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.
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.