On Wednesday, Amnesty International published its policy on sex work, calling on governments around the world to decriminalize consensual prostitution and take other steps to protect the human rights of sex workers including ending discrimination against them. The published policy is the culmination of an historic vote Amnesty International’s board took last August and it lays out the reasons why decriminalization is the best means to protect the health and human rights of sex workers. Its policy is based on extensive research showing that laws that criminalize the purchase and solicitation of commercial sex “often make sex workers less safe and provide impunity for abusers, with sex workers often too scared of being penalized to report crime to the police. In its press release, Amnesty concludes that laws on sex work should focus on protecting people from exploitation and abuse, rather than trying to ban all sex work and penalize sex workers.
The same day, Amnesty published another report on the human cost of laws criminalizing the purchase of sex in Norway, known as the Nordic model. It began with the story of Mercy, a Nigerian sex worker, who was evicted from her apartment after she reported to the police that she and other sex workers she lived with had been robbed and raped at knife point. As she told Amnesty, the police put pressure on their landlord to throw her and the other women out onto the street. As Amnesty noted:
Mercy’s story is not an isolated case. Amnesty International learned of another violent robbery carried out against three women selling sex around the same time in March 2014 who were rapidly deported from the country after they reported the incident to the police… Amnesty International has found evidence that many sex workers remain subject to a high level of policing and are being targeted and penalized by police in multiple, intersecting ways.
Amnesty concluded that the Nordic model’s stated purpose of protecting sex workers while targeting their clients isn’t working. It’s only making things worse.
As I discovered in writing my book, Getting Screwed: Sex Workers and the Law, much the same thing has happened in Sweden after that country was the first to make it illegal to purchase (but not sell) sex. Since 2000, studies show, sex workers there have a much more difficult time negotiating safe sex (i.e. sex with condoms) and assessing dangerous clients. They’ve also lost many low-risk clients, leaving them exposed to more violent clientele — both on the streets and indoors. In addition, Swedish sex workers have also faced heightened discrimination and stigmatization. Indeed in my book, I tell the tragic story of a Swedish sex worker who lost custody of her children simply because she had been an escort. She then lost her life when her ex-husband stabbed her to death during a supervised visit with her children.
The irony is that criminalizing sex clients has not reduced the overall number of sex workers in that country, according to the Swedish government’s own reports. Nor has it decreased trafficking in the region either. All that laws criminalizing buyers (as well as sellers) do is further endanger sex workers, impeding their ability to seek protection from violence and obtain needed housing and health services.
My hat’s off to Amnesty for having the guts to stand up and shout the truth. I hope that some day the state and federal governments in this country will listen.