Amnesty International, after two years of consultation with members and human rights advocates around the world, is meeting with the international board over the next few days in Dublin to “adopt a policy that seeks attainment of the highest possible protection of the human rights of sex workers.”
The foundation of this proposal—that countries “review and repeal laws that make those who sell sex vulnerable to human rights violations”—has been mischaracterized as legalizing prostitution. Amnesty’s proposal has also been repeatedly misrepresented by anti-prostitution groups who oppose, who claim that Amnesty is siding with exploiters. What has received little attention from major press outlets and opposition is the testimony of those who live under these laws: sex workers themselves. They have told Amnesty that sex workers’ rights are not only about the right to work, but the right to live free from stigma, discrimination, and violence.
Sex workers—and Amnesty, perhaps—anticipated this. “The draft policy specifically notes that the voices of sex workers are often ‘obscured or silenced’ during such debates,” wrote sex worker and rights advocate Molly Smith in The Guardian. “It is ironic that the vilification heaped upon Amnesty demonstrates just how true that is.”
Along with the draft policy, Amnesty International has offered summary findings of their own research, including new reports on rights violations in Argentina, Norway, Hong Kong, and Papua New Guinea. These findings have been overlooked: most significantly, “Sex workers are criminalised and negatively affected by a range of sex work laws—not just those on the direct sale of sex.” That includes laws prohibiting soliciting customers, advertising, and “promoting” prostitution.
What that looks like in Norway (whose laws anti-prostitution campaigners want exported) is police enforce laws against “promoting” prostitution against sex workers working together. The name of one Oslo police operation says more than it perhaps meant to: “Operation Homeless.” Amnesty reports, “This led to the systematic and rapid eviction of many sex workers from their places of work and homes.”
Fear of eviction and arrest means sex workers are stuck with an unbearable choice: between safety and survival. “I went to a house of a man—he tried not to pay me so much,” one sex worker in Norway told Amnesty researchers. “He punched me two times in the jaw. I didn’t tell the police. If he had broke much I would have told them. But I don’t want it on my records.”
Using the criminal law to control sex work means police are pitted against sex workers, and sex workers can pay the price with their lives. Sex workers who are also migrants, transgender, and/or people of color or ethnic minorities are intensely subject to this kind of criminalization and exclusion, as has also been documented by Amnesty—and others, like Human Rights Watch, UNAIDS, and the World Health Organization, all of whom support the decriminalization of sex work, a stance also backed by recent research in the medical journal The Lancet. Sex workers’ own rights groups, such as the 237 organizations in 71 countries under the Global Network of Sex Work Projects, report the same from their own experience: Criminal laws only add to the challenges—poverty, marginalization, access to health care—that many sex workers already face.
The symbolic birth of the modern sex workers’ rights movement was forty years ago this summer, when sex workers occupied a church in Lyon, protesting police harassment and violence. They have since inspired sex workers across the world. Over the years, mainstream human rights groups have made steps to join them in supporting sex workers’ rights. One turning point I recall from reporting on this movement is the recognition of the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers from Human Rights Watch in 2008 for their work documenting rights violations faced by sex workers. In a video produced with the advocacy group WITNESS, sex workers in Cambodia reported how crackdowns on sex work sent them to detention centers once used by the Khmer Rouge, held under conditions both local and United Nations rights groups called torture. Those demands and those witnesses, from Lyon to Phnom Penh, echo through in Amnesty’s proposal today.
The issue of sex workers’ rights is not new, though it is newly mainstreaming. Fear of this is evident in opposition to Amnesty’s proposed policy, in warnings that to support decriminalization would be a “serious mistake,” or that to place sex workers’ rights alongside other established human rights concerns “flies in the face of their reputation.” Groups opposed to Amnesty’s policy are opposed to sex work. Amnesty says they sought their consultation; they claim Amnesty has ignored their proposals in favor of laws like those in Norway.
In fact, in coming to this proposal, Amnesty studied those laws and their impact. They found that partial criminalization, as in Norway and other countries who follow its lead, is harmful. “We must remain focused on the evidence and what it says about the best way to protect the rights of sex workers,” Amnesty’s Thomas Schultz-Jagow wrote to The New York Times.
This pressing on and clamoring for laws that put sex workers at risk might seem unique, but it recalls anti-abortion groups who express their opposition to abortion by deliberately chipping away at abortion access. Though these campaigns say they are concerned with rights and safety, the end game looks the same: create so much danger around something that you condemn in the hopes it will just go away.
That turn towards intentional danger can be heard at the highest levels of government. At a 2014 hearing on whether or not Canada should adopt something like Norway’s sex work law, Senator Donald Plett remarked, “We don’t want to make life safe for prostitutes, we want to do away with prostitution.” Sweden’s trafficking unit head Ann Martin has defended their anti-sex work law, from which Norway’s and Canada’s were drawn, telling the London Review of Books, “Of course the law has negative consequences for women in prostitution but that’s also some of the effect that we want to achieve with the law.”
Amnesty’s sex work proposal has drawn the ire of campaigners who support the anti-sex work laws in Sweden, Norway, and Canada precisely because it illustrates how these laws, marketed as compassionate towards sex workers, have exposed them to danger. They argue for more criminalization at a time when on most other issues, the public is turning away from using the police and prisons as a solution.
Taking up sex workers’ rights has been difficult, yet necessary, Amnesty staff have told me. “As one of the world’s largest human rights organizations, we have a responsibility to consider this,” Catherine Murphy, an Amnesty policy adviser working on the research and development of the proposal, told me last week. A parcel of celebrities had drawn attention to the proposal by registering their opposition, and on Sunday, the editors of The Guardian lamented that it was “divisive and distracting.” Nicholas Kristof weighed in the day before the meeting, writing what Amnesty needed to do was come to its senses and heed the words of oil heiress and anti-prostitution group head Swanee Hunt.
“We understand that ultimately AI [Amnesty International’s] position will not be resolved by recourse to research alone,” wrote a group of academics and scholars in an open letter supporting Amnesty published this week. They recalled, “past votes on same sex behavior as well as the decriminalization of abortion were taken through a mixture of evidence-based support, passion and consistency with human rights principles.” Taking positions thought impossible or controversial is part of their history. “We don’t need to remind AI that it has consistently carried the banner for human rights when popular opinion has thought otherwise.”
That history also includes a history of neglect and exclusion, as Michel Sidibé, director of UNAIDS, wrote in his own letter of support to Amnesty. “It is Peter Benenson, the founder of Amnesty International, who reminded us that ‘the candle burns not for us, but for all those whom we failed.’ Sex workers are among those whose rights we have failed to protect.” He further urges Amnesty, “keep the candle burning for them.”