Human rights organization Amnesty International is calling for the decriminalization of all aspects of prostitution – from sex workers to brothels to customers.
The group has been studying the issue for the past two years and believes legalization will help make sex workers safe from abuse.
"There are independent laws that criminalize exploitation, trafficking, rape. Some sex workers are subject to those abuses," said Camilla Taylor, an attorney and national marriage project director for Lambda Legal, a national LGBT rights group. "But it is very difficult to prosecute those abuses while the sex workers themselves are criminalized. It is very difficult for a sex worker to come forward, and complain of a crime being committed – like a rape, for example – if they themselves would be subject to criminal prosecution, perhaps lose their children in a custody battle, perhaps not be able to access social services, medical care that they may need.
"There's also a lot of evidence to suggest that decriminalization will diminish the rates of transmission of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases."
But some human rights groups believe the move will make prostitutes even more vulnerable to exploitation.
"We're sympathetic with the desire to say it's inappropriate for the criminal justice system to be responding to people who are in prostitution," said Kaethe Morris Hoffer, executive director for the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation, a nonprofit organization aimed at raising awareness to sexual assaults and human trafficking.
"Where we substantially disagree is that we think that the conditions of those who are sold for sex are so completely different from the conditions of those people who purchase sex that what ought to happen – and is in fact happening in Illinois – is a different approach. Instead of saying we need to reverse course from the complete criminality of both buying and selling to the complete legalization of both buying and selling, we think the appropriate course is to stop responding to those who are selling sex – prostituted – with criminal penalties, but we need to instead go after that part of the sex industry that has virtually always been ignored: the demand side."
We invited a representative from Amnesty International to appear on the show but they declined.
Watch the video to hear our full conversation on the pros and cons of legalizing prostitution with Hoffer and Taylor.
Amnesty International's resolution
Prostitution is one of the world’s oldest professions and the topic has been in the spotlight since Amnesty announced its decriminalization proposal. In recent headlines, two lawsuits involving Backpage.com and Rentboy.com have also raised the debate about the legalities of online sex-trafficking.
At Amnesty’s August 11 International Council Meeting in Dublin, Ireland, a resolution was passed that lists 13 criteria in support of the human rights of sex workers and the decriminalization of their actions:
- The starting point of preventing and redressing human rights violations against sex workers, and in particular the need for states to not only review and repeal laws that make sex workers vulnerable to human rights violations, but also refrain from enacting such laws.
- Amnesty International’s overarching commitment to advancing gender equality and women’s rights.
- The obligation of states to protect every individual in their jurisdiction from discriminatory policies, laws and practices, given that the status and experience of being discriminated against are often key factors in what leads people to engage in sex work, as well as in increasing vulnerability to human rights violations while engaged in sex work and in limiting options for voluntarily ceasing involvement in sex work.
- The harm reduction principle.
- States have the obligation to prevent and combat trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation and to protect the human rights of victims of trafficking.
- States have an obligation to ensure that sex workers are protected from exploitation and can use criminal law to address acts of exploitation.
- Any act related to the sexual exploitation of a child must be criminalized. Recognizing that a child involved in a commercial sex act is a victim of sexual exploitation, entitled to support, reparations, and remedies, in line with international human rights law, and that states must take all appropriate measures to prevent sexual exploitation and abuse of children.
- Evidence that sex workers often engage in sex work due to marginalization and limited choices, and that therefore Amnesty International will urge states to take appropriate measures to realize the economic, social and cultural rights of all people so that no person enters sex work against their will or is compelled to rely on it as their only means of survival, and to ensure that people are able to stop sex work if and when they choose.
- Ensuring that the policy seeks to maximize protection of the full range of human rights – in addition to gender equality, women’s rights, and non-discrimination - related to sex work, in particular security of the person, the rights of children, access to justice, the right to health, the rights of Indigenous peoples and the right to a livelihood.
- Recognizing and respecting the agency of sex workers to articulate their own experiences and define the most appropriate solutions to ensure their own welfare and safety, while also complying with broader, relevant international human rights principles regarding participation in decision-making, such as the principle of Free, Prior, and Informed Consent with respect to Indigenous peoples.
- The evidence from Amnesty International’s and external research on the lived experiences of sex workers, and on the human rights impact of various criminal law and regulatory approaches to sex work.
- The policy will be fully consistent with Amnesty International’s positions with respect to consent to sexual activity, including in contexts that involve abuse of power or positions of authority.
- Amnesty international does not take a position on whether sex work should be formally recognized as work for the purposes of regulation. States can impose legitimate restrictions on the sale of sexual services, provided that such restrictions comply with international human rights law, in particular in that they must be for a legitimate purpose, provided by law, necessary for and proportionate to the legitimate aim sought to be achieved, and not discriminatory.
The policy has created mixed arguments worldwide.
In a statement released by Lambda Legal, the LGBT community issued praised Amnesty’s resolution:
“As LGBT rights organizations in the United States, we join to applaud and support Amnesty International’s recent resolution to protect the human rights of sex workers by calling for decriminalization of sex work, while simultaneously holding states accountable in preventing and combating sex trafficking, ensuring that sex workers are protected from exploitation, and enforcing laws against the sexual exploitation of children.
For many LGBT people, participation in street economies is often critical to survival, particularly for LGBT youth and transgender women of color who face all-too-common family rejection and vastly disproportionate rates of violence, homelessness, and discrimination in employment, housing, and education.”
Others say that the policy is contradictory to Amnesty’s claim to “bring torturers to justice,” as the organization states on its website. At Amnesty’s 2014 Human Rights Conference in Chicago, Attorney General Lisa Madigan and Cook County Commissioner Bridget Gainer protested against to the idea of decriminalizing prostitution and the exploitation and enslaving of women.