On Aug. 11, Amnesty International took the courageous step of breaking with many of its longtime supporters to adopt a new policy position calling for the decriminalization of sex work around the world.
In the months leading up to the contentious decision many prominent voices — including celebrities such as Kate Winslet, Meryl Streep and Lena Dunham — spoke out against the proposal, questioning why a group with a global mandate to promote universal human rights would legitimize an institution they view as incompatible with that goal.
Amnesty’s platform is grounded in the philosophy of harm reduction and calls for removing all criminal sanctions that restrict the commercial exchange of sex between consenting adults. This would include not only sex workers themselves, but those who purchase sexual services or facilitate their exchange. Trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation would still be criminalized under international law, as would commercialized sexual acts involving children.
The policy paper also states that the new framework should not be considered “in isolation from Amnesty International’s existing human rights policies and positions;” the group says it will continue to demand that states address overarching issues such as “gender equality, violence against women, non-discrimination, human trafficking, [and] sexual and reproductive rights” and will hold them to account where they fail to do so.
As the name suggests, harm reduction is not a panacea for completely sanitizing potentially risky behavior of negative consequences. Instead the goal is to limit the most severe and acute side effects of behavior by removing aggravating factors that perpetuate them.
That prostitutes plying their trade are at great risk of harm is a well-established fact. In taking up the mantle of decriminalization, Amnesty International has correctly concluded that forcing them to ply their trade on the black market is an aggravating factor that can and must be eliminated.
The notion that removing the legal prohibitions on commercial sex will make life better for sex workers is hardly revolutionary. Nearly a decade ago the International Labor Organization (ILO) — the official labor agency of the United Nations — called for the formal economic recognition of the sex industry, including extending labor rights and benefits to sex workers. In 2012 the UN-backed Global Commission on HIV and the Law recommended repealing all laws prohibiting “adult consensual sex work” on the grounds that criminalization exacerbates the risks associated with the trade.
This position has also been advanced by Human Rights Watch and the World Health Organization, which said prohibition “creates a climate of impunity for crimes against sex workers” and increases their vulnerability to violence. This kind of impunity is a hallmark of all black markets.
There is also convincing evidence that removing legal restrictions on the sex trade improves working conditions and greatly lowers the risk of disease for those who depend on it for survival.
It’s no small coincidence, then, that the largest organization of sex workers in the world enthusiastically supported Amnesty’s proposal.
The opposition to decriminalizing sex work is varied in nature and approach, but for the most part the arguments are rooted in two wobbly presumptions: that the buying and selling of sex can never be a legitimate economic exchange, and that the harm-reduction aspects of universal decriminalization are being oversold.
The first position is held by decriminalization opponents such as Justice For Women founder Julie Bindel, who views prostitution itself as “a vile industry.” It was echoed in a Change.org petition opposing the Amnesty draft proposal circulated by the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW) that calls prostitution “a harmful practice steeped in gender and economic inequalities” and “predicated on dehumanization, degradation and gender violence.”
Harm reduction is a hard sell for absolutists who think this way. Much like anti-choice campaigners in the United States, who equate terminating a pregnancy under any condition with murder, supporters of CATW’s petition are so morally resolute in their a priori opposition to sex work that, as one sex worker recently put it, “my not existing is more important to them than my safety.”
A small number of these opponents are likely sexual puritans who object to prostitution on religious or moralistic grounds. But for the most part their argument rests on the belief that the sex industry is an exploitative institution based on the objectification of the human body.
I’m willing to concede they are right, up to a point, but they fail to see the larger significance of their argument. As long as there is inequality in society there will be some level of inequity in the labor market. The very act of selling one’s labor, whatever it happens to be, implies objectification. And though it may shock my libertarian friends to hear it, exploitation is a basic, pernicious characteristic of capitalism, one that is greatly amplified when allowed to operate in the shadows.
To oppose prostitution on principle requires either opposition to free-marketism itself on the grounds that exchanging bodily labor for money is always dehumanizing, or — as is reflected in opposition language that refers to sex workers as “prostituted individuals” — a recognition that there is something inherently different about sexual anatomy that supersedes our autonomy to employ it as a salable asset. The message here is clear: Putting one’s hands to work for another person in exchange for a paycheck is legitimate so long as they are wrapped around a mop handle and not a penis. This line of thinking is not only incompatible with the progressive view of sexuality espoused by many of Amnesty’s critics, but it undermines the very concept of human rights, which supports the freedom of each of us to self-determination over our bodies even when others don’t agree with our choices.
A second opposition camp is more concerned with the collateral consequences of decriminalization, which they say will include an increase in human trafficking. The data on this claim is unreliable, and depends on how one defines “trafficking.” But there is some evidence that countries that lift criminal restrictions on the sex trade do experience an influx of both legal and illegal immigrants to work in the industry. While there is no doubt some of them are trafficked against their will, there’s reason to believe it’s a relatively small percentage in places where sex work is legal.
For instance, a report from the government of New Zealand, which decriminalized prostitution in 2003, found that less than four percent of sex workers reported being coerced into the industry.
In any case, forcing someone into slavery, for any reason, is always a violation of human rights and there is nothing about Amnesty International’s new policy statement that is inconsistent with that truth. But so too is subjecting an entire class of workers to unnecessary risk by criminalizing their means of survival.
As the great Indian philosopher Amartya Sen has observed, the advancement of human rights is not a zero-sum game, it is a mission of increments. Decriminalization may not be able to shine a light into every dark corner of the sex industry, but it can brighten the prospects of millions of people now working in the shadows.