@Amnesty International votes to decriminalize sex work; controversy ensues

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Note: This was cross-posted to the IH Blog.

At its International Council Meeting in Dublin on Tuesday, human rights organization Amnesty International adopted a resolution allowing the organization to develop a policy toward the decriminalization of sex work, with the goal of strengthening human rights protections for sex workers around the world.
The resolution recommends that Amnesty International develop a policy that supports the full decriminalization of all aspects of consensual sex work. The policy will also call on states to ensure that sex workers enjoy full and equal legal protection from exploitation, trafficking and violence.
...
The research and consultation carried out in the development of this policy in the past two years concluded that this was the best way to defend sex workers’ human rights and lessen the risk of abuse and violations they face.

The violations that sex workers can be exposed to include physical and sexual violence, arbitrary arrest and detention, extortion and harassment, human trafficking, forced HIV testing and medical interventions. They can also be excluded from health care and housing services and other social and legal protection.

The policy has drawn from an extensive evidence base from sources including UN agencies, such as the World Health Organization, UNAIDS, UN Women and the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health.
It was a pretty big deal - the story has been covered by most major news outlets and was even on NPR this morning - and the decision comes after two years of discussion and debate within the organization.

To call the vote controversial might be somewhat of an understatement. Last week saw a feminist firestorm erupt over the issue, joined by celebrities like Meryl Streep and Lena Dunham on social media, leading up to the vote.

Last week's internet melee is just the most recent boiling-over of a decades-long debate on the "problem of prostitution." When I first saw Humanosphere's reporting on the story in my RSS reader last week, I skimmed over it but did not mentally bookmark it until I came across a post from "Sex Work Research" from the same day. The post links to a 1994 article by Annette Jolin from the journal Crime and Delinquency called "On the Backs of Working Prostitutes: Feminist Theory and Prostitution Policy" (a full-text link to the article is available in the post). It is a decent read, providing the historical background that informs the current debate and breaking down the feminist split on the issue without getting too heavy on feminist theory.
Modern feminists have been unable to resolve questions of this sort: Is it sexual or economic inequality that keeps women from attaining equality? Should protecting women from male sexual subjugation entail restricting women's ability to make choices?
...
In fundamental terms...feminists divide into two broad groups regarding the role of prostitution in women's fight for equality:
  1. Women who stress emancipation from male sexual oppression (prostitute as victim) as the primary equity issue in the prostitution debate - the sexual equality first (SEF) group; and
  2. Women who stress freedom of choice (prostitute as worker) as the primary equity issue in the prostitution debate - the free choice first (FCF) group.
The paper goes on to explain each position in more detail and outline what Jolin sees as the flaws and fallacies on each side. While most of the commentary on the AI vote is shorter and potentially more accessible than the article, it is essentially all a rehash of what Jolin's paper outlines.

The modern concern with decriminalization (as opposed to legalization, which would allow states to regulate the industry and which AI does not support) is that it will protect traffickers; opponents advocate for what is commonly referred to as the "Swedish model," in which pimps and purchasers are targeted but the sex workers themselves are not subject to prosecution. However, sex workers and their advocates have pointed out that this model presents a whole different host of problems, including disdain and abuse from police officers (which the model is designed to prevent). What surprised me most was that anti-trafficking advocates and feminists who oppose decriminalizing do not seem to be listening to sex workers themselves, who have very vocally advocated for decriminalization for years - both in the developed and in the developing world.

It can be difficult to strike a balance between principle and "realities on the ground" when it comes to policy, but what ultimately steered AI to its decision was the evidence - mounting research that decriminalization is the most effective way to protect sex workers' rights to health, work, and choice. As a public health and HIV advocate myself, I cannot help but agree.

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