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Twisting Amnesty’s proposal to decriminalize sex workers

Sexual Politics
Human Rights

Demonstration against criminalization of clients of sex workers in Glasgow in 2013. Organized by Sex Worker Open University. by Jannica Honey

Why are we still confused by the idea that sex workers have human rights? asks Beulah Devaney.

This week Amnesty International is holding its international council meeting in Dublin. On Friday it will discuss a proposal that has garnered headlines, editorials, counter-editorials, petitions, counter-petitions and the attention of Meryl Streep: should sex work be decriminalized?

In this case, ‘decriminalization’ is not the same as legalization and it does not mean that every aspect of the sex trade should be decriminalized. Amnesty is clear that it still believes that human trafficking, child rape and other harmful activities should remain illegal and offenders should be punished by the state. What Amnesty is calling for is that no person, adult or minor, should be punished for selling their own sexual services and that the state should not punish those who purchase sexual services.

This draft proposal has included 2 years of consultations with experts at various UN agencies, including the World Health Organization and, most importantly, actual sex workers. It has also included close examination of countries like Sweden where it is currently not illegal to sell sex, but it is illegal to buy or facilitate the buying of sex. Motivated by its findings, Amnesty is proposing that decriminalization is one of many ways the organization can advocate for sex workers’ human rights.

Unfortunately not everyone agrees that this human rights organization should concern itself with the human rights of sex workers. A recent editorial in the Guardian suggested that Amnesty is ‘poised to make a serious mistake’ and that the proposal is ‘a distraction from Amnesty’s core mission’. A number of high-profile feminists in the Britain and the US have spoken out against the proposal and Hollywood has entered into the fray, with celebrities like Anne Hathaway, Lena Dunham, Kate Winslet and Meryl Streep claiming that the proposal would ‘legalize pimping’.

The reasons for this deliberate misunderstanding and twisting of Amnesty’s proposals are difficult to unpick, especially as opposition to decriminalization has united some unlikely political bedfellows. There are relatively few issues on which the Daily Mail, Kate Winslet and shock-hack Julie Bindel stand shoulder to shoulder, but this is one of them.

Bindel claims responsibility for ‘exposing’ Amnesty’s plan in the Daily Mail, and in an article for the Guardian she details all the ways decriminalization will hurt women. It would be a very compelling and shocking argument if it were true, but Bindel goes down the now-familiar route of implying that supporting sex workers is the same as supporting the sex trade. While Amnesty remains focused on fighting for sex workers’ human rights, the story being told is that Amnesty believes that sex is a human right.

So why is this the story being told?

Among the many voices condemning the proposals, the Guardian has done what few other newspapers have bothered to do: give sex workers a voice. ‘In this prostitution debate, listen to sex workers, not Hollywood stars’ wrote Molly Smith, a Scottish sex worker who debunks many of the inaccuracies surrounding Amnesty’s proposals. But the fact that Smith’s article was placed between Bindel’s self-aggrandizing scaremongering and the Guardian’s dismissive editorial makes it difficult to avoid concluding that sex workers, the main focus of the Amnesty report, are a secondary concern to the media.

After the publication of that Guardian editorial, Smith took to Twitter to explain the sense of betrayal that she felt at the decision to label decriminalization ‘a distraction’. It is not an unusual experience for sex workers to have to fight for their voices to be heard on issues affecting them, only to be left feeling betrayed by the mainstream media. The fact that many have applauded Amnesty for consulting with sex workers shows that such inclusion is still relatively rare.

The consistent exclusion of sex workers by both the mainstream media and anti-sex worker activists is the reason that Amnesty’s proposals have been so deliberately misinterpreted. There is puritanism at the heart of most mainstream, Western feminism. High-profile feminists do a great deal to shape the discussion around women’s rights and they are currently showing their bias. For many, there is a sense that sex workers have somehow betrayed the sisterhood.

The same writers who claim that sex work victimizes women are apparently unable to see that the people they are so quick to label as ‘victims’ also have human rights that need protecting. In their proposals Amnesty highlighted that many sex workers sell their sexual services through economic necessity. This is a concept that many campaigns skim over when talking about the evils of sex work, preferring to see sex workers as either victims or in league with human traffickers and pimps.

For many followers of the debate around decriminalization, this wilful misreading of Amnesty’s intentions has not come as a surprise. Until we follow Amnesty’s lead and give sex workers the respect and the platforms they need to advocate for themselves, there will always be people willing to dismiss the concept of sex workers’ human rights as ‘a distraction’.

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