Sex Work

Decriminalization Is the Only Feminist, Humane Response to Prostitution, Says Human-Rights Group Amnesty International

Group calls on governments worldwide to stop the criminalization of sex work



After nearly a year of contentious and high-profile debate from concerned parties, the worldwide human-rights organization Amnesty International has released its official policy paper on sex-worker rights, which calls for the global decriminalization of adult prostitution. The main focus of the document is identifying "the most prominent barriers to the realization of sex workers' human rights and underlin[ing] states' obligations to address them." Among these obligations: 

  • Repeal existing laws and refrain from introducing new laws that criminalize or penalize directly or in practice the consensual exchange of sexual services between adults for remuneration;
  • Refrain from the discriminatory enforcement against sex workers of other laws, such as those on vagrancy, loitering, and immigration requirements;
  • Ensure the meaningful participation of sex workers in the development of law and policies that directly affect their lives and safety; 
  • Refocus laws away from catch-all offences that criminalize most or all aspects of sex work and towards laws and policies that protect sex workers' health and safety and that oppose all acts of exploitation and trafficking in commercial sex (including of children); 
  • Ensure that there are effective frameworks and services that allow people to leave sex work if and when they choose; and 
  • Ensure that sex workers have equal access to justice, health care and other public services, and to equal protection under the law.

Read the whole policy paper here. It was "developed in recognition of the high rates of human rights abuses experienced globally by individuals who engage in sex work; a term that Amnesty International uses only in regard to consensual exchanges between adults," states Amnesty at its start. And consent is emphasized throughout the document, with Amnesty pointing out that understandings of consent in the context of sex work must prioritize "the views, perspectives and experiences of individuals selling sex." While that might not sound terribly radical, people engaged in prostitution have long been stereotyped by police, government agents, and clients as either "always consent[ing] to sex (because they may engage in sex frequently for their work) or, conversely, that sex workers can never consent to sex (because no one could rationally consent to selling sex)." 

Amnesty concludes that laws criminalizing commercial sex between consenting adults have "a foreseeably negative impact on a range of human rights," including "the rights to life, liberty, autonomy and security of person; the right to equality and non-discrimination; the right to be free from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; the right to privacy… [and] the right to freedom of opinion and expression." Furthermore, criminalization "creates an environment where law enforcement officers and other officials can perpetrate violence, harassment and extortion against sex workers with impunity." And because sex workers fear violence and arrest by police, they are leery of reporting crimes against themselves or others in their community, offering "impunity to perpetrators of violence and abuse." 

The response in media and among activists has been predictably mixed (and heated). 

The group formerly known as Morality in Media put out a press release accusing Amnesty of "defending pimps and sex traffickers," despite Amnesty's strong condemnation of any forms of sex work that involve violence or non-consent. Socialist feminist Laurie Penny called Amnesty's decision "great news," but also complained that instead of focusing on sex work as a specific entity, we should be focusing on "the abolition of work in general." Professor Allison Bass, author of the 2015 book Getting Screwed: Sex Workers and the Law, wrote at the Huffington Post that "my hat's off to Amnesty for having the guts to stand up and shout the truth. I hope that some day the state and federal governments in this country will listen." As for the word on Twitter… 

In addition to the policy reccomendation, Amnesty International released four location-specific sex work reports on Wednesday: 

The Norway report has been getting the most attention, due the fact that Norway's model of punishing prostitution clients more harshly than those selling sex (also known as the Swedish model) has become popular far outside Scandinavia. Canada adopted a similar model in 2014, and perversions of the model have made their way to various parts of the U.S. as well. 

"The legal model adopted by the Norwegian government is promoted as one that encourages protection of people who sell sex, shields them from criminalization and instead shifts the criminal burden of blame to buyers of sex," states the Amnesty report on Norway. But this isn't how things work in practice found researchers after interviewing an array of Norwegian sex workers, lawyers, government officials, and social -ervices workers. In fact, human rights abuses against people who sell sex in Norway "are compounded by and, in some cases, directly caused by the legal framework" there. 

"The claims that individual sex workers are not criminalized or penalized under the 'Nordic Model,'" are simply untrue, according to the organization's research. "Oslo police have over the last decade adopted a 'preventative policing' approach to sex work which involves the enforcement of lower level offences as 'stress methods' to disrupt, destabilize and increase the pressure on those operating in the sex sector. One academic researcher describes how police sources 'in Oslo often use terms like they are going to 'crush' or 'choke' the [prostitution] market, and unsettle, pressure and stress the people in the market'. Amnesty International has also found that many sex workers remain subject to a high level of surveillance by police," in part so police can identify sex buyers in order to fine them.