An article by Devan Rittler, Editor and Chief, The Journal of Gender, Race & Justice vol. 20

On August 11 of last year, members of Amnesty International’s international council voted in Dublin to endorse a new policy titled, “Draft Policy on Sex Work,” in which it supports full decriminalization of pimping, brothel owning, and buying of sex worldwide.[1] Amnesty asserts that the proposal comes after it spent the past two years consulting with various international health and human rights organizations regarding insufficient human rights policy for sex workers.


In the weeks leading up to the International Council Meeting, various human rights organizations, lawmakers, and celebrity philanthropists actively brought attention to both sides of the issue, and over 400 advocates signed the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women’s (CATW-Intl) open letter, urging the council to reject the policy. The letter asserted that the policy’s endorsement would only support the proliferation of sexual exploitation worldwide. Since the policy was endorsed, the discussion has only intensified, bringing light to a conflict of interests between unlikely opponents: human rights groups.


The issue of whether to decriminalize prostitution is not a new one. International human rights organizations and lawmakers around the world have debated the issue since the emergence of sex work, and several governments, including New Zealand and Germany, have legalized sex work. Still, this renewed discussion comes at a time in which human rights advocates are becoming more outspoken about the proliferation of human trafficking, even here in the United States. Where some advocates see the policy as a means by which sex workers are supported and protected from broadly encompassing prostitution laws; other advocates see it is as an open invitation to support the demand for sex services, further incentivizing sexual exploitation and abuse.


Amnesty International claims that laws that rightfully criminalize trafficking and rape unfairly penalize sex workers who engage in the work consensually. It claims that these laws make it more difficult for sex workers to come forward with criminal complaints if they, themselves, will be liable under the same laws for engaging in illegal behavior. Amnesty cites thirteen criteria in support of its policy, detailing its rationale for the proposition.[2] Opponents of the policy claim that the focus should not be on the legalization of sex work but heightened punishment for those paying for sex work, thus making it more difficult for those sold into the industry to fall through the cracks of a legal sex trade.


So, who is right?


The 2014 Global Slavery Index estimates that approximately 60,100 people are enslaved in the United States today.[3] An overwhelming percentage of that statistic is made up of men and women who have either entered the sex trade by choice, then been forced to stay, or have been sold into the sex trade without choice. Some are citizens; some are undocumented. All are victims.


In the Chicagoland area, alone, it is estimated that 16,000-24,000 women and girls are involved in prostitution-related activities every day.[4] Yet, victims of trafficking span far and wide, even in truck stops in rural Iowa. Additionally, many of those engaged in sex work are also victims of domestic and drug abuse, homelessness, or runaways. Thus, it begs the question: are the majority of those involved in the sex trade actually making the choice to engage in sex work? Or, are do they have a real choice at all?


The decriminalization of sex work may provide for the rights of those engaging in sex work by choice; however, it diminishes the rights of those coerced into sex work, which statistics show, is a growing population. Conversely, by making prostitution illegal, we systematically incentivize individuals to engage in professions that strengthen human rights and welfare. When balancing interests, it seems the latter overwhelmingly has a greater need, especially given the proliferation of human trafficking in the digital age.


Additionally, Amnesty’s blanket proposal closes the door on other policy options. Most human rights advocates disapproving of Amnesty’s full decriminalization model support Amnesty’s logic, seeking to protect the rights of sex workers. These advocates endorse other models, including the Nordic Model adopted in Sweden, which increases punishment for those who purchase sex, thus shifting the focus from supply to demand. While none of these models has proven to be without flaw, it seems apparent that a full decriminalization of sex work would only be to the detriment of human rights, the very thing Amnesty is seeking to combat.