The news reports that this month Amnesty International is going to be discussing a proposal to support the decriminalization of sex work. This proposal isn’t necessarily particularly radical, given that decriminalization is not the same as legalization and several countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Turkey and Greece have already instituted decriminalization or legalization. It is important, however, because Amnesty International has a lot of weight in human rights debate, and a decision by Amnesty to support decriminalization would be a serious propaganda set back for the proponents of criminalization of sex work or the purchase of sex.
The weight Amnesty carries can be easily seen in the dismayed reactions of various feminist anti-sex work organizations to its decision to even consider this policy. The alternative to decriminalization preferred by some feminist organizations is to make buying sex illegal but to somehow not criminalize the seller, an impossible proposal that is nonetheless making some progress in northern Europe (it started in Sweden). Amnesty has always been a strong and forthright campaigner for the rights of women and girls, and a decision to support decriminalization of sex work would be a big blow against the so-called “Swedish model” of driving sex work underground by punishing the men who pay for it. The concern of campaigners for the Swedish model is on display in one of the bastions of support for this model, the Guardian, which has published a couple of opinion pieces decrying the move, and an editorial opposing it. To be fair the Guardian has also published supportive articles, so it is actually hosting a debate, but I think it’s clear where its sympathies lie, and furthermore this newspaper offers an excellent overview of both the forces opposing decriminalization from the left, and the paucity of their ideas. The Guardian editorial is a symphony of wrongness, wrong in almost every sentence, and astounding in its disingenuousness, and all the opposing articles are noteworthy for their refusal to listen to the voices of sex workers who have been campaigning for decriminalization for years. Opponents of decriminalization have to ignore these women, denigrate them, or pretend that they represent only a tiny segment of first world sex workers, ignoring all the strong voices from sex workers in low- and middle-income countries, in order to come up with a policy that is essentially supportive of human trafficking, sexual and physical violence against sex workers – all in the interests of stamping out any form of sexual congress that doesn’t match their narrow view of how sex should be conceived and enjoyed. Some of the most vocal opponents of decriminalization, feminists like Julie Bindel, clearly see this as part of a strategy to achieve a very narrow feminist vision of how sexual interaction works, and are on record as opposing all forms of heterosexual activity until complete equality is achieved. For these feminists, as I have written before, sex workers are just convenient sacrifices on the road to a better future.
To be clear, feminism hasn’t always opposed sex work and the decriminalization or legalization of sex work, along with improved rights for sex workers in countries where it is illegal, are major achievements of the feminist movement over the past 100 years. This strange and obssessive desire to criminalize sex work and police the sexual choices of young, primarily poor women (often living in ex-colonies) is a very modern part of feminism, disconnected from the lives of the women it purports to be helping. My guess is that Amnesty International has been listening to the poorest women in the world, hearing their stories and paying attention to their movements, and is going to make a decision in favour of sexual freedom and the human rights of all women, not just those who choose to follow strict interpretations of sexual morality. This is important, because it isn’t just legal protection that sex workers need: it is the symbolic recognition of their right to control their bodies for their own profit as well as fun, and not just for strict reasons of love and childbirth. By recognizing the value of decriminalizing sex work, Amnesty won’t just be striking a blow in favour of policies that have consistently been shown to reduce sexual violence, protect against sexually transmitted infections and make all women safer: it will also be making a strong statement in favour of the complete sexual autonomy of even the world’s poorest women, recognizing that sexual autonomy should be available to more than just a few rich Swedish women. And sexual autonomy includes the right to rent out your body to strangers if you so choose – a concept that some feminists in the rich west seem to have a great deal of discomfort with. Let’s not make women in poor countries the victim of those feminists’ insecurities: support the decriminalization or legalization of sex work around the globe, because women and men everywhere should have the right to free choice about how to use their sexuality, and legal protection when they do so.
fn1: Note how many of the articles in the Guardian are illustrated with headless shots of “sex workers” in skimpy clothing. How come, even though the Guardian supports the criminalization of buying sex and not selling it, we only see pictures of the women it supports and not the dubious men it criminalizes?
fn2: That was a rhetorical question.