It just couldn’t be clearer. “Amnesty International is opposed to the criminalization or punishment of activities related to the buying or selling of consensual sex between adults.” Thus begins a recently leaked document from the famed human rights organization calling for an end to prohibitions on sex work. Ironically perhaps, the most important, and controversial portion of this document may be the definitions section.
The section defines the words “sex work,” sex worker,” “child,” and “criminalization.” Amnesty International in a few sentences does what few other “human rights” organizations working in the sex work and human trafficking sphere seem to be able to do. Amnesty here defines sex work as work, making a clear delineation between employment and slavery.
Human trafficking is a very real problem. But when it comes to trafficking for the purpose of sex, proponents of legislation have left the definition of trafficking purposefully murky. Definitions frequently include anyone who travels to do sex work.
This is because many of the prominent activists and organizations behind anti-trafficking efforts are opposed to sex work and/or migration. As Maggie McNeill details, anti-prostitution campaigners paint the typical sex worker as a child slave, while governments use anti-trafficking laws to restrict migration. And that ill-intended confusion muddies the entire debate.
The debate is worth having, as “Individuals make transactional arrangements with regard to sexual relationships that are not always a matter of direct coercion, but rather a reflection of limited options.” But in our well-meaning attempts to recognize the structural and cultural limits women face as they try to better themselves, we cannot lose sight of the admittedly limited choices women can make. We cannot open doors for women by further limiting their available options or denying them agency by calling their choices coercion.
The fact is, as Amnesty International points out, “Criminalizing or otherwise punishing people for their choices in selling or buying consensual sex in any way fails to address these structural inequalities, and rather serves to further disempower individuals.”
In other words, to help poor women we “must focus on empowering the disenfranchised and directly addressing structural disadvantages such as poverty, not on devaluing their decisions and choices or criminalizing the contexts in which they live their lives.”
The document calls for sex workers to be engaged in any legislating on their behalf. This is in part due to the fact that, thus far, laws which restrict the sex trade have only one result which can be empirically demonstrated over time and wherever they’re implemented. Sex work regulations drive the sex trade further underground. This inhibits the ability of NGOs and law enforcement to work with sex workers to find and rescue victims of force, fraud, or coercion.
The Amnesty International document states: “We believe human rights principles requires policy-makers to value the voices of those who are directly affected by inequality and discrimination.”
Along similar lines, the UN Human Rights Council last year published a report from the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women which criticizes anti-trafficking measures which restrict sex workers.
According to the report, “Sex workers are negatively impacted by anti-trafficking measures.” Specifically, “The criminalisation of clients has not reduced trafficking or sex work, but has increased sex workers’ vulnerability to violence, harmed HIV responses, and infringed on sex workers’ rights.”
Furthermore, “Anti-trafficking discussions on demand have historically been stymied by anti-prostitution efforts to eradicate the sex work sector by criminalising clients, despite protests from sex workers rights groups and growing evidence that such approaches do not work.”
Amnesty International and the UN are just two of the latest human rights organizations who have been able to see through the appeals to emotion and hidden agendas around human trafficking. Looking at the actual effects of legislation for women and men in the sex trade reveals that legalization and decriminalization are the only humane and right-respecting ways forward.
Cathy Reisenwitz is an Editor at Young Voices and a D.C.-based writer and political commentator. She is Editor-in-Chief of Sex and the State and her writing has appeared in Forbes, the Chicago Tribune, Reason magazine, Talking Points Memo, the Washington Examiner and the Daily Caller.