There is no argument fiercer in feminism than the argument about prostitution. Say you want to ban it and the libertarian feminists denounce you as a 'whorephobe'. Say you want to legalise it, and radical feminists denounce you as the tool of the patriarchy.
Inevitably, Amnesty International felt it had to intervene. And, this week, with an equal inevitability, it plumped for the apparently left-wing position of decriminalisation. I say 'apparently' because many on the left disagree. My sister paper the Guardian made the telling point that Amnesty’s leftism concealed rich-world prejudices.
[Its]suggestion that the trade be decriminalised but not then regulated is particularly far off-beam. Since when did unregulated markets guarantee human rights? There is nothing intrinsically repugnant to human rights in sex work if you exclude violence, deceit and the exploitation of children. But these aren’t fringe phenomena. They are central parts of the trade in most places round the world. To take as normative the experience of protected western adults is a morally disabling form of privilege.
Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet and most older feminists I know were horrified too. But among younger feminists being a 'whorephobe' is up there with being a transphobe, homophobe, Islamophobe or any other kind of phobe. They believe what consenting adults do with their bodies is their business – a fine liberal argument that would be stronger if they did not engage in the thoroughly illiberal tactic of shouting their opponents down and banning them from public platforms.
In all the debate, one question was missed. Why did Amnesty have to adopt a position at all? Or to put it another way, what have the rights of prostitutes, pimps and punters got to do with prisoners of conscience?
The late Robert Conquest had three laws of politics. His third has been my guide through life:
The simplest way to explain the behaviour of any bureaucratic organization is to assume that it is controlled by a cabal of its enemies.
I find it applies to every organisation I have covered or worked for (with the exception of The Spectator – most of the time).
But Conquest’s second law is more pertinent here.
Any organization not explicitly right-wing sooner or later becomes left-wing.
Conquest said that he was specifically thinking of Amnesty International and the Church of England when he drafted it. Reluctant though I am to challenge the great man when his admirers are still mourning his passing, but that it is not quite right. It would be more accurate to say:
Any organisation that is not explicitly constrained will expand until it collapses.
This is true of every business, which blunders into markets it does not understand, and it is true of campaign groups too.
You would never have guessed it, but Amnesty was once the most clear-headed and focused of organisations. Peter Benenson founded it in 1961. He insisted that Amnesty would defend only peaceful prisoners of conscience. That was it. No one else. Amnesty members were to be as impartial as the ideal judge or civil servant. To make sure that they were, he told each group to campaign for the release of one prisoner from the communist world, one from the capitalist world and one from the non-aligned or third world. Members might sympathise with communism and loathe the crimes of America and its allies. No matter. They must suppress their preferences and fight for the rights of those they disliked as well as those they admired.
This almost ascetic discipline became too much to bear. An organisation that relied on its members contributions had in the end to reflect its members’ interests and prejudices. Gradually Amnesty began to stray from the hard and narrow path of principled liberalism.
In the 1970s, Amnesty expanded to oppose the use of torture and the death penalty. Good causes, no doubt, but already it was slipping away from its original mission, and becoming a broader, shallower organisation. By the 2000s, it was a kind of shadow government with views on just about everything: abortion, refugees, violence against women, state surveillance and the arms trade. Instead of doing one thing well, Amnesty International chose to do many things badly. So much so, that campaigners from groups that know what they are talking about despair at the sight of badly briefed Amnesty officials blundering into their campaigns, and repeat as one:
Never work with animals, children or Amnesty International
It does no good. If there is an argument on the criminalisation of prostitution, of course, Amnesty must join it, and tell the rest of us what to think.
Meanwhile the peaceful prisoners of conscience, Amnesty was founded to protect, find that what was once their truest friend is more interested in walking the streets and pimping itself out to passing trade than doing what it was founded to do and campaigning for their freedom.