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5 Reasons Decriminalization Protects Sex Workers' Rights

Amnesty International responds to controversy over recent policy change on decriminalizing sex work

Amnesty International says it "spent nearly three years conducting research and interviewing sex workers and their advocates in order to formulate a policy that calls for states to respect, protect, and fulfill the human rights of sex workers." Credit: Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty

Editor's note: This piece by Amnesty International USA's interim executive director was written in response to a recent article on RollingStone.com critical of the group's policy on decriminalizing prostitution.

As one of the largest human rights organizations in the world, Amnesty International's mission is to promote human rights for all and to protect people wherever justice is denied. Sex workers are among the most vulnerable populations in the world, at risk of abuse not only at the hands of clients or members of the public but by the police as well.

With that in mind, Amnesty International spent nearly three years conducting research and interviewing sex workers and their advocates in order to formulate a policy that calls for states to respect, protect, and fulfill the human rights of sex workers and to address any discrimination or inequalities that limit their choices in life. The policy includes decriminalizing sex work as one crucial step toward those goals. 

We know that there are those who disagree with this policy. In our research, we made it a point to not only speak with current and former sex workers who support decriminalization and are engaged in sex work by choice but also with those who oppose it. We weighed all of this input seriously with the understanding that everyone we spoke with felt strongly about the safety of those engaged in sex work and the need to address the social and economic conditions that make some feel as if they have no other choice but sex work.

Here are five reasons why decriminalization is a crucial component of protecting the human rights of sex workers.

1. Criminalizing buyers does not protect sex workers.
Our research included an examination of how the "Nordic model," which criminalizes the buying of sex, actually plays out. Such laws wound up putting sex workers in even more dangerous situations. Sex workers are often forced to put the protection of their clients above their own well-being. This pushes sex work further underground, making it difficult to seek help when needed. Sex workers are also forced to meet clients in hidden places where the risks to their safety are higher, rather than places where they know they will be safe.

2. Full decriminalization reduces the risk that sex workers will be vulnerable to discrimination, eviction or arrest for related charges.
Even in countries with the Nordic model, sex workers  have found it harder to organize among themselves or live together for protection, since they could be arrested for "enabling prostitution" or "operating a brothel." Landlords, too, have turned sex workers and their families out of their homes for fear of prosecution, or they have extorted sex workers for extra rent, knowing that sex workers risk eviction if they turn to police. For example, a sex worker named Mercy working in Norway described being raped and robbed in the house where she and eight others lived. Two days after reporting the crime, they were all evicted.

3. Decriminalizing sex work still means trafficking and other abuses are illegal.
Removing criminal penalties for sex work does not remove penalties for exploitation, forced labor, violence, trafficking, rape or sexual assault — including of minors. All of these are grave abuses, and anyone who commits these crimes or any other form of human trafficking or exploitation for labor must be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law.

4. Decriminalization is supported by leading human rights organizations, international bodies and medical experts.
This is the same policy held by other organizations and agencies, including Human Rights Watch, the World Health Organization, UNAIDS, leading HIV and AIDS groups and leading advocates for LGBTI rights. It is also supported by the medical journal The Lancet, which said that decriminalization "would have the greatest effect on the course of HIV epidemics across all settings, averting 33-46 percent of HIV infections in the next decade. Such a move would also reduce mistreatment of sex workers and increase their access to human rights, including health care."

5. Decriminalization is just one step in protecting the human rights of sex workers, but it is an important one.
We realize that decriminalization is not a magic bullet for all of the harms faced by sex workers. Which is why our policy also calls for governments to protect sex workers from harm, exploitation and coercion, and calls for education and employment options for sex workers. Sex workers must also have a say in developing laws that affect their lives and safety. But without decriminalization, they cannot expect equal treatment under the law to achieve these ends.