My social media erupted on Aug. 11 with breaking news of Amnesty International's historic decision to protect the human rights of sex workers — by pushing for the worldwide decriminalization of prostitution.
After receiving an onslaught of negative and misleading press fueled by Hollywood A-listers — including Anne Hathaway and Lena Dunham — encouraging Amnesty to revise its stance on decriminalization, Amnesty put out a comprehensive press release and a concise YouTube video to clear up any misconceptions. International delegates were not swayed by the feelings of wealthy actresses who have never worked in the sex industry, and looked instead to research from the World Health Organization, UN Women, and UNAIDS.
Since the 1960s, Amnesty has campaigned against torture, the death penalty, and genocide, earning a moral authority few other NGOs possess. And now Amnesty has made clear that its policy supports full decriminalization, rather than mere legalization — or the increasingly popular "Nordic model" of criminalizing the sex-buyer. Any outcries from anti-sex-work crusaders insisting that Amnesty's policy would promote prostitution or protect traffickers are not based on the very clear and comprehensive research presented.
Let's break this down.
Legalization vs. Decriminalization: what's the difference?
Legalization, such as Nevada's brothel system, creates specific laws and policies to regulate the sex industry, resulting in what Amnesty calls a "two-tiered system." Sex workers who operate outside the regulated model are still criminalized. The problem with arresting street-based sex workers, but letting indoor sex workers operate legally, is that it reinforces classism, not human rights.
In order to help sex workers who are the most vulnerable, such as impoverished persons and victims of trafficking, Amnesty recommends the complete decriminalization of the sex industry. From a Q&A on its site, the organization says, "When sex workers are no longer seen and treated as 'criminals' or 'accomplices' they are less at risk of aggressive police tactics and can demand and enjoy better relationships with and protection from police."
So why not just criminalize clients and let all the sex workers go free? Wouldn't that solve everything? Aren't those nasty johns the real problem anyway?
The so-called "Nordic Model," which criminalizes only the sex-buyer, is informed by a concept called "end demand," which aims to stamp out the sex industry as a whole by making the working conditions increasingly inhospitable. Amnesty rejects this model, saying, "In reality, laws against buying sex mean that sex workers have to take more risks to protect buyers from detection by the police. Sex workers we spoke to regularly told us about being asked to visit customers' homes to help them avoid police, instead of going to a place where sex workers felt safer."
But what about trafficking? Won't decriminalizing sex work make it easier for traffickers to victimize people?
"There is no evidence to suggest that decriminalization results in more trafficking," Amnesty says. The hope is that the worldwide decriminalization of prostitution would actually have the exact opposite effect. "We believe that decriminalization would help tackle trafficking," Amnesty's press release goes on to say. "When they are not threatened with criminalization, sex workers are able to collaborate with law enforcement to identify traffickers and victims of trafficking."
The Global Alliance Against Trafficking in Women, Anti-Slavery International, and the International Labour Organization agree that decriminalization has a positive role to play in ending human trafficking. Now, Amnesty International, one of the oldest and most respected human rights organizations in the world, can add its name to that list.
Now, who will be next? Maybe the American Civil Liberties Union? Perhaps the Human Rights Campaign? Someday soon we may see idealistic college students with clipboards stopping us on Castro Street to ask if we have a few minutes to spare for sex workers' rights and encouraging us to get involved at any level.
In the wake of Amnesty's new policy, what might the future hold for those of us in the sex industry? NGOs can't write or change laws, so real change will take time, but this feels like a big step forward in the fight for the rights of both sex workers and victims of trafficking.
From the bottom of my little hooker heart, thank you.
All my love,
P.S. I won't be offended if you don't write back. Lena Dunham didn't either.