By Re (via Glammonitor)
One of the biggest human rights organizations in the world is considering changing its policies to begin advocating for the decriminalization of “all aspects of sex work”—a move which would see them calling on countries not to prosecute sex workers, pimps, brothel owners or buyers of sex—the pillars of a $99 billion global sex industry.
UNAIDS and Human Rights Watch also support the decriminalization, arguing that it is the best way to decrease human trafficking and exploitation of both minors and sex workers, although there has been some high-profile opposition to the proposal led by the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women and several celebrities.
Amnesty will hold a vote on Tuesday at its international council meeting in Dublin to decide whether to move forward with the draft proposal.
“Sex workers are one of the most marginalized groups in the world so it is important that we understand how, as Amnesty International, we can work to support their human rights,” says Robyn Shepherd, deputy press secretary of Amnesty International.
Meredith Dank, Urban Institute senior research associate behind the recent study, “Surviving the Streets of New York: Experience of LGBTQ Youth, YMSM and YWSW Engaged in Survival Sex,” explains that there are many drivers pushing individuals into sex work.
“There really is a spectrum when it comes to people who are engaged in the commercial sex industry. You have on the one side people who are forced, fraud or coerced into doing it, but then you have on the other side individuals who voluntarily go into this, having other options in how they can make money and get their bills paid,” she says.
“But I think what’s often left out…is those individuals where there might not be a third party exploiter or maybe they had somebody in their life like that for a brief period of time, but they’re really engaging in that to have their basic needs met and have very little options to find employment, to get food and to have shelter. There’s a lot of constrained choice into their entering into that market.”
These are the people who are all too often left out of the conversation, many of whom are LGBTQ sex workers, an often stigmatized group a part of an already stigmatized industry.
“For many of them, they’ve been kicked out of their homes because of their sexual orientations, their gender identities, and having very few places to go without having that social safety net to fall back on, they end up on the streets,” Dank explains.
“They find their ways to get by and that’s by trading sex, going home with strangers sometimes in exchange for money, or sometimes just in exchange for a place to sleep and to shower,”she adds.
But of course there’s more to it than that. Sex workers—trans women in particular—are profiled and targeted by police, making it difficult to just get by each day.
Violence manifests as a direct result of stigmatization, and it is only compounded by criminal laws that make sex workers the focus of punitive police responses, compromising their safety. Children as young as 13 are arrested for prostitution, incarcerated and often subjected to more abuse in the process.
Back in 2012, talk surrounding policing by way of condom searches infiltrated the feminist blogosphere. At that time, carrying condoms could get you arrested, but more often police would confiscate or destroy condoms as an intimidation tactic.
“For many sex workers, particularly transgender women, arrest means facing degrading treatment and abuse at the hands of the police…fear of arrest overwhelmed their need to protect themselves from HIV, other sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy,” according to a HRW report released in 2012, which found that sex workers and those profiled as sex workers, particularly trans women, were arrested for as little as carrying a single condom in prostitution free zones.
Now, police are not supposed to include condoms as evidence of involvement in the commercial sex industry unless it’s a sex trafficking case, though whether or not that is actually being followed is to be determined with follow up research, Dank says.
Nonetheless reluctant to carry condoms, sex workers are at further risk of HIV, especially trans individuals who already run a higher risk of infection. In San Francisco, one of three transgender women has HIV and in Los Angeles, the Department of Health has identified HIV prevention for transgender women as an “urgent” priority.
To fuel the fire, stigma surrounding sex work impedes the realization of workers’ human rights, and “othering” makes women less inclined to get tested. In any case, they often cannot afford to seek medical attention, as their work is not recognized to warrant healthcare.
“Health-wise, by looking at the pornography industry, you’re going to open more doors to people seeking out medical assistance and getting checked more frequently and things of that sort,” Dank says of decriminalizing sex work. “There isn’t going to be a stigma or shame, in addition to a cost, if they can access those things more easily.”
According to Amnesty’s draft, all of the organization’s positions—including those on gender equality, violence against women, non-discrimination, human trafficking, sexual and reproductive rights, and access to justice—apply equally to sex workers as to any individuals, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
The policy, based on principles of harm reduction and the human rights principles of physical integrity and autonomy, reflects a growing body of research indicating that varying forms of criminalization expose sex workers—particularly those from marginalized demographics—to increased risk of human rights abuses.
“This is a divisive, sensitive and complex issue and it is important that we get it right. That is why we have been working for the last two years to develop a proposed policy to protect the human rights of sex workers based on solid research and consultation with stakeholders,” says Shepherd.
“The current draft has drawn from an extensive evidence base from sources including UN agencies, such as the World Health Organization, UN AIDS, UN Women and the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to health. We have also conducted detailed research in four countries.”
Amnesty International defines criminalization as “measures that directly seek to punish sex workers through sanctions such as criminal prosecution, detention and/or fines because of their involvement in sex work. It also refers to the indirect criminalization of sex workers through laws which, in prohibiting activities associated with sex work, such as buying sexual services or general organization of sex work, proscribe actions that sex workers take to manage their safety, and, in doing so, violate sex workers’ human rights, including their rights to security of person, to just and favorable conditions of work and to health.”
Advocates for decriminalization argue that the current legal framework in the U.S., which makes prostitution illegal in 49 states, has not eradicated the trade in prostitution. It has only driven it underground, leaving sex workers vulnerable to discrimination. This diminishes sex workers’ capacity for organized political action and rids them of their rights for legal action as both workers and human beings.
Decriminalization of sex work does not mean the total absence of regulations, but rather, any regulation must comply with international human rights law in that it must be for a legitimate purpose, provided by law, necessary for and proportionate to the legitimate aim sought to be achieved, and not discriminatory.
A look at New Zealand’s decriminalization of prostitution, promoted by sex workers and legalized brothels, reveals a 70 percent greater likelihood of violence being reported to the police, widespread use of a government guide on health and safety practices and a 33 to 47 percent reduction in HIV infections in sex workers. The number of sex workers also dropped from 5,932 at the time of decriminalization to 2,332 four years later.
However, celebrities like Kate Winslet, Anne Hathaway and Meryl Streep, among others, signed a CATW letter addressed to Amnesty, arguing that countries that have moved toward decriminalization have seen “catastrophic effects” and say that decriminalization “will in effect support a system of gender apartheid.” They are calling on Amnesty to support keeping the purchase of sex illegal but not the criminalization of sex workers themselves, an approach based on Sweden’s prostitution law that is favored by many anti-prostitution activists.
They write, “We firmly believe and agree with Amnesty that human beings bought and sold in the sex trade, who are mostly women, must not be criminalized in any jurisdiction and that their human rights must be respected and protected to the fullest extent. We also agree that, with the exception of a few countries, governments and law enforcement grievously violate prostituted individuals’ human rights. However, what your ‘Draft Policy on Sex Work’ is incomprehensibly proposing is the wholesale decriminalization of the sex industry, which in effect legalizes pimping, brothel owning and sex buying.”
“Decriminalization of the sex trade renders brothel owners ‘businessmen’ who with impunity facilitate the trafficking of very young women predominantly from the poorest countries of Eastern Europe and the Global South to meet the increased demand for prostitution.”
Harm reduction is not enough, they write—governments and civil society must invest in harm elimination.
They cite research indicating that the Netherlands has seen an exponential increase in sex trafficking linked to the government’s decriminalization of the sex industry in 2000. Up to 90 percent of the women in Amsterdam’s brothels, they write, are Eastern European, African and Asian women who are being patronized by predominantly Caucasian men.
The letter also points to Germany, which deregulated prostitution in 2002 but the move did not make it safer for women. Instead, an explosive growth of legal brothels in Germany has only triggered an increase in sex trafficking.
It’s difficult to compare what has and has not worked across countries in an industry that primarily operates underground, and to then predict what might work in the U.S. But Dank’s study, based on interviews with 283 young people in New York City, found one thing to be certain: young people experience violence largely at the hands of law enforcement and service agencies meant to keep them safe.
“71 percent have been arrested at least one time in their lives….The criminal justice system is just a constant presence in their lives,” she explains. “When you are trying to find some stability in your life, when you’re living in the street or there are other factors happening, the criminal justice system’s harassment and arrests are not helping these people at all—and are also part of the drivers that are pushing them into engaging in [the commercial sex market].”