In a landmark decision Tuesday, Amnesty International voted to recommend the full decriminalization of sex work and prostitution in order to protect the human rights of sex workers. The resolution recommends a policy that would decriminalize all aspects of adult, consensual sex work, while still classifying coercion into sex work or having sex with a minor as a major human rights violation. The resolution is intended to protect adult sex workers from stigma and abuse by decriminalizing aspects of sex work including buying sex, pimping and operating a brothel.

“Sex workers are one of the most marginalized groups in the world who in most instances face constant risk of discrimination, violence and abuse,” said Amnesty International Secretary General Salil Shetty in a statement. “Our global movement paved the way for adopting a policy for the protection of the human rights of sex workers which will help shape Amnesty International’s future work on this important issue.” ... Amnesty says the new policy on sex work was based on research from the World Health Organization, UNAIDS and UN Women.

I got Mistress Matisse, the writer, sex worker, and sex-worker's rights activist—and the author of a piece posted on Slog today on this subject—on the phone to talk about the news.


Seems like a big deal. But is it, as Joe Biden might say, a big fucking deal?

It's a big fucking deal in Europe because many European countries have moved toward decriminalization—more than we have here—and there has been a push lately to re-criminalize sex work in many countries in Europe. But it's a very big deal and it will have an impact here.

A lot of people are going to get hung up on that last detail—Amnesty is not just calling for the decriminalization of sex work, but for decriminalizing buying sex, pimping, and operating a brothel.

You can't decriminalize half of an economic transaction. It doesn't work. Phrases like "pimping" have a heavy sound—but technically if I call a friend and say, "I have a client who wants to see both of us—come on over," that's pimping. When I was 24 years old I managed a massage parlor. The owner was pregnant and had to stay in bed, so I became the manager. I was not coercing or harming anyone, but I was technically and legally a pimp.

But there are bad and abusive pimps and bad, bad and abusive brothel owners, and bad and abusive clients?

Yes. There are also bad and abusive husbands and boyfriends but we don't outlaw marriage. There are bad abusive bosses in non-sex work jobs. And so long as sex work is criminalized someone who is being abused by a pimp or a brothel owner can't go the police. She has no recourse, she's very vulnerable—and the bad and abusive pimps know it. In a decriminalized system a sex worker with an abusive pimp can go to the police and complain. And in countries where sex work has been decriminalized—Australia and New Zealand—that happens now. Sex workers have successfully filed suits against brothel owners and against clients and won. And bear in mind that the word "pimp" when used by mass media elicits a confused emotional response—it calls to mind certain mental images that are heavily informed by racism. When people talk about "pimps" exploiting girls no one who hears that pictures a white guy.

There was opposition, most famously a letter signed by numerous public figures and celebrities. Anne Hathaway, Lena Dunham, Meryl Streep, Angela Bassett, Kate Winslet and other bold-face names opposed Amnesty's call to decriminalize sex work. How did that letter go over in the sex-workers rights movement?

We've all vowed to never see any movies starring any of those bitches ever again. [Laughs.] Look, they're misinformed, they're parroting back what they've been told to say, as actors do, and they got their names in the headlines, as actors like. But it is for sex workers to say what is best for us and we have spoken—arresting us is bad for us.

What do you say to people—including some former sex workers—who point to women who've been trafficked or abused doing sex work? Women who've been harmed by it?

I say that women are harmed in all kinds of institutions that we don't criminalize. Women are likelier to be harmed by their husbands and boyfriends. There are all sorts of institutions, and all sorts of legal employers, that harm women but there no other jobs that we point to say say, "The women doing that job have to be arrested—and arresting them is rescuing them!" People who oppose sex work that are fond of saying that people only do sex work if they have no other way to survive. I would say to them, If this is someone's only way to survive... how are you being kind to them by taking that away from them? How does that help? Do you want them to die? I understand that se work is not always everyone's first choice of employment. But if it is someone's only option, arresting them for exercising that option is senseless.

How come we never hear about male sex workers during debates like this?

No one wants to rescue men. Because men don't fit the "feminist" narrative. They don't look good on posters.

Any other thoughts?

It's a great day. We're all celebrating. It's been a really ugly battle, particularly online. And while I don't think what Amnesty did to day will have an immediate impact on US legal codes, which is too bad, my hope is that in time Amnesty's stance will inform and help reform our laws.