A Closer Look: Amnesty International’s Policy on Decriminalizing Consensual Sex Work

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As first discussed in May, global human rights organization Amnesty International has released a policy in response to the high rates of human rights abuses experienced globally by sex workers. Based on two years of in-depth research, the policy calls on states to decriminalize consensual sex work and recommends actions that will best protect human rights for all. The full report can be accessed here.

This bold policy statement is both timely and significant. Sex workers are at a high risk of human rights abuses around the world – including rape, violence, extortion, discrimination, and trafficking. Amnesty has concluded that states must take action to address harmful stereotypes that drive marginalization and exclusion, repeal and refocus existing laws that compromise human rights, and ensure that sex workers have equal access to justice, health care, and other public services, with equal protection under the law.

An important thread through this policy is Amnesty’s willingness to be transparent and public in its position. Kate D’Adamo, national policy advocate at the Sex Workers Project of the Urban Justice Center, noted that more organizations like Amnesty should speak out. “Taking a public stance is incredibly important,” she said. “If every country in the world became decriminalized tomorrow, that’s a step. But it also needs to be hand-in-hand with a larger conversation about how we talk about the sex trade.”

The policy also brings to the forefront the critical distinction – and ongoing debate – between legalization and decriminalization. Whereas legalization of sex work includes a government’s structure for licensing and regulation of the industry, leaving sex workers limited in where, when and how they work decriminalization simply removes all criminal penalties for sex workers and their consensual customers. Currently, New Zealand is the only country to implement decriminalization. Throughout the United States, in contrast,  criminalization of all parties is the norm. Amnesty does not necessarily oppose legalization, but instead advocates that governments must ensure that the system respects the human rights of sex workers and identifies examples of ongoing human rights abuses against sex workers within localities that have implemented legalization. Importantly, Amnesty clearly states that decriminalizing consensual sex work can and should include robust criminal penalties for sex trafficking.

Freedom Network USA Executive Director Jean Bruggeman adds that decriminalization frees up resources for people who need service, support and options. “By criminalizing the actions of sex workers, we make it harder for them to find other sources of income,” she said. “This also allocates money to the criminal justice system which could instead be providing sex workers and trafficking victims the services and support they need to expand their options for housing, employment and education.”

Freedom Network USA salutes Amnesty International’s policy and report release, and stands in support of the decriminalization of consensual sex work. Amnesty’s research across the globe reflects our experience with trafficking victims here in the US. We are committed to pursuing policy choices that provide everyone with a path to justice, safety, and opportunity.

To learn more, contact National Coordinator Melinda Smith at melinda@freedomnetworkusa.org.