Amnesty International has officially adopted a policy on sex work that could lift up and protect some of the most vulnerable and marginalized folks around the world — and feminists and human rights advocates alike could learn a lot from it. The only problem is that they’re too busy speaking over the sex workers and researchers who emphatically support the proposal to really do so.
The policy, which calls for the “full decriminalisation of all aspects of consensual sex work,” passed yesterday at a convening in Dublin of the noted human rights organization’s International Board. It stems from extensive and growing bodies of research by UN agencies, human rights organizations around the world, and social science studies that illuminate how the criminalization of sex work both reinforces social stigma against sex workers and puts their lives at risk. It calls on nations and states with the full weight of Amnesty’s reputation as a human rights organization to repeal laws that make sex workers vulnerable to human rights violations, take action to minimize marginalization to provide sex workers with other options should they want to capitalize on them, and protect them from discriminatory policies and laws.
This policy will be used to demand that nations and states around the world work to eradicate discrimination against sex workers, develop policies and programs that support them, and actively work to protect them from institutional and individual acts of violence. “Human rights belong to everyone inherently by virtue of being human,” Amnesty International wrote on their blog yesterday, “and that includes sex workers.”
Sex workers have long held that criminalizing sex work exacerbates the risks of their work — if a client refuses payment or assaults a sex worker, the worker can be at risk for incarceration or violence from the hands of the police if she attempts to report it or seek legal redress. Sex workers are often also at risk from the police themselves as a result of criminalization, who can freely seek services from sex workers or sexually assault them knowing that if the worker refuses or resists, they can arrest them. A 2012 study found that 42% of Latina transgender sex workers in Los Angeles reported being solicited for sex by police. Criminalization provides an incentive for the state to try to identify potential sex workers by their behaviors; this leads to situations like the one in NYC, where police used the presence of condoms on a woman’s person as evidence of of sex work and reason for arrest. Obviously, this powerfully dissuades both sex workers and non sex workers from carrying condoms, which can put them at great risk. In fact, under the criminalization of sex work, sex workers are often at risk for incarceration and state violence even when the ostensible targets of the police are their clients. Former sex worker Maggie McNeill explains how sex workers are often harmed by law enforcement supposedly meant to either punish johns or rescue trafficking victims:
“…despite the hype, the truth is that even operations framed as “john stings” or “child sex slave rescues” end up with the arrest and conviction of huge numbers of women; for example, 97% of prostitution-related felony convictions in Chicago are of women, and 93% of women arrested in the FBI’s “Innocence Lost” initiatives are consensual adult sex workers rather than the coerced underage ones the program pretends to target.”
Marginalized populations are frequently at risk for violence in interactions with police, and sex workers are no exception. As a highly stigmatized population, sex workers can face violence, whether it’s arrest or sexual assault, from police officers with little legal recourse; criminalization of sex work provides law enforcement a reason to come into contact with sex workers. The experience of Monica Jones, a black transgender sex worker, in 2014 is an example of this system at work. Jones wasn’t engaging in sex work at the time, but accepted a ride home from men who turned out to be undercover police officers; she was then charged with “manifesting prostitution” and was “rescued” into a program called Project ROSE, which required her to spend eight hours a day in programming with no food and no way to compensate for the income she was losing by being there. Although Project ROSE was ostensibly designed to rescue people from trafficking, Jones gained no resources or strategies for leaving sex work from it, even if that’s what she had desired; and if she didn’t complete the programming, she faced jail time. In fact, one doesn’t even need to be a sex worker to face state violence as a result of criminalization; anyone profiled by the police as a sex worker, regardless of whether or not they are, faces the risk of theoretical rescue with the potential of very real incarceration and violence. Jones, who has since gone on to address the United Nations about the rights of sex workers, says that “As long as the police can target my community using these anti-sex-work laws, we will never be safe from violence, including the violence of incarceration.”
Although the policy’s passage doesn’t have an immediate effect, and won’t directly shift any policy — since Amnesty is a social justice organization and not a legal governing body — it does signify a way forward for the sex workers’ rights movement, and it symbolizes a growing consensus that sex workers deserve to live free from violence, harassment, and discrimination. Amnesty’s work has led to a string of victories around the world in the arenas of women’s rights, economic justice, immigrant rights, corporate accountability, and LGBT rights, and certainly their ability to drive change is a huge boon to the collective movement sex workers have built for their own justice. But their endorsement of decriminalization alone is also proof that sex workers have, above all, finally been heard – and truly listened to – in that very push for justice.
This policy is a case study in policy work that is done the right way — with marginalized groups not only in mind, but at the forefront. It’s a policy that echoes the demands sex workers themselves have outlined for years as they organized collectively or separately around the world, and it’s a policy that prioritizes, above all, the safety and well-being of sex workers who live at the intersections of oppression. Amnesty created the policy recommendation after conversations with sex workers from around the world, and hundreds of organizations representing sex workers, individual sex workers, and human rights organizations came forward to support the policy in its infancy, including the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe and the Global Network of Sex Worker Projects.
But many women’s rights organizations and feminist celebrities won’t stand for it.
An open letter from the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women about Amnesty’s policy predicts “catastrophic effects” for sex workers worldwide and accuses the organization of supporting “a system of gender apartheid.” Signatories on the letter included Lena Dunham, Eve Ensler, Gloria Steinem, Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, Meryl Streep, Anne Hathaway, and senior staff at organizations like Equality Now, the Women’s Human Rights Education Institute, and Women’s Aid. The signatories are pushing for expansion of the “Swedish model,” in which laws criminalizing the purchase of sex work but not sex work directly are put into place. The only problem is that Amnesty did consider that model before drafting their own policy and recommendations — and decided to scrap supporting it in the face of hard evidence.
The Swedish National National Board for Health and Welfare has be unable to provide evidence that their laws reduce the number of sex workers or the number of trafficking victims. Instead, police have found that massage parlors operating as covers for sexual service sales increased threefold, and sex workers have been pushed underground and deterred from reporting violence or demanding fair labor conditions. In other countries attempting to police sex work, like France, social stigma against sex workers encouraged by criminalization has led to a widespread lack of access to resources, support services, and safety. In Norway, a sex worker told Amnesty researchers that they didn’t report an assault by one of their clients to police because laws make them vulnerable to eviction from their homes if they come forward. Escort Samantha Acosta told Broadly the police straight-up refused to help her when she reported that she was being cyber-stalked and threatened by a man because of the nature of her work.
“As long as sex work is criminalized — directly or indirectly through laws and practices targeting sex workers, clients, or third parties,” ICRSE wrote in a letter to Amnesty supporting the policy, “sex workers will be at risk of police violence, arrests, rape, blackmail and deportations, and will be unable to report abuse committed by clients, third parties, and members of the public.”
For Erika, a Latina sex worker who is queer and trans, criminalization causes her to fear both police action and police inaction. “Without criminalization, survival sex workers would be able to engage in sex work without fear of police arresting us and creating a record that would bar employment in the future in careers and jobs that offer more financial security,” she told me, adding later that criminalization has fed stigmas against sex workers that impede her ability to live free from harassment and violence. “[Clients] assume control over me,” she told me, “knowing that the [laws] support them more than they do me.”
CATW and their allies also muddle the lines between consensual sex work — defined in Amnesty’s policy as work done without coercion or force by someone who is over 18 — and human trafficking (which Amnesty has long opposed) in their work and, more directly, in the arguments they presented to Amnesty. In the eyes of CATW and their signatories, all sex work is gender-based violence. But policies that fail to differentiate between sex work and sex trafficking also put the actual victims of sex trafficking at greater risk of being made invisible and without support by customs and legal practice, and they strip agency from sex workers who — like many other laborers engaging in work that isn’t criminalized — do what they do for a variety of reasons, including survival as well as free choice. Critics of laws that criminalize sex work as an attempt at curbing human trafficking point out that the violent acts inherent in trafficking — like sexual assault and kidnapping — are already illegal, and can already be prosecuted under the law if victims can be found and come forward, but criminalizing sex work and putting those same victims (as well as voluntary sex workers) at risk for incarceration prevents that outcome.
“Conflating consensual sex work and sex trafficking is comparing two completely separate forms of intimate labor,” Erika told me, “[and] criminalization conflates these two intimate labors and has left little room for actual workers and survivors of trafficking to voice their needs and desires. Decriminalization requires having conversations about sex work for consensual and survival workers and their specific needs, and a separate conversation for survivors or current sex trafficked individuals to talk about their needs.”
“When you use trafficking to silence talk about decriminalization, you are using it as a smokescreen for bigger problems to do with borders, police violence, racism, and capitalism,” J, who is a genderqueer femme bisexual disabled neuroatypical and does escorting and BDSM switch work in several countries, pointed out to me. “Decriminalization would massively help in the fight against trafficking for so, so many reasons. Clients are usually the best resource to help find trafficking victims but when they are criminalized, they don’t report. When agents are criminalized, their activities go underground. When sex workers are criminalized, they stay away from all services, healthcare and victim support and the people in abusive situations just can’t be found.“
Melissa Gira Grant covered Amnesty’s proposal for The Nation prior to its passage today and explored the failure of criminalization policies to improve sex workers’ lives. “Criminal laws,” she wrote, “only add to the challenges — poverty, marginalization, access to health care — that many sex workers already face.” She also spotlighted the “intentional danger” government officials advocate when they put these laws in place:
At a 2014 hearing on whether or not Canada should adopt something like Norway’s sex work law, Senator Donald Plett remarked, “We don’t want to make life safe for prostitutes, we want to do away with prostitution.” Sweden’s trafficking unit head Ann Martin has defended their anti-sex work law, from which Norway’s and Canada’s were drawn, telling the London Review of Books, “Of course the law has negative consequences for women in prostitution but that’s also some of the effect that we want to achieve with the law.”
Amnesty’s sex work proposal has drawn the ire of campaigners who support the anti-sex work laws in Sweden, Norway, and Canada precisely because it illustrates how these laws, marketed as compassionate towards sex workers, have exposed them to danger. They argue for more criminalization at a time when on most other issues, the public is turning away from using the police and prisons as a solution.
J sees decriminalization as key in balancing out those power dynamics. “Decriminalization means that we can choose the best and safest ways we want to work depending on our on situations and not be dictated to by people who don’t understand our lives,” J told me. “I can tantalizingly imagine my life under decriminalization. It would change everything, especially as you edge towards the more marginalized edge of sex work. We could work together for safety when we want or need to. We could employ security guards, cleaners or admin people without those people being prosecuted for pimping.”
Ironically, nations that have decriminalized sex work have also produced some of the results women’s groups and feminist celebrities who signed on the CATW’s letter appear to be seeking out. In Germany, where sex work has been legal since 1927, human trafficking is at a record low. In New Zealand, where prostitution was decriminalized in 2003, 70 percent of sex workers say they are more likely to report violence to the police. A sex worker named Kimberlee Cline, who is currently based in California, told ThinkProgress that working in Australia, where prostitution is decriminalized, was her “most ideal scenario,” and that in California she’s been unable to access the free medical screenings, health and safety information relevant to her line of work, protection of her identity, and ease of screening and setting up appointments with clients that she had while she was working in Australia.
But Amnesty’s support of decriminalization is only the first step, and even now as sex workers ring in this huge victory, they know there is a long road ahead. “Decriminalizing doesn’t mean all of our problems disappear,” Erika told me. “It simply means one of the more permanent legal barriers is lifted.” Other barriers, including winning fights for labor rights and anti-discrimination protections, will take longer to lift. And winning the culture war will take even more time.
“Changing cultural values and norms so that sex workers are less stigmatised will take decades or centuries,” Luca Stevenson and Dr. Agata Dziuban oif ICRSE wrote in The Guardian, “but decriminalization can be achieved in our lifetime.”
For sex workers, the bottom line in pushing for decriminalization is that it would allow them more protection and more access to their human rights. Their health and safety would improve, as would their relationships with police and their employers. They could access support resources and find community. Their lives would change. And their opponents are actively, knowingly, advocating against them.
“The current debate is interesting,” Thierry Schaffauser of ICRSE told me, “because it brings more attention to the actual existing evidence and people are more and more seeing how sex workers’ voices are silenced.”
“The only people qualified to explain how best to protect sex workers are sex workers ourselves, and globally we want decriminalization, for exactly that reason — to best protect ourselves,” J told me, mentioning also that having Amnesty support this widely-held goal by sex workers is a “huge deal” that could change the game. “It helps us all to lobby in our own countries for our rights and helps us ideologically fight those who would prefer us dead,” J explained. “Because that’s what criminalization is: preferring dead sex workers.”
It’s time for all of us who are invested in the ability for women to live equitably and free from violence, abuse, and harassment to aid sex workers in their fight for liberation by doing so on their terms. By adopting this policy today, Amnesty showed the world exactly what that looks like.