Amnesty International is set to vote in the coming days on whether to adopt a contentious plan to advocate for the decriminalization of sex work, after prominent anti-trafficking groups and celebrities denounced the move. The group's opposition to sex trafficking and forced prostitution would not change.
In most countries, sex work is entirely criminalized; if caught, the sex worker, their pimp (if they have one), and the customer can all be locked up. A growing number of European countries have recently adopted an alternative policy, called the "Swedish model" after the country that first implemented it 16 years ago, that criminalizes only the purchasing of sex rather than its sale. Several others, including Germany and the Netherlands, have legalized and regulated the market for sex work.
Decriminalizing the sex trade is a fourth option that Amnesty members attending the human rights organization's International Council Meeting, which opens on Friday, could decide to promote. This approach has thus far only been adopted in New Zealand and the Australian state of New South Wales.
As word of the upcoming vote began to circulate, various religious leaders, academics, actors such as Meryl Streep and Lena Dunham, and groups like the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW) signed a letter opposing the proposed policy. A Change.com petition that urges a "no" vote from Amnesty members currently has more than 7,000 signatures.
'Groups that have spoken up against this and work with trafficking survivors do important work. The question is whether or not criminalization of sex work in any way alleviates the problem.'
Opponents of the proposal, which would bring Amnesty in line with the official policy of several UN agencies on sex work, insist that it opens to the door for greater exploitation.
"If in fact Amnesty wants to ensure the human rights of prostituted individuals who engage in the selling of sex, then legalizing their exploiters is going in the opposite direction," Taina Bien-Aime, executive director at CATW, told VICE News. "We know that decriminalization or deregulation, however you want to define it, is causing catastrophic damage in the Netherlands, in Germany."
But those who support an adjustment of Amnesty's stance on the sex trade counter that anti-trafficking experts have distorted the line between exploitation and consensual sex, as well as the distinction between decriminalization and full legalization. Indeed, the three places Bien-Aime cited have legalized — not decriminalized — sex work.
Many decriminalization advocates are in fact opposed to legalization, which they claim can replicate the detrimental effects of criminalization by circumscribing areas for prostitution and imposing requirements on prostitutes who might choose to operate outside legal limits or feel compelled to do so because of limited space or licenses. Advocates that spoke with VICE News pointed to recent crackdowns in Amsterdam's shrinking red light district as having pushed sex workers into illicit arrangements. In Nevada, brothels are allowed to operate in eight predominantly rural counties, but not in Las Vegas, the city of sin. Street prostitution is illegal across the state.
"The decriminalization of sex work and prevention of trafficking of human beings are not tantamount," Jennifer Butler, senior advisor on HIV at the UN's Population Fund, told VICE News. "The overwhelming majority of people selling sex in the world are selling sex voluntarily."
The basic premise of decriminalization is that the benefits for sex workers in terms of access to healthcare, labor laws, and the criminal justice system outweigh other alternatives. Because so few jurisdictions employ it as a policy, evidence of decriminalization's effects can be hard to quantify, but data that does exist appears to counter many of the narratives pushed by its foes.
A government study carried out in New Zealand showed that the number of sex workers remained roughly unchanged after decriminalization was enacted in 2003. Perhaps most importantly, prostitutes report in New Zealand report they feel more comfortable turning down clients they do not wish to service.
'If we had decriminalization, then society would accept that this work is like other kinds of work, and sex workers would not face unnecessary stigma.'
Last year, Butler helped edit a series of studies published in the Lancet medical journal that found that decriminalizing sex work would be the single most effective policy to reduce HIV transmission globally. A 2012 UN Development Program report found that decriminalizing sex work in both New Zealand and New South Wales — where sex work was largely decriminalized in 1995 — led to high condom use rates and greater access to HIV and sexual health services.
"Very low STI (Sexually Transmitted Infections) prevalence has been maintained among sex workers in New Zealand and New South Wales, and HIV transmission within the context of sex work is understood to be extremely low or non-existent," said the report. It went on to note that the legal recognition of sex work as an accepted occupation like any other "enables sex workers to claim benefits, to form or join unions and to access work-related banking, insurance, transport and pension schemes."
CATW and other opponents of decriminalization argue that such studies overplay the benefits of HIV reduction while ignoring the everyday exploitation and abuses that sex workers endure.
According to Bien-Aime, who supports the Swedish model that targets johns, "if you give the green light to pimps and sex buyers then what you do is increase the demand for prostitution." For CATW and others, prostitution comes down to the act of a person, almost always a man, buying another human, almost always a woman. The letter that it signed along with many others says that decriminalization "will in effect support a system of gender apartheid."
Many sex workers disagree with this idea. Two umbrella groups, the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers and the Global Network of Sex Work Projects, released their own letters in support of Amnesty's proposal, which they believe will help sex workers across the globe.
"If we had decriminalization, then society would accept that this work is like other kinds of work, and sex workers would not face unnecessary stigma," Kay Thi Win, the regional coordinator of the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers, told VICE News.
Win, who is originally from Myanmar, organizes sex workers and is a practicing sex worker in Bangkok, where she says that police harassment of prostitutes is relentless, and where little recourse is offered to those among them who have been victimized.
"We can't complain to the police because once sex workers complain we face violence, then sex workers get double punished," she said. "As a sex worker myself, I strongly support decriminalization because sex workers need safer working conditions and access to the law and health services like other citizens."
'Most sex worker organizations are for decriminalization of sex work. Amnesty is not the first to propose this.'
Win said that the letter denouncing Amnesty's consideration of the new policy disappointed her. She singled out the signatures from within the entertainment industry for special criticism.
"These celebrities, they never faced the stigma of criminalization," she said. "They never had the police arrest them or harass them, and they don't face the violence that sex workers like us face in our daily lives."
There is little indication of how Amnesty's members will vote. Some have signaled internal opposition to the measure, and Amnesty staff has responded by repeating language in the text, which stresses the group's opposition to sexual exploitation and the trafficking of sex workers.
"We share concerns about trafficking. We're not unaware of the reality of people who enter into sex work," Tarah Demant, senior director at Amnesty USA's Identity and Discrimination Unit, told VICE News. "This policy is not about people who are coerced into sex work or people who are trafficked. Any country that works for decriminalization has to at the same time work against trafficking."
"Groups that have spoken up against this and work with trafficking survivors do important work," she added. "The question is whether or not criminalization of sex work in any way alleviates the problem."
More and more countries have adopted the Swedish model. Norway, Canada, and Iceland all have similar laws on the books; Northern Ireland joined them in June. But the estimation of such policies and their efficacy are mixed, particularly in Sweden. While the number of self-reporting johns has fallen, opponents cite sex workers who say that their safety and wellbeing hasn't improved.
"How do you think they catch the clients?" Pye Jakobsson, president of the Global Network of Sex Work Projects and a former sex worker from Stockholm, asked VICE News. "They sit outside sex workers' apartments to catch the alleged clients and pimps coming out. They are still targeting the sex workers."
"They criminalize sex work through the back door," she added. "Most sex worker organizations are for decriminalization of sex work. Amnesty is not the first to propose this… UNAIDS, the United Nations Development Program, the World Health Organization, and Human Rights Watch all have a policy on this, and it's decriminalization."