As a sex worker in a country with some of the harshest prostitution laws in the developed world, I consider it the height of irony that a bunch of actresses (an employment choice that was long considered a mere euphemism for prostitution) are now the public face of the anti-sex work crusade.
This drama began when Amnesty International recently took steps to adopt a policy position that the decriminalization of sex work is the key to helping sex workers maximize their access to human rights and freedom from violence and discrimination. This is not a decision Amnesty made lightly. They’re joining groups like the World Health Organization, Human Rights Watch, the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, The Lancet, and multiple statements from members of UN commissions that have come to the same conclusion following years of research on the harms of criminalizing both sex workers and their clients.
But there is a disturbing number of people in the world who want to keep the sexual behavior of marginalized people subject to police scrutiny and state punishment. And so, in the wake of Amnesty’s announcement of their proposed policy changes, 400 organizations and private individuals joined the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW) in signing a letter condemning Amnesty’s policy proposal. Among the signatories are entertainers like Lena Dunham, Emma Thompson, Carey Mulligan, Angela Bassett, Kate Winslet, and Anne Hathaway.
The idea that actresses know more about human rights policy than Amnesty is patently absurd. However, celebrities who will parrot anti-sexwork propaganda in exchange for getting their name in the headlines are not the real problem. They are merely the glossy facade for anti-sex work forces that truly have the power to punish sex workers. The Seattle Times recently ran an op-ed condemning Amnesty’s proposed policy changes, authored by Seattle city attorney Pete Holmes, King County prosecuting attorney Dan Satterberg, and Debra Boyer, the executive director of Organization of Prostitution Survivors, a local anti-sexwork organization. The piece is striking in its presentation of opinions as fact and its use of utterly bogus “statistics."
For example, it trots out the completely false statement that “The average age of entry (into sex work) is 12 to 14.” This statement has been debunked multiple times, and even Polaris Project, one of the largest anti-sexwork organizations in the world, has publicly disclaimed it.
It makes completely inflated claims about sex worker’s mortality rate, based on a very limited study, which the author himself, Georgetown professor Ronald Weitzer, has since disavowed.
It states, “Decriminalization and legalization are failed experiments. Countries that have instituted these models are now reaping the consequences of increased violence, abuse and exponential spikes in sex trafficking.” This is in flat contradiction to detailed reports from two countries, Australia and New Zealand, that have decriminalized sex work successfully. (Note: I went to Australia with another sex worker in 2013 to have sex for money in a decriminalized environment, and we did so in perfect safety. We worked in brothels in Sydney and Melbourne, and we experienced no violence or coercion from either clients or management. None of the women we worked with were underage or being trafficked.)
The Seattle Times piece makes unsourced statements about the “US sex economy,” which are most likely drawn from a recent Urban Institute report, based on conversations with 73 men convicted as “pimps,” and only 36 incarcerated street workers. To even call such a limited examination a “study” does it far too much credit; it is a handpicked collection of anecdotes designed to support a previously-arrived-at conclusion. Researchers in fact-based studies of sex work have stated that there is no evidence to support the idea that forced sex work is a hugely ballooning problem.
The authors praise “the Nordic Model” (also known as the Swedish Model) under which sex workers are not technically arrested—but they are subject to police surveillance, eviction from their homes, and routine deportation, are deprived of custody of their children, and are placed outside the protection of laws when it comes to abuse and murder. Studies have shown that even when only the clients of sex workers are criminalized, sex workers must move to less safe settings to meet them. It is the Nordic Model that is the failed social experiment.
The CATW letter deprives sex workers of any agency with inflammatory phrases like “human beings bought and sold in sex trade” as if all sex work was a literal slave market. Funny, I’ve “sold my body” many times, and yet: here is it, right here, in my possession and under my control. They speak of pimps and traffickers as though they are an inescapable fact of the sex industry. But studies in the United States reveal that most sex work does not involve a pimp, even among street-based youth. And even in the relatively small number of people truly being trafficked, law enforcement is often more traumatic than liberating. Sex workers are often beaten, raped, and extorted by the police—police are part of the problem, not the solution. Non-violent peer-to-peer social support is the most efficacious in helping people out of coerced situations.
Amnesty makes the case for decriminalization from a rights-based, harm-reduction model. They are very clear that those who are coerced, trafficked, or underage do not fall under the category of “sex worker” as defined in their policy.
“Evidence that some individuals who engage in sex work do so due to marginalisation and limited choices, and that therefore Amnesty International should urge states to take appropriate measures to realize the economic, social and cultural rights of all people so that no person enters sex work against their will, and those who decide to undertake sex work should be able to leave if and when they choose."
So the notion that Amnesty is endorsing forced sex work is simply a lie. There is hardly a single sentence in the entire Seattle Times op-ed that is factually true. It is manufactured moral-panic hysteria, designed to prop up the continuing arrest and incarceration of sex workers. This is common: Anti-sex workers usually cloak their desire to criminalize women by claiming that only the buyers should be arrested. But scratch the surface, and you’ll see their real intentions.
Ann Martin, the head of Sweden’s anti-trafficking unit, said of their policy, “I think of course the law has negative consequences for women in prostitution but that’s also some of the effect that we want to achieve with the law.” Sweden’s Chancellor of Justice, Ana Skarhed, stated that Sweden does not support harm-reduction models. “What we work with is to make [sex workers] not do it anymore.” Canadian Senator Donald Plett said it plainly during the recent passage of anti-sex work Bill C36: “We don’t want to make life safe for prostitutes, we want to do away with prostitution.”
The authors of the Seattle Times article are no different. They claim they “support working toward the Nordic model.” That’s a slippery phrase. If that’s true, then why has not a single anti-sex worker organization ever proposed or supported an actual change of US prostitution laws? As fatally flawed as “the Nordic Model” is, if a similar policy was legally adopted here, it would still represent a significant reform of criminal penalties against sex workers.
Sex work may not be everyone’s first choice of employment, and no one should be forced into it. But once you’ve acknowledged that some people do sex work because they have no other viable option, how is it “ending exploitation” to slap handcuffs on them and saddle them with a criminal record? Have we not learned by now that increased law enforcement is not the answer to social questions? That injecting police into the lives of marginalized communities is often the worst thing possible to do? Even if you feel that sex work is vile and no one could willingly engage in it, it is obvious that arresting sex workers is not the way to free us from poverty or oppression. Please support Amnesty in its choice to support us.