Amnesty International, an influential movement of more than 7 million human rights advocates around the world, adopted a new policy on sex work Wednesday night, urging governments to decriminalize and protect people engaged in the consensual exchange of sex for money.
The new policy, based on years of research and consultation with sex workers, urges governments to decriminalize both the buying and selling of consensual sex, to include sex workers in the development of laws that affect them, to protect them from "harm, exploitation and coercion" and to help them access education and employment options. The group said that while it still considers human trafficking and sexual exploitation to be "abhorrent human rights abuses," sex workers' lack of legal rights and fear of the police is marginalizing them and driving their work underground, where they are more likely to suffer physical abuse and less likely to seek legal and social services.
“Sex workers are among the most vulnerable people in society and are routinely subjected to violence, discrimination, and harassment," said Margaret Huang, interim executive director of Amnesty International USA. "They cannot turn to the police and have very few options for protection."
As part of its research, Amnesty interviewed sex workers in Norway, Hong Kong, Argentina and Papua New Guinea, which have varying policies on sex work. In Norway, it's illegal to buy sex but not to sell it. While the policy is more liberal than most other countries, sex workers still reported feeling afraid of law enforcement.
"I went to the house of a man. He punched me two times in the jaw. I didn't tell the police," one sex worker told the researcher. "I don't want it on my records."
Amnesty International joins a number of other human rights groups in calling for the decriminalization of sex work, including Human Rights Watch, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health and the World Health Organization. The policy announcement comes just ahead of a high-level UN meeting on HIV/AIDS in June, in which the United States is a participant.
"The timing of this is really important," said Serra Sippel, president of the Center for Health and Gender Equity. "Sex workers are disproportionately affected by HIV because of not having access to legal systems, and because of stigma and discrimination. Having Amnesty take a public policy in support of countries decriminalizing sex work will have a real impact [in terms of pressuring] governments to step up their efforts."
While many human rights groups and women's rights groups applauded the policy change, conservative groups are not pleased. The National Center on Sexual Exploitation, an anti-pornography group, said decriminalizing sex work will only encourage human trafficking.
“Full decriminalization of prostitution is a gift to pimps, sex buyers, and sex traffickers,” said Dawn Hawkins, executive director of the group. “Under Amnesty International’s irresponsible policy these exploiters become mere ‘sex business operators’ and ‘customers,’ and the sexual violence and abuse inherent to prostitution is normalized as a form of ‘work.’"