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Amnesty's Vote to Decriminalise Sex Work Is a Betrayal of Women

18/08/2015 23:39 BST | Updated 18/08/2016 10:59 BST

The vote for the decriminalisation of sex work which was passed last week at Amnesty's International Council Meeting has been presented by the organisation as a move to protect the human rights of sex workers.

What the general public may not realise is that the term 'sex workers' itself is a political statement which defines clearly which side Amnesty was on from the start. 'Sex workers' includes anyone working within the sex industry, including the pimps who buy and sell women. The voices in this debate which have been ignored are those of survivors who reject the term 'sex workers' and refer to themselves as 'prostituted women' to reflect the reality of the 'job.'

Amnesty has done little to clarify the popular misconception that the debate was between decriminalisation or criminalisation of the prostituted. The choice was in fact between full decriminalisation versus the Nordic model, which decriminalises the prostituted but makes the purchase of sex a criminal offence. Survivor organisations unanimously advocate for the Nordic model or 'Swedish law.'

Amnesty's explanation for its proposal reads exactly the same as every other pro-decriminalisation group's justification for legalising the right to buy and sell women's bodies, beginning with the degendering of the industry. Amnesty states in its policy background document: "the term "sex worker" is intended to be gender neutral, as both men and women provide commercial sexual services."

As it is overwhelmingly women and girls who are bought by men, any policy which is constructed out of a denial of that truth is meaningless. If we stop for a moment and imagine that that statement reads 'it is overwhelmingly black people who are bought by white people' it's clear that no Human Rights organisation would be trying to obscure that fact in any policy.

Once the foundation of gender inequality is removed, Amnesty is able to reframe 'sex work' as a free choice between consenting adults: "Amnesty International believes individuals are entitled to make decisions about their lives and livelihoods, and that governments have an obligation to create an enabling environment where these decisions are free, informed, and based on equality of opportunity."

According to Amnesty, that equality of opportunity exists in all areas of the sex industry apart from trafficking: "Amnesty International considers human trafficking abhorrent in all of its forms, including sexual exploitation, and should be criminalized as a matter of international law."

The reality is that we live in a world of gender inequality and 'sexual exploitation' is the very foundation on which prostitution is built: without it there would be no sex industry. Amnesty itself consistently recognises that women are exploited for sex - this for example from their Q & A:

"There is evidence that sex workers often engage in sex work as their only means of survival and because they have no other choice."

And yet, when it comes to policy, women's desperate circumstances are magically transformed into choice, sexual autonomy and even empowerment:

"Amnesty International neither judges those choices nor attempts to negate them, because to do so would ignore the ways that individuals act thoughtfully and deliberately to, at a minimum, survive or to empower themselves."

"Amnesty International believes that the conflation of sex work with human trafficking leads to policies and interventions which undermines sex workers' sexual autonomy."

We are used to the fact that the words 'choice' and 'empowerment,' when applied to women, are used exclusively to mean anything to do with sex or taking your clothes off; the words themselves have become so devalued of any other meaning that they have become essentially part of the vocabulary of grooming. Amnesty uses these terms in contradiction of all evidence of the lived experience of the vast majority of women engaged in prostitution.

By reframing 'lack of choice' as 'choice' their policy essentially supports the rights of a mythical group of women who are somehow equal to men in terms of status, opportunity and economic independence.

Shame on Amnesty for obscuring the facts. The overwhelming evidence of policy outcomes in different countries points to the Nordic model for both increased safety for women in prostitution and a reduction in both demand and trafficking. While ostensibly prioritising safety Amnesty has gone for an approach which ensures that the industry will thrive. Looking at the list of their supporters and the emphasis on the prevention of the spread of Aids it seems to be the safety of the men who buy which has been prioritised.

Without rigorous examination of the actual evidence, which Amnesty has apparently failed to do, any policy is merely an exercise in confirmation bias: through their resolution Amnesty has simply demonstrated clearly whose side they want to believe. In so doing they have betrayed not only the survivors but all women.