So recently human rights charity Amnesty International caused a massive controversy by proposing that the organization support worldwide decriminalization of sex work. They’ll be voting on the proposal at their annual conference in Dublin on Monday. Celebrities including Lena Dunham, Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet all signed a petition asking Amnesty to reconsider. But if you actually talk to the people affected, the sex workers themselves, they think Amnesty was actually on the right track – and they should stick to their guns. 1,100 sex workers and representative organizations including the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC), International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe (ICRSE), Sex Workers’ Rights Advocacy Network in Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia (SWAN), Human Rights Watch, the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW) and anti-trafficking organisation La Strada International have all signed a letter to Amnesty asking them to stand their ground and stick with the decriminalisation campaign . Here are a few reasons why actually we should maybe listen to the sex workers on this…
1. Criminalizing sex work doesn’t stop it happening, it just makes workers unsafe
Sex work really is the world’s oldest profession, and it’s been illegal for a lot of that time. (Note that this hasn’t actually stopped it.) When sex work is criminalised – directly, or indirectly through laws and practices targeting sex workers, clients, or third parties – sex workers will be at risk of police violence, arrests, rape, blackmail and deportations, and unable to report abuse or violence they suffer at the hands of clients, law enforcement agencies, third parties or anyone else. If Amnesty International support decriminalisation, that’ll help sex workers access justice and hold accountable those who abuse and attack them.
2. Things are even worse for migrant sex workers
Amnesty’s policy explicitly focused on the most marginalised group of sex workers, migrant sex workers. In many European countries, up to 75 per cent of sex workers are migrants. They often lack documentation and are easily subject to violence and exploitation – their human rights are often much more at risk than those of citizens. The ‘Nordic’ or ‘Swedish model’, which criminalizes clients instead of sex workers, puts migrant sex workers under constant threat of police repression, arrest or deportation, often denying them access to justice. This is particularly important because right now we have around 60 million people forcibly displaced worldwide, the most since World War 2. With limited access to decent work or welfare, a lot of them end up in sex work. Looking out for the human rights of just such marginalised people is Amnesty International’s raison d’etre.
3. In much of the U.S. people are arrested for ‘manifesting prostitution’
You don’t have to be selling sex or anything close. You can be arrested simply for being in the wrong place, wrong time, or wrong clothes – and these arrests are hugely racially biased. (In Brooklyn in 2011, for example, 95% of people arrested on these charges were people of colour.) And we’re not talking small numbers, either – 5700 people in 2011, mostly women. And these charges stick around for a while. The criminalisation of sex work disproportionately affects marginalised populations, even if they’re not actually anything to do with sex work.