Moral outrage and human rights for sex workers

I have to express a certain annoyance over the discourse surrounding Amnesty International’s recent recognition of human rights of sex workers. Despite the fact that this is Amnesty International we’re talking about, opponents of the decision insist on interpreting the new policy as enabling human trafficking.[1]

Lancet, a British medical journal, objects to the “[c]onflation of sex work with trafficking” and argues that this “ignores the evidence and clouds the issue of safety for sex workers—female, male, or transgender adults who exchange consensual sex for money and choose their profession without coercion.”[2] Verónica Bayetti Flores complains about the “rich white ladies — the likes of Lena Dunham, Meryl Streep, Anne Hathaway, and Kate Winslet — [who] have joined a list of outdated second-wavers and anti-trafficking organizations opposing the proposal.”[3]

Laurie Shrage notes that “[w]hen it comes to sex, we tend to have a strong expectation that we’ll be granted” three “different forms of privacy: physical, informational and decisional.” She explains that prostitution muddies these waters[4]:

By contrast, other social relations, such as market transactions, come with different expectations of privacy. Commerce typically takes place in public venues, and we expect there to be informational transparency about the goods and services we purchase. We often want market transactions to be scrutinized or regulated by third parties in order to insure that they are fair and equitable, especially when full transparency is not available, as in the cases of pharmaceuticals, health care and real estate. So for the greater good, all three types of privacy are limited during market transactions in ways that would be unreasonable in regard to private sexual activity.[5]

Shrage goes on to consider the dubious distinction between blatantly commercial transactions involving sex and those where relationships may not be so blatant, but nonetheless involve exchanges: A woman who sought “dates” in order to avoid foreclosure on her home or “sugar daddy” relationships.[6]

I’ll set aside the latter part of Shrage’s argument in favor of the former. The problem that Amnesty International is attempting to resolve is that the criminalization of sex work puts sex workers at additional risk.[7] The solution that the anti-trafficking activists offer is a “Nordic” model, which “offers services to those driven into selling themselves for sex, while prosecuting buyers [but not sellers] and educating them to the harsh realities of the global sex trade.” Notice the presumption that underlies the anti-trafficking proposal: sex workers are “driven into selling themselves.”[8] Hence, all—or most, anyway—sex workers may be presumed to be in some form of slavery regardless of whether or not they were kidnapped and transported across international boundaries.

The vast majority of prostituted women have been forced into the trade (in the US, at age 15) because of economic desperation, violence, and/or psychological manipulation. The idea that they have real choice is absurd; only a handful are “happy hookers.” But these few — backed by a multi-billion dollar criminal industry — are convincing groups such as Amnesty that it’s progressive to support “sex workers,” pimps, and buyers’ rights, at the expense of the far more basic right of girls and women not to be abused.[9]

I’m not in contact with a lot of sex workers. There are a few women who identify themselves as such in my Twitter feed. They resolutely deny that they have been forced into their line of work and fear the violence that criminalization leaves—or would leave—them vulnerable to. They seem to work independently. The transparency of legal commercial relationships is, for them, a life saver.

And if we are going to take on the power relationships behind workers being “driven into selling themselves,”[10] then we must, in all honesty, take on economic systems of exchange which leave the vast majority of workers generally with little else to offer but themselves.[11] The choice to single out sex, while leaving these other relationships out of the picture, seems suspect.

To be clear, our policy is not about protecting “pimps”. Amnesty International firmly believes that those who exploit or abuse sex workers must be criminalized. But the reality is laws which criminalize ‘brothel-keeping’ and ‘promotion’ often lead to sex workers being arrested and prosecuted themselves. In Norway we found evidence that sex workers were routinely evicted from their homes under so-called ‘pimping laws’. In many countries of the world, two sex workers working together for safety is considered a ‘brothel’.[12]

Further, it is unclear to me how criminalization of prostitution enhances the anti-trafficking cause. The criminalization of prostitution does not increase the recourse available to trafficking victims. Rather, as Lancet put it:

Sex workers are among the most marginalised, stigmatised populations in the world. Criminalisation of their profession increases their risk of HIV and violence and abuse from clients, police, and the public. The Lancet Series on HIV and sex workers showed that decriminalisation of sex work would have the greatest effect on the course of HIV epidemics across all settings, averting 33–46% of HIV infections in the next decade. Such a move would also reduce mistreatment of sex workers and increase their access to human rights, including health care.[13]

I can’t help but suspect that some of the opposition to Amnesty’s policy proceeds from a naïve view of police. Amnesty points to a

woman in Papua New Guinea who told us about the time she tried to report abuse by a client to the police only to be told that they did not want to “waste time” on sex workers. Nor should we ignore what happens in Hong Kong where the police are allowed to receive ‘sexual services’ from sex workers in order to collect evidence.[14]

And Amnesty is not alone:

Other groups which support or are calling for the decriminalization of sex work include the World Health Organization, UNAIDS, International Labour Organization, the Global Alliance Against Trafficking in Women, the Global Network of Sex Work Projects, the Global Commission on HIV and the Law, Human Rights Watch, the Open Society Foundations and Anti-Slavery International.[15]

I don’t know how many of the folks who oppose Amnesty’s new policy are “rich white ladies.”[16] But sex is too easily and hastily stigmatized.[17] The prohibitions that the opponents prefer seem poorly aimed. They smack of a moral panic rather than any genuine concern either for sex workers or trafficking victims.

  1. [1]Gaye Clark, “Amnesty International considers proclaiming prostitution a human right,” World, August 4, 2015, http://www.worldmag.com/2015/08/amnesty_international_considers_proclaiming_prostitution_a_human_right; Swanee Hunt, “Amnesty International is about to make sex trafficking easier, worldwide,” Global Post, August 4, 2015, http://www.globalpost.com/article/6625747/2015/08/03/commentary-amnesty-international-legalize-sex-trade; Monica Sarkar, “Amnesty International votes in support of decriminalizing sex trade,” CNN, August 11, 2015, http://www.cnn.com/2015/08/11/world/amnesty-international-sex-work/
  2. [2]Lancet, “Keeping sex workers safe,” Lancet 386, no. 9993 (August 8, 2015) doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(15)61460-X
  3. [3]Verónica Bayetti Flores, “Stay in your lane: We don’t need rich white actresses’ comments on sex work,” Feministing, July 31, 2015, http://feministing.com/2015/07/31/stay-in-your-lane-we-dont-need-rich-white-actresses-comments-on-sex-work/
  4. [4]Laurie Shrage, “When Prostitution Is Nobody’s Business,” New York Times, August 10, 2015, http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/08/10/when-prostitution-is-nobodys-business/
  5. [5]Laurie Shrage, “When Prostitution Is Nobody’s Business,” New York Times, August 10, 2015, http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/08/10/when-prostitution-is-nobodys-business/
  6. [6]Laurie Shrage, “When Prostitution Is Nobody’s Business,” New York Times, August 10, 2015, http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/08/10/when-prostitution-is-nobodys-business/
  7. [7]Catherine Murphy, “Sex Workers’ Rights are Human Rights,” Amnesty International, August 14, 2015, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2015/08/sex-workers-rights-are-human-rights/
  8. [8]Swanee Hunt, “Amnesty International is about to make sex trafficking easier, worldwide,” Global Post, August 4, 2015, http://www.globalpost.com/article/6625747/2015/08/03/commentary-amnesty-international-legalize-sex-trade
  9. [9]Swanee Hunt, “Amnesty International is about to make sex trafficking easier, worldwide,” Global Post, August 4, 2015, http://www.globalpost.com/article/6625747/2015/08/03/commentary-amnesty-international-legalize-sex-trade
  10. [10]Swanee Hunt, “Amnesty International is about to make sex trafficking easier, worldwide,” Global Post, August 4, 2015, http://www.globalpost.com/article/6625747/2015/08/03/commentary-amnesty-international-legalize-sex-trade
  11. [11]Max Weber, “Class, Status, Party,” in Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings, ed. Charles Lemert, 4th ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2010), 119-129.
  12. [12]Catherine Murphy, “Sex Workers’ Rights are Human Rights,” Amnesty International, August 14, 2015, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2015/08/sex-workers-rights-are-human-rights/
  13. [13]Lancet, “Keeping sex workers safe,” Lancet 386, no. 9993 (August 8, 2015) doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(15)61460-X
  14. [14]Catherine Murphy, “Sex Workers’ Rights are Human Rights,” Amnesty International, August 14, 2015, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2015/08/sex-workers-rights-are-human-rights/
  15. [15]Catherine Murphy, “Sex Workers’ Rights are Human Rights,” Amnesty International, August 14, 2015, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2015/08/sex-workers-rights-are-human-rights/
  16. [16]Verónica Bayetti Flores, “Stay in your lane: We don’t need rich white actresses’ comments on sex work,” Feministing, July 31, 2015, http://feministing.com/2015/07/31/stay-in-your-lane-we-dont-need-rich-white-actresses-comments-on-sex-work/
  17. [17]Gayle Rubin, “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality,” in Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality, ed. Carole S. Vance (Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984), 267-319.

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