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The Amnesty Sex Work Argument, Broken Down

This week, Amnesty got a bashing for calling for the global decriminalisation of sex work. Here's what you need to know.

The King George brothel in Berlin

You might have noticed a shit-storm around sex work in your newsfeed this week: Amnesty was accused of being onside with pimps, there were lots of open letters and there were even more opinions. Lena Dunham got involved.

The beef is based on Amnesty's proposal that sex work should be fully decriminalised, as the charity believes this will make things safer for sex workers. Some people disagree; most conspicuously some of Hollywood's leading ladies including Lena Dunham, Anne Hathaway, Carey Mulligan and Kate Winslet. According to those in opposition, Amnesty has climbed into bed with a bunch of pimps. Others think that decriminalisation is the way forward for sex workers. Managed to miss the whole thing? Here's a breakdown of what happened.


First up, what did Amnesty actually propose?
On the 7th of July, Amnesty issued a draft policy proposal, suggesting that the criminalisation of sex work harms those most in need of protection, i.e. sex workers themselves. The proposal follows a two-year consultation and is backed up by numerous studies from organisations like the Human Rights Council, United Nation Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime, the Commission on Human Rights and UNAIDS. On a global scale, Amnesty argues that decriminalisation offers sex workers better legal protections and makes them less vulnerable to exploitation from third parties.

Then came the letters…
On July 22, an open letter was released by The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW), calling on Amnesty to reconsider its proposal. "If you decriminalise the people who profit from the exploitation of others, you just give them more licence to do so," Taina Bien Aime, executive director of CATW, told me.

Religious organisations are well represented on the signatories list, alongside anti-trafficking organisations, feminist groups and aforementioned celebrities. There are a handful of academic references, but op-eds on the Huffington Post are also used to back up claims.

Then, in response to CATW's letter came two more open letters voicing support for Amnesty: one by the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP), the other by the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers (ICRSE). Both are signed by sex worker-led organisations from all over the world.


People suggested that prostitution is a form of torture…
The CATW letter suggests that sex work is violence against women and links to a list of BDSM services in a German brothel. "Amnesty fails to understand that prostitution is tantamount to torture," claims Prostitution Research, the organisation founded by sex work abolitionist and researcher Melissa Farley, who signed the letter.

"You get a situation where the person in power can purchase the right to exercise their sexual fantasies," says Aime. "It could be anything: urinating on the person, raping the person, dehumanising them. Our view is that prostitution is inherently discriminatory; a cause and consequence of gender-based violence."

Luca Stevenson, a UK-based sex worker and coordinator of the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers (ICRSE), isn't impressed.

"Amnesty is doing groundwork with actual victims of torture and many sex workers in criminalised environments are being violently abused all over the world," he told me. "To point at BDSM services in a German dungeon and conflate this with actual torture is completely wrong."

Amnesty was accused of protecting pimps…
The CATW letter claims Amnesty is siding with "buyers of sex, pimps and other exploiters" and a #NoAmnestyForPimps hashtag was created. The charity says its position is being misrepresented.

"Most laws that criminalise sex workers are operational laws; laws on prostituting, living off the proceeds or the promotion of sex work," Catherine Murphy, advisor for the Amnesty International Law and Policy Team, told me. "We can't just look at one law that's related specifically to the direct selling of sex. This isn't about the rights of pimps, or so-called pimps, or rights of buyers; it's about the rights of sex workers and how their lives are being affected by a range of laws that states around the world use to police and punish sex work."


Stevenson says that criminalising any aspect of the job simply makes violence more invisible. "If sex workers could report to civil courts and to the police, exploitative third-parties and abusive clients would have less power," he says.

But Amnesty says it isn't calling for one big pimp party…
Amnesty isn't proposing a free-for-all when it comes to sex work. Even under full decriminalisation, governments would play a role in regulating the industry and Amnesty suggests states should "ensure that sex workers are entitled to equal protection under the law and are not excluded from the application of labour, health and safety and other laws".

Those big German brothels were cited…
The celeb letter to Amnesty uses Germany as an example of policy gone wrong. However, Germany has legalised sex work, bringing it under state control, rather than decriminalising, which leaves sex workers free to organise as they want, within the parameters of the law.

Numerous sex worker-led organisations, as well as UNAIDS, WHO and The Lancet, are calling for a replication of the New Zealand model. According to the New Zealand government, since decriminalisation in 2003, sex workers are more able to turn down clients and report abuse.

There are fears that decriminalisation would increase trafficking…
CATW are concerned that decriminalisation will lead to more cases of human trafficking, although evidence from New Zealand does not suggest this is the case. Conversely, in Norway, where the buying of sex has been criminalised, human trafficking cases reached a record high last year.


Amnesty points out that the proposal should not be considered in isolation from its existing human rights policies, including those on trafficking.

Amnesty was accused of promoting "gender apartheid"…
According to the CATW letter: "Should Amnesty vote to support the decriminalisation of pimping, brothel owning and sex buying, it will in effect support a system of gender apartheid."

UK sex worker Molly Smith called the comparison "disgraceful" and told me: "It's noticeable that the signatories of the anti-Amnesty letter are predominately white: they have no business comparing anything to apartheid, let alone policies that are used to target and deport migrant women, especially black migrant women."

Not all sex workers want celebrities' support…
"I think for lots of non-sex working women, there's this real symbolic investment in the idea of 'the prostitute', who is considered a metaphor for the oppression of 'all women'," Molly says. "When sex workers start to talk back, we disrupt this easy fantasy whereby we can be used to ventriloquise the concerns of non-sex working women."

And most want decriminalisation…
Sex worker rights organisations from all over the world have spoken out in support of the Amnesty proposal. Lucy, a London sex worker in her early twenties, told me: "Decriminalisation would mean when I'm on my way to see a client, I'd know that if something went wrong, I could go to the police. It would mean I could work with friends in a house together for safety. It would mean that friends of mine who work in saunas or parlours would be entitled to decent hours, sick pay and other basic labour rights that other workers take for granted."


And in the end everyone still disagrees…
"We understand people will be critical of us," Murphy told me. "But we know that human rights abuses against sex workers are occurring, and that there's evidence to suggest criminalisation is linked to these abuses. As a human rights organisation we have a responsibility to look at that."

"We welcome common ground but this can't be found on decriminalising pimps and brothel owners," says Aime. "I hope Amnesty will see the light."


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