Why Amnesty International Must Hold Firm in Its Support for Sex Workers

One of the world’s leading human rights organizations is on track to do something that could benefit thousands of people across the world—but not everyone is happy about it.

For the last two years or so, Amnesty International has been considering whether to support the decriminalization of sex work. With the recent publication of a draft policy, the organization seems poised to do so. This is the right decision: from a health and rights perspective, decriminalization is the best way to empower sex workers around the world and to address the human rights violations they face.

But last week a number of signatories, including a handful of Hollywood celebrities, wrote a letter to Amnesty to oppose such a policy, arguing that it would leave the organization “severely and irreparably tarnished” and legitimize violence against women. The signatories favor a system of partial criminalization known as the “Swedish model,” in which those who buy sex are criminals, but those who sell are victims.

They couldn’t be more wrong.

The first thing that those who disagree with Amnesty’s policy can do is listen to sex workers themselves. From South Africa to the United Kingdom, sex worker organizations supported by the Open Society Foundations say that criminalizing sex workers or their clients serves only to fuel social stigma and to separate them from society, safety, and services. The global refrain from sex workers is clear: “Rights, not rescue.”

The second thing to recognize is that criminalization itself—which forces sex work underground—enables violence and abuse, and puts sex workers at greater risk. The need to avoid arrest means that sex workers (particularly those who are street-based) are less able to screen clients or report abuses to authorities for fear of repercussions. In many parts of the world, police become abusers themselves because they fear no recourse from sex workers.

Many fail to realize that anti-trafficking efforts often lead to human rights violations against sex workers. Decriminalization, however, enables effective, collaborative efforts to confront human trafficking, an egregious human rights abuse. When freed from criminal penalties, sex workers can more easily organize, collaborate with law enforcement, and refer victims of trafficking and exploitation to appropriate services.

People often conflate sex work with trafficking, but sex work is consensual while trafficking isn’t. Blurring the distinction between the two is a tactic often used to build opposition, with devastating impact on sex workers’ rights.

For those who care about bodily autonomy and choice, decriminalization recognizes that individuals deserve to make personal decisions about their own bodies without overbearing interference from the state. Laws against sex work intrude into private, sexual behaviors between consenting adults—something that societies across the world have increasingly decided is inappropriate when it comes to reproductive and LGBTI rights.

Finally, it is important to recognize that decriminalization of sex work is integral to public health. A recent study in the Lancet found that decriminalization has the single greatest potential to reduce HIV infections in female sex workers, averting up to 46 percent of new infections over the next decade. When decriminalized, sex workers are better able to insist on condom use and access health services [PDF], according to leading global health organizations including the World Health Organization and UNAIDS.

In the end, whether you’re a Hollywood celebrity or a staffer with Amnesty International, you don’t have to like sex work. These views take many forms, and although a lot of sex workers take great pride in their work, others come to dislike it. But the case for decriminalization is clear.

Amnesty International should continue to stand with the decades of sex worker advocacy and public health experience that support their direction. Doing the right thing in the face of antagonism is what helps burnish a human rights organization’s reputation and legacy—not tarnish it.  

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Ironically, when you write that "the first thing that those who disagree with Amnesty’s policy can do is listen to sex workers themselves", you yourself are completely ignoring the voices of the many sex trade survivors who are fighting AGAINST the full decriminalization of prostitution.

Secondly, you seem to be conflating the criminalization of "sex workers" and the criminalization of ALL parties involved in the sex industry. There's a big difference here. Your statement "when freed from criminal penalties, sex workers can more easily organize, collaborate with law enforcement, and refer victims of trafficking and exploitation to appropriate services" is obviously true. You make it sound as if those who are against full decriminalization would disagree with you on this, but that's false.

Lastly, your argument that "in many parts of the world, police become abusers themselves because they fear no recourse from sex workers" baffles me. How would decriminalizing pimps and men who buy sex give "sex workers" recourse against abusers? It will do just the opposite.

Instead, decriminalize prostitutes/sex workers and criminalize the pimps and sex buyers.

Suzy, thanks for your post.

The real-world effect of criminalizing clients alone is the same as criminalizing sex workers, which you recognize isn't the way forward: sex work moves underground, and the lives of sex workers are made more difficult and more dangerous.

We have a whole post explaining this here: http://www.opensocietyfoundations.org/voices/punish-sex-worker-or-client...

Groups who work on public health the world over, from the WHO to UNAIDS can attest.

As has been pointed out time and again, the so-called "Nordic model" described above is absolutely not a decriminalization model, and it is propagandistic to push it as such. It is simply an alternate criminalization model, one that indirectly rather than directly criminalizes sex workers, in effect, little different from existing laws in countries like the UK or the ones overturned in the Canadian "Bedford" decision that theoretically decriminalize sex workers, but in practice criminalize all other aspects of the enterprise they are engaged in. In Sweden and Norway, such laws have succeeded in doing little other than driving the trade even further underground and further compromised the safety of those actively working in the sex trade. It has also had the effect of actually increasing sex worker stigmatization (Sweden takes the almost Soviet-type attitude that those remaining in the sex trade under their ideal state are 'mentally sick'), as the Petite Jasmine case so amply illustrates.

Would love to see your research on the Swedish and Nordic laws, other than just one (albeit biased) case.

Thanks, Suzy, for your comment.

The purpose of this post is primarily to voice support for Amnesty’s draft policy on decriminalization. It is not an attempt to discuss the merits and demerits of different forms of criminalization. This is futile in my opinion, since criminalization in any form – including the Swedish model – perpetuates many of the same kinds of harms.

You appear to suggest that those who favor the Swedish model do not oppose sex workers organizing. Considering the situation in Sweden, I beg to disagree. Not a single trade union organizes sex workers, even though they are supposedly “decriminalized.” The one organization – Rose Alliance – which organizes current sex workers to advocate for their rights is often vilified as “pimps,” unrepresentative, or suffering from “false consciousness.” The so-called prostitution units which were created following the Sex Purchase Act appear to be mostly focused on making people “exit” sex work, rather than building trust and improving the safety of people who sell sex. This quote, about providing rape alarms to sex workers, from a 2009 interview with a representative of the Stockholm prostitution unit is telling:

”since my knowledge tells me that prostitution is harmful, it would feel strange to hand out a kit with an alarm… I mean, people get raped anyway” (Levy, 2013)

There are many views on the issue of policing and the ability of sex workers to complain to the police under different legal regimes. The experience from New Zealand, where sex work is decriminalized, suggests that decriminalization does indeed provide sex workers with greater access to justice and recourse in cases of abuse. Research has shown, for example, that relations between the police and sex workers have improved post-decriminalization, and sex workers experience less exploitation and more support in brothels. On the contrary, sex workers in both Sweden and Norway attest that it is difficult to turn to the police under the current legislation. This is in part because of increased stigma. But it is also because of the potential consequences of the police knowing that you are a sex worker. The police in Sweden are not shy to explain that their policing practices include seeking out sex workers – at home or elsewhere – in order to catch their clients. There are also reports from Sweden of the police forcing landlords to evict sex workers, or else face potential brothel-keeping charges. Migrant sex workers have been deported simply on the basis of engaging in sex work, even though it is “decriminalized.” These forms of intrusive and aggressive policing, when you haven’t even committed a crime, is a form of harassment and herein lays one of the contradictions of the Swedish model: you cannot criminalize one party in a consensual sexual exchange and proclaim that the other has been “decriminalized.”

The word 'pimp' here is used solely as those who forcibly control somebody into prostitution but can also be someone providing security/or indeed brothel owner in which everybody is consenting.
Criminalising third parties/sex buyers does nothing positive for sex workers themselves but provides 'succour' to those of a saviour complex.

Its also carries the stench of hypocrisy when 'Swedish Model' advocates completely suppress internal damning Swedish Trafficking Reports (e.g. 2012 Annual Report) which admit an almost 3 fold increase in sex selling massage parlours in Stockholm.high levels of EEuropean criminality and trafficking ,simply in order to sell the Swedish Model as a success. Groups like @equalityNow NEVER publish Sweden's internal reports in order to preserve its success.

Certainly more resources need to be provided for exit strategies but the reality with mass migration is that selling sex is often the most lucrative (if inevitably dangerous on many levels) way for very low paid migrants to survive. Their safety shouldn't be compromised purelyt to serve an ideology.

It's really disturbing how there are people who will listen to folks who identify as being formerly in prostitution (unless of course, these former sex workers support decriminalization), but will not listen to people currently doing sex work who put themselves on the line to speak out for decriminalization. Yes, people formerly involved in prostitution do have the right to their perspectives and to define their experiences for themselves. However, they are not being affect under present laws in the same ways current sex workers are who are working day to day and night to night under these policies. I do not know of any current sex workers who are supporting this end demand legislation or legislation that would criminalize them. In fact, they're working in more isolated ways and further endangering themselves to avoid being arrested or because their customers are trying to avoid this.

In NZ we have decriminalised prostitution. Seems to be fine. Exploitation, rape, abuse are not inevitable parts of sex work. Some people enjoy sex work, some don't. If they are forced into it etc then it is wrong. Many of us though do jobs we don't necessarily like.
But legalisation allows discussion, more openness, more discussion, more honesty.

Decriminalised prostitution is not fine in New Zealand,

Despite the Prostitution Reform Act 'PRA' bringing the sex industry under the Health and Safety in Employment Act of 1992, compliance with occupation health and safety regulations cannot be measured or enforced as there is no regular system for inspections of brothels by medical officers or by Labour Dept. officials.
(http://www.justice.govt.nz/policy/commercial-property-and-regulatory/pro... )

In 2012, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key stated that he did not think prostitution law reform had worked in New Zealand and specifically noted that there had been no reduction of street prostitution, while South Auckland had seen numerous problems of under-age prostitution. In particular, it has been witnessed that Indigenous girls and girls from ethnic minority groups have been entered into under-age prostitution. (http://auckland.scoop.co.nz/2013/04/under-age-prostitution-in-south-auck...)

Also NZ has failed to end stigmatisation of people in the sex trade, the NZ government report of 2008 reviewing the PRA states “This appears to have changed little post-decriminalisation. Stigmatisation plays a key role in non-reporting of incidents”. And In 2014, despite New Zealand having a decriminalised regime for over a decade, media reported that violence and abuse were common experiences for people prostituted in the Christchurch area. Detective Senior Sergeant Darryl Sweeney stating that victimisation of prostitutes was commonplace but that the victims were reluctant to report experiences of violence to police. (http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/crime/10200534/Sex-workers-deserve-prote...)

Despite full decriminalisation, people in the sex trade still experience violence and stigmitisation in New Zealand.

Sebastian - have you or the Open Society Institute sent a formal draft of this excellent piece to the Chair of Amnesty, Salil Shetty, or other board members?

Groups like CATW who oppose Amnesty's adoption of this progressive policy are lobbying them hard. I hope supporters of the draft policy will do the same.

Sebastian, I hear your points and I see merit in empowering sex workers who choose to be in their field. I've worked with sex workers and survivors of human trafficking for years now and I know how important it is to support them in a variety of ways. That being said, I cannot help but look at The Dutch model. There are most certainly sex workers who benefit from the decriminalization in universal protection, wage, and health benefits. However, I think it is very dangerous to ignore the tremendous increase in underground trafficking of adults and children alike which has taken place in the same environment. The decriminalized regulated facades of the red light district allow for avenues to move trafficking victims more easily. I also don't feel that it is fair to ignore the vast amount of physical and physiological harm that even decriminalized sex work can bring. Studies show that while abuse and trauma is not innate in sex work, there is an extremely high correlation, and just from professional experience, I have yet to work with a sex worker who has not experienced some level of trauma. I'm not saying there is a clear right or a wrong here. I again, agree with your points that it would help sex workers remove social stigma,etc. but I really do feel that OSF cannot ignore the undeniable consequences of such action on sex trafficking victims across the world.

Jess, the problem with the Dutch model (for the record, i am Dutch) is not the decriminalization, but that there are too few police officers to check for abuses. The Dutch police have an atrocious rate of crimes being solved.

While an eye is kept open for trafficking victims in the red light district its not a priority.
But... Sex with work is legal. Its taxed. Escort buros can go to the employment office when they are looking for people. So it is better... But that doesnt mean, that there is not a long ways to go.

Also, since human trafficking is not a priority here, (although when they run into it, it is prosecuted) criminalizing sex work would do nothing to stop it, only make it more attractive. While the prostitutes are visible for everyone now, how much worse would it be when they were to be driven underground

I hope the sex workers you've worked with know that you're using them as tools of oppression.
As an ACTUAL sex worker, not someone who profits off our suffering like yourself, I am TELLING you, *we want full decrim*. Every single sex worker rights org, organizations that are created, lead and run by sex workers, will tell you the same thing. You are not the expert here, we are, and shame on you for using your "experience" with us as if we're animals in the zoo to push for our oppression. Revolting.

So glad to hear this line of rhetoric. I myself an am arms dealer pushing for full decriminalization of automatic rifles in the USA. I figure because I can make money doing something, that's enough of a justification for its place in society. Besides, war and violence are inevitable because they've been happening for thousands of years and we should just give up trying to change human nature. I'm glad that you agree.

Are you seriously comparing sex workers to arms dealers? Do you....actually not grasp how bizarre and ridiculous that line of thinking is, or are you just a troll?

The big problem for Amnesty over this issue is how they will claw back any credibility for an organisation, like political parties, that relies on voting at Section's Branch and National AGM's which are vulnerable to branch stacking........ and often are.

With regard to recent AGM's where the 'sex work' policy has been debated there have been numerous members claiming their branches have been stacked with pro sex trade members and in some cases allegations these dubious activities have been backed by AI officials. Many old guard AI members have been astonished to find huge numbers of newly joined up members turning up to AGMs, that nobody had ever seen or heard of before, which previously very few members attended. And then there have been allegations of counter stacking......and it will go on.

So just how much consensus Amnesty could possibly claim to have about developing a policy at all on this issue really needs to be examined more closely.

Many Amnesty members have no idea how the organisation they donate to really works.....I am sure that when they realise that Amnesty operates in the same corruptable, numbers crunching style as the worst of political parties do, they will be looking for more accountable and ethical organisations to donate to.

Congrats on speaking over ACTUAL sex workers who are in favour of decriminalization! We say the same things over and over again but you people refuse to listen, instead listening to so-called "exited prostitutes" - most of whom are flat out liars by the way such as Melissa Farley and Shelley Lubben - who aren't impacted by sex work legislation anyway!
The reason why you constantly cite supposed former sex workers is because you KNOW that NO current sex worker wants to be forced out of their job or subjected to discrimination and statist violence. It's totally disingenuous and you are part of the problem, you selectively ignore the vast majority of sex workers and focus on a tiny portion of people who claim to have PREVIOUS (NOT current) industry experience, it's revolting and you're revolting.

This article is right on. Current sex workers - the people are are most impacted by criminalization, want decriminalization NOW! We make our incomes from clients, so of course we don't want them charged criminally either. We also often work through escort agencies and in massage parlors. We want those businesses to be legal. Amnesty International along with GAATW -the Global Alliance Against Trafficking Women, agree with actual sex workers that decriminalization offers those of us making a living this way, the most rights with hte least harm. Listen to sex workers, our advocacy groups and organizations that have done the in depth research -like Amnesty International. A group of actors and anti-sex-work groups should not be dictating the cricumstances we work in. We should be! Rights not rescue!

The sex workers I met in the Dominican Republic are primarily concerned with safety and good working conditions and being able to make a decent living. That's why most choose to work in brothels. One of the women who I've become friends with recently returned from working in a brothel in Curacao on a 3-month contract and she talks about how this place stands apart from other places she has worked -- all clients have to present their passport to be photocopied; there is an alarm button in all rooms to call security; and there is a driver to take and pick up workers from outcalls, which has its supervision purposes but also helps ensure worker safety. This is what full decriminalization can look like. The photocopying of the passport is a pretty key deterrent for abusive behavior, and that is something impossible under john criminalization schemes like the Nordic model. Not to mention removing police, the primary perpetrators of abuse and assault against sex workers, from the picture.

But brothels are often made illegal when other aspects of prostitution are decriminalized, as in England, with the assumption they are inherently exploitative -- even if two sex workers share a flat for security and mutual support that is considered an illegal brothel. And where my friend worked, the driver who provided her security (and, in effect, earns his living off of prostitution) would be considered a pimp in most other countries. So it's complicated and critical to talk with and listen to sex workers in order to understand how their world works so that efforts to help and protect them don't actually harm and endanger them.

many do not mind paying a fee to use a doctor's mind and hands for their benefit. others do not mind using a porter's body to help them lift things others donate their organs to others. I would like to know what so sacred with the sex organs

Completely agree with the statement. thanks to Lancet and OSF for their studies.
1. In many countries like Thailand, people who do sex work are invisible, majority population of sex workers are innocent to be abused with no voices to the right of laws, although they know that still many different laws protecting their rights.... but..?
2. People have role models like to follow "super stars" they are good girls, they, of course they are holding power to create a great impact against "bad girls" .... hopefully decriminalization will help slowly bring the change ?
3. Society stigma is excluding "sex work" but society stigma creates violence and unsafe condition at work on sex work environment.
4. Yes, the network on anti-trafficking realise that the more enforcing human trafficking law is just the greater number of "rescue" innocent girls-people, genders (under 18 years old). And the law punishment does not give skills and knowledges to the better lives.

Perhaps sex workers in Thailand are looking for best possible option to review the laws on 'prostitution prohibition' and 'Human Trafficking'. We want to encourage the government to strictly enforce protection Act when using laws rather than punishment Act.


Regardless of what you think of sex work, how is criminalization of consensual sale or purchase of sexual services helpful? You don't think that sex work is good, fine. Advocate for economic empowerment of women, and in particular socially and economically marginalized women, access to affordable housing, education, health care, child care, addictions services and decriminalization/legalization & regulation of drugs, shelters, services and supports for young people, and facilitating and supporting safe reporting of violence and coercion to police. Criminalization drives things more underground, outside of the light, increasing vulnerability, and incarceration is generally not a deterrant and does nothing productive.

In most of scenarios of a "marriage contract" involving parties of different means, where one party is not getting their share of love, affection and companionship in exchange for sex and money in their lawful and "honorable lifelong transaction," there is an example of the "legalized sex trade." Having all other forms of sex trade lawful would only allow all classes of society possibility to exit similar contracts much quicker than a divorce.

Sexual Rights are as other rights and even more.Keep fpr them and fight.

I'm surprised that decriminalizing the sector prostitution, that includes decriminalizing service and organisation in favor of sex workers who don't like to organize the complete work themselves- not everyone is an entrepeneur, neither in this sector- is persistently understood as decriminalizing abuse, and pimping.... by opponents

In the Netherlands we know legalisation of all aspects of prostitution (except a horrible regulation, that causes an increase of "illegal" prostitution in spite of our legality; there we find most forced labour, trafficking and abuse of vulnerable sex workers) That does not mean rape, abuse and pimping is legal! Even not in the Netherlands

we are very happy with what amnesty international are doing and we wish to be part of it

I find it really bizarre, that the situation in the German sextrade has completely been ignored. So I ask here: How many prostituted persons has been murdered or attempted murdered in the German sextrade since 2002?

I know the figures but I would really like to see you supporters of legalized pimping and sexbuying to find the figures and present them here, and then tell me and others, how you can combine that with the socalled safe legalized prostitution.

What does the Police in Germany say about the German prostitution policy?

How is it with the organized crime involved in both the German and the Dutch sextrade?

Who is delivering fresh young women from Eastern Europe for the brothels in the mentioned countries?

How many prostituted persons have joined a union in Germany and Netherlands?

A lot of questions as you of course have all the informations about like you obviously know a lot about the Nordic Model.

By the way - who gave you all the informations about the Nordic Model?

You know, that Rose Alliance don't represent anybody but themselves and certainly not those in the Swedish Sextrade that is FOR the Nordic Model, like PRIS – Prostitutes' Revenge In Society. Oh yes, there are people in the Swedish sextrade who is for the Nordic Model.

Prostitution has not gone underground in Sweden and neither the Swedish Police or people in the social system has any problem what so ever to find and contact prostituted persons in Sweden.

Of course you do know that, because you have of course been in contact with the Prostitution Unit in Stockholm Police.
Or did you base all your informations on what the Swedish sexlobby has told you.

oh, for god's sake - how can anybody imagine we could achieve gender equality where men have 'needs' and women have orifices
do you seriously think 'clients' have great respect for their wives whose money they spend getting drug addicted teenagers to suck their un-condomed cocks? how do they regard their teenage daughters' friends? Purely paternally? Come on - be serious

Decriminalizing whores, YES!
Decriminalizing pimps and Johns, NO!
There's a message we should send to our boys: buying the use of the sex of a woman is NOT a desirable/nice/respectable thing to do. Women are not buyable stuff. (Pardon my english, I'm french...)

This is a critical issue, went we look at the fundamental human right. no one should stop sex workers its there right but it is against God to be repeatably committing sin because of money or personal feeling. how can you buy sex? how do they feel went having sex with a man without love? A woman should be the most respectable human in this earth..... so please

So George has paid Amnesty to call for decriminalisation of prostitution, even when decriminalisation, wherever adopted, has failed abysmally. Germany & the Netherlands are prime trafficking destinations. The majority of the women working there are trafficked from Eastern Europe. Decrim in NZ has not worked. German prostitutes get killed all the time with decrim. Zero women killed in Sweden with Nordic model. Only 44 women have registered for benefits in Germany, despite that being one of the main reasons for decrim. I could go on but won't bother because the dirty deal is done and dusted. There was never any 'consultation'--what a farce. George make it plain to Amnesty what he wanted. Amnesty then had to stack its branches with pro-decrim advocates, which is what it did. Australia's Amnesty is full of neo-liberal, progressives using their forums to spruik decrim. You got your way George. I hope karma gets you.

Well done on contributing a snark-filled set of conclusory and uncritical sentences strung together. The only country you've mentioned that actually did adopt decriminalization is New Zealand (as opposed to legalization and regulation concocted by non-sex workers as in Germany and Holland). Your sweeping statement that "[d]ecrim in NZ has not worked", like all your other unsourced and furious streams of consciousness, are meaningless.

Meanwhile, the population you are appear to be so concerned about is feverishly telling you not to contradict their voice in self-determination.

Paternalism and the removal of women's agency by self-proclaimed feminists makes my brain and heart hurt.

I agree with de-criminalization. Having said so: I found very wrong that, when posted in FB, the title of the article changes from the neutral/analytical "Why AI must hold firm in its support for sex workers" to the following: "Misguided Opposition Threatens to Derail a Victory for Sex Workers" (!!!). Seriously? Do we need to become a tabloid?

I get so mad when people refuse to legally understand and except prostitution ,The reason why

These People ,who oppose the legalization of prostitution are anti adult family supremacist .God worshiping ,feminist ,atheist,They are oppose to any consenting family adult sex because of the fear of disease and it competes against their sex .This is the majority of citizens who are selfish and self centered .Maybe they would change tier attitude if their marriage, monogamy , procreation , romantic love ,child raising nudity and sex behind close doors and their children babies and teenagers and their undeserving family were driven into the black market .Maybe they realize how dumb they were if they were criminal because of their sexual behavior

i just wish we could have legal brothels like in germany

The person who wrote the draft proposal for Amnesty International is a convicted pimp and this is just a ploy to allow him to expand his business and make more money. Almost every major "Sex Worker Activist" group is helmed by pimps and madams. Don't listen to them.

Decriminalizing "sex work" sounds as stupid as decriminalizing immigrants picking strawberries in a field for 50¢ an hour, 12 hours a day, 365 days a year. What you are decriminalizing is the right of men to buy women's, children's and sometimes other men's bodies for sexual use. It's absolutely absurd to say that only current sex workers are affected. All poor people, especially young women, are potential "sex workers."

Criminalizing sex work has done little or nothing to improve the lives of sex workers. It means that it has all gone online with couples agreeing to meet online. The scams have increased 5 fold. People asking for money on advance. Some are men posing as women. It also means that instead of doing the deed in a car, it is now done at her place, her place or at some hotel. The risks increase 10 fold. I am sure some Christian evangelists are happy as Larry not to see the vice on the streets, but who does it hurt if it is in a safe location, they use a condom, and there is less police interference. The police can now ask for bribes especially in Africa. and take money off the girls or often get sex in return for not arresting them. Criminalizing it means the girls get less money, the police have more power and more likely to take bribes. Did those girls get office jobs or work in offices? I doubt it. So can take their morality and put it in another place. It has done nothing to stop prostitution. Just because you do not see it does not mean it does not happen. The girls are less well off, and there is more opportunity to extort them further for money and sexual services.

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