Amnesty International votes to support decriminalisation of prostitution

Amnesty International have voted to campaign for the decriminalisation of prostitution provided it is within an environment whereby the sellers of sex are not underage and are not coerced.

This is the latest part in a debate which has been going on for some time on the topic. Amnesty’s argument is that sex work has always and will always exist and what is required is harm reduction – along with an assertion that sex workers should have the agency to decide without official sanction whether or not to sell sexual services to clients.

As such they feel that decriminalisation will allow sex workers much greater safety. It would make brothels legal. Currently two individuals working together selling sexual services in a single house would be breaking the law; an individual who was protecting or helping a sex worker is also breaking the law.

Amnesty’s proposals do not suggest that sex work be unregulated but suggest that governments no longer criminalise the selling or buying of sexual services between freely consenting individuals.

The reaction to this proposal from Amnesty has been very marked: there have been complaints from assorted famous people like actresses but also from those directly involved in sex work and human rights lawyers all calling for abolition by which they mean attempts to criminalise those purchasing sex and attempts to abolish prostitution.

They point to the Swedish model where purchasing sex is a criminal offence: something of course which has been recently introduced in Northern Ireland after Lord Morrow’s bill, though it is too early to make many judgements about its utility. The RoI may join NI in banning the purchase of sex and if anything GB is also more likely to go down that route after Labour briefly considered decriminalisation in 2004 before dropping the idea.

The idea that women truly freely enter into sex work is challenged: as is the idea that one can truly have managers etc. without it being exploitative. The suggestion that one can never abolish sex work and as such one should not try to do so also sounds slightly unusual from Amnesty, an organisation which campaigns tirelessly for other seemingly lost causes such as a complete end to capital punishment.

The evidence on areas where prostitution has been decriminalised is difficult to assess. The supporters of decriminalisation point to New Zealand as a country where this has been claimed to be successful. Those opposed point both to an apparent lack of regulation in New Zealand and to Germany where decriminalisation has resulted in an enormous increase in the amount of prostitution and sex workers coming from other countries to sell sex. In Germany the hoped for regulation has again been patchy with brothels renting their rooms to sex workers but often refusing any other responsibility for them.

The evidence in Sweden where purchasing sex is illegal is also difficult to analyse. There has apparently been a huge reduction in people selling sex on the street but critics of the laws claim it has merely been driven underground and even that the laws themselves make prostitutes less safe.

The basic disagreement between the two positions is fundamental and based more on beliefs in each case. Evidence is produced on one side and the other but this is not like showing a simple relationship (say a new cancer drug reduces death rates). Evidence in this sort of policy area is almost always gathered by those with a strongly held pre-existing position with the evidence gathered to “prove” their point.

Essentially those who support the legislation of prostitution point to the concept of the happy empowered (usually woman) who sells her sexuality only to those whom she wishes to. This is often associated with wealthy clients and attractive educated young women: The archetype being Dr. Brooke Magnanti, who has supported Amnesty’s position.

Those opposed to decriminalisation point to trafficked women or those with addiction problems or simply those with little money and few options who are forced into this sort of work often with violent or dangerous pimps and clients.

These two groups undoubtedly exist and it is unclear which one is larger (many might suspect the trafficked / drug addict group). There is also probably a large group of (mainly women) in the middle who are not destitute, would rather not have to sell sexual services but who feel that it is a reasonable option given their circumstances. Those who support decriminalisation suggest that relatively few of us would work if we did not have to and as such we almost all sell our labour for our livings. Those against point to the fact that women frequently get sucked into more dangerous situations once they have started down the sex work line.

Again both sides point to individuals but it is difficult to know how representative they are. Dr. Magnanti can be pointed to as a classic example of the empowered woman (though to be fair she openly states that she went into sex work because she had too little money whilst writing up her PhD). Other women who claim the empowerment of selling sex include Laura Lee who gave evidence to Stormont. Equally abolitionists can provide a succession of women with truly harrowing stories of what has happened to them. Unfortunately there is very little quantitative data about how many individuals fit into different categories.

One of the other arguments levelled against Amnesty has been that it has been subject to a classic case of entryism by those supporting decriminalisation and indeed that some individuals who were themselves pimps joined in order to lobby for what eventually became Amnesty policy.

Criminalisation of users or decriminalisation would both at least be more logical and complete options than the current situation in GB. Neither option nor indeed the status quo would be likely to end prostitution but equally decriminalisation would be unlikely to end the stigma and discrimination which many sex workers have to endure.

In theory an individual freely deciding to engage in sexual activity with another for payment should be no different than the two deciding to have sex for any other reason and as such legal. However, so completely associated has prostitution been with gross wealth and power imbalance and so frequently with extreme violence towards sex workers that it seems a little odd for Amnesty to be supporting decriminalisation.

Amnesty are meant to be idealists who remain so despite being fully aware of the awfulness of human nature. This sort of position has underscored their campaigns for 50 years. In this case the idealism seems to have become so great along with a huge dose of libertarianism that it has overwhelmed Amnesty’s usual pragmatism.

Amnesty’s recent positions on abortion and even homosexual marriage seem much closer to a somewhat fundamentalist social liberalism than Amnesty ever did in the past when it attracted considerable support from across the political spectrum. As with other charities such as the RSPCA Amnesty should be careful lest it become so ideological that it becomes irrelevant: something which would be a disaster for those like prisoners of conscience and those on death row whom it has done so much to help over the years.

This author has not written a biography and will not be writing one.