The week before the “Big Decision” by Amnesty International, someone told me that NGO’s who were anti-trafficking supporters would fold if they voted to support the decriminalization of Sex Work. I was doubtful that it would have such a serious impact that it would cause them to pack up and go home, but I could see that some who had been fence-sitting on direct questions regarding consensual sex work might take this opportunity to gracefully bow out of this arena. After all, the most common complaint I heard about Prostitution Outreach efforts from Anti Trafficking groups was their efforts were met with such resistance from their target audience. I thought they would welcome the opportunity to relinquish their freakishly self-righteous control on a subject they clearly had no knowledge about how to address, successfully or otherwise, and refocus their efforts in places they could make a difference. I was almost amused that most of them didn’t even bother to read more than the Headline on this pivotal Amnesty decision, and instead immediately started the process of demanding Amnesty “change their mind” and reverse their decision.
That is simply not going to happen. And if they had taken the time to read the entire decision, the Anti Trafficking community would have found they had truly been given a get-out-of-jail-free card instead of wasting more time and resources trying to change that which cannot – and will not – be changed. In fact, when Amnesty International makes a decision you don’t agree with, you really need to step back and reassess your position from a Human Rights perspective. Amnesty International has brought us so far with so many other Human Rights issues and we should listen to them.
But just in case you are an Anti Trafficker and have sand in your ears, here is a quick primer on what this policy decision really could mean to this – in the very words of Amnesty International – most marginalized group of people world-wide.
Decriminalization does NOT mean legalization. Legalization – as in Germany and in Nevada – have unintended consequences and most Sex Workers do not support it. Legalized sex work leaves sex workers tangled up in a mess of burdensome regulations where they must conform to license requirements that bring an unfair burden on women who are already living in poverty and the very application of a license can immediately stigmatize a sex worker and keep her from eventually accessing other employment opportunities. For example – a Sex Worker in a legalized model in the United States would be required to register as a sex worker and pay a licensure fee – kind of like an occupational license – before she began working as a Sex Worker. This would probably mean she would have to have a physical and be tested for STD’s which is a good thing if she is not already having problems accessing affordable healthcare. Women’s Healthcare – particularly low-cost affordable healthcare – has always been a problem and even more so with the problems organizations like Planned Parenthood has faced over the years. Before she got her license, she may even have to attend government sponsored Sex Work classes or submit to questionnaires that she may or may not fully understand. She might also be required to perform or conduct Sex Work business in a location that also requires a legalized, bureaucratic process as well and might be hampered unfairly by a lack of transportation to get to this location. This legalized location would most likely be a brothel. Brothel owners have a clear interest in maintaining their image as law-abiding, trouble-free businesses to keep their licenses and maintain good relations within their communities. The owners ensure this by making it policy to call the police at the slightest hint of trouble to send a message that they don’t tolerate bad behavior. The whole name of the game is control. Just that statement alone is cause for concern about legalizing Sex Work in a Legalized environment – it almost immediately removes the control from the Sex Worker over who and when she sees a client and who she alone decides what she considers bad behavior.
Women in a poverty situations often undertake Sex Work as an intervention to crisis (pay the rent, buy food, provide for her children) and would be subject to fines and tickets and court costs to defend themselves about participating in sex work while unlicensed in a legalized environment. Then, of course, she would be ineligible to get the required license or registration because of the financial penalties that would accrue if she were “caught” performing Sex Work without a license. This sequence of events amounts to the criminalized system we already have firmly in place in most areas of the United States.
Legalization would mean the regulation of prostitution with laws regarding where, when, and how prostitution could take place.
Although often presented as a more tolerant and pragmatic approach, the legalized model still criminalize those sex workers who cannot or will not fulfill various bureaucratic responsibilities, and therefore retains some of the worst harms of criminalization. It disproportionately excludes sex workers who are already marginalized, like people who use drugs or who are undocumented. This makes their situation more precarious, and so reinforces the power of unscrupulous managers.
The US has actually had some experience with both models. Nevada has a highly regulated legalized prostitution system. Rhode Island also decriminalized prostitution in 2003 and, according to University of California researchers, instances of reported rape and sexually transmitted diseases plummeted after Rhode Island stopped policing prostitution. Nevertheless, due to public moral outcry and absolutely NO input from Sex Worker voices, Rhode Island outlawed prostitution again in 2009.
The Amnesty International policy recommendation that calls for the decriminalization of one to one consensual Sex Work refers to the removal of all criminal and administrative prohibitions and penalties on sex work, including laws targeting clients. Removing criminal prosecution of sex work goes hand-in-hand with recognizing sex work as work and protecting the rights of sex workers through workplace health and safety standards.
Decriminalizing sex work allows workers to access financial services like bank accounts and insurance and other financial services. Moreover,
decriminalization means sex workers are more likely to live without stigma, social exclusion, and fear of violence. All good things, right? To effectively protect the health and rights of sex workers, governments must remove all criminal laws regulating sex work, including laws that criminalize the purchase of sex. Systems that maintain criminal penalties for clients – like the Swedish model – who purchase sexual services continue to put sex workers at risk. Rather than ending demand for sex work, penalties on clients force sex workers to provide services in clandestine locations, which increases the risk of violence and limits the power of the sex workers in the transaction.
Not only does the decriminalization of Consensual Sex Work benefit the of-legal-age Sex Worker, there are a host of other benefits as well. For one, in a decriminalized environment, who do you think is in a better position to recognize and assist in the identification of underage sex workers? Do you think it’s an actual full-time Sex Worker or a church lady who volunteers for one of your Faith Based Alliances a few hours a month? And you can bet your bottom dollar that a Sex Worker will recognize – and report – a predatory member of the community faster than you can say “Call 911!”
When sex work is decriminalized, sex workers are empowered to realize their right to work safely, and to use the justice system to seek redress for abuses and discrimination.
Even if sex work is decriminalized per the Amnesty International policy recommendation, the prostitution of minors and human trafficking can and should remain criminal acts although we should really take another look at a better plan for minors than criminalization as well.
So Anti Trafficking Organizations should happily put their stamp of approval on this Amnesty Policy recommendation and be assured that your lucrative efforts to freak out the general public about Human Trafficking “taking place in your backyard” is safe and secure. You just don’t get to speak for Sex Workers anymore without even bothering to consult them.