On Tuesday, August 11, the international human rights organization Amnesty International voted to adopt a policy “that seeks attainment of the highest possible protection of the human rights of sex workers, through measures that include the decriminalization of sex work” at their International Council Meeting in Dublin, Ireland.
Women With a Vision was one of hundreds of organizations that signed a support letter and petition earlier this month initiated by the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP), a group of 237 sex worker organizations in 71 countries, mobilizing support for the Amnesty draft policy. Amnesty recently faced opposition to the policy from a handful of anti-trafficking organizations, who wrote a letter to Amnesty that included the signatures of several Hollywood stars. But human rights and sex workers’ rights organizations explained that these anti-trafficking groups have misinterpreted decriminalization, and base their opposition to it on unproven, and ultimately harmful, assumptions about sex work and human trafficking.
As Amnesty explained, their support for decriminalization is about protecting sex workers using international human rights standards. Seeking full decriminalization of all aspects of consensual sex work, their policy will also call on states to ensure that sex workers enjoy full and equal legal protection from exploitation, trafficking, and violence.
From a statement by Amnesty International:
“Sex workers are one of the most marginalized groups in the world who in most instances face constant risk of discrimination, violence and abuse. Our global movement paved the way for adopting a policy for the protection of the human rights of sex workers which will help shape Amnesty International’s future work on this important issue.”
Amnesty’s policy came after the organization did extensive research on the human rights impact of the criminalization of sex work. What Amnesty found is what sex workers’ rights groups have been explaining for years – criminalization harms, not protects, sex workers; it enhances stigma and marginalization, and strips sex workers of their basic rights.
As NSWP explained in a recent statement:
Criminalization of sex work compounds stigma and discrimination against sex workers; sex workers are criminalized and negatively affected by a range criminal laws relating to sex work – not just those criminalizing the sale of sexual services; criminalization gives police impunity to abuse sex workers and it acts as a major barrier to police protection for sex workers; and the most marginalized sex workers often report the highest levels, and worst impact of criminalization.
Over the years Women With a Vision has been committed to fighting for the human rights protection of sex workers and their families. We have seen the impact of mass criminalization in our communities. Even in 2012 when we first celebrated the hard earned achievements of our members harmed by Louisiana’s Solicitation of Crime Against Nature statue (SCAN), we understood that there were even more harmful laws and policies that must be challenged.
When adult consensual sex work is illegal, it is forced underground, and it exposes sex workers to violence and arrest. Today, in cities across the United States like New Orleans, the mass criminalization of street-based sex work has meant the mass criminalization of poor women, women of color, and sexual minorities, and it has meant increased violence in communities already facing high rates of violence and criminalization. The majority of individuals arrested for prostitution in the United States are poor, non-white, street-based sex workers – what many advocates call ‘the low-hanging fruit’ of the industry – and these individuals constitute some of the most vulnerable, most marginalized, and most stigmatized populations in the United States.
Moreover, criminalization of adult survival sex work has shown to increase violence against women and exacerbate structural factors that come alongside criminalization, such as poverty, economic discrimination, HIV vulnerability, and the poor availability of drug treatment care. This is particularly true for sex workers of color and transgender and gender non-conforming sex workers, who live and work at the intersections of multiple forms of structural oppression based on gender, race, and class.
On a daily basis here in the United States, sex workers face severe repression, stigmatization, marginalization, violence, and human rights abuses. They are often left vulnerable to exploitation and abuse by the police. They are also often reluctant to come forward for HIV-related services out of concern that they will be placed at risk of arrest, fines, mistreatment, or further stigmatization. This is mirrored by the stigma and discrimination and high rates of human rights abuses and violations that sex workers experience globally.
Sex workers and sex worker rights’ activists across the world have been campaigning for full decriminalization of sex work for decades. Here at Women With a Vision, we applaud the work of the international human rights community – including public health professionals, international agencies like the World Health Organization and UNAIDS, human rights organizations, and women’s rights organizations – that understands the intersections of criminalization and deep marginalization and violence.
As an international human rights leader, Amnesty International has made a powerful statement that supports one of the most marginalized and often invisibilized populations in the global community. Amnesty International’s policy on sex work is a celebrated addition to the sex workers’ rights movement supporting evidence-based policies that call for the decriminalization of sex work as a critical measure to promote the health, dignity, and human rights of adults involved in consensual sex work.
For more information on Amnesty’s resolution, read their Q&A here.