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In defence of Amnesty’s stance: sex workers need rights

This opinion piece is almost 6 years old

​There was controversy recently when Amnesty International voted to support the full decriminalisation of the sex trade. Supporters said it marked an important step in the fight for sex workers' rights, but opponents claimed it was a backwards step, which effectively legitimises exploitation. Here, Molly Smith of SCOT-PEP argues in favour of Amnesty's stance.

Criticism of Amnesty’s decision to call for the decriminalisation of sex work is strangely unanchored: few people make reference to the contents of the policy that Amnesty voted through, and fewer still to Amnesty’s research, which the policy was based on.

Many are furiousthat Amnesty’s policy affirms “men’s right to buy sex” - which would be outrageous, except that the policy simply doesn’t contain this idea.

Far better to invent details to obsess over than to actually read the text, which brims with the voices and insights of sex workers in the four countries Amnesty studied.

This focus on imaginary evils - Amnesty’s supposed support for “client’s rights” - is an example of the way sex workers are routinely dehumanised: our rights aren’t even worth mentioning, with a huge amount of energy focused instead on commentator’s feelings about clients.

Did these campaigners read Amnesty’s research on sex workers in Norway being evictedand deportedwhen they report rape?

A focus on imaginary evils - Amnesty’s supposed support for “client’s rights” - is an example of the way sex workers are routinely dehumanised

Everyone wants to advocate for the Swedish model but no one wants to keep the conversation going when we point out that sex workers remain criminalised in Sweden and Norway - for instance, two women working together for safety can be prosecuted for brothel-keeping each other.

Our feminist sisters speculate about our “dignity” (or our “orifices”), but interest - and corresponding column inches - depletes when we mention Operation Homeless, the Norwegian police’s unashamedly named effort to “disrupt prostitution” by evicting sex workers, using anti-pimping laws against landlords.

People love to pitt their idea of the hyper-privileged worker, who joyfully chose to sell sex, against the choiceless victim - but even if we accepted this jenga tower of assumptions as real, no one will explain how evicting or deporting people who sell sex helps either category.

Are some women so privileged that the police making them homeless is no matter? Are people who are trapped and desperate brought the love that they deserve in a deportation notice? This is how sex workers are cherished and cared for in Scandinavian regimes of “feminist” criminalisation, and my feminist colleagues fuming about “pimps and johns” don’t seem so hung up on those details.

When kerb-crawling was criminalised in 2007, violence against street sex workers went up by over 50% in the first six months: yet some feminists in Scotland want to replicate that “success” for indoor sex workers, too.

An increase in violence against us is seen an acceptable price to pay to “send a message” to clients; but if violence against us is acceptable collateral damage in a wider feminist project, the message sent is not only disgust towards our clients; it is also that sex workers are disposable. That violence against us doesn’t matter, or could even be useful as a tool to "shrink the industry".

There’s a sad irony in campaigners decrying the misogyny on display in punter forums - and then using those feelings of disgust to push for laws which demonstrably increase violence against us. Look in the mirror.

Molly Smith is amember of SCOT-PEP, a charity dedicated to the promotion of sex workers’ rights, health and dignity.



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mhairi mcalpine
almost 6 years ago
In Sweden, one woman in the industry has been murdered since the Nordic model was introduced in 1999 - by her ex-partner.In Germany, 55 women in the industry have been killed by Johns since legalisation was introduced in 2002. One was killed in a legal brothel.In the Netherlands, 29 women in the industry have been killed by Johns or pimps since decriminalisation was introduced in 2000.
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almost 6 years ago
Hi Mhairi1) this article, and the sex worker rights movement, is not arguing for the legal model the Netherlands, so I'm not sure what the relevance of the comparison is. Sex worker-led organisations in the UK are highly critical of the NL model.2) You have no idea how many sex workers have been killed or attcked in Sweden, *because the Swedish state does not collect data on violence against sex workers*. Jasmine was not reported in the press as a sex worker; you only know she was a sex worker because the sex worker community publicised her murder - because she was one of us. You write the she was murdered by her ex-partner as if that indicates it was not the fault of the law: I don't know whether you're ignorant or disengenous, but that's a distortion, and the topic deserves better. As you should know (because if you want to "cite her case" you should have the respect to know the first thing about her), she was forced into continued contact with her violent ex-partner precisely because of the law. She lost custody of her children to him - despite reporting him as violent towards her and them - because the courts ruled that as a sex worker, she was more of a "danger" to them than a violent man. (The argument was that her sex work was form of self-harm that she couldn't even admit to herself, and this analysis took priority over his domestic violence.) She was fatally stabbed by him - along with a social worker, who did not die - while visiting him as part of seeing her children, who, I repeat, *he had been given custody of*, despite her warnings. In the Swedish govt's own report into the law, they note that sex workers say that stigma against them (such as, perhaps, thinking that doing sex work is a form of elaborate self-harm and as such, your violent ex-partner should get the kids) has increased, but that this is a *good thing*, because the purpose of the law is to discourage prostitution. So the stigma that killed Jasmine was part of deliberate, intentional Swedish policy.Please have the respect to read about her before you mention her again. I'd suggest 'The Bloody State Gave Him The Power" (a quote from Jasmine's mum) on Tits and Sass, and Laura Agustin's essay, "Prostitution Law and the Death of Whores" as starting points.