Scientists score one over celebrities in battle to decriminalize sex work

Rentboy.com is busted in New York City. Brendan McDermid/REUTERS

On August 11 2015, Amnesty International passed a historic resolution in favor of decriminalizing all consensual commercial sex work.

A few weeks earlier, the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW) – an organization that seeks to abolish prostitution – received a leaked version of the proposal. CATW lobbied against Amnesty’s impending decision. Several Hollywood celebrities including Meryl Streep, Anne Hathaway, Angela Bassett, and Lena Dunham joined CATW in opposing decriminalization. They argued this change would only empower pimps and clients in their oppression of women.

But many others supported Amnesty’s proposal, including leading global health researchers and human rights advocates. In their op-ed for The Huffington Post, Dr Kate Shannon, Anna-Louise Crago, and Dr Chris Breyer wrote:

The science is there and unequivocal – criminalization has devastating effects on sex workers' health and human rights, including widespread rights violations against sex workers including discrimination and violence against sex workers by policing agents.

While celebrities typically capture more attention than scientists, Amnesty listened to the latter. After two years of consulting with global health and human rights researchers as well as sex workers and victims of human trafficking, the largest and arguably most respected human rights organization in the world made its game-changing declaration. Amnesty International will now develop policy on nation-states’ ethical obligation to decriminalize sex work. They seek to “ensure that sex workers enjoy full and equal legal protection from exploitation, trafficking and violence.”

It is unclear what, if any, impact this will have on policies across the world. But as a researcher who has studied the politics of sex work for more than 20 years, I was not surprised by the range of strong emotional responses.

Initial reactions

Immediately following the vote, CATW issued a press release declaring that Amnesty International “turned its back on women.” They wrote that the decision constituted a “willful and callous rejection of women’s rights and equality.” CATW’s press release also mocked Amnesty’s research process:

Throughout the deliberation and “research” process that Amnesty claims led them to its resolution, they deliberately excluded the voices and expertise of survivor-leaders and women’s rights organizations working to end violence and discrimination at the local, regional and international levels.

To be sure, research is never a value-free process. But given the rigorous and prestigious research cited by Amnesty, in combination with a dearth of medical and academic researchers affiliated with either CATW’s board of directors or petition, this particular accusation may ring hollow.

Lena Dunham. REUTERS/Gus Ruelas

Notably, the celebrities who helped sell CATW’s campaign to the media have remained silent. Even Lena Dunham – one of the most outspoken of the anti-prostitution actor-activists – has, for now, withdrawn from public discussion on sex work.

In contrast, reactions on social media from sex worker rights advocates were celebratory. Meg Valee Munoz identifies as a former sex worker and a survivor of domestic sex trafficking. She is the founder and executive director of Abeni – a rights-based organization that provides support to individuals in the sex trade. Upon hearing the news, Munoz tweeted:

Despite their jubilation, sex workers and their advocates also noted that the work was now just beginning. As advocate Melissa Gira Grant explained in The Nation:

By backing decriminalization, of course, Amnesty has not changed any law; their policy sets the groundwork for campaigning by Amnesty’s members and national sections. It’s this that could be a substantive boost for sex workers’ rights advocates.

Global health evidence

Regardless of one’s opinion about the exchange of sexual services for money, the research is clear. When sex work is criminalized (including clients), sex workers of all ages, races, classes, and genders are harmed.

For example, criminalization of sex work has been shown to increase harm to children involved in the sex industry. It also increases rates of HIV/AIDS and violence against sex workers. Criminalization, aggressive policing and forced “rescues” also harm the human rights of individuals in the sex industry, their children and families.

And despite stated political concern for protecting female sex workers, sex workers in criminalized sections of the US suffer from far higher rates of police abuse, violence and mortality compared to locations where sex work is either legalized, as in parts of Nevada, or decriminalized, as in New Zealand.

The future of US sex work policies

For some political observers, Amnesty’s vote has helped to highlight the current hyper-criminalization of sex work in the US. This includes the invasion by US Homeland Security of the male escort agency RentBoy. This raid resulted in several arrests and $US1.4 million seized in civil forfeiture. It was conducted exactly two weeks after Amnesty’s vote and has been condemned by many sex worker and LGBTQ organizations, including the Sex Workers Outreach Project and the National LGBTQ Task Force.

Many will now be watching the US to see if, and how, its anti-prostitution policies will change. The road to decriminalization is likely to be bumpy, uneven and frustrating. The US is notorious for exporting conservative sexual politics to aid-dependent countries via the Global Gag Rule and the Anti-Prostitution Pledge. The US is also home to both a profitable criminal punishment system and an enthusiastic and well-funded rescue industry.

Once presented with global evidence, though, I believe that reasonable individuals will turn away from the belief that consensual sex work should be criminalized, as they turned away from the notion that homosexual sex should be criminalized. Yet for transformative justice to occur for all individuals in the sex industry, advocates must also directly challenge the US criminal punishment machine.

Amnesty International’s announcement has clarified at least this: it is no longer acceptable to prioritize the opinions of celebrities over those of sex workers and the scientists who advocate for them.