Here’s What Amnesty International’s Sex Work Proposal Really Means

Amnesty International will vote this month on whether to advocate worldwide decriminalization of sex work. If the policy is adopted, the human rights group will call for governments to eliminate most laws that prohibit selling or buying sex.

Advocates for sex workers strongly back the idea. A petition in support of such a policy has garnered more than 6,000 signatures, including from dozens of sex worker support and advocacy groups in Africa, Asia, Europe, North America and Latin America. The proposal has also received harsh criticism from anti-trafficking activists as well as from celebrities like Anne Hathaway, Lena Dunham and Kate Winslet. 

Amnesty International will consider the policy during its international council meeting, to be held in Dublin on Aug. 7-11. The group has said that “it is not possible to speculate” on the vote’s outcome.

Here are the basics on what the draft proposal says and the most prominent arguments for and against its adoption.

London protesters march through Soho after a candle-lit vigil to mark the international day to end violence against sex workers, organized by the English Collective of Prostitutes. | Credit: Justin Tallis/Getty Images

What does the draft propose?

The draft calls for countries not to criminally penalize any person — adult or minor — for selling his or her own sexual services. Additionally, countries should not criminally penalize those who purchase sexual services from adults. The draft specifically notes that a “child involved in a commercial sex act” should automatically be considered a victim of sexual exploitation and therefore not penalized.

The policy says that some “operational” aspects of sex work, such as brothel-keeping, should also be decriminalized. But it explicitly states that human trafficking and coercion should remain violations of criminal law.

It also specifies that governments have an “obligation” to offer support services to any person who wants to leave the sex industry.

Read the full draft proposal here. 

The concept of “decriminalization” is not interchangeable with “legalization.” In this context, decriminalization means that laws prohibiting sex work are removed, while legalization typically implies the imposition of state regulation on sex work. The Amnesty draft notes that the group is not necessarily opposed to state regulation.

A protester holds a placard on the international day to end violence against sex workers, organized by the English Collective of Prostitutes. | Credit: Justin Tallis/Getty Images

What are the reasons for the proposal? 

The authors of the draft argue that criminalization is one of the major factors contributing to the abuse, oppression and stigmatization of both voluntary sex workers and trafficking victims.

In countries where selling sex is outlawed, a criminal record can follow a sex worker for life, making it extremely difficult to find employment if the individual wishes to exit the industry. In the U.S., people can be hit with criminal charges even when law enforcement determines that they are victims of sex trafficking.

Sex workers and public health officials in India have argued that keeping the industry in the shadows also makes it more difficult to enforce rules that seek to limit the spread of diseases like HIV. 

The Amnesty proposal notes that sex workers who are victims of abuse, assault or rape are often afraid to go to the police out of fear they will face prostitution charges. An abuser can also exert power over a sex worker by threatening to “out” the person to police.

“Criminalizing sex work is what makes trafficking survivors unable to seek support,” Caty Simon, an escort and co-editor of the sex worker-run blog Tits and Sass, told HuffPost in July.

Sex workers have said that the worst abuse of all is abuse by police. A woman told The New York Times in 2012 that “more than once,” police insisted she “provide services” to them in exchange for not being arrested. “The cops are the ones abusing you, taking your money, beating you up,” she said.

Similar abuse at the hands of police has been reported around the world, including in South Africa, Cambodia, Eastern and Central Europe, and Central Asia.

Former French sex worker Rosen Hicher (center), an activist for the abolition of prostitution, holds a placard at a Paris demonstration in 2014, calling for criminal penalties for clients of sex workers. | Credit: Lionel Bonaventure/Getty Images

Why do some oppose the policy?

Some activist groups take issue with Amnesty’s proposals to decriminalize the buying of sex and operational activities like brothel-keeping. In July, the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women wrote a letter voicing its opposition.

Read CATW’s letter here.

CATW fears that full decriminalization of both buying and selling sex would increase the market for human trafficking and result in more victims of abuse (more on that later).

The group also believes that prostitution, in and of itself, is a “cause and consequence of gender inequality” and that full decriminalization would endorse this inequality. The letter refers to those who sell sex as “prostituted individuals,” reflecting its position that all prostitution is a form of exploitation.

Sex workers and their advocates, however, say the idea that sex work is inherently exploitative or degrading is untrue and insulting. Additionally, the Sex Workers Outreach Project argues that assuming all sex workers are victims “warps the discussion” of trafficking and makes it nearly impossible to come up with policies that benefit both voluntary sex workers and trafficking victims. UN Women has issued similar statements.

Those who signed CATW’s letter included anti-trafficking activists, academics and high-profile Hollywood celebrities. An online petition, also written by the group, now has more than 5,000 signatures.

CATW’s letter does not call for criminal penalties for sex workers themselves, only for buyers of sex and third parties who facilitate commercial sex. This policy, sometimes called the “Swedish model,” is already in place in Sweden and Norway.

Sex workers take part in a June 2015 demonstration in Paris to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Lyon Saint-Nizier church occupation by prostitutes and to denounce a bill that would criminalize buying sex. | Credit: Thomas Samson/Getty Images

Why don’t sex worker advocates support the Swedish model?

Penalizing the acts of buyers and third parties — known as indirect criminalization — still leads to hardship for sex workers and abuse by law enforcement, according to Amnesty International.

Sex workers in Norway told Amnesty that police are known to target sex workers in an effort to arrest their clients. As a result, sex workers hesitate to report incidents like assault or robbery, since this will out them to police, who may then repeatedly arrest their clients and effectively destroy their livelihood.

Penalizing buyers also motivates them to be as secretive as possible. As a consequence, they resist sex workers’ efforts to improve their own safety by asking for IDs, according to a report on sex work in Sweden by the Global Network of Sex Work Projects.

Additionally, many people believe that if sex is a consensual commercial transaction between adults, it should not be a criminal act.

Sex workers and supporters demonstrate in April 2015 against closing window brothels in Amsterdam’s red light district. | Credit: Robin Van Lonkhuijsen/Getty Images

Will decriminalizing prostitution lead to more trafficking? 

Groups that advocate for the total abolition of prostitution, like CATW and the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, fear that decriminalization will cause an increase in sex trafficking to feed a larger and more legitimized sex trade. Reliable data showing such a connection, however, is hard to come by.

A widely cited 2013 research paper found a correlation between legal prostitution and an increase in sex trafficking. Critics of that study, however, have said that it relies on unreliable data and pointed out that it’s based on smaller studies that use varying definitions of the term “trafficking.” Some sources define “trafficking” to cover those who are forced into the sex trade; others define it to apply to anyone who moves to a new country to work in the sex trade. In Malaysia, for example, individuals have been charged with “self-trafficking.”

 The researchers themselves noted that “the clandestine nature” of both trafficking and prostitution made obtaining reliable data difficult. 

Dutch law enforcement said in a 2010 report that the “likely explanation” for an apparent rise in sex trafficking in the Netherlands was the ability of investigators to track down and prosecute more traffickers.

Advocates of full decriminalization point to New Zealand — where buying and selling sex have both been legal since 2003 — as an example of a nation with healthy sex work laws and no increase in sex trafficking.

The U.S. government has, in fact, criticized New Zealand for the level of human trafficking (not restricted solely to the sex trade) in the country. But a 2012 United Nations report praised the country’s sex work policies. And in 2008, the New Zealand government said that it had found no evidence of international trafficking connected with the country’s sex industry.

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