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Decriminalising sex work will not protect human rights

Amnesty International declares itself to have an overarching commitment to advancing gender equality and women’s rights. Against the backdrop of this ethical aspiration, a controversial new policy has been adopted. It calls for the decriminalisation of prostitution, in order to protect the human rights of sex workers.

Sex workers are one of the most marginalised groups in the world and are at constant risk of discrimination, violence and abuse. Amnesty International has concluded the criminalisation of consensual sex work encourages – rather than alleviates – this abuse. The policy calls on states to decriminalise prostitution and to ensure that sex workers enjoy full and equal legal protection from exploitation, trafficking and violence.

Where’s the evidence?

The policy, which was recently ratified at Amnesty’s decision-making forum in Dublin, has wrought heated discussion since it was first drafted two years ago.

Two opposing camps have arisen. A camp made up of pressure groups, academics and sex workers applauds Amnesty’s decision. They see it as a victory for a marginalised and vilified group of people. They cite research based on the testimonies of sex workers, which indicates that in countries such as Germany and Denmark where sex work is legalised, sexual violence is minimised.

The people in this camp consider their position to be objective, in contrast to the ideologically or politically driven recommendations of their opponents. Although they recognise that much sexual violence is gendered – that is, it happens overwhelmingly to women – many of them also think of radical feminists as “enemies” to sex worker rights. The argument goes that some strands of feminist research and politics patronise sex workers, and seek to deprive them of their right to decide what to do with their own bodies.

The other camp is also made up of pressure groups, academics and sex workers, as well as famous media figures and actors, who have campaigned against Amnesty for adopting this new policy. In this camp, academic research demonstrates that in countries where prostitution is legal, sexual violence is not reduced – it is normalised and makes it difficult to prosecute men who perpetrate it. They argue that decriminalising prostitution does not endorse and protect the human rights of girls – instead, it further erodes them.

Although these positions are incompatible, they share the common goal to end sexual violence and make illegal the humiliating practices perpetrated by the police and other state authorities on sex workers. The crux of the debate revolves around whether the decriminalisation of sex work reduces harm and violence against women, or increases it.

Clearly, both camps can’t be right. So how do we decide which position best protects women?

Listen to the sex workers

It seems obvious to begin by asking sex workers themselves. However, sex workers also offer conflicting testimonies.

The Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP) – an advocacy organisation, which aims to “uphold the voice of sex workers” – describes the impact on women’s human rights of the various criminal law and regulatory approaches to sex work. They support Amensty’s decision, arguing that criminalisation increases stigma, contributes to a culture in which violence, abuse and discrimination are accepted, and makes the reporting and prevention of sexual violence more difficult.

In contrast, Survivors of Prostitution-Abuse Calling for Enlightenment (SPACE) – a coalition of women who publicly identify as survivors of sex work – emphasises that women often engage in sex work due to marginalisation, limited choices and abusive backgrounds. SPACE is committed to raising public awareness about the harm of prostitution, and lobbying governments to be proactive in presenting it. SPACE advocates the implementation of the Nordic model, which decriminalises prostituted persons, criminalises those who buy them, and provides viable exit strategies including education and training.

Rachel Moran – co-founder of SPACE and former prostitute – insists that before we can expect social change in the status, dignity and human rights of women, prostitution must be recognised for the abuse that it is. In her book, Paid For, Moran makes a compelling argument that prostitution and its social acceptance is an abuse of women and girls.

She describes three types of men who patronise prostitution: those who assume the women they buy have no human feelings; those who are conscious of a woman’s humanity but choose to ignore it; and those who derive sexual pleasure from reducing the humanity of women they buy.

Ultimately, research into prostitution – and the social and political systems which criminalise, decriminalise or legalise it – arise from an ethical sensibility about whether the buying and selling of women can align with women’s human rights. Although academic research is important, it is never undertaken from a point of perfect objectivity.

I am firmly in the camp which argues that the decriminalisation or legalisation of prostitution will fail to protect sex workers’ human rights. In my opinion, Amnesty International has not furthered women’s rights. Instead, it has condoned the wrongs perpetrated against women in sex work across the globe.

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