Sex Workers React to Amnesty International's Vote to Support Them

In a resolution this afternoon, one of the largest and oldest global human rights NGOs voted to officially support the decriminalization of sex work.

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Aug 11 2015, 6:40pm

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

This week Amnesty International delegates held a meeting in Dublin to vote on a new resolution in support of the decriminalization of sex work to protect the human rights of sex workers. Today they voted in favor of developing a policy "that supports the full decriminalization of all aspects of consensual sex work," according to Amnesty International's official statement.

In other words, this means that one of the largest and oldest global human rights NGOs stands with sex workers--but not everyone is celebrating.

When Amnesty first announced the proposal, a debate erupted between sex work abolitionists and advocates of legally recognizing the world's oldest profession. Among those in support of the latter were sex workers themselves and their allies, including major organizations like the Human Rights Watch. A Change.org petition that "call[ed] on the Amnesty International Council to stand firm and support decriminalization of sex work and protect the human rights of sex workers" reached over 10,000 signatures in two weeks.

Read More: Forget Hollywood: Decriminalizing Sex Work Helps Sex Workers

On the other side, opposition to the proposal was backed by celebrities like Lena Dunham, Emma Thompson, and Meryl Streep, who argued that full decriminalization would be harmful to sex workers and, essentially, give a free pass to pimps and johns. If not in favor of complete abolition, those against decriminalization have supported the "Swedish Model" of sex work, which would make it legal to sell sex but illegal to buy it.

Pye Jakobsson, co-founder of Rose Alliance, an organization run by and for current and former sex workers in actual Sweden, makes it clear that the "Swedish Model" is not the ideal that some make it out to be. "People who are advocating for the Swedish Model are either misguided or evil," she told me over the phone this afternoon. "This model isolates sex workers so much. It is designed to force us into the role of victims who have no agency."

In an impassioned op-ed published early this morning, Jakobsson also noted that sex workers in Sweden are put at greater risk by laws that outlaw "promoting" sex work. Among many other egregious results of the "Swedish Model," sex workers' landlords can be charged with pimping if sex workers perform their jobs in their own homes. In general, these laws have increased the stigma against sex work. "It's [also] very common for sex workers to lose their children," Jakobsson says. "Those have been the effects of the Swedish Model. The stigma is so much higher." (Rose Alliance plans to release a survey of sex worker opinions on the Swedish Model later this week.)

People who are advocating for the Swedish Model are either misguided or evil.

Sex workers and their advocates agree that full legalization is the best approach. Luca Stevenson, a coordinator for the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe (ICRSE), couldn't be happier with Amnesty International's vote of support.

"There is so much evidence that decriminalization is the best way to fight exploitation," he told me over the phone, just moments after the vote was announced. He also said that criminalization only drives sex work underground.


Watch our documentary on sex work in Spain:

"Amnesty International, after two years of research, has come to [the] conclusion that decriminalization is the only legal framework to ensure that sex workers maintain their rights to health and safety," Stevenson continued. "With decriminalization also comes the power for sex workers to hold their abusers accountable and take them to court, if those situations arise. That's absolutely a positive thing."

The two years of research Stevenson refers to are summarized in Amnesty's resolution, in which they found that "criminalisation of sex work is more likely than not to reinforce discrimination against those who sell sex, placing them at greater risk of harassment and violence, including ill-treatment at the hands of police." In the report, Amnesty also explicitly committed to advocating for the repeal of criminalization laws that put sex workers' lives in danger.

Jakobsson says that Amnesty's new stance is long overdue. "Oh god, I feel amazing!" she said over the phone after Amnesty's affirming vote. I had called her just after she woke up from a nap and read the news. "I saw the decision and started crying," she continued, overjoyed. "It's great that sex workers can finally feel like they are listened to. This is huge. We've been fighting for this for years."