Amnesty International Votes to Decriminalize Sex Work, Protect Sex Workers

Sex educator and sex workers' rights advocate Alex S. Morgan
Photo: Alex S. Morgan

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Sex educator and sex workers' rights advocate Alex S. Morgan  Photo: Alex S. Morgan

Sex educator and sex workers’ rights advocate Alex S. Morgan
Photo: Alex S. Morgan

By: Sara Brown/TRT Assistant Editor—

BOSTON, Mass.—At the International Council meeting in Dublin, Ireland, Amnesty International voted in support of decriminalizing sex work, in order to protect sex workers who are often victims of violent crimes.

“Sex workers are one of the most marginalized groups in the world, who in most instances face constant risk of discrimination, violence and abuse,” Salil Shetty, Amnesty International’s secretary-general, said in a statement.

According to sex worker and educator, Widow Centauri, sex workers are often the victims of violent crimes because of the stigma against them.

“Sex workers are significantly more vulnerable to violent crime because they often cannot report violence against themselves without incriminating themselves,” they said. “If they attempt to report crimes they are often humiliated, not taken seriously, abused and arrested. Not being able to report crimes perpetuates more violence.” [pullquote]“If they attempt to report crimes they are often humiliated, not taken seriously, abused and arrested. Not being able to report crimes perpetuates more violence.”—Sex worker and Educator, Widow Centauri,[/pullquote]

Former sex worker, Ivy Bowers, knows all too well the dangers of that line of work.

“In one instance, I was ‘roofied’ while working and a working partner came knocking just as I lost my coherence and got me out of there,” she said. “I never went to the police after the fact, out of fear of having to reveal the client and have nothing done, or worse, to be outed and shunned by family to see justice done. Luckily, I was unharmed but that could very easily have gone wrong, as it has for a great many sex workers who have found themselves harmed in ways both small and large.”

Bowers believes that this measure, over time, will help the hostility between sex workers and police.

“I think if sex workers were not kept in a position to cower from law enforcement, it removes a good portion of the unequal power dynamic that leads to poor interaction and to escalation of hostilities between both parties,” she said.

Centauri agreed.

“Decriminalizing sex work will undoubtedly grant sex workers and allies some breathing room, making it at least possible to report crimes against sex workers,” they said.

However, others believe that decriminalization isn’t going to solve all the problems sex workers have with police.

“Sex workers are not going to accept decriminalization of their employment as a magic pill that makes us all friends,” Centauri said. “As long as legal policy and police behavior continue to reflect discriminatory abusive treatment towards any marginalized group of people, we will all approach police interactions cautiously.”

Sex educator and sex workers’ rights advocate, Alex S. Morgan, said there is a lot of work to be done for sex workers to trust police again.

“Criminalizing the sex trade has given police an opportunity to sexually assault, humiliate, and disregard sex workers for decades,” he said. “There’s a lot of work to do to repair those relationships. There may also be pushback from law enforcement in the short term, while many forms of sex work are still criminalized in the U.S., and that’s a real concern.”

Activists believe that decriminalization of sex work will also help those sex workers that are LGBT.

“Police have been known to scare, intimidate, harass, threaten, exploit, extort, rape and murder queer folks, especially queer sex workers,” Centauri said. “Trans-women, who often have greater struggles with employment opportunities, frequently turn to sex work. Decriminalizing sex work will certainly assist in creating the ability to organize and share information about potentially dangerous customers.”

Trans women sex workers are often the most vulnerable when it comes to violent crimes or dealing with police.

“Trans-women in the sex trade face persecution as a gender identity that puts them in greater danger,” Centauri said. “When trans-women are arrested they are often put in men’s holding facilities. Frequently, they are attacked and raped in situations like this. Decriminalizing sex work has the potential to reduce the deplorable amount of violence against trans-women.” [pullquote]“Police have been known to scare, intimidate, harass, threaten, exploit, extort, rape and murder queer folks, especially queer sex workers,” Centauri said.[/pullquote]

Morgan believes Amnesty’s decision will help LGBT organizations support sex workers and their rights.

“LGBT sex workers were at Stonewall. LGBT young adults disowned by their families have relied on the sex trade to survive, and transgender individuals, from white or white-passing trans men and non-binary trans people like myself to trans women of color, who face rampant employment discrimination have found both financial and community support in sex work,” said Morgan. “Amnesty’s vote gave more organizations the courage to embrace the contributions sex workers have made to LGBT history and to support sex workers’ struggle for human rights.”

When news of Amnesty International’s decision was made public, some criticized it saying it will make it easier for sex trafficking. Amnesty International disagrees.

“It is important to be very clear that Amnesty International strongly condemns all forms of human trafficking, including trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation,” Amnesty International said in a statement. “We believe that decriminalization would help tackle trafficking. When sex work is decriminalized, sex workers are better able work together and demand their rights, leading to better working conditions and standards and greater oversight of commercial sex and potential trafficking within it.” [pullquote]“When trans-women are arrested they are often put in men’s holding facilities. Frequently, they are attacked and raped in situations like this. Decriminalizing sex work has the potential to reduce the deplorable amount of violence against trans-women.” —Centauri[/pullquote]

Centauri believes that many people confuse sex work with sex trafficking.

“Many of the opponents of this recommendation to decriminalize sex work are under the false belief that decriminalization essentially makes every aspect of the sex trade legal, including the transport of humans against their will for sexual labor, the exploitation of children, and a vague crime that is currently labeled sex trafficking,” they said.

Decriminalized Sex Work in RI

Economists Scott Cunningham and Manisha Shah recently studied a loophole in Rhode Island that accidentally decriminalized sex work in 1980. The state’s legislature amended a law in 1980, believing that they made different forms of consensual sex between adults illegal. However, that amendment created a loophole. No one noticed it until 2003 when a District Court judge said it was legal to pay for consensual sex if it took place indoors. That loophole remained legal until 2009.

However, that loophole proved to be a learning experience. In the study, Cunningham and Shah looked at the six years when residents knew indoor prostitution in Rhode Island was legal. They found that cases of rape went down. Forcible rape offenses fell by 31 percent in the state from 2004 to 2009. [pullquote]In the study, Cunningham and Shah looked at the six years when residents knew indoor prostitution in Rhode Island was legal. They found that cases of rape went down. Forcible rape offenses fell by 31 percent in the state from 2004 to 2009.[/pullquote]

Cunningham and Shah furthered explained they don’t know for sure why this happened.

“While we would like to say something conclusive about the mechanisms post-decriminalization which led to the observed decreases in rape offenses and gonorrhea incidence, we are careful to note that this discussion on pathways is merely suggestive,” the authors wrote. “We are not claiming to have identified the causal channels which link the change in decriminalization to the behavioral outcomes of interest.”

In their hypothesis they argued that decriminalizing indoor prostitution made it easier for female sex workers to negotiate rates with customers. Cunningham and Shah said research in the 1990’s found that indoor sex workers were victimized less than outdoor sex workers. They assumed that since the sex workers were inside, they were safer.

Amnesty International will meet again in October to develop a policy surrounding the measure.

To find out more information about the measure, visit www.amnesty.org.

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