Amnesty, human rights and the criminalisation of sex work

A controversy involving a bill before the Scottish Parliament and a rogue submission by its Paisley Branch has forced Amnesty to clarify its position on the criminalisation of sex work.

There's a bill up for consideration in Scotland to criminalise the purchase of sex. It's part of an international wave of laws that purport to "help" people in the sex trade by arresting their source of income - their customers. Rhoda Grant MSP has now released the results of her public consultation on the bill, including mentions of Amnesty International. Only: Amnesty International hasn't taken any position on the bill, and in fact has demanded their name be withdrawn. They don't want to be associated with a law that stands to do great harm to sex workers.

These kinds of laws, variously called the “Nordic model” or “end demand”, claim that by arresting and prosecuting men who hire sex workers, they are taking a more woman-friendly or even feminist approach to sex work. In truth, using the police in this way creates fear and a greater potential for violence for sex workers: customers are reluctant to participate in negotiations around fees and safer sex, for fear of risking arrest, and sex workers find their power on the job even further curtailed. Never mind that the enforcers of “end demand” are the police, who sex workers the world over report present are a far greater threat of violence to them than customers. These laws pass because lawmakers ignore sex workers. Rhoda Grant's bill is following the same pattern.

This controversy over Amnesty's supposed endorsement, while upsetting to sex workers and advocates when first discovered, is actually an opportunity to question this entire bill's premise. The endorsement, which was submitted by a local chapter of Amnesty International called Paisley Branch, is careful to state it "does not reflect the policy of Amnesty UK", though its appearance in Grant's consultation summary is hard not to read as an Amnesty International endorsement. This Amnesty chapter has in fact defied Amnesty International in supporting Grant's bill, which senior staff at Amnesty must now publicly resolve or risk being misunderstood as supporting such a criminalisation of sex workers.

First, they've had to explain how this chapter has gone rogue. "Every group has to work within Amnesty's policy," explains Marianne Mollmann, a senior policy advisor with Amnesty International's headquarters in London. "I work for the International Secretariat, who has asked Amnesty UK to demand this group withdraw their support."

In an email written for Amnesty UK, Mollmann went further:

…though we do not take a detailed position or engage in campaigning on this issue, any public stance would, at a minimum, have to be in line with international human rights standards. In this case, this means:

1. No criminalisation of the sex worker herself or himself.

2. No criminalisation of consensual sex between adults.

3. No conflating trafficking and sex work (trafficking has a very specific definition in international law, which does not equal sex work).

Prior to this directive, Amnesty UK contacted the Paisley Branch, asking them to withdraw the submission, or, if they wished, to resubmit it with all reference to Amnesty removed. The Paisley Branch responded that they refused to withdraw support for the sex work criminalisation bill.

Since, Amnesty has also instructed the bill's originators in the Scottish parliament that the Paisley Branch's submission is not representative, eroding any appearance of a respected human rights organisation signing on to such a dangerous bill. "To reduce any scope for confusion, our office in Scotland has reiterated to Rhoda Grant's office and the Scottish Parliament Bill's Office that the submission does not reflect the views of Amnesty International and should in no way be interpreted as representative of the position of the organisation," says Amnesty UK's head of nations and regions Patrick Corrigan.

On Twitter, Amnesty UK and Amnesty Scotland also distanced themselves from the anti-sex work submission and clarified their position:

 

The Paisley Branch submission has since been amended on both the Scottish Parliament website (pdf) and Rhoda Grant's website (pdf).

While initially going rogue from Amnesty – and refusing to withdraw an anti-sex work position when instructed to do so by Amnesty UK – the Paisley Branch's endorsement of the sex work criminalisation bill also reveals a dangerous attitude at the heart of these “end demand” policies: when sex workers come forward to tell the public about their experiences in sex work, they ought not to be believed.

The Paisley Branch submission states:

One of our members works in a prison with women offenders, and she relates to a conversation she had with a young woman who had experienced prostitution of her own volition. The young woman was adamant that she was not a victim and that it had been her choice. Without wishing to patronise her in any way, her forearms were covered in so many scars it was impossible to see any unmarked flesh. To those of us who have been fortunate to have had a (fairly) stable childhood, where abuse has not damaged our understanding of bodily boundaries, her defence of ‘not being a victim’ has a hollow ring.

This is the only testimony from a sex worker cited in the Paisley Branch submission.

Sex workers and allied activists in Scotland and the UK have expressed much outrage at this justification, which – in a consultation process attempting to really understand what will happen when sex workers' customers are made criminals – appears to absolve anyone from actually speaking to sex workers, as they – like the Paisley Branch – have already decided what sex workers mean and what sex workers need. This should be an outrage to anyone who upholds women's rights and human rights.

"Amnesty International Paisley Branch robbed this young woman of her agency, re-invented her experience of her life and started shouting on her behalf over her head," wrote Jewel, a private companion in Edinburgh. "Organisations that care about human rights," wrote Jem, a sex worker rights advocate in the UK, "understand that sex workers deserve equal protection under the law, and that stigma prevents them being treated equally." Molly, a sex worker in Glasgow working with the Sex Workers' Open University, observes of the Paisley Branch: "Using a woman’s appearance to discredit what she’s telling you about her own life is totally a feminist act, because reasons."

The Paisley Branch's support of Rhoda Grant's bill departs even further from recognisable human rights advocacy. They recommend that, as a deterrent, men who buy sex should be "subject to notification requirements under the Sex Offences Act" (a sex offender registry, of the type for which Human Rights Watch has urged reform). They also urge public shaming of men who buy sex: "Most men who choose to behave in this way, do so because they can. If they knew their families, friends and work colleagues could find out what they were doing, we believe that would be sufficient deterrent."

Not only is Amnesty International Paisley Branch's actions out of line with Amnesty International, they're out of step with human rights organisations globally, who are coming around in what looks like quick succession to support sex workers' rights and to oppose criminalisation.

"Human Rights Watch has concluded that ending the criminalisation of sex work is critical to achieving public health and human rights goals," they stated in a report published with the Journal of the International AIDS Society this May. United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights Magdalena Sepúlveda Carmona recently recommended that criminal provisions related to sex work be repealed during a mission to Namibia. She joins several other UN and UN-affiliated bodies – including UNAIDS  and the Global Commission on HIV and the Law – who urge lawmakers to end the criminalisation of sex work.

We still must ask, how does this “end demand” approach have any influence at all? "This is like any issue that has to do with non-reproductive sex," said Amnesty's Marianne Mollman. "And it's also like abortion: people get uncomfortable. But as far as human rights are concerned, the harm reduction-based groups are on-board. That's the direction governments will go: with the evidence."

What Amnesty International Paisley Branch have done – perhaps entirely despite themselves – is to push Amnesty International to state their opposition to the criminalisation of sex workers and of adult consensual sex more clearly. It should be understood as a loss for the Rhoda Grants of this world, who continue to claim despite evidence to the contrary that it's of benefit to sex workers to use law enforcement to regulate their work, and who ally themselves with those who are happy to speak for – and contradict – sex workers.

So here's to you, Paisley Branch, on behalf of sex workers in Scotland and around the world, who can absolutely speak for themselves, and who can now claim Amnesty International in their corner.

You can read an article by Rhoda Grant MSP, making the case for the Criminalisation of the Purchase of Sex Bill here

Editor's note: This article originally stated that the Paisley Branch submission remained unchanged on the Scottish Parliament and Rhoda Grant MSP's websites. This was incorrect, and has been amended.

A couple wrapped in the Scottish flag look down on the Scottish Parliament. Photograph: Getty Images
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Is our obsession with class is propping up the powerful?

Are we really all middle class now? Lynsey Hanley finds has fresh ideas about old ideas in Respectable: the Experience of Class.

Class is no longer banished from mainstream discussion, but it remains an uncomfortable topic for most mainstream media. The background to this is straightforward. The media all too often discriminate on the basis of parental wealth rather than talent: from unpaid internships to expensive postgraduate journalism qualifications, the routes into the industry are difficult to traverse without parents able to offer financial support. But most of us want to believe that our successes are personal achievements: that if we do well, it is because of our own ability, intelligence and determination. To realise that actually, you have queue-jumped, in effect, because of your parents’ bank balance: well, that would provoke insecurity and defensiveness. And so journalists and columnists are often disinclined to understand why society is stacked in the interests of some, but not others. Even raising the issue of class is felt as a personal attack.

That is one reason Lynsey Hanley is such a crucial voice. When she writes about class, she is writing about lived experience. Her new book, Respectable – the belated follow-up to her seminal Estates, published in 2007 – is a powerful investigation into the psychological impact, and cost, of shifting from class to class. She compares it to “emigrating from one side of the world, where you have to rescind your old passport, learn a new language and make gargantuan efforts if you are not to lose touch completely with the people and habits of your old life”. The case study? Hanley herself. The Personal Is Political would be as appropriate a subtitle for this book as any other.

Respectable compellingly (if sometimes erratically) weaves autobiography with academic research. Hanley grew up on a council estate in Chelmsley Wood, a 1960s ­new-build area of Solihull, in the West Midlands, a few miles from Birmingham. Her childhood, she says, would once have been labelled “respectable working class”: far removed from middle class but not “quite classically working class either” – rather, “foreman class” or “skilled tradesman class”. It feels wrong to infringe on Hanley’s right to self-define, but she does seem to have a very restrictive view of what being working class entails, so much so, that she isn’t entirely convinced she belongs. There has long been a clash between those who define class as a cultural identity and those who believe it has more to do with economic relationships (and those who think it is a combination of the two).

At Hanley’s school, “people didn’t do A-levels”. The high achievers ended up at the gas board or the Rover works and the word “university” evoked “something as distant as Mars”. Her school had 600 unfilled places, “effectively . . . abandoned by the community as much as by the local authority and by central government”. Hanley has always felt like an outsider: she struggled to make friends, found the limits of what was expected of someone from her background suffocating, and when – against the odds – she made it to sixth form, it seemed “one minute I was struggling for air, the next I felt as though I’d entered a large bubble of pure oxygen”. She looks to academics to help explain experiences she found difficult to navigate at the time. Her sense of isolation, for instance, can be illuminated by the sociologist Angela McRobbie’s exploration of “the ‘hermetically sealed’ nature of working-class culture in Birmingham”. The Uses of Literacy, Richard Hoggart’s 1957 classic, is her Bible; she feels he “could have been writing about my own childhood”.

Aged 17, Hanley was juggling five ­A-levels with four jobs: working at Greggs, selling Avon products, delivering newspapers and “making cakes and chocolates and selling them door to door”. But she became a professional journalist. When she was a teenager she visited Aldi to buy margarine and glacé cherries; now she comes back with “cold-pressed rapeseed oil and Pinot Noir”. She says “lunch” where she used to say “dinner”.

This is a well-crafted book full of insights. Hanley is determined to challenge the assumptions of left and right. She refers to socio-linguists such as Basil Bernstein, who examined how middle-class forms of communication were given preference over working-class expression but not because they were innately superior. Those who made the leap from working class to middle class found themselves assimilated by the new world. Many found it increasingly difficult to relate to the world they grew up in, and the people they grew up with.

Hanley thinks the approaches of both left and right to social mobility are problematic. Whereas the right uncritically worships the idea of “social mobility” – of parachuting the “lucky few” into the middle class without challenging the structure of society – the left, she says, believes that “social justice and social mobility are mutually exclusive”. In other words, she is questioning that old socialist maxim: “Rise with your class, not above it.”

Hanley assails those – including me – who place support for populist anti-immigration movements in a broader social context. She believes that we are downplaying the extent of racism in working-class communities, reducing it to fears over housing and jobs. We are robbing people of agency by letting individuals off the hook for their prejudices, she argues, stressing the casual racism she encountered on a daily basis. Disturbingly, she found that racism was often seen as a “sign of respectability”. She remembers sentiments along the lines of “Only common people hang out with darkies” and so on. My parents met through the Trotskyist movement; my father eventually became a white-collar local authority worker, my mother an IT lecturer at Salford University, and I was always by far the most middle-class of my friends. I’m not going to wish away the casual racism I encountered growing up in Stockport (and I’m white), but I’m not sure I’m entirely convinced by Hanley’s argument. Why is there an anti-immigration party with mass support now, yet there wasn’t one in the 1950s, when bigotry was far more open and widespread? Surely something has changed, and rising job, housing and general economic insecurity have had a role to play? And will a strategy of criticising people for voting Ukip – or even for the far right – win them over?

My main problem with Hanley’s book is this. Those of us who want to transform society so that it is not run as a racket for a tiny elite need to build a broad coalition. I’m a political activist who writes; Hanley is someone writing about reality as she has lived it. But her book surely challenges attempts to build unity between the working and middle classes. She writes of how middle-class people both hog and deny their “social and cultural capital”, and believes that those who argue in favour of a “99 Per Cent” under attack by an elite help entrench middle-class privilege. The middle classes pretend they have the same interests as the working class, while using their sharp elbows to keep them down.

I wonder if there is a third way. Abolish unpaid internships; introduce scholarships; invest in education at an early age; automatically enrol the brightest working-class young people into top universities; deal with social crises, such as the lack of affordable housing, which help destroy opportunity for the less privileged; have a proper living wage. And so on. But if those who believe in social justice fail to build a coalition of supermarket worker and schoolteacher, cleaner and junior doctor, factory worker and university lecturer . . . well, we will fail. From the low-paid against the unemployed, to private-sector against public-sector worker, to indigene against immigrant, there are enough divisions exploited by the powerful as it is.

Nonetheless, Respectable is of vital importance: a searing indictment of a chronically unjust society in which our opportunities are granted or denied from the earliest of ages. The book may not offer clear prescriptions, but it is incumbent on all of us to fight for a just and equal society – one that currently does not exist. 

Owen Jones’s Chavs: the Demonisation of the Working Class is newly republished in paperback by Verso

Respectable: The Experience of Class by Lynsey Hanley is published by Allen Lane (240pp, £16.99)

Owen Jones is a left-wing columnist, author and commentator. He is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and writes a weekly column for the Guardian. He has published two books, Chavs: the Demonisation of the Working Class and The Establishment and How They Get Away With It.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism