Amnesty International sex work decriminalization stance proposal sets off flurry of petitions, and celebrity scolding

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Letter against policy plan signed by actors, designers and other luminaries says policy was inspired by “HIV/AIDS sector” which does “worthy” work but has “very little understanding, if any of . . . intersectionality of race, gender and inequality . . .”

They support families and each other in situations and communities where no one else will. In many communities globally they lead fights against HIV. They have banded together nationally and worldwide to protect their rights and their health. Where their work is illegal, they face heightened discrimination, marginalization,  abuse, assault, exploitation, and threats to their health.

These are some of the realities of people who earn or augment their living through sex work, and  some of the reasons Amnesty International will consider a proposal at its meeting that begins Friday in Dublin to adopt a policy call for the decriminalization of sex work.

It is a proposal buttressed by scores of citations to findings from other human rights organizations, from the World Health Organization, from high courts and policy makers, physicians, sociologists and anthropologists, and supported by interviews with women and men who earn their living by selling sex and who describe the challenges and perils criminalization of their work poses.

Yet it is a proposal that a long list of celebrities, that include actors Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, Meryl Streep, Angela Bassett, Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates-Kline, director Jonathan Demme, writer and performer Lena Dunham, designer Dana Buchman, and academic Henry Louis Gates joined faith-based, anti-trafficking and anti-sex work organization leaders  in signing a  letter to protest.

They sum up their objections to the thinking behind the proposal (which Amnesty International notes was the product of research, analysis, lived experiences and consideration of the human rights impact of an array of laws and policies over the course of two years of consideration) saying:

“Amnesty appears to shape its opinion about the sex industry primarily from the perspective of the HIV/AIDS sector, including UNAIDS. As worthy as their global work is, it is evident that these groups have very little understanding, if any, of violence against women and the intersectionality of race, gender and inequality. Defending the health and human rights of women is significantly more complex than the single aim of protecting individuals from HIV/AIDS, however critical . . .”

The letter goes on to assert that UNAIDS “seems” more concerned about the health of “sex buyers,” (without explaining how the international agency has evidenced this bias) and saying “On the other hand, medical professionals, including gynecologists and mental health providers” have confirmed the harmful aspects of sex work.

What we have here, perhaps, is a failure to communicate. A special supplement of the leading medical journal The Lancet last year also confirmed the harmful aspects of sex work, and in a series of articles showed how those harms are exacerbated by laws that push sex workers to the margins of society, strip them of legal protections and ensure they will not resort to police when threatened or assaulted.

These are some of the reasons why the Global Network of Sex Work Projects has posted a petition in support of Amnesty International’s proposed decriminalization stance, and why MSMGF, an organization supporting the health and human rights of men who have sex with men, is circulating the petition. The signatories of the petition, who number more than 6,600 so far, appears short on names of famous and wealthy people. Many of the signatories list their occupations as “sex worker” or “former sex worker.” And they refute both the tone and the assumptions of the celebrity-signed letter.

There is, of course, another petition, with roughly half the number of signatures so far, also condemning the Amnesty International’s policy proposal, and referring to sex work (in quotes throughout) as “prostitution” (not in quotes).

For a proposal for a stance — a plan to call for a policy — this all makes for a lot of reading.
ThinkProgress, a project of the Center for American Progress, manages to condense the issue into three simple graphs, showing what happened when New Zealand decriminalized sex work.

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