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10 August 2015

Why Amnesty International should back decriminalisation of buying and selling sex

The major sex worker-led organsiations support decriminalising prostitution - freeing both buyers and sellers from the threat of prosecution. It's time Amnesty followed suit.

By Margaret Corvid

These will be some of the last comments to be published before the delegates at Amnesty International’s International Council Meeting, convened this week in Dublin, vote on their draft policy on the decriminalisation of sex work. On the side of decriminalisation and the side of prohibition, the public has heard from celebrities and from former sex workers – although the major sex worker-led organisations, without exception, support decriminalisation. In the furore, too little attention has been paid to the policy text itself, and to some of its quieter supporters.

The controversy isn’t a natural one: for people who work in the human rights field, sex worker rights should not be up for debate, says Luca Stevenson, coordinator of the International Committee for the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe. “There’s been a fight for sex worker rights for decades, and it should be a no brainer for people who work in the human rights field, like LGBT rights,” he says. “Criminalisation and stigmatisation create the context for our human rights abuses, and so it’s a part of the work they’re already doing. It’s the most simple thing – criminalisation and stigmatisation put sex workers at risk. They lead to human rights abuse and we need to take a position against it. So organisations like Human Rights Watch, the Global Alliance Against Trafficking in Women or UNAIDS, all have a position on decriminalisation because it’s common sense. It’s only because Amnesty is so visible that there’s been this mass outcry – abolitionists say that Amnesty is siding with pimps, but they’re only siding with sex workers.” He adds: “The abolitionists are reframing the debate, they managed to change the discourse to make it about the rights of clients or third parties when the question is about sex workers’ rights. But they are wrong. Decriminalising sex work would strengthen sex workers’ positions and hand and allow us to fight against exploitation. Keeping sex work criminalised really benefits criminal or exploitative third parties. Decriminalising homosexuality and abortion can be seen as controversial to some but not to those directly affected, and it shouldn’t be to feminists and progressives. So why should this be.”

The sixteen pages of Amnesty International’s draft policy on sex work are not a licence to pimps or traffickers, as scores of celebrities have claimed. The draft soberly presents a clear, evidence-driven call for the full decriminalisation of sex work worldwide, based on ancient principles of human rights: health, safety and security. It says nothing about the morality of sex work, and it includes ample provision for sex workers, states and services to combat coercion and the presence of underage people in sex work. It is a sensible and factual document, and I encourage everyone to read it: it takes less than an hour.

The draft, prepared for delegates from across the world gathered in Dublin, ends with a compelling summary of Amnesty’s in-depth, recent research into the criminalisation of sex work, undertaken in Norway, Hong Kong, Papua New Guinea, and Buenos Aires. Condensing Amnesty’s years-long research, it features quotes from sex workers about the practical effects of criminalisation that will be familiar to many of us with experience in the industry. Sex workers interviewed reported criminalisation, either direct or indirect, as a major barrier to accessing health services. A former sex worker, who is trans and lives in Buenos Aires, told Amnesty:

Whenever I was sick, I went to the hospital but people always mistreated us. They told us to go to other hospital(s) because they couldn’t treat us there or something like that. That’s why most of us didn’t go to hospitals. . . We also used to medicate each other; recommending pills to take and stuff like that. We didn’t have any access to real health care services because whenever we went to hospitals we were laughed at or the last ones to be attended to by doctors.

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Amnesty found that criminalisation also poses a barrier to sex workers seeking the protection of police. “The majority of sex workers that AI spoke to did not, or were reluctant to, seek police protection from or redress for, violence and crime. In some countries this can be due to the fact that police are often the perpetrators of such crime. Because of their criminalised status, sex workers often fear prosecution or punishment if they go to the police, believe that no action will be taken to help them seek justice, and/or fear that they will lose their livelihood as a result of subsequent police action. The police also do not commonly see it as their priority to contribute to making sex work safer, rather—they are tasked with its eradication,” says the summary.

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In the last few weeks, online commentary about the draft policy has reached a fever pitch, and ensured that sex worker rights has been at the centre of discussions in feminist and progressive circles. It is curious, though, that the actual essence of the argument – that criminalisation, direct or indirect, keeps sex workers from enjoying their human rights to health and security – has been so rarely addressed in the online discourse of the proposal’s opponents. I wanted to talk to Amnesty spokespeople about the draft policy, but they are keeping quiet as ICM delegates deliberate. Instead, I’ve asked representatives of frontline organisations who work with sex workers whether the draft policy’s arguments on health and safety resonated with their experience.

Open Doors is an NHS project that provides services to sex workers in East London. A confidential advice service, it offers health screenings, safer sex supplies, information and counselling to people working on the street and indoors. “We acknowledge ourselves to be a sex worker ally service, we want to take our lead from what sex workers know will keep them safer,” says service manager Georgina Perry.

Open Doors is comprehensive in its reach. The team operates clinics, meets workers on the street, and brings health services and advice into premises that are usually the exclusive domains of sex workers and clients. To Open Doors, language, status and background are no bar to providing services. But Perry’s experience resonates with Amnesty’s reports. “Sex workers are the same as anybody in the community, but the reality is that because of the stigma, because of the ostracisation, because of the double standards, sex workers are not afforded the same rights and so decriminalisation basically enables what the law should be doing already. It means that sex workers are not fearful of coming forward to authorities, to report crimes, to talk about the challenges they face,” she says.

The Open Doors website stresses its confidentiality and its separateness from law enforcement, for a good reason: otherwise, sex workers wouldn’t speak to them. Their experienced team reaches many sex workers, often working in difficult conditions. But criminalisation keeps many more away. “We know, as a service, that sex workers are very keen to engage with services that can support them if they know that they will be treated in a non-stigmatising way,” says Perry. “That’s about access to a whole raft of health and social care services, to which they have entitlement. And what we know is that, because of the stigma that sex workers face, because of the way they are very often treated by organisations and interlinking services – services that should be there to protect them, like for example law enforcement – they are very often fearful to come forward. It doesn’t matter that services like the NHS are not linked to the police. If you’re coming from a country where all services are linked, including law enforcement and health, it takes a lot to persuade a sex worker that if they want to report something to a service or they want support from a service they won’t be basically sort of handed over to the police, or their information won’t go to some sort of law enforcement environment,’ she says.

Open Doors staff often find themselves between a rock and a hard place, advising women of the best safety practices, including avoiding working alone, but knowing that good safety practice can often mean women find themselves running afoul of law enforcement. Perry offers an example. “One of the primary things we do is let people have access to condoms, that’s very basic. We see sex workers who we give condoms to and then have to go hide those condoms – they can’t keep those condoms on themselves personally because, they say, ‘if we were arrested with these, the police will use this as evidence that we are involved in prostitution and we will be arrested and we will be charged.’ So you have an incredible tension between people being able to rightfully access good public health intervention and yet that being used as evidence against them by enforcement,” she says.

Decriminalisation would directly and immediately improve the effectiveness and reach of Open Doors. “We would be able to make contact with far more sex workers,” says Perry. She also believes that decriminalisation would reduce stigma and increase reporting of crimes. “Decriminalisation would send out a very different message to people who are perpetrators of crimes against sex workers,” she says. “I think one of the things the perpetrators say is ‘we can do this, we can attack you, we can rape you and you won’t report this because you are a sex worker,’ and they have this impunity, so when the Hollywood glitterati talk about how decriminalisation basically legitimises pimps and attackers, that legitimises people saying to sex workers, ‘I’m going to assault you, I’m going to rape you and you won’t do anything, you won’t report this to the police because what you do is illegal.’ Decriminalisation would remove that altogether. I’m not saying that there wouldn’t still be shitty people out there, behaving badly, but I think that in time, and if the police acted accordingly, dealing with the all the matters that, in this wonderful [decriminalised] world, would be totally reported to them all the time, and investigated properly all the time. It would eventually send out the right message and would change society,” says Perry.

The draft brings together Amnesty’s meticulous research – its footnotes are themselves a wealth – and the voices of sex workers. It’s unemotional, practical and direct in its assertion that the human rights of sex workers are worth defending. But the policy says nothing about the morality of sex work, or of sex, and Del Campbell, who runs the Terrence Higgins Trust’s Sex Workers Into Sexual Health (SWISH) project, is a bit fed up with the essentialist arguments of opponents. “Celebs can decry and hand-wring and petition all day, but at the SWISH project, it’s business as usual: empowering sex workers to make wise choices for themselves around safety; around their sexual health; and around reporting violence,” says Campbell. “We’re service-user-led – I’ve met hundreds of sex workers, men, women and transgender, and our goal is safety around your sexual health whilst working; telling people where you are and where you’re working; and your boundaries while you’re working – making informed choices as a sex worker. Anything that criminalises things around sex work, anything that criminalises adults consenting to have sex with each other is, to me, just a step too far. Our service users are still going to be involved in sex work, but if clients are criminalised, the clients they’re seeing are going to be less scrupulous – willing to break the law,” he says.

Campbell worries that Nordic Model approaches that would criminalise clients could make trafficking worse, by destroying already fragile links of intelligence from sex workers and clients. “As of now, our service users quite often have good relationships with their regular clients, and we get intelligence from sex workers and clients, saying they are worried about a particular person being trafficked and underage,” he says. Campbell believes that the increased trust and respect engendered by decriminalisation could vastly strengthen that intelligence network, leading to more traffickers being caught.

SWISH, like Open Doors, focuses on sexual health and safety education for sex workers, doing everything from offering condoms to providing directories of “ugly mugs,” or dangerous clients. Decriminalisation would make their work much more effective. “[Prohibitionists] say that those who are choosing to sell sex are a tiny minority of privileged people, but we see hundreds of sex workers of all genders, from all walks of life. They’re not privileged, and being dismissed; so the only voices of sex workers that are regularly heard in public are those who see themselves as survivors of sex work, and suffered horrible experiences, or those that are activists. What we’re seeing on a day to day basis are ordinary people – their biggest problem is stigma, so when they are having problems with their work, with their sexual health, with their clients – people don’t want to know, they say ‘you brought it on yourself because of the work you’re doing.’ We find that a lot of the people who come to us, they say that the job has good things and bad things, but they feel the stigma means they’re not ready to be counted, to stand up on stage. Some of these debates make them feel invisible, like they don’t exist, just because they don’t fit into pre-made arguments,” Campbell says.

For SWISH, decriminalisation would transform outreach efforts. “Outreach usually involves going to flats where there are two or three people working – that’s considered to be a brothel. We’re saying to people to stay safe, but it could also result in a criminal conviction. People will come to us and say ‘all I want is some condoms.’ Then we build up trust and service users bring up issues and concerns,” says Campbell. Decriminalisation would open up more and more of these trusted spaces, he believes.

Campbell’s waiting, as we all are – a bit nervously – for tomorrow, when the delegates are rumoured to have their vote. “I am so worried – it’s difficult to know,” he says.

Like all of us, he has rumours to share. A friend of his who works at Amnesty and has been through trainings around sex workers’ issues reports a great deal of panic and pressure coming from some people within the organisation. “She’s having a lot of headaches. . . There’s two clashing groups – all the healthcare professionals who see sex workers as people – and people who see sex workers from privileged points of view,” says Campbell. “I’m worried slightly because the people with the loudest voice get listened to,” he says.

Writing in yesterday’s Observer, Helen Lewis wondered if there can be common cause between sex worker rights’ advocates and prohibition advocates on the grounds of safety. I offered this question to Perry and Campbell. “You would think there would be; the National Ugly Mugs scheme, which we support and refer people to, is not supported by prohibitionists, as they feel it normalises sex work,” says Campbell. “It’s a shame – I thought nobody could think it would be good for a sex worker to be attacked. You would think there could be some common ground. At SWISH, we aren’t an ‘exiting’ project – we will speak to people who went first to [such projects], and they’ve said to the individual, ‘we will help you, but only if you sign on the dotted line that you will leave sex work.’ What’s happening is that service users come along, and tell us that they tried to go to ‘exiting’ projects who refused to help them,” he says.

While Campbell doesn’t hold out much hope that anti-decriminalisation projects would come on board for safety, he knows that there are well meaning individuals within some ‘rescue’ projects; he guesses that more than one person has surreptitiously passed sex workers who want support, but don’t want to leave sex work, to SWISH.

Perry believes that, if Amnesty’s policy passes, it could presage a realignment in organisations working with sex workers. “It might just spell the death knell for some of those organisations who get their money from this very binary perspective of, ‘all prostitution is rape, all prostitution is trafficking, all prostitution is coercion,’ and actually if decriminalisation was seen as a much more sort of sensible approach, they would have less to bandwagon about wouldn’t they,” she says.

As the debate has raged on, global health experts have spoken up in support of the draft policy. Spurred to action by South African sex workers, UNAIDS has written in support, and the medical journal Lancet has weighed in, arguing that its seven research papers on sex work and HIV, produced last year, show that the decriminalisation of sex work could reduce HIV transmission between 33 and 46 per cent in the next ten years. Sex workers around the world can only hope that Amnesty, after bravely upholding the right to abortion services in the face of overwhelming opposition, after their stalwart opposition of the death penalty, after their ethical and humane approach to harm reduction in drugs, after their support for LGBT rights, will continue their tradition of independence, listening to experts, not to opinions on Twitter, and will vote to make decriminalisation of sex work their official policy.

That’s our hope. I’ve been frenetic on Facebook, sharing this petition to cheer Amnesty on, along with hundreds of others. I grew up with Amnesty International. It was innocuous enough to appear in an ordinary, suburban American middle school. We signed our petitions and letters about far away torture, and the death penalty at home. Later I learned how carefully the people far away from us petition-signers – the Amnesty staff – studied and researched, and how bravely they worked in very dangerous places. When I read the draft policy, its sober language took me back to those early memories, when I was a happy and hopeful liberal. Now, I am accustomed to pessimism, but today, inspired by the force and facts of Amnesty’s argument, I can’t help but hope.