Sex work and Amnesty

Amnesty International: In Solidarity, Uphold Human RightsOne of the commonest distortions of the resolution Amnesty International voted on this August is that Amnesty want to make sex work a human right.

What Amnesty International resolved to do

develop a policy that supports the full decriminalization of all aspects of consensual sex work. The policy will also call on states to ensure that sex workers enjoy full and equal legal protection from exploitation, trafficking and violence.

I’d say this distortion from “protect the human rights of sex workers” to “sex work is a human right” was bizarre, except that I have seen similar distortions before, when Amnesty finally agreed that in a very limited set of circumstances (such as pregnancy caused by rape, especially in a war zone) they would treat access to abortion as a human right, and that they would treat healthcare – medical support of a girl or a woman who’s had an illegal abortion and needs treatment – as a human right. That got distorted too.

So, Amnesty International are taking the position that sex work should be decriminalised, in order to protect the human rights of sex workers.

The Hazards Campaign - We didn't vote to die at workWhat is the problem with this? Sex workers are human: human rights are universal. As a trade unionist I support the Hazards campaign: equal health and safety standards for all workers.

From “Sex Work and Health: A Question of Safety in the Workplace” by Priscilla Alexander:

Sex work is an occupation or trade involving exchange of sexual services for economic compensation. A Medline search for January 1994 to October 1997 using the terms “prostitution” and “occupational health” produced a null set, while a search using only “prostitution” pulled more than 375 citations. And yet, health problems associated with prostitution, such as sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and violence, are commonly assumed to be “risks of the trade.”

In the first instance, this can and has led many people—ranging from public health practitioners to the ordinary person in the street—to assume that prostitutes bear the primary responsibility for the propagation of STDs in the general population. In the second case, it has led some, particularly police, themselves at increased risk of violence, to think that violence is just something prostitutes should expect and the police can ignore.

Where health funding for sex workers is seen as primarily about protecting the wider population from STDs transmitted by sex workers, cuts to this funding can be justified by arguing that when risk profiles change, funding should be diverted from sex workers to groups seen as more worthy of healthcare.

When sex work is perceived as a crime, sex workers are not perceived first and foremost as workers with a right to health and safety at work.

Another problem in arguments against Amnesty International’s resolution, that Mallory Ortberg of The Toast notes (in her response to an article on sex work in GQ by Taffy Brodesser-Akner) “the premise that people who get involved in sex work are stupid and shallow and unable to think for themselves”.

I don’t doubt that Taffy experienced a lot of misogyny and awful behavior, and it’s her descriptions of the sometimes-clueless, sometimes-selfish, often-entitled sugar daddies in question that often ring truest and made me laugh. But she focuses on personalities at the expense of systems, and never goes beyond the premise that people who get involved in sex work are stupid and shallow and unable to think for themselves. And I’ve seen that article many times before, and I’m not particularly interested in reading it over and over as new generations of middle-class women “discover” the fact that a lot of women and queer people and men exchange sex or dancing or videos of themselves or their underwear for money and plane tickets and food and gifts.

I can understand being uncomfortable with the idea and some of the realities of sex work; I have been uncomfortable about it myself, at various times in my life. But I don’t believe that the discomfort of someone who is not involved in sex work in any meaningful way ought to dictate the conversation. Or even be a part of it! You can just feel some discomfort and, you know, sit with that in a quiet room for a while, and then carry on with your life.

Several points raised by Anna Djinn in her blog The Feminista Hood outline common misunderstandings of this policy. Djinn asserts that Amnesty International is ignoring international human rights treaties, and references the 1949 Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others.

But Amnesty International’s resolution states:

States have the obligation to prevent and combat trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation and to protect the human rights of victims of trafficking.
States have an obligation to ensure that sex workers are protected from exploitation and can use criminal law to address acts of exploitation.

Criminalising sex work helps to create sex workers as a discriminated-against group which diminishes their ability to demand health and safety at work, and ensures that sex workers are less able to appeal to the police and other agencies for protection against criminal exploitation and violence.

Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International, says:

“Sex workers are one of the most marginalized groups in the world who in most instances face constant risk of discrimination, violence and abuse. Our global movement paved the way for adopting a policy for the protection of the human rights of sex workers which will help shape Amnesty International’s future work on this important issue.

“The violations that sex workers can be exposed to include physical and sexual violence, arbitrary arrest and detention, extortion and harassment, human trafficking, forced HIV testing and medical interventions. They can also be excluded from health care and housing services and other social and legal protection.

The policy has drawn from an extensive evidence base from sources including UN agencies, such as the World Health Organization, UNAIDS and the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health. We have also conducted research in four countries.”

This isn’t a radical position, just an unusual one, as this quote from the British Medical Journal illustrates:

There is now a well-established body of epidemiological and social science research globally pointing to the negative impact of legislation and policies that criminalise sex work on violence and other health risks including HIV/sexually transmitted infection (STI) among sex workers. The criminalisation of some or all aspects of prostitution remains the dominant legal approach globally, despite growing empirical evidence and clear international guidelines by the WHO, UNAIDS, UNDP and UNFPA calling for full decriminalisation of sex work as necessary to promoting the health and human rights of sex workers. [emphasis mine])

My own feelings about sex work/prostitution are frankly mixed.

But I feel strongly that the feminist and human rights position is that regardless of my personal/political views on sex work and punters, the health, safety, and wellbeing of sex workers should be the first priority.

In the Health and Human Rights Journal last year:

Some sex workers are responding to trafficking through community oversight and outreach. Sex workers are the first to recognize and make contact with peers in areas where they live or work. This approach, which evolved in the context of HIV programs to identify new sex workers, has also been followed successfully to counter trafficking. Ironically, it is the fear of arrest and prosecution for a sex work or trafficking-related crime that dissuades sex workers from reporting trafficked persons to authorities.

Several opponents of Amnesty International’s resolution have argued that they support the “Nordic Model” – criminalise the punters, not the sex workers.

Writing in The National, Carolyn Leckie says:

I want to see real alternatives to prostitution, backed by the United Nations and other global bodies, so that those ensnared within the industry have a visible and realistic route out of the twilight zone. But if we are to build a world in which all human beings are equal, those who demand to rent the orifices of other human beings and those who make themselves rich by degrading other human beings should not be legitimised.

Penalising/shaming punters might be emotionally satisfying, but not worth it if (as the Nordic model has shown) this endangers sex workers – both physically putting them at more risk from their clients and medically creating a greater risk to their health.

Elizabeth Nolan Brown writes in Time magazine last year:

Conceptually, the [Nordic or Swedish Model] strips women of agency and autonomy. Under the Swedish model, men “are defined as morally superior to the woman,” notes author and former sex worker Maggie McNeill in an essay for the Cato Institute. “He is criminally culpable for his decisions, but she is not.” Adult women are legally unable to give consent, “just as an adolescent girl is in the crime of statutory rape.”

From a practical standpoint, criminalizing clients is just the flip side of the same old coin. It still focuses law enforcement efforts and siphons tax dollars toward fighting the sex trade. It still means arresting, fining and jailing people over consensual sex.

Molly Smith, an Edinburgh-based sex worker, wrote in response to those opposing Amnesty:

However, the reality of criminalising those who pay for our services is that sex workers are left with fewer clients, including men who we might otherwise have felt able to turn away – those who seem drunk, aggressive or who have a reputation for violence.

Furthermore, by prioritising the supposed “eradication” of the sex industry, these laws empower police officers to harass, evict and deport migrant sex workers.

This has nothing to do with opposing trafficking: generally speaking, actions against human trafficking and trafficked sex workers are carried out without any regard for the trafficked sex workers human rights and wellbeing. This has nothing to do with opposing sex work on principle: endangering sex workers won’t make sex work not happen, it will only hazard the lives and well-being of sex workers.

Karen Hodes, a spokesperson for the Sex Workers Outreach Project, says that many anti-trafficking organisations have spoken out in support of Amnesty’s proposal:

They’ve also stated that criminalization pushes things underground, that criminalization of clients get in the way of clients who are often frequently great at identifying and reporting incidences of trafficking. Criminalization actually increases trafficking and lots of mainstream anti-trafficking organizations have stated that. It’s misinformation that pits trafficking victims against the human rights of sex workers, and that conflict does not exist.

We can oppose trafficked labour on farms without finding it necessary to criminalise farm work or farmers. We can oppose trafficked labour and slavery on cocoa farms without criminalising chocolate-eaters.

Carolyn Leckie also quotes research done by The Women’s Support Project, based in Glasgow, on

the attitudes of buyers of sex. Their justifications eerily resemble the justifications of men who assault women. In the words of the research, “Prostitution, like battering, is embraced by punters as an institution that functions to restore their domination of women”.

Wives and partners are blamed for failing to provide enough sex. The absolute right to sexual satisfaction drips from the punters’ own mouths: “Prostitution is there to sate men’s lust”. The inequality and disrespect in the “transaction’ is clear: “There will always be supply and demand.”

I appreciate Carolyn Leckie’s anger. In Edinburgh, for some years, there were half-a-dozen massage parlours/saunas which were, effectively, licenced brothels. You couldn’t miss them (except for the only one targeted at men who have sex with men, which was clearly selling discretion as much as anything else). They present, in flashy lights, a sexualised view of women objectified by men. I disliked even walking past them. I appreciate Carolyn Leckie’s anger at punters who express such contempt for women.

But I don’t see that I have a right to put my dislike for either the look of the brothels or the attitudes of the punters above the health and safety at work of sex workers. I don’t see that anyone has the right to do that.

The licenced brothels of Edinburgh were safer places for sex workers to work. They enabled sex workers to have more power to choose and refuse punters and more control over insisting on safe sex. The alternatives, sex workers on the streets or working alone from a private residence, are not as safe. I say they were, because many have now been closed down.

In 2013, after a large-scale police raid on Edinburgh licenced brothels, the late Margo MacDonald, independent Edinburgh MSP, said

: “If this is a portent of a future change of direction for the management of prostitution, then we can only hope that it does not sweep aside decades of greater success achieved by Lothian and Borders and Grampian police in dealing with prostitution.

“That was achieved as a result of policies pursued by Grampian Police and Lothian and Borders Police, which differed from those pursued by Strathclyde Police.”

(I note also that ScotPEP, the Scottish sex-worker led charity, felt that in an exhibition in the Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA) last year, the Women’s Support Project had effectively prioritised the voices of punters above the individuality of women in sex work: sex workers depicted as blank-faced paper-doll cut-outs, punters given voice and agency. No consent was obtained by The Women’s Support Project from any of the sex workers depicted as blank-faced dolls in the exhbition, described only by the punters’ words.)

In Third Force News, Catriona Grant, also arguing against Amnesty International’s resolution, writes:

prostitution is about the unequal status of women in society, prostitution cements women’s inequality and discrimination. In the attempt to see prostitution and “sex work” as a workers’ rights issue, it fails to see it a violation of women’s human rights.

But would decriminalisation make women safer? The majority of “sex work” is about women selling sex to men. Who is being violent and abusive to the “sex workers”? The men who are buying sex; the pimps who push them to get on with it; their partners who may be coercing them; the police who fail to protect them. Prostitution involves violence and abuse. Amnesty’s policy doesn’t address the demand issue – why are men wanting to buy sex from women?

Why indeed? We might also ask: why do people still smoke tobacco, when it’s been known for decades to be highly addictive, an addiction that’s very hard to kick, and which has known and wide-ranging detrimental effects on a tobacco-smoker’s health. Still, if we followed through on the reasoning of those opposed to Amnesty International’s resolution, we would criminalise tobacco-smokers and the sellers of tobacco, while ignoring the welfare of people working on tobacco plantations, including children.

Does anyone think that would prevent people from selling or smoking tobacco, or help tobacco industry workers get their basic human rights, or make tobacco itself any safer to use?

No business is made safer by removing the people who work in it from the protection of the law.

Catriona Grant mentions police who fail to protect sex workers. True: as Margo MacDonald noted in 2013, where police are not required to interfere in sex work only because it is sex work, sex workers can freely call on the police for protection against violence and abuse without fearing that they’re risking their livelihood in doing so.

(Part of the police crackdown on the Edinburgh saunas was a proposal to remove condoms: apparently Police Scotland thought the presence of condoms only encouraged people to have sex. This, at least, was successfully resisted: even the Church of Scotland were heard to object.)

The hacking of the “cheaters site”, Ashley Madison, exposed its financial framework as well as the names of the men who had registered there hoping to find a woman to have an affair with. While some women had registered with Ashley Madison, the vast majority of the live profiles registered as female were bots – software designed to live-chat with men using the site, to get the men to pay the site money for more sexual chat and the fantasy of having an affair. That was Ashley Madison’s business model: sex work for bots. Fairly obviously, most straight men who registered with Ashley Madison never got to meet a woman via the site: the business model of Ashley Madison was to keep their bots messaging straight men who had registered with the site: to message back, a man had to pay out credits. It was to the benefit of Ashley Madison never to allow a man to be aware he was receiving automated messages from software, and to keep the man paying the site to get more messages.

Given that the men thought they’d registered with the site in order to cheat on their wives, it’s hard to find much sympathy for them, but it’s also illustrative of the purest model of sex work as an industry: men tell themselves they have “needs”, and women are supposed to provide for those needs. Ashley Madison simply eliminated women as sex workers, replacing sex workers with clerical workers who created fake female profiles on the website and coders who generated scripts for the bots to interact with straight men on the site.

Is this less exploitative? Are people who are making up fictional profiles for sex bots at minimum wage being treated less exploitatively than people who are doing sex work directly with punters?

What would sex work look like in a world without gender inequality? I can’t imagine: but I know we won’t get there by persecuting sex workers. [Update: Would it look like this?]

All three of the opponents of Amnesty International’s resolution that I have quoted mention in particular their outrage that Amnesty International’s decriminalisation policy will also decriminalise pimps and brothels.

In the state of Alaska, sex trafficking is illegal, and the police and the law define virtually all forms of prostitution as sex trafficking. A woman was arrested for sex trafficking for placing a contact ad for herself. Concern for abusive and exploitative relationships should logically be directed at abusers and exploiters. We know from the Edinburgh model that licenced brothels can provide a safer place to work for sex-workers than other options available to them.

I find it hard to type these words, but it is possible to look at “pimp” arrangements and see a difference between a professional manager who is providing the sex workers with assistance in exchange for a fee, and an exploitative or abusive relationship. This account of Amber Batts’ arrest in Alaska:

When Batts was 30, her husband lost his job and she first tried escorting. In the beginning, she worked for a manager she found in the back of the paper. It was only a few weeks before she realized that for the 50% he took she might as well do her own advertising and work on her own. She and a few other women rented an apartment together to work out of. [In the UK, sex workers who rent an apartment together to work from would be running a brothel, a crime for which they could be arrested and jailed.]

“I’ve always believed in women working together to better their lives,” Batts said. With the money she made, she was soon able to leave her unhappy marriage.

Since her arrest, the local media has portrayed Batts as someone who preyed on vulnerable youth, although she hasn’t been accused of exploiting minors. It upsets her to be portrayed as someone who would do that, she says, because, “I used to be one of those girls.”

“I’ve been a girl who has had to hand over fifty percent or more of her money to some guy who doesn’t do crap and just thinks that you should give him your money. I’ve seen those girls that want to get away from their pimp or want to get into a better work environment and didn’t know how to do anything. If anything I’ve—I hate to use the word rescue, but I was always trying to help and do the least harm.

“From the first time that I started working for that guy…there is a camaraderie between us women…We were always trying to help each other, trying to come up with solutions. If somebody couldn’t figure out how to pay their rent, okay, let’s try to figure this out…When I saw that we were giving some guy more than half of our money I was like, ‘we can do this, we don’t need to let some guy do this for us, we can do this.’ And that’s kind of how it all started.”

If the law doesn’t allow the courts or the police to distinguish between people who abuse and exploit sex workers, and sex workers working together for their own protection, it’s a bad law.

Two sex workers in Ireland describe their reaction to Amnesty International’s resolution passing:

Catriona O’Brien:

“I was in tears. I was on the edge of my seat, and I just couldn’t believe it. It took me about an hour to realise what impact this would have worldwide.
“On my (Twitter) feed there were sex workers from all over the world celebrating this decision. It isn’t just Western sex workers, it’s the ones in Thailand and Kenya as well.”

Kate McGrew argues that feminist groups opposing decriminalisation are:

“well-intentioned, but misguided”.
“The point can’t be whether it’s empowering or exploitative. The point is that it’s happening, so how do we keep people safe?
“I get that that’s really hard for people to understand, because they think, ‘Well I just don’t want it to exist, I just don’t like the idea of it.’ But I think sticking your head in the sand like that is really dangerous.”

Five LGBT legal and human rights organisations in the US responded to Amnesty International’s resolution:

Laws criminalizing sexual exchange—whether by the seller or the buyer—impede sex workers’ ability to negotiate condom use and other boundaries, and force many to work in hidden or remote places where they are more vulnerable to violence. Research and experience have shown that these laws serve only to drive the industry further underground, make workers less able to negotiate with customers on their own terms, and put those who engage in criminalized sex work at higher risk for abduction and sex trafficking. And as UNAIDS and the World Health Organization have recognized, criminalization also seriously hampers efforts to prevent and treat HIV/AIDS—efforts in which people involved in the sex trades are crucial partners.

We look forward to working together, with sex workers and sex workers’ rights advocates, and with Amnesty International, to replace laws that criminalize sex work with public policies that address sex workers’ real economic and safety needs.

Molly Smith again in Third Force News:

An increase in violence against us is seen an acceptable price to pay to “send a message” to clients; but if violence against us is acceptable collateral damage in a wider feminist project, the message sent is not only disgust towards our clients; it is also that sex workers are disposable. That violence against us doesn’t matter, or could even be useful as a tool to “shrink the industry”.

Nine, who worked for ScotPep until NHS Lothian cut two-thirds of its funding, writes in the Malaysian Times about the trial and sentencing of a sex worker:

neither a fine nor counselling will solve the issue of financial need, which is what drives people to engage in survival sex work in the first place.

Any effective approach to the sex industry needs to find solutions to this financial need, rather than take away – or render more dangerous – what can be, for many women, the only solution remaining.

I am certain that Carolyn Leckie and Catriona Grant will both respond that they want women to have other solutions to their financial needs than sex work. That’s admirable. People shouldn’t have to engage in survival-level subsistance work that they find unpleasant or distasteful, just because they need the money to live on. But many people do: this is not just a sex work problem. Focussing criminal law on sex work means ensuring that sex workers remain a vulnerable, discriminated-against, and exploited group.

Support for Amnesty International and for the human rights of sex workers, has nothing to do with any personal judgement about punters, or any feminist opposition to sex work. It’s important sex workers feel safe at work, are able to summon the police if they feel threatened or are harmed, are able to control their own earnings, are able to demand safe sex and refuse unwanted/unwelcome punters. If you disagree with any of that, you’re no feminist and not much of a human being either.

This is like abortion, and not only in the distortion of reports of Amnesty International’s decision to support access to abortion as a human right.

You may disagree with abortion as a matter of faith or principle: you might feel that many women make a decision to have an abortion when you feel they shouldn’t. You might even feel that the only reason most women need to have abortions is because they were careless with contraception. You might feel all of that, and I’d probably disagree with you, and that’s OK: but you beome a sad case for humanity if you think your feelings about abortion mean that women should be unable to freely access safe legal abortion.

Exactly so for sex workers. Sex workers should have the right to earn a living without being criminalised. Criminalising sex work doesn’t help sex workers.

First and foremost, health, safety, and wellbeing of sex workers is what matters. I see no evidence that opposing human rights, health and safety at work, will benefit an already exploited group.

I support Amnesty International.

Laurie Penny in the New Statesman, 26th May 2016: Let’s not abolish sex work. Let’s abolish all work.

1 Comment

Filed under Human Rights, Police, Poverty, Women

One response to “Sex work and Amnesty

  1. Brian

    This is an excellent piece – the position of anti-sex worker feminists is deeply reactionary.

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