Amnesty International has voted to pursue "a policy that supports the full decriminalization of all aspects of consensual sex work." This means that neither the client will be criminalised, as seen in the Nordic model, nor the sex workers - as with other 'models'. They are doing this because their research has shown them that this is the best way to defend sex workers' human rights. Surely this is something all of us, and particularly those who care about women - who make up the majority of sex workers - would want?
There are a couple of things that I would like to think about in regard to all of this.
It is perhaps worth noting that domestic work is legal but remains the site of much abuse. These activities that happen within the private domain it seems allow for, may be even foster, abusive situations. The trafficking and servitude of domestic workers is easier, and therefore more prevalent because of migration laws that make workers vulnerable because they are often present illegally, either actually, or in their imagination. Abuse of these people, often women, is a symptom of a broader issue of global inequality, which sees the financial west dominate and subordinate the financial east.
Clearly while decriminalising sex work will not put an end to the abuse and trafficking of vulnerable people (who are mostly women and girls), it may however help in preventing these activities.
What is perhaps difficult about this change of policy, for many feminists, is that it treats the symptoms rather than the causes of sex work. These can be seen to fall roughly into two interlinked categories - the first being economic, and the second psychosocial.
Sex work happens because people need to find a way to make money. There is a simple economic equation here that shapes the power dynamic along gendered lines: men are in a position to weald their economic strength over women: women hold just 1% of the world's wealth, they are more likely to be property than to have property. Their success as a sex worker relies on how desirable they are to their clients - this is down to age, measurements, and actions offered. In good working conditions, sex workers may exercise a certain degree of control, choosing who they will take as clients and what they are prepared to do, but ultimately there is no getting away from the fact that power resides with the wealthy. Sex workers service their clients, in exchange for the client's money. It is up to the client to decide how to use that money.
The psychosocial ability of clients to prioritise their own bodily desires over, or indeed, in spite of that of sex workers, is what keeps the industry going. It is hard to imagine that if these clients were to consider the subjectivity of the sex workers, they would continue to use them (unless they are sadists - in the true sense of the word). To feel comfortable buying sex a person must switch off that emotive, empathetic capacity, which recognises another's humanity, in the face of their own selfish desires. This does not seem a very enlightened model for human relations. Here gender is key. These situations, where women are perceived and used as a body, an object distinct and apart from a thinking, feeling being, are particularly painful given the prevalence of sexism.
Laws are important not only for the ways in which they protect people, or indeed do the opposite, but also how they shape our ideologies and influence our behaviours. The smoking ban is perhaps a good case in point. In a very short amount of time it has become generally unacceptable to smoke in public spaces. It has been taken on as a rule that is simply considered part of common sense. Clearly laws around sex work have failed to change ideologies: in the UK the sex work industry is booming, despite its precarious and dangerous nature.
Shouldn't we all seek to treat each other with greater humanity - and surely this is what Amnesty stands for?
Money is a great silencer, reducing what are in fact complex human relationships that ask us to be emotionally imaginative and sensitive, to mercantile transactions. It whitewashes the emotional costs of what we do, abrogating the mirror that might show us what we are and in so doing does humanity no favours.
There is a fear that this new policy fits with a larger historical trend that pits women as commodity and implicitly deems acceptable the kinds of thinking that prioritises men's desires and subjectivity over women's, all the while neatly dove tailing with the demands of neoliberal capitalism. This campaign is important, but it is not the whole story. Law is powerful and can change the way people think - even forcing them to stop paying their way out of thinking about others.