Sex trade workers
David P. Lewis /

October 8, 2015; Reason

In August, NPQ covered Amnesty International’s announcement that its delegates had voted to support a policy change that decriminalizes the sex trade, which would include legalizing operation of brothels and use of prostitution services for both buyers and sellers. About 400 members of the organization from 60 different countries voted at a meeting in Dublin, Ireland, to pass the policy, which Amnesty says took two years of research to construct.

Amnesty contends that decriminalization of the sex trade is the best avenue to support prostitutes and reduce the risks of the work, which sometimes includes physical and sexual violence, extortion, and arrest. According to Amnesty, research supports the position that criminalization of sex work has actually contributed to human rights violations. Allowing sex workers to operate out in the open instead will help better regulate the risks.

“The policy proposed by Amnesty International aims to provide greater human rights protection for sex workers—who are often among the most marginalized women in society—by arguing for greater protection and empowerment of women sex workers,” says the organization on its website. “Gender inequality and discrimination can have a major influence on women’s entry into sex work. We are not naive or blasé about this problem. But we do not think that criminalizing women for their lack of choices or using criminal laws and police practices that make their lives less safe is the answer to this problem.”

Following the vote of the delegates, Amnesty’s 12-member board will now construct the final draft that will be used to persuade governments around the world to repeal laws that forbid the economic trade of sex. However, almost immediately after the policy was proposed in July and subsequently voted for in August, it was strongly criticized by human rights organizations worldwide for effectively legalizing exploitation and violence against sex workers as perpetrated by those who profit form the sex trade, including buyers and facilitators.

Some of the specific criticisms that have been lobbied against Amnesty International were iterated at a press conference held by the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE) in a panel discussion with vice president Lisa Thompson and Dr. Eleanor Gaetan, the senior legislative advisor for the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women and a member of Amnesty International. In response to the policy, NCOSE is launching a campaign, “No Amnesty For Pimps.” (NCOSE, in its former guise as anti-pornography organization Morality in Media, has previously launched campaigns against, or spoken out about, the magazine Cosmopolitan, the American Library Association, and the film version of the novel Fifty Shades of Grey.)

Both Gaetan and Thompson noted the lack of transparency in not only the vote that took place in August, but also research surrounding the policy itself and the subsequent vote that will take place among the 12 board members. The initial vote among the 400 delegates was confidential and the precise votes are not available. Moreover, according to Gaetan and Thompson, the research supporting the policy proposal has also not been made available, nor has the public been notified when the final vote will take place with the board members.

“Of course, because they have kept their study secret, we’re not sure what they based this decision on. But it’s a wrong decision,” said Gaetan at the press conference.

Amnesty notes generally on its website the research was derived from “extensive work done by organizations such as World Health Organization, UN AIDS, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health and other UN agencies. We also looked at the positions of others such as Anti-Slavery International and the Global Alliance in Trafficking in Women. We conducted detailed research, interviewing more than 200 sex workers—and former sex workers, the police, governments and other agencies in Argentina, Hong Kong, Norway and Papua New Guinea.”

Gaetan also went on to the call the process “undemocratic” and is “thrilled” that there are several organizations fighting the policy. She believes the secrecy on Amnesty’s part is due to the fact that many members of the organization are opposed to the policy.

The crux of the disagreement between Amnesty’s policy and the stance of NCOSE and other groups is whether sex work can be considered a viable job position. Amnesty’s policy implies that sex workers can and should be treated as workers in an attempt to improve their conditions.

“We believe that decriminalization would help tackle trafficking,” says Amnesty on its website. “When sex work is decriminalized, sex workers are better able work together and demand their rights, leading to better working conditions and standards and greater oversight of commercial sex and potential trafficking within it.”

But opponents believe we shouldn’t be helping to improve sex workers’ positions or provide greater oversight; rather, we should be working to eradicate prostitution altogether. They say that the very act is inherently exploitative and violent, an attack on human rights directly in contradiction to Amnesty’s mission. Instead, according to Gaetan, Amnesty’s campaign is based on the “fiction” that Amnesty is helping vulnerable workers, when in fact it is only aiding in their victimization.

Others have also voiced criticism about the premise behind the proposal that sex work is a legitimate job. “It is the myth of the happy prostitute who does this as a free choice,” said Margot Wallstrom, Sweden’s foreign minister. “Unfortunately, I can now hear people saying ‘hurrah’—all those johns and pimps who run the brothels. It’s a multibillion-euro industry.”—Shafaq Hasan