Placard at an International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers protest. Credit: Steve Rhodes
The international council meeting of Amnesty International which starts today in Dublin will consider a resolution urging that sex work be decriminalized. This is accompanied by a draft policy on state obligations to respect, protect and fulfil the human rights of sex workers. The document is clear – the rights of sex workers are at stake, the organization has not changed its stance in opposition to forced labour and human trafficking, and it considers children who are involved in commercial sex to be victims of a grave human rights abuse.
The Amnesty International draft policy
One of the first things that struck me when reading Amnesty’s draft policy was that the voices and concerns of sex workers are central. The criminalization of brothel-keeping and solicitation is opposed because they ‘often force sex workers to work in ways which compromise their safety’ (for instance alone, or with shorter negotiations with clients). Criminalising clients, Amnesty notes, ‘can lead to sex workers having to take risks to protect their clients from detection by law enforcement’ (for example, visiting locations that the client, rather than the sex worker, has chosen). The last four pages of the document summarise research Amnesty undertook with sex workers across four geographical regions, featuring harrowing stories of repression and violence, frequently at the hands of the police.
However, the outpouring of opposition to Amnesty’s draft policy has ‘disappeared’ the bodies and rights of these sex workers. Instead we have been subjected to a moral panic focused on ‘pimps’, ‘Johns’, and mega-brothels’, and accusations that the organization is enshrining men’s rights to buy sex. Celebrities such as Meryl Streep, Anne Hathaway and Lena Dunham have given the voices of outrage a huge signal boost, signing a petition developed by the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women International urging Amnesty not to ‘legalise pimping’, and ignoring the fact that the draft policy is in fact focused on human rights abuses against sex workers.
Amnesty’s policy, based on listening to sex workers, consultation with key stakeholders and research by organisations such as UNAIDS and the WHO, has been turned on its head. Headlines such as ‘There can be no amnesty for those who buy sex – not even if women ‘consent” and ‘Amnesty International says prostitution is a human right – but it’s wrong’ have shifted the focus away from the rights of sex workers and on to a massive bout of shadowboxing against the fictional rights of ‘punters’ and ‘pimps’. The furore has reached such a fever pitch that Amnesty’s Senior Director for Campaigns was forced to clarify, in a letter to the New York Times, that the organisation’s motives were to protect sex workers and nobody else.
The ‘disappearing’ of sex workers here is not a new or isolated phenomenon – as Amnesty itself acknowledged in its draft policy, sex workers’ voices are often obscured or ignored in discussions about their lives. The Sex Worker Open University notes that sometimes whole events are held about the sex industry in which sex workers are explicitly excluded. Sex workers who advocate for labour rights are frequently shouted over by abolitionists deploying stories of exited and traumatised ‘prostitution survivors’. These narratives, of course, are valid – but they are invariably presented as though they represent the truth of the industry, played as the trump card so sex workers with different realities end up silenced, having lost the game.
Sometimes interventions made in support of sex workers’ rights also render them invisible in disastrous ways. Just yesterday, right-wing think-tank the Institute of Economic Affairs released a paper authored by sociologist Catherine Hakim arguing that the sex industry should be legalized because 21st century men have a ‘sex deficit’ which needs to be addressed. It also suggested that the sex industry plays an important social function in lowering the rate of sex crime, in the process reducing sex workers to a pressure valve for men’s violence, on behalf of more privileged women.
Although people of all genders work in the sex industry, the symbolic ‘sex worker’ is often a woman, which is an erasure of many others. Furthermore, this symbolic ‘sex worker’ is frequently not a person but a metaphor for patriarchy and ‘male violence’, or a willing dupe of these systems who deserves to be blamed. Indeed, as sex worker Molly Smith argues, the violence criminalization inflicts on sex workers is often seen as necessary, in order to protect ‘good women’ from harm. The idea of ‘false consciousness’ is used to erase sex workers’ humanity and invalidate their consent. All these themes have been evident in the opposition to the Amnesty draft policy, as well as the notion of all sex work as abuse which implies that it is not possible to sexually assault a sex worker. Because of beliefs like this, sex workers who are raped can disappear as victims and find it difficult to access support.
The Amnesty draft policy recognizes that the disappearance and stigmatization of sex workers is at the core of human rights abuses against them. Violent men target sex workers, mainly women, because they know they barely count as people at all: often working alone and in conditions not of their own choosing, and disbelieved or re-victimised by the police if they dare to report assault. Amnesty’s opponents, focused on the implications of its draft policy for ‘pimps’ and ‘Johns’, are unable to hear these sex workers' voices and prefer policy frameworks which put them at risk. Their concern for human rights, unlike Amnesty’s, seems to apply to some women and not others.