On August 11, 2015, Amnesty International voted to decriminalize sex work, honoring both the sovereignty of those working in the field and the necessity of safeguarding their unalienable human rights.
In this vote, Amnesty heeds the call for “rights, not rescue,” and condemns what they refer to in a statement as “arbitrary arrest and detention” of sex workers. The decision, underpinned by research from the World Health Organization, UN AIDS, and UN Women, is a landmark event, one that empowers a historically marginalized population laboring under precarious conditions.
“The resolution recommends a policy that would decriminalize all aspects of adult, consensual sex work, while still classifying coercion into sex work or having sex work with a minor as a major human rights violation. The resolution is intended to protect adult sex workers from stigma and abuse by decriminalizing aspects of sex work including buying sex, pimping and operating a brothel.”
Amnesty cannot, by itself, enforce decriminalization, but its status as an international human rights organization has previously conferred meaningful influence. They have been instrumental in lobbying against the death penalty, and the hope is that this vote will galvanize legislative efforts in decriminalization.
Large swaths of the sex worker community and its allies are understandably elated by this news. United on Twitter with the hashtag #ICM2015, they have erupted in solidarity and celebration.
Still, Amnesty’s call for decriminalization has been hotly contested, and many denounce this decision. Opponents circulated a petition garnering support against decriminalization, and a number of celebrities—most notoriously Lena Dunham—took advantage of their platforms to speak against the cause.
But as supporters of Amnesty might say, protecting the rights of sex workers is a matter of life and death, not a capacious issue for “intelligent feminists” to mull over and debate. Moreover, when discussing the complexities of sex work, the voices to heed before all others are those of the workers themselves.
And not all view Amnesty’s decision in an optimistic light. Rachel Moran, a self-identified “sex-trade survivor,” vehemently disagrees with many who have been or are currently working in the industry. She has emphasized her resolve to combat this vote and the changes it may catalyze.
Ian Kitterman, policy specialist for Demand Abolition, joins Moran in her condemnation of decriminalization: “By calling for the decriminalization of all facets of commercial sex, including sex-buying, pimping, and brothel-owning, Amnesty is saying they value the rights of the exploiters over the exploited.”
But these reactions seem to Amnesty based on misinterpretation. In fact, Deputy Europe Director Gauri Van Gulik remarks that their organization did not expect the pushback they received. “We were quite surprised by [the petition],” she says, “On the one, it really mischaracterizes the policy that we’re looking at. We are focused on: How can we keep sex workers safe, how can we empower them to have access to their rights, and how can we make sure they have access to healthcare?”
Gulik explains, too, that “gender inequality is not a result of the sex trade, but something that pushes women into sex work.” And for as long as sex work remains illegal, these women will be in even greater danger. “You cannot punish those who are therefore driven to sex work by criminalizing it and taking away choices,” Gulik emphasizes.
Indeed, the possibility for more choices, and greater security in those choices, are both vital and heartening to those in the sex work industry. Kate D’Adamo, National Policy Advocate at the Sex Workers Project told The Daily Dot that a dialogue based in what sex workers need to perform their jobs safely has transpired in a pioneering way: “One of the things we saw here that was really new, is the conversation was taking place between Amnesty and the people most affected by the policy...Amnesty showed that they are accountable to the people that they serve.”
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