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

Police watch an individual empty their bag on the pavement
A sex worker in Cape Town, South Africa, is detained and searched by police after attending a forum about rights and activism held by the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce in December 2012. © James Oatway/Panos for the Open Society Foundations

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.  

Amnesty International is a grantee of the Open Society Foundations.

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