Amnesty International is "poised to make a serious mistake" that would "severely and irreparably tarnish" the organisation’s reputation. What is the mistake? Listening to sex workers globally and considering adopting a policy supporting the decriminalisation of sex work.
The past week has seen a battle of petitions and open letters defending and attacking Amnesty’s move. At the time of writing, a petition in favour of decriminalisation, initiated by the Global Network of Sex Work Projects, had 6,191 signatures, while another calling for Amnesty directors to vote against had 5,719. An open letter from the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women opposing decriminalisation was signed by 400 organisations and individuals, including a few celebrities. Another open letter, from the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe in support of decriminalisation, had 1,100 signatories including more than 200 organisations and 900 individuals, many of them current and former sex workers from every continent.
But, whoever “wins” the petition war, this should not be a popularity contest. Nor should Amnesty back down from endorsing a controversial policy, even at the risk of losing members and funding. The organisation survived a much more controversial policy change in 2007 when it advocated for thedecriminalisation of abortion (when the pregnancy is the result of a rape or incest). As religious groups called for members to stop donating, to force Amnesty to change its position, the organisation remained committed to its values and voted in favour of the policy.
What should matter to Amnesty’s directors and members is the strong, growing and undeniable evidence collected by academics and international organisations such as the World Health Organisation, Human Rights Watch and the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women that criminalising any aspect of sex work makes sex workers more vulnerable to sexual and other forms of violence, forced rehabilitation, arrests, deportation and contracting HIV.
What should matter even more is the voice of the sex workers themselves, who from every corner of the world are organising – often in the most difficult environments – to advocate for their rights and to change laws and policies that harm them.
Sex worker-led organisations exist in the majority of countries around the world, and their membership reaches tens of thousands in developing countries and emerging economies like India and Argentina. These organisations overwhelmingly support decriminalisation.
Where the Amnesty proposal addresses the experience of sex workers in wealthy countries, it explicitly focuses on the highly marginalised sex workers (often migrants from developing countries) who are most at risk of violence and police abuse.
The figure of the highly privileged sex worker continues to serve as a straw man for opponents of decriminalisation. Pundits agonise over whether sex workers “choose” their jobs or are “forced”, obscuring the simple fact that people continue to exercise agency even in the most difficult circumstances.
Amnesty’s proposal explicitly recognises the “systemic factors and personal circumstances related to poverty, discrimination and gender inequality” that may lead someone to opt for sex work and calls for “employment and educational options for marginalised individuals and groups”. Decriminalisation will help precisely those who don’t have many other options and who will continue to do sex work despite the risks.
What is dangerously missing from opponents’ arguments is that criminalisation itself reinforces both the social stigma and the material conditions that put individuals at risk. Sex workers as well as men who have sex with men, trans people, people who use drugs or migrants – different identities which often overlap – are all made much more vulnerable by being criminalised. Repressive legal frameworks force sex workers to operate underground or in isolated areas where they are vulnerable to rape and murder. Even worse, stigma means that sex workers are viewed by many people as “deserving” of abuse. Changing cultural values and norms so that sex workers are less stigmatised will take decades or centuries – but decriminalisation can be achieved in our lifetime.
Amnesty directors need to stand behind the organisation’s own research and vote in favour of decriminalisation. Sex workers around the world expect – and deserve – nothing less.