First published on The Fifth Column, August 2015
Amnesty International’s proposal to recognise sex work as a human right and adopt a position in favour of decriminalising sex work has met with controversy from anti-sex work groups. A group of Hollywood celebrities have signed an open letter to Amnesty calling for sex work to be criminalised.
Anti-sex work groups have confused decriminalisation with legalisation. Decriminalisation is a system in which the buying and selling of sexual services between consenting adults is legal. (However, in some decriminalised countries it may be illegal for sex workers to share accommodation with other sex workers, or the age of consent for commercial sex may be set higher than the age of consent for giving sex away for free. This is the case in the UK). Under decriminalisation, sex worker organisations can work with the police to tackle crime and increase sex workers’ safety. Examples of this are the UK’s Ugly Mugs Scheme and the Merseyside Model, which increased rape convictions to 67%, compared to the UK average of just 6.5%. Decriminalisation is regarded by sex workers, Human Rights Watch, UNAIDS, The World Health Organisation and academics as the safest and best system.
Legalisation is more invasive; sex workers may have to register with authorities, be forced to have STD tests, be subject to high taxes and State regulation of the industry. Legalisation may also encourage sex trafficking.
Criminalisation involves making buying sex as well as selling it illegal. Most of the USA uses this model. Sex workers are jailed, can lose custody of their children, are fired from their other jobs, forced to join church programs or face jail, end up unemployed because of their criminal record, and forced to testify against their madams or face losing custody of their children. Clients can be jailed, have their name and photo displayed on billboards, and also face employment and custody issues due to criminal records. Even people who aren’t buying or selling sex are affected; for example the police can stop people in the street and arrest them for selling sex if they are found to be carrying condoms.
The ‘Nordic Model’ is a system whereby only the buyers are criminalised. However, in Sweden this model has increased stigma against sex workers- already a stigmatised and marginalised group. The Swedish Government reported this increase in stigma as a positive effect of the Nordic Model.In Norway, the State has plunged many of its citizens into homelessness as police evict them from their homes for selling sex.
Writing in The Nation, Melissa Gira Grant explains “The foundation of this proposal—that countries “review and repeal laws that make those who sell sex vulnerable to human rights violations”—has been mischaracterized as legalizing prostitution. Amnesty’s proposal has also been repeatedly misrepresented by anti-prostitution groups who oppose, who claim that Amnesty is siding with exploiters. What has received little attention from major press outlets and opposition is the testimony of those who live under these laws: sex workers themselves. They have told Amnesty that sex workers’ rights are not only about the right to work, but the right to live free from stigma, discrimination, and violence.”
A spokesperson for Amnesty said “Sex workers are one of the most marginalised groups in the world so it is important that we understand how, as Amnesty International, we can work to support their human rights.
The violations that sex workers can be exposed to include physical and sexual violence, arbitrary arrest and detention, extortion and harassment, human trafficking, forced HIV testing and medical interventions. They can also be excluded from health care and housing services and other social and legal protection.
This is a divisive, sensitive and complex issue and it is important that we get it right. That is why we have been working for the last two years to develop a proposed policy to protect the human rights of sex workers based on solid research and consultation with stakeholders.
The current draft has drawn from an extensive evidence base from sources including UN agencies, such as the World Health Organisation, UN AIDS, UN Women and the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health. We have also conducted detailed research in four countries.
Amnesty International’s national offices around the world have also contributed to the policy through extensive and open consultation with many different stakeholders. These have included sex worker groups, groups representing survivors of prostitution, abolitionist organisations, feminist and other women’s rights representatives, anti- trafficking agencies and HIV/AIDS activists.
The research and feedback have helped shape the current draft of the proposed policy.
It is important to stress that given that the consultation process is still on-going, no decisions have been made. No policy has been adopted by Amnesty International and it is not possible to speculate about the eventual outcome of the vote.
The draft policy will be voted on at Amnesty International’s main decision making forum, the International Council Meeting (ICM), which takes place in Dublin from 7-11 August.”