As Amnesty International delegates gather in Dublin this week for the human rights organization’s biennial meeting, they are preparing for a controversial vote to endorse the total decriminalization of sex work. The initiative has drawn global media attention, and rebukes from anti-sex-work activists and feminists such as Gloria Steinem and Eve Ensler. Even Hollywood A-listers such as Meryl Streep and Lena Dunham have joined the chorus, signing a petition against the proposal.
Ms. Dunham compensates her actors for performing sexualized acts as part of her hit HBO series “Girls.” Still, she (and the other critics) maintain that the exchange of money for sexual services in other contexts is abusive and should remain illegal.
As president of the Global Network of Sex Work Project — a group of 237 sex worker organizations in 71 countries — I can confidently say that our members are unequivocal in their view that the criminalization of either the sale or purchase of sex work harms our health and human rights, fuels stigma and discrimination, and does not appropriately address trafficking and coercion.
Making sex work illegal drives sex work underground. When we have to avoid police detection, we are less able to openly screen clients, to ensure safe terms like condom use, and to work in safe areas. We are also less likely to report abuse to authorities for fear of punishment. Where sex work is criminalized, police often use condoms as criminal evidence, deterring us from carrying them. As a result, criminalization is a true threat to our health. In fact, the medical journal The Lancet recently found that decriminalization could avert new HIV infections among female sex workers by 46 percent over the next ten years — the single most successful intervention.
When sex workers or clients are treated like criminals, it also fuels stigma and encourages the public to picture us as broken human beings in need of rescue with no personal agency or sense of self. This isn’t just untrue but harmful: It perpetuates the sense of impunity that emboldens abusers, from clients to the police and beyond. This stigma also results in courts denying us custody of our children, employers firing us from jobs, and health and other service providers discriminating against us.
Amnesty’s opponents acknowledge some harms of criminalization, advocating for an approach called the “Swedish Model,” based on the Swedish practice of criminalizing the purchasers of sex and third-party sellers — but not the sex worker. Although this seems progressive, it hurts sex workers all the same.
Swedish Model laws indended to rescue us and “end demand” for sex work only make the lives of practicing sex workers more difficult. Where I live, in Sweden, the law against “pimping” is so broad that it prevents sex workers from creating safety strategies. We cannot have a person driving us to appointments, waiting outside while we see a client, or work together with others. We must work alone, and when we are alone, we face greater risk.
What’s more, we cannot work from home without risking eviction from landlords who could be charged with pimping. Given this, and that police have trained hotel staff to report us, we must work on the streets or at the homes of clients — at the risk of our safety and our health. In other countries similar problems have arisen because of laws that outlaw “facilitating” or “promoting” sex work.
The Swedish Model also corrodes relationships between sex workers and authorities. For example, the Swedish government often offers social services like health care to sex workers on the condition that they demonstrate a desire to leave the industry, or take a break from sex work. Because it is through our work that the police find and prosecute clients, we are both targets and enablers. A Rose Alliance survey we conducted last year among Swedish sex workers showed that two out of three sex workers worried most about the prejudice of authorities. Only a small minority said they would report a crime they experienced while working. Of those who had previously reported a crime less than 25 percent would report a similar crime again.
Amnesty International is right to view the criminalization of sex work as a pressing human rights question. Full decriminalization would bring sex work above ground, allow sex workers to press for labor rights and protections, connect with police and justice systems and refer victims of exploitation to authorities. Decriminalizing sex work would do nothing to weaken laws against trafficking, rape, forced labor, abuse and violence, which should stay on the books.
As the leading human rights movement in the world, Amnesty has the opportunity to set a new standard, shape new understandings, and give voice to a marginalized global community. For decades, sex workers and their advocates around the world have consistently demanded “rights, not rescue.” By supporting the total decriminalization of sex work, Amnesty International would powerfully acknowledge our experiences and needs — and our agency.