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Amnesty considers support for decriminalization of prostitution

(Credit: Steve Rhodes/flickr)

One of the world’s largest human rights organizations is on the brink of taking a controversial stand on prostitution. Tomorrow, Amnesty International will consider a proposal to support the decriminalization of prostitution. In doing so, the rights group has waded into a heated debate over the best way to ensure the safety and rights of sex workers around the world.

Supporters of decriminalization say that it will end overly severe punishments on sex workers – who are often women – and prevent the industry from going further into hiding, further endangering sex workers. On the other side, opponents say that making prostitution legal continues the problematic abuse that is an inherent part of the sex industry.

“Amnesty’s proposed approach suggests that boys will be boys, so we shouldn’t bother trying to stop them, just make them less harmful,” argues Swanee Hunt, a lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School, in an OpEd for the GlobalPost. “What an insult to men, saying they can’t control their urges. And surely that sympathy means nothing to a ‘sex worker’ purchased for sex 10 times in one night, then sent out by her pimp who takes her money then sends her out for her next ‘job.'”

Similar criticism was leveled at the policy change by Jessica Neuwirth, the founder of Equality Now, in comments to the New York Times. She says the transactional nature of prostitution violates the rights of the people being bought.

They are all ideas considered in a comprehensive internal circular delving into Amnesty’s position on sex work. In introducing the proposed policy, the authors make clear that the organization still opposes any instances where people are trafficked into sex work, there is coercion, use of minors and all other human rights abuses. After considering the research and arguments about decriminalization, the authors conclude that support is the best way to protect sex workers.

“Approaches that categorise all sex work as inherently nonconsensual, actively disempower sex workers; denying them personal agency and autonomy and placing decision-making about their lives and capacity in the hands of the state,” says the Amnesty draft policy. “They also limit sex workers’ ability to organise and to access protections which are available to others (including under labour laws or health and safety laws).”

The overall recommendation is to make sex work legal. Amnesty does not endorse regulations enacted by governments, but advises that any rules should not discriminate against sex workers or place them in harms way.

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,” argue Luca Stevenson, coordinator of the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers, and policy officer Dr. Agata Dziuban, in the Guardian.

But it is the wholesale decriminalization, making pimping, brothel owning and sex buying legal that is a major problem for opponents of the proposed policy.

An open letter written by the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women International and signed by more than 600 activists says there are points of agreement. An accompanying petition already has nearly 7,000 signatures. The letter agrees with Amnesty that the arrests and abuses carried out against sex workers is a violation of their basic human rights. But they say the policy goes too far by not drawing a line against all people abusing sex workers.

“[S]hould Amnesty vote to support the decriminalization of pimping, brothel owning and sex buying, it will in effect support a system of gender apartheid, in which one category of women may gain protection from sexual violence and sexual harassment, and offered economic and educational opportunities; while another category of women, whose lives are shaped by absence of choice, are instead set apart for consumption by men and for the profit of their pimps, traffickers and brothel owners,” the letter states.

Many opponents point to Germany to show the problems inherent in unregulated sex work. Evidence of abuse remained in the wake of laws that decriminalized sex work in the European country. It also led to growth in an industry where advocates want to see fewer women taking part.

Whether or not Amnesty International will support the changed position is up for discussion during the organization’s bi-annual International Council Meeting that begins Friday. Discussions over the weekend will address various issues of concern for the rights group, including sex workers.

“We must remain focused on the evidence and what it says about the best way to protect the rights of sex workers, one of the world’s most marginalized groups,” wrote Amnesty Senior Director for campaigns Thomas Schultz-Jagow to the New York Times.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]