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Amnesty International, CATW, a bunch of celebrities, and decriminalization

[Content note: sex trafficking and sexual abuse]

Meryl Streep, Anne Hathaway, Lena Dunham, Emily Blunt, and numerous other celebrities, along with former sex workers and victims of sex trafficking and women’s rights advocates, have signed a letter from the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW) criticizing a policy currently under discussion within Amnesty International. The policy, which Amnesty plans to introduce at a meeting in Dublin in August, promotes decriminalization of sex work to protect sex workers’ rights, health, and safety. The policy says (in part):

This policy has been developed in recognition of the high rates of human rights abuses and violations that sex workers experience globally. This document identifies the most prominent barriers to the realization of sex workers’ rights and underlines state obligations to address them. This policy should not be considered in isolation from Amnesty International’s existing human rights policies and positions. All of Amnesty’s positions, including those on gender equality, violence against women, non-discrimination, human trafficking, sexual and reproductive rights, access to justice, rights to and at work and the right to adequate housing, apply equally to sex workers as to any other individuals facing human rights abuses. In fighting for the full realisation of sex workers’ rights Amnesty International must both acknowledge and prioritise the issues raised in this document and mainstream the rights of sex workers into other relevant areas of work.

This policy reflects a growing body of research from UN agencies, human rights organisations and social science which indicates that criminalisation, in its varying forms, exposes sex workers to increased risk of human rights abuses. The policy is based on principles of harm reduction and the human rights principles of physical integrity and autonomy.

The policy does not change Amnesty International’s longstanding position that forced labour and human trafficking (including for the purposes of sexual exploitation) constitute serious human rights abuses and must be criminalised. Under international law, states have a range of obligations to prevent, suppress and punish trafficking in persons, especially women and children.

The letter, endorsed by the aforementioned celebrities (who, while not the sole signers, are drawing the most attention), former sex workers and trafficking victims, advocates, and religious and secular organizations, criticizes Amnesty’s proposed policy, saying that decriminalization of sex work results in more, not less, harm to women and will create a “gender apartheid” in which one class of women enjoys the benefits of protection and another class suffers increased abuse. The letter says (in part):

The signatories below represent a wide breadth of national and international human rights advocates, women’s rights organizations, faith-based and secular organizations and concerned individuals, deeply troubled by Amnesty’s proposal to adopt a policy that calls for decriminalization of pimps, brothel owners and buyers of sex — the pillars of a $99 billion global sex industry. Most importantly, the signers include courageous survivors of the sex trade whose authority of experience informs us about the inescapable harms the sex trade inflicted on them and guides us toward finding meaningful solutions toward ending these human rights violations.


We firmly believe and agree with Amnesty that human beings bought and sold in the sex trade, who are mostly women, must not be criminalized in any jurisdiction and that their human rights must be respected and protected to the fullest extent. We also agree that, with the exception of a few countries, governments and law enforcement grievously violate prostituted individuals’ human rights. However, what your “Draft Policy on Sex Work” is incomprehensibly proposing is the wholesale decriminalization off the sex industry, which in effect legalizes pimping, brothel owning and sex buying.

So that’s what they said. (In part.)

As a comfortably well-off, straight, cis, white woman working a 9-to-5 office job in the Deep South, I have no personal knowledge or experience whatsoever in this area. I can’t speak on the issue any more educatedly than, say, Anne Hathaway. Because of that, it’s my job not to speak but to listen to others who do have knowledge and experience.

Many signers of CATW’s letter have that personal knowledge and experience — the former victims of sex trafficking know how bad it can get, and those horrible lived experiences have compelled to speak out, saying that criminalizing sex work is the only way to keep vulnerable people safe. Many other current and former sex workers argue that keeping sex workers safe, preventing trafficking, and enabling both victims of trafficking and voluntary sex workers to leave freely can only happen working within a decriminalized system of laws and regulations. Groups like the Global Network of Sex Work Projects, the Sex Workers Outreach Project, and individuals who frequently remain nameless for understandable reasons have said that the stigma behind sex work and the lack of state protection have made life worse, not better; more dangerous, not safer; and sex work harder, not easier, to get out of for those who want to.

When Cambodia closed its brothels in 2008 to curb human trafficking, it didn’t end the sex trade, but it did separate workers from health screenings and services — at which point a group of current and former sex workers organized in a volunteer organization to serve those needs. In India, the DMSC organized to eliminate human trafficking and women being forced into sex work, and to rehabilitate women who have been rescued from those circumstances, because the government’s laws and interventions weren’t effective enough. In 2010, a former sex worker and a sex-worker rights advocate spoke to the UN against criminalization in the U.S. on the basis that it leaves sex workers without resources and vulnerable to abuse and violence — including at the hands of the police. In those examples, all criminalizing sex work did was free the governments of social service obligations and leave sex workers and victims of trafficking to fend for themselves. In those environments, it’s current and former sex workers who have had to protect each other, provide services for each other, and help free workers from slavery when no one else is helping.

And the voices, while all valid, don’t always agree, and there’s endless nuance to the issue. CATW’s letter refers to “pimps and brothel owners” as abusers who will continue to profit from still-illegal practices (like trafficking and torture) in a decriminalized environment; many sex workers report being arrested for living in the same apartment or forming their own brothels for safety and protection. CATW’s letter refers to the effects of deregulation (although Amnesty’s policy focuses on decriminalization, which is different) in Germany; many sex workers refer to the positive effects of decriminalization in New Zealand. CATW’s letter mentions the serious long-term physical and psychological harm suffered by trafficked individuals; many sex workers talk about not having access to care when they’re forced underground.

Categories like “trafficked person” and “sex worker” encompass everything from the cam girl at Harvard working for a little bit of drinking money to the six-year-old Ukrainian girl in the back of a truck bound for Amsterdam. And that’s what makes this issue so much bigger than a letter. There’s no looking at a ten-year-old boy in a brothel in Bangkok, a 30-year-old black transgender woman on a street corner in Chicago, and a 20-year-old white woman shooting a poorly produced porno in Burbank, and saying, “All of those people need the same thing.” Boiling it down to names on a petition is like asking Miss Nevada to solve racism in 30 seconds or less — if it were that simple, this would have been solved a long time ago. And I’m not criticizing anyone, Meryl Streep included, for signing what appears to be a very compelling letter. It’s just that for my part, in my position, I feel like there’s so much more to read on the subject than to write.

Here’s more stuff to read (updated periodically):

The full text, and bibliography, of CATW’s letter.

The full text of Amnesty International’s Draft Policy on Sex Work.

At Huffington Post, this list of “8 Things to Know About Amnesty’s Draft Proposal on Sex Work.”

At ThinkProgress, “How LGBT People Would Benefit From The Decriminalization Of Sex Work.”

From Formerly Fundie, with a religious perspective, “‘I Am A Human Trafficking Survivor & Here’s What I Want To Ask Christian Activists’” (first in a series).

From Time, “What the Swedish Model Gets Wrong About Prostitution.”

And from the Health and Human Rights Journal, pretty much the entire bibliography of “Toward a legal framework that promotes and protects sex workers’ health and human rights.”

One thought on

  1. Regarding the concern about brothels and pimping, the sex workers I met in the Dominican Republic doing this photo project…

    are primarily concerned with safety and good working conditions and being able to make a decent living. That’s why most choose to work in brothels. One of the women who I’ve become friends with recently returned from working in a brothel in Curacao on a 3-month contract and she talks about how this place stands apart from other places she has worked — all clients have to present their passport to be photocopied; there is an alarm button in all rooms to call security; and there is a driver to take and pick up workers from outcalls, which has its supervision purposes but also helps ensure worker safety. This is what full decriminalization can look like. The photocopying of the passport is a pretty key deterrent for abusive behavior, and that is something impossible under john criminalization schemes like the Swedish model. Not to mention removing police, the primary perpetrators of abuse and assault against sex workers, from the picture.

    But brothels are often made illegal when other aspects of prostitution are decriminalized, as in England, with the assumption they are inherently exploitative — even if two sex workers share a flat for security and mutual support that is considered an illegal brothel. And where my friend worked, the driver who provided her security (and, in effect, earns his living off of prostitution) would be considered a pimp in most other countries. So it’s complicated and critical to talk with and listen to sex workers in order to understand how their world works so that efforts to help and protect them don’t actually harm and endanger them.

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