Would legalizing sex work make it safer? Amnesty International thinks so

After a heated internal debate, the human rights group voted Tuesday to promote the legalization of sex work in defense of workers' rights. Critics say legalization would simply facilitate exploitation.

Rodrigo Abd/AP/File
In this May 16, 2014 file photo, a discarded bra lies on the ground outside an informal bar that allegedly employed sex workers after a government raid on the illegal mining camp in La Pampa, Peru. Amnesty International approved a controversial policy Tuesday to endorse the decriminalization of the sex trade, rejecting complaints by women’s rights groups who say it is tantamount to advocating the legalization of pimping and brothel owning.

The human rights organization Amnesty International has adopted a controversial policy that seeks to take the criminal aspect out of the global sex trade.

At the organization’s biennial meeting held in Dublin on Tuesday, delegates from around the world voted in favor of a resolution to protect the human rights of sex workers by decriminalizing the business while still combating exploitation.

“Sex workers are one of the most marginalized groups in the world who in most instances face constant risk of discrimination, violence and abuse,” Amnesty International’s Secretary General Salil Shetty said in a statement. “Our global movement paved the way for adopting a policy for the protection of the human rights of sex workers which will help shape Amnesty International’s future work on this important issue.”

Amnesty said sex workers are particularly vulnerable to violence, arbitrary arrest, human trafficking, forced medical interventions, and exclusion from social and legal protections like housing and health services. The resolution essentially aims to de-stigmatize consensual sex work by urging governments to remove legal barriers, while redirecting prevention efforts toward these harmful practices. 

Amnesty said its policy is based on what is known in public health policy as the harm reduction principle: the idea that you can’t stop people from taking part in a dangerous activity, but you can make it safer.

“The research and consultation carried out in the development of this policy in the past two years concluded that this was the best way to defend sex workers’ human rights and lessen the risk of abuse and violations they face,” the Amnesty International statement said.

The World Health Organization favors the decriminalization of sex work on the grounds that prevention of the spread of HIV/AIDS depends on reaching key populations at risk, such as prostitutes. 

Harm reduction is controversial among conservative groups who say it encourages risky and immoral behavior. But Amnesty's position on sex workers has also stirred opposition from within its own ranks and the global human rights community.  

Human rights activists argue that the buyer-seller power imbalance in sex work makes it dangerous for workers regardless of efforts to curb abuse. Former president Jimmy Carter, whose human rights policy was a hallmark of his presidency, wrote a letter to Amnesty International in condemnation.

“It is not a human right of those with power and privilege to buy, for their own gratification, the bodies of those with financial, security, or emotional needs,” he wrote. “The practice is inherently harmful; protecting (or expanding) that action legitimizes the sexual exploitation of a shocking number of vulnerable people, the large majority of whom are women and children.”

The Amnesty resolution recognizes that sex work can be a last resort for marginalized people, not desired profession. Amnesty calls on states to promote empowerment “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.”

Still, critics oppose the tolerant message the policy sends to clients, rather than to the workers themselves. Coalition Against Trafficking in Women executive director Taina Bien-Aime told the Associated Press the law would turn pimps into “businesspeople,” and Demand Abolition policy specialist Ian Kitterman said in a statement that Amnesty International was valuing the “exploiters over the exploited.”

Mr. Kitterman added: “I fully agree with their belief that more must be done to protect those sold in the sex trade, but it’s equally critical to hold accountable sex buyers, pimps, and traffickers who perpetuate this predatory industry.” 

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