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.”