Q&A on the Policy to Protect Human Rights of Sex Workers

(Photo Credit: Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images)
Press Release
August 11, 2015

Q&A on the Policy to Protect Human Rights of Sex Workers

Frequently Asked Questions

  1. Why does Amnesty need a policy to protect the human rights of sex workers?
  2. What is the difference between legalization and decriminalization? Why isn't Amnesty International calling for sex work to be legalized? 
  3. Doesn't decriminalizing sex work just encourage trafficking?
  4. How does decriminalizing sex work protect women's rights?
  5. What evidence does Amnesty have to back up its proposed policy on sex work?
  6. Those who sell sex need protection, but why protect the “pimps”?
  7. Why doesn’t Amnesty International support the Nordic model?
  8. Why does Amnesty International believe that paying for sex work is a human right?
  9. As a human rights organization, does this vote mean that you are promoting sex work?
  10. Amnesty International has adopted a resolution, but what happens next?

1. Why does Amnesty need a policy to protect the human rights of sex workers?

Sex workers are one of the most marginalized groups in the world. In many countries, they are threatened with a whole host of abuses, including rape, beatings, trafficking, extortion forced eviction and discrimination, including exclusion from health services. More often than not, they get no, or very little, legal protection. In fact, in many cases these violations and abuses are carried out by the police, clients and abusive third parties.

For example, a 2010 study of sex workers in Papua New Guinea’s capital Port Moresby found that over a period of six months, 50% of sex workers had been raped (by clients or by police).

2. What is the difference between legalization and decriminalization? Why isn't Amnesty International calling for sex work to be legalized? 

The decriminalization of sex work means that sex workers are no longer breaking the law by carrying out sex work. They are not forced to live outside the law and there is better scope for their human rights to be protected.

If sex work is legalized, it means that the state makes very specific laws and policies that formally regulate sex work. This can lead to a two tier system where many sex workers operate outside these regulations and are still criminalized - often the most marginalized street based sex workers. Decriminalization places greater control into the hands of sex workers to operate independently, self-organize in informal cooperatives and control their own working environments in a way that legalization often does not.

During our consultation with sex workers, most of those we spoke to supported decriminalization but were frequently nervous about the implications of legalization. This was not only because of their mistrust of law enforcement authorities but also because of fears that if the wrong model of legalization is adopted, it may disempower them or even lead to criminalization and abuse.

When sex workers are no longer seen and treated as ‘criminals’ or ‘accomplices’ they are less at risk of aggressive police tactics and can demand and enjoy better relationships with and protection from police. Decriminalization returns rights to the workers, making them free agents.

We are not opposed to legalization per se, but we would want to make sure that any laws passed promote sex workers' human rights and comply with international human rights law.

3. Doesn't decriminalizing sex work just encourage trafficking?

It is important to be very clear that Amnesty International strongly condemns all forms of human trafficking, including trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation. Human trafficking is an abhorrent abuse of human rights and should be criminalized as a matter of international law. This is clear for all of our policy deliberations. 

Decriminalizing sex work would not mean removing criminal penalties for trafficking. There is no evidence to suggest that decriminalization results in more trafficking.

We believe that decriminalization would help tackle trafficking. When sex work is decriminalized, sex workers are better able work together and demand their rights, leading to better working conditions and standards and greater oversight of commercial sex and potential trafficking within it.

When they are not threatened with criminalization, sex workers are also able to collaborate with law enforcement to identify traffickers and victims of trafficking.

Organizations such as the Global Alliance Against Trafficking in Women, Anti -Slavery International and the International Labour Organization agree that decriminalization has a positive role to play. It fosters increased recognition of the rights of people who sell sex and can help end human rights violations against them, including trafficking.

4. How does decriminalizing sex work protect women's rights?

The policy proposed by Amnesty International aims to provide greater human rights protection for sex workers - who are often among the most marginalized women in society -  by arguing for greater protection and empowerment of women sex workers.

Gender inequality and discrimination can have a major influence on women's entry into sex work. We are not naive or blasé about this problem. But we do not think that criminalizing women for their lack of choices or using criminal laws and police practices that make their lives less safe is the answer to this problem.

Criminalizing sex workers makes it harder for them to obtain employment of their choice. Our proposed policy outlines a range of actions that States must take – in addition to decriminalization - to empower women and other marginalised groups in order to ensure that no one has to undertake sex work in order to survive.

States must provide adequate and timely access to support - for example, state benefits, education and training and/or alternative employment. This does not mean that sex workers should be compelled to take part in such programmes. 

5. What evidence does Amnesty have to back up its proposed policy on sex work?

We have spent two years developing our proposed policy to protect the human rights of sex workers. This policy is based on solid research and consultation with a range of organizations and people.

We looked at the extensive work done by organizations such as World Health Organisation, UN AIDS, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health and other UN agencies. We also looked at the positions of others such as UN Women, Anti-Slavery International, the Global Alliance in Trafficking in Women. We conducted detailed research, interviewing more than 200 sex workers – and former sex workers, the police, governments and other agencies in Argentina, Hong Kong, Norway and Papua New Guinea.

Our national offices around the world also contributed to the policy through extensive and open consultation with sex worker groups, groups representing survivors of prostitution, abolitionist organizations, feminist and other women's rights representatives, LGBTI activists, anti- trafficking agencies, HIV/AIDS activists and many others.

6. Those who sell sex need protection, but why protect the “pimps”?

Our policy is not about protecting “pimps”. Third parties that exploit or abuse sex workers will still be criminalized under the model we are proposing.

But there are overly broad laws, like those against “brothel keeping” or “promotion” that are often used against sex workers and criminalise actions they take to try and stay safe. For example, in many countries two sex workers working together for safety is considered a “brothel”. Our policy is calling for laws to be re-focused to tackle acts of exploitation, abuse and trafficking - rather than having catch-all offences that criminalize sex workers and endanger their lives.

7. Why doesn’t Amnesty International support the Nordic model?

Even though sex workers are not directly criminalized under the Nordic model, operational aspects – like purchasing sex and renting premises to sell sex in – are still criminalized. This compromises sex workers safety and leaves them vulnerable to abuse; they can still be pursued by police whose aim is often to eradicate sex work through enforcing the criminal law. 

In reality, laws against buying sex mean that sex workers have to take more risks to protect buyers from detection by the police. Sex workers we spoke to regularly told us about being asked to visit customers’ homes to help them avoid police, instead of going to a place where sex worker felt safer.  

Sex work is still highly stigmatized under the Nordic model and contributes to the discrimination and marginalization of sex workers.

8. Why does Amnesty International believe that paying for sex work is a human right?

Our policy is not about the rights of buyers of sex - it is entirely focussed on protecting sex workers who face a range of human rights violations that are linked to criminalization.

In adopting this policy, Amnesty International is saying that we believe that the rights of a group of people who can be extremely vulnerable to human rights abuses should be protected.

9. As a human rights organization, does this votemean that you are promoting sex work?

No. We do not believe that anyone should enter sex work against their will and should never be forced or coerced into being a sex worker. There is evidence that sex workers often engage in sex work as their only means of survival and because they have no other choice. This only perpetuates the marginalization of sex workers and this is why we want to ensure we have a policy in place that advocates for their human rights.

10. Amnesty International has adopted a resolution, but what happens next?

The vote has given our International Board the go-ahead to develop and agree a policy to protect the human rights of sex workers. This will be discussed at their next meeting in October. They will draw on the findings of the consultation and the research carried out to-date and make a decision about the best policy to reflect Amnesty International’s commitment to protect the human rights of sex workers.