Last week, a draft proposal by Amnesty International, which called for the global decriminalization of sex work, leaked. It was met with immediate opposition by the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, in a letter signed by many celebrities and public figures, including Lena Dunham, Meryl Streep, Anne Hathaway and, perhaps most disturbing, Gloria Steinem.
CATW does vital work, providing aid to survivors of sexual exploitation, educating communities, and advocating for human rights around the globe. That is why it is both upsetting and perplexing that they’ve argued, with information that is misguided at best, against AI’s draft proposal. It seems that Amnesty International and CATW share many of the same goals, but hold wildly different positions when it comes to the issues regarding sex work legislation.
Amnesty International has taken the position that both indirect and direct criminalization of sex work expose sex workers to increased risk of human rights abuses, based on extensive research. The draft proposal aims to address the most prominent barriers, namely criminalization and stigmatization, that stand between sex workers and their human rights, which include non-discrimination, gender equality, access to medical care, sexual and reproductive rights, access to justice, right to work and the right to adequate housing.
Amnesty International explicitly states that the draft proposal “does not change Amnesty International’s longstanding position that forced labour and human trafficking (including for the purposes of sexual exploitation) constitute serious human rights abuses and must be criminalised,” and that “Amnesty International considers children involved in commercial sex acts to be victims of a grave human rights abuse.”
In CATW’s star-studded letter, they claim that AI’s policy calls for “the wholesale decriminalization of the sex industry,” that a legalized sex trade leads to an increase in trafficking, and that “regardless of how a woman ends up in the sex trade, the abuse, sexual violence and pervasive injuries these women endure at the hands of their pimps and “clients,” lead to life-long physical and psychological harm — and, too often, death.” They go on to say that AI’s proposal would lead to a system of “gender apartheid.”
Many consenting sex workers have taken a stand in the media against CATW’s position, stating that it is inflammatory, sensationalist, and does not represent their point of view.
First of all, to all the actresses and activists who recently took a stand with CATW against Amnesty International’s draft proposal to decriminalize sex work, your heart is in the right place, but kindly, shut the fuck up.
And especially to those of you who consider yourselves to be feminists, shame on you for supporting legislation that polices the bodies of consenting adults.
CATW’s approach is wrong. The language they use in their letter is offensive. Words such as “prostitute” “pimp” and “john,” are derogatory to people of all genders and highly problematic. The data they cite, to support the claim that legalized sex work leads to an increased demand for human trafficking, is skewed, as it defines any sex worker that has crossed an international border as “trafficked,” whether or not they are consenting adults practicing their chosen profession.
In their letter, CATW supports the Nordic model of sex work legislation, which has proven to be ineffective at remedying the problems Amnesty International’s policy seeks to address, and even creates new barriers between sex workers and their human rights.
Most importantly, CATW’s letter holds the idea that all sex work is inherently nonconsensual. This is a position that actively disempowers all sex workers, which only compounds social stigmatization and can only serve to further dehumanize all sex workers.
Both direct and indirect criminalization of sex work turns sex workers into criminals, regardless of the circumstances surrounding their choice, or lack thereof, to participate in the exchange of sex for money. Because of this, individuals who participate in the buying or selling of sex are forced to operate in the shadows. They are robbed of the ability to put certain measures in place to protect themselves, and when they do need to seek help from authorities, they lack legal recourse.
Under the Nordic model of sex work legislation, where sex work is only indirectly criminalized, new problems present themselves. A landlord whose tenant is a sex worker may be prosecuted as a “pimp,” which makes it nearly impossible for any sex worker to operate out of their home for fear of eviction. Two sex workers who live together may have their apartment legally classified as a “brothel,” and face prosecution for that.
In nations that have adopted the Nordic model, it often falls to the worker to take measures protect their clients from the authorities, driving them to participate in street-based sex work or to meet clients at locations chosen by the clients, opening them up to a whole new host of risks.
When sex workers do face abuse from clients or third-parties under this system, they are still highly unlikely to seek help from the authorities because of the risks to their reputations and livelihoods.
Most people who buy sex work are not interested in exploiting any individual. When there is a legal and regulated sex trade, the demand for black market prostitution (against the will of the individual being prostituted) all but disappears. Clients of sex workers should not be demonized or persecuted either. I would argue that legislation against purchasing sex work, and the public shaming of those who purchase it, compounds stigmatization and contributes to a dehumanizing view of sex workers. This in turn perpetuates physical and psychological violence against sex workers.
Here are the key findings from a “growing body of research from UN agencies, human rights organisations, and social science,” upon which Amnesty International’s proposal rests:
1. Criminalisation of sex work compounds stigma and discrimination against sex workers.
2. Sex workers are criminalised and negatively affected by a range of sex work laws—not just those on the direct sale of sex.
3. Criminalisation gives police impunity to abuse sex workers and acts as a major barrier to police protection for sex workers.
4. The most marginalised sex workers often report the highest levels [of abuse by state and non-state actors], and worst experiences, of criminalisation.
It is true that women, transgendered individuals, homosexuals, the impoverished, people from marginalized communities, and persons of color are disproportionately represented in the global sex work community. It also should be noted that though the circumstances of these individuals may have limited their options and driven them to choose sex work as a profession, to quote AI, “such conditions do not inevitably render individuals incapable of exercising personal agency in these contexts.”
It is also true that forced labor, sex trafficking and prostitution (of unwilling parties) exist globally, harming especially people from acutely vulnerable populations.
However, the exploitation of those who are marginalized by those who are powerful is not an issue that is unique to the sex industry. In is a problem that is inherent in nearly every facet of global commerce, and human existence in general. And yet, throughout history, humans have triumphed over systemic and endemic injustices by discarding outdated paradigms when they could no longer be tolerated. Through education, community organization, compassion and the sharing of ideas, it is possible to birth a reality where human trafficking, forced labor and sexual exploitation no longer exist.
If we are to accomplish this goal, we need to allow consenting sex workers to openly practice their profession without shame or fear. We need to ensure that consenting sex workers are protected under labor laws and that they have access to medical care.
We need to end the taboos against sex work and sex in general, so that people who have been sexually victimized or exploited can seek help without fear or shame. So that people who want to leave the sex industry are not discriminated against when seeking new employment. So that adults can choose to practice sex work without fearing for their freedom or safety.
We need to end the hurtful narratives of the “dirty prostitute,” “the greedy pimp” and the “perverted john.” These stereotypes are dehumanizing, and they create violence against people of all genders.
The first step towards a future where sex workers, and those who have been victimized by the sex industry, are afforded the same human rights as everyone else, is to decriminalize all aspects of sex work.
When these transactions can take place in the light, there is less room for individuals to “fall through the cracks.” We can regulate the industry and protect those who participate in it.
In nations such as Australia and New Zealand, where sex work is completely decriminalized, we’ve seen a huge drop in sex trafficking, and a huge reduction in the amount of sex workers in general. In Australia, sex workers have a higher level of sexual health than the general population. In these nations, sex workers feel safe when going to the authorities and when seeking medical care.
By allowing sex workers to step into the light, instead of being mired in the shadows of stigma and taboo, we can begin to hear their voices and address their needs. If we can acknowledge sex work, strictly between two consenting adults, as part of the human story, and stop dehumanizing and demonizing sex workers in society, only then can we can begin to heal the social injustices and human rights violations that plague the global sex industry and society at large.
Sign the Change.org petition to support Amnesty International’s proposed policy calling for the decriminalisation of sex work.