In August 2015, human rights NGO Amnesty International made headlines for their decision to support the decriminalisation of sex work, in light of their two-year consultation with groups such as the World Health Organisation, the Global Alliance Against Trafficking in Women, and Anti-Slavery International. From that moment, activists, academics, news outlets and celebrities were incensed - accusing Amnesty of supporting sex trafficking and publishing sensationalist stories of Amnesty's declaration of 'prostitution as a human right.' In reality, all Amnesty had really done was reiterate that all humans, including sex workers, deserved equally enforceable human rights.
Sex work is the oldest profession in the world and is practised everywhere - yet sex workers are frequently marginalised, abused, and subject to police brutality. In being forced to operate outside of the law, sex workers are often at risk of violence that they are unable to report to the relevant authorities. The Global Network of Sex Work Projects finds that sex workers are subject to a denial of human rights, unsafe working conditions, a lack of access to services, and stigma and violence. As well as this, they note the lack of involvement in decision-making regarding sex work.
'End Demand' or the 'Nordic Model' has recently had a huge amount of coverage in the news - advocating for the elimination of sex work by decriminalising the sale of sex and the criminalising the buying of sex - something that campaigners want the UK government to implement. In punishing johns but 'protecting' sex workers, End Demand campaigners claim that by ending demand and in turn supply, sex workers will be protected from exploitation. The issue with this is that many sex workers feel that this model is not beneficial for them at all, and don't feel that they have been listened to in the drafting of this model.
The problem with End Demand is that it wrongly assumes that all sex workers are exploited and abused, and forced into their profession. It also makes great mention of underage girls and does not give much regard to consenting, adult workers. Essentially, they equate all sex work with human trafficking, which is an entirely different and abhorrent issue. The idea that sex work is inherently exploitative does not sit well with both sex workers and choice feminists - those who have chosen to undertake sex work are tired of being rendered voiceless victims, and do not feel that they should be equated with victims of sex trafficking, who of course need protection. The lack of consent in human trafficking cannot compare with the rationalised choice that many sex workers make, and the equation of the two can be seen to trivialise trafficking. Many feminists who are against sex work raise concerns of the lack of empowerment for women in their profession - but what is empowerment? Was I empowered when I was a waitress on minimum wage earnings, often subject to leering, sleazy customers? Is the worker on a zero-hour contract with wages that don't even raise them above the poverty line empowered?
In investigating sex workers who are operating in countries with the Nordic Model, such as Sweden, it has been found that targeting buyers has driven sex work further underground, and workers are unable to effectively screen their clients. The decreasing of a safe client base, due to fears of arrest, also means that sex workers can be lead to turn to more dangerous measures in order to live, such as accepting drunk and violent clients or working on the street more frequently. The criminalisation of buying in the End Demand strategy also punishes 'brothel keeping' and 'promotion' - just two sex workers working together can constitute brothel keeping. Clearly, this tactic also serves to underhandedly punish workers as well as buyers, especially workers who are just acting in the interests of their own safety.
End Demand can also be said to be treating the problem rather than the root cause. It would be more useful to understand why people choose to undertake sex work in the first place - for many, due to government cuts to student grants, disability benefits and low-income household welfare, sex work is a way to make a decent amount of money and still have the time to study, support a family, or just not live in poverty. If we want to support those who turn to sex work for these reasons, ensuring that their only means of income is taken from them is not the answer.
So what would the decriminalisation of both selling and buying do for sex workers? Sex workers could work together in a safer and more supportive environment without the fear of being convicted of 'brothel keeping'. Differing from legalisation, which would see the regulation of the sex work industry that could again criminalise certain practices and drive sex workers underground, decriminalisation will mean that sex workers will be entitled to support and services without the fear of retribution, and will be more likely to assist the police in identifying buyers who are violent and abusive. A move towards decriminalisation could also see the stigma surrounding sex workers decrease, meaning discrimination and violence would in turn diminish. So no, Amnesty and the many other organisations that advocate for the decriminalisation of sex work are not saying that prostitution is a human right, or endorsing sex trafficking. Rather, they are asking for an end to the violence, state brutality, and stigma that sex workers face on a routine basis.