careers in fields they’re interested in and have talent for, stealing them away from all that, to be ground up in the machine to serve male orgasms.”

Omission of the Nordic Model

The UNFPA doesn’t stop at censoring dissenters. It also refuses to acknowledge the existence of the Nordic Model approach to prostitution, which has been adopted by several nations.

The Nordic Model (sometimes also known as the Sex Buyer Law, or the Swedish, Abolitionist, or Equality Model) decriminalises all those who are prostituted, provides support services to help them exit, and makes buying people for sex a criminal offence, in order to reduce the demand that drives sex trafficking. This approach has now been adopted in Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Northern Ireland, Canada, France, Ireland, and most recently, Israel.

Why is the UNFPA campaigning to normalize rather than abolish the flesh trade?

Why does the UNFPA view prostitution as compatible with bodily autonomy, dignity, and human rights?

The UNFPA clearly recognizes the problem of patriarchy. Its report denounces patriarchal customs, beliefs, attitudes, systems, structures, norms, rules, and practices. How does the UNFPA fail to see prostitution as a patriarchal institution?

In The End of Patriarchy, Robert Jensen explains why attempts to reform prostitution (such as the UN’s campaign for full decriminalization) are flawed:

“Attempts to change the practice of prostitution to improve the lives of women can be well-intentioned, but the effects will be, at best, extremely limited because such reforms do not challenge the idea of prostitution. As long as men believe it is sexually exciting to use a woman, prostitution will be dangerous for women in the short term and will shore up patriarchy in the long term. The patriarchal reduction of a woman to the status of an object that can be sexually used by men is, and always will be, at odds with women’s claim to the dignity that comes with fully human status.”

If the UN really wants to help women, instead of propagandizing the public, it should facilitate open and serious discussion of how best to transform society so that no-one is compelled to sell sex for survival. 

I leave the final word to Rachel Moran:

“It would not be possible to depict prostitution as pleasurable or even moderately tolerable were the fullness of its ugliness laid bare. . . . We need to look at the proven consequences of the legalisation of prostitution and ask ourselves, in short, are we happy with the sort of world it creates? And is it one we want to live in?”

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