Amnesty should support decriminalisation of sex work

This post was originally written for Lib Dem Voice.

This month, Amnesty International delegates will vote on a proposal to make decriminalisation of sex work a campaigning matter for the human rights organisation. This, understandably, has raised ire from many people, but none so large as parts of the feminist movement.

Just last week, we saw several Hollywood actors – ordinarily staunch allies of Amnesty’s work – sign an open letter promulgated by the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women calling for Amnesty to reject the policy. One notable signatory was Anne Hathaway, who received an Oscar two years ago for her portrayal of Fantine in Les Miserables.

Fantine’s story is one that resembles that of many sex workers – after losing her job at Valjean’s factory, and being unable to make ends meet, she turns to selling sex at the docks of Montrieul. Eventually, after she is assaulted by a client, Javert arrests her and sentences her to prison. Only through Valjean’s intervention is Fantine able to die a free woman. Would criminalisation have helped Fantine? Obviously not; solicitation was highly illegal in 19th century France. In addition, like many of these laws, it was a law only ever utilised against the poorest workers. Hugo’s message in telling Fantine’s story was not one against prostitution; it was one of moral judgement failing the most in need.
In a comment piece for the Observer, CATW board member Esohe Aghatise called for the rejection of decriminalised models such as that used in New Zealand in favour of the Nordic model of criminalising clients. She describes the former as failing spectacularly and the latter as working. But nothing could be further from the truth.
To back her claim that decriminalisation hasn’t worked in New Zealand, Aghatise cites a report that apparently states that sex workers are not more likely to report crimes to the police than before decriminalisation. She must not have read the report properly, as it states that over two thirds of sex workers state that they were more likely to report crimes. Furthermore, it proposes mutually beneficial models, such as those working in Christchurch over there and Liverpool over here, as a way of reducing stigmatisation.
Secondly, criminalisation of clients doesn’t work in the Nordic countries. Even a Swedish government report set up to report favourably on the Swedish law stated that there was no evidence that the law had reduced trafficking, the number of clients, or the number of workers.
Also, Amnesty’s own research into Norway paints a harrowing picture: street workers are more likely to receive anti-migrant abuse, the Norwegian police run programmes to get sex workers evicted from their homes, and those workers who are able to stay must take liberties with their safety because of the law.
We should be realistic: sex work is not without its flaws. Sexual exploitation remains a massive problem in society, after all. We must not pretend that abolition through criminalisation is a panacea. When we talk about the exploitative systems in play in the sex industy, we’re actually talking about exploitation in an uncaring neoliberal world. Yet the “progressive” forces behind the criminalisation effort, from Labour here to the Social Democratic parties in Scandinavia, persist in cutting taxes on the rich and welfare on the poor with no regard for their impact on their society or their historical principles.
There is nothing moral about taking away a woman’s autonomy and entrepreneurial spirit and forcing her to work behind a shop counter for a paltry welfare payment. There is nothing moral by pretending to care about disadvantaged migrant workers, then raiding their flats and deporting them. The only way to reduce exploitation of any kind is to starve the beast that feeds it. Only by liberating people from ignorance, poverty, and conformity can we hope to see a more stronger and fairer society.

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