Amnesty International has found itself in a controversy over its new draft policy on sex work, that calls for “the highest possible protection of the human rights of sex workers, through measures that include the decriminalisation of sex work.” A group of well-known celebrities has penned a letter denouncing the draft policy, and journalists are voicing their dissent.
At times the misrepresentations of Amnesty International’s claims are blatantly dishonest. Jessica Neuwirth, for example, suggest Amnesty has “been hijacked by proponents of the global sex trade,” and falsely implies that they called prostitution a human right. At no point in the draft policy does Amnesty say prostitution itself is a human right, but that their concern is protecting against human rights abuses against sex workers, including: stigma and discrimination; physical and sexual violence; and criminalization that prevents access to health care.
Others have come to Amnesty’s defense, arguing that we should be listening to the voices* of the sex workers themselves, rather than to Hollywood celebrities. The left often asks us to listen to the voices of the subaltern, but this issue tests their commitment to that principle. They also support treating women as competent adults, except in this issue.
Amnesty’s critics are foolishly putting their idealism above the opportunity to make positive gains for women in the sex trade.
Let’s talk seriously about public policy.
1. The first thing we need to ask is, is the sex trade harmful in ways that justifies a policy response? I say the answer is yes, and that it would be hard to argue against that position. Prostitution can harm the wives of johns, causing them to be infected with sexually transmitted diseases. Prostitutes are at risk for violence, slavery, and sexually transmitted diseases, and this is not a complete list.
2. Can prostitution effectively be eliminated or at least reduced to a rare activity? Some think so, but I believe there is no evidence to suggest it is possible. Sex for remuneration is found, as far as I know, in every human society anthropologists and sociologists have studied, and in the non-human world as well.
3. If we cannot effectively eliminate an activity that has harms justifying a policy response, we have to look to how we can minimize those harms. And the overwhelming evidence from a broad range of prohibited activities demonstrates that prohibition, particularly with strict enforcement, exacerbates rather than reduces the harms. A superior solution is to decriminalize and regulate with an eye towards the health and safety of the participants.
I’m not going to dive into the weeds of what that regulation should look like. There are no doubt better and worse models, but they are models we can learn from and adapt beneficially. But I support Amnesty’s direction on this, and I think anyone who cares about ensuring the safety of sex workers, and cares seriously enough to think seriously about how that can realistically be accomplished will come to the same conclusions.
*Astute readers will have noticed that all of the news sources to this point have been from the Guardian. There are others, of course, but kudos to the Guardian for publishing essays by voices on each side of this debate. Note that the final link in that sentence actually predates the current contretemps, having been published last year.
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