Amnesty International sparked a celebrity outcry this week when it released a draft proposal calling for the decriminalization of “all aspects of sex work” to protect the rights of sex workers. But sex workers and sex worker advocacy groups generally support the proposal, saying decriminalization or legalization is the best way to keep sex workers safe and healthy without increasing the number of trafficked women or minors involved in the sex industry.
Lena Dunham, Gloria Steinem, Kate Winslet, Anne Hathaway, and Meryl Streep, among many others, signed onto a letter (PDF) claiming that places that have tried decriminalization have seen “catastrophic effects” and arguing that decriminalization “will in effect support a system of gender apartheid.” They call for Amnesty International to support keeping the purchase of sex illegal, but not criminalizing sex workers themselves, an approach based on Sweden’s prostitution law that is favored by many anti-prostitution activists.
But many sex worker advocates say Sweden’s law has only driven prostitution underground, forcing rushed negotiations, increasing danger for workers, leaving workers vulnerable to abuse from police, and diminishing capacity for organized political action to represent their interests.
Kimberlee Cline, an independent sex worker based in California, told ThinkProgress in an email that she found working in Australia, where prostitution is decriminalized, to be “the most ideal scenario.” She listed free medical screenings, reminders of her rights as a sex worker, health and safety information, protection of her identity, and ease of setting up appointments legally as benefits of the system there. “When I started sex work in California several years prior, none of this support was available,” she said.
And a look at New Zealand’s decriminalization of prostitution, which was promoted by sex workers and legalized brothels, reveals none of the “catastrophic effects” promised by opponents of the model. A government-commissioned study examining the effects of the 2003 decriminalization law reveals some positive effects like greater likelihood of reporting violence to the police, widespread use of a government guide on health and safety practices in the industry, and no rise, or even a drop, in the number of sex workers in the country.
Many of the major problems of exploitation cited by workers in the study related to social stigma and fear of authorities, suggesting greater normalization of their work would yield even greater benefits. Violence against sex workers is as bad as she can remember, said Kristen DiAngelo, head of Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP)-Sacramento in an email. “Very few would even attempt to report a rape or trafficking,” she said, and many said law enforcement’s involvement was the last thing they wanted, due to fear of the police.
“Whenever you have an industry that is held to be legal or decriminalized, there is an safety net for those who are victims of crimes to report criminal activity,” DiAngelo said. “When you don’t, many fear they themselves be arrested or targeted if they step up and report a crime.” She has also worked extensively in Australia, where she had a positive experience. “It was easy, it was safe, and it was non-stigmatizing,” she said.
Amnesty International isn’t the only major human rights organization supporting the decriminalization of sex work. UNAIDS and Human Rights Watch also see decriminalization as the best way to decrease human trafficking and exploitation of minors. Sex worker rights advocates also dispute many of the figures used by anti-prostitution organizations to suggest that sex work, trafficking, and exploitation go hand-in-hand.
In the U.S., even stopping the arrest of sex workers would be a positive step. Stings still target sex workers on a regular basis, and even children as young as 13 are arrested, incarcerated, and often subject to even more abuse over their lifetimes.
When trying to reduce prostitution in the United States, it could be more helpful to look to another Swedish policy –- their strong welfare state. After all, more than 90 percent of sex workers in the New Zealand study cited money as a primary motivation for working in the sex industry.
“Sex workers are in need of equal protection under the law,” DiAngelo said. “If the sale of sex for money were decriminalized in the US, we would then be able to police our industry and help those who are in bad positions. We could report serial rapists and traffickers, making our communities safer for all.”