Amnesty’s Decision on Sex Work: Reflections on the Contention

In August, Amnesty International voted to decriminalize sex work in efforts to protect the human rights of sex workers around the world. The landmark decision has caused an explosion of debate regarding the effect of this policy on the trafficking of individuals for sex. As the policy undergoes a final pruning by AI’s International Board, we wanted to take some time to reflect on the contention caused by the policy.

According to Salil Shetty, the Secretary General of 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.” AI’s policy advocates for the full decriminalization of all aspects of consensual sex work for the purpose of “[ensuring] that sex workers enjoy full and equal legal protection from exploitation, trafficking, and violence.” The policy makes specific recommendations to criminalize any act related to the sexual exploitation of a child (indicating that children involved in commercial sex are automatically victims of trafficking), provide sex workers with equitable access to healthcare and housing, and recognize the agency of sex workers in articulating solutions to ensure their own welfare and safety.

However, numerous groups and prominent feminist leaders, including Lena Dunham, Meryl Streep, and Gloria Steinem, have strongly opposed the policy. In a New York Times Op-ed that gained a lot of traction, Rachel Moran, founder of Space International and author of Paid For, speaks out against the policy. Moran stresses that her personal experience of being prostituted at 15 was in no way a livelihood that could be considered “work.” She argues that few women selling sex are “consenting” adults. Rather, the sex trade “preys on women already marginalized by class and race.” She advocates for the “Nordic Model,” an approach that makes selling sex legal but buying it illegal.

A number of organizations and feminists agree with Moran, arguing that sex work is inherently a form of trafficking and that the decriminalization of pimps, brothels, and buyers only perpetuates a cycle of marginalizing women and girls. Jessica Neuwirth, founder of Equality Now, states, “It really undermines the whole concept of human rights to call it the rights of men to buy other human beings for sex.” In addition, while well-intentioned to protect the rights of sex workers, Amnesty’s decision reflects policies that often have a negative effect on trafficked persons and sex workers alike. Nicholas Kristof, NY Times reporter and anti-trafficking activist, states, “In practice, approaches similar to Amnesty’s have ended up simply empowering pimps.” And while some individuals in prostitution may claim to give consent and have agency, the average age of entry into prostitution is 14. Given Amnesty’s recognition that any child involved in a commercial sex act is a victim of trafficking, is the policy complex enough to address the variable experiences of sex workers, individuals in prostitution, and trafficked persons all at once?

AI’s position comes from a body of research and experts that has been gathered over the span of two years. While Amnesty defends sex workers’ rights to keep their clientele, the organization claims that it does not advocate for the decriminalization of pimps, but rather asks for a “refocusing of laws” to address trafficking and similar forms of abuse. Catherine Murphy, Policy Advisor at Amnesty International, argues that laws which criminalize brothels and the promotion of prostitution often criminalize sex workers themselves. “In Norway we found evidence that sex workers were routinely evicted from their homes under so-called ‘pimping laws’. In many countries of the world, two sex workers working together for safety is considered a ‘brothel.’”

Despite Amnesty’s research, the organization still leaves a number of questions unanswered, particularly in regards to the debate on age of entry and how this affects the agency of sex workers. In addition, the policy is vague in regards to pimps and brothels, leaving human rights advocates uneasy about how the policy will be executed in practice and whether it will actually protect sex workers and others from trafficking. While the organization takes a strong stance against trafficking, Amnesty International should strongly consider clarifying its stance to avoid tarnishing and discounting its contentious policy.

Firas Nasr is the Director of Communications at Human Trafficking Search.

Photo Credit: Amnesty International