Prostitution: the pros and cons of decriminalising sex work

Jul 29, 2015

Celebrities turn on Amnesty International after draft policy backs full legalisation of sex industry

Charles McQuillan/Getty

Hollywood stars are among a group of activists who have signed a letter to Amnesty International criticising the organisation for calling for the decriminalisation of the sex trade.

The group includes high-profile celebrities such as Meryl Streep, Kate Winslet and Lena Dunham as well as veteran feminist campaigner Gloria Steinem. 

In their letter, they claim the organisation's reputation in upholding human rights "would be severely and irreparably tarnished if it adopts a policy that sides with buyers of sex, pimps and other exploiters rather than with the exploited".

Amnesty's draft policy, which will be voted on at its International Council meeting next month, is based on two years of research from UN agencies as well as interviews with sex workers in Norway, Argentina, China and Papua New Guinea.

The organisation presents evidence that shows criminalising adults for consensual sex work can lead to greater abuse against sex workers.

"These violations include physical and sexual violence, arbitrary arrest and detention, extortion and harassment, forced HIV testing and medical interventions and exclusions from healthcare, housing and other social and legal benefits," it says.

Sex workers, many of whom support Amnesty's draft policy have hit back at the celebrities and activists critical of the report.

"At the end of the day, this is a proposal that impacts my life and not Lena Dunham's," Jane, a sex worker from New York told the Daily Beast.

"Weighing in on a situation that doesn't impact your life is absolutely going to be harmful because it's saying the people who are impacted don't deserve to speak and your voice is more important."

Decriminalisation: the pros and cons

Con: Prostitution exploits women

Many feminists argue that prostitution is the patriarchal oppression of women and is an affront to gender equality. The Right of Women organisation argues that current legislations "enshrines men's right to buy women".

Pro: Sex work is a choice and empowers women

Sex workers' rights groups argue that many sex workers enter the industry voluntarily. The International Union of Sex Workers (IUSW) argues that current legislation "treats our consent to sex as less valid than that of other women".

"Neither having sex nor getting paid [for it] is inherently degrading, abusive, exploitative or harmful", says the IUSW.

Pro: Human rights and medical experts support it

Earlier this year Amnesty International published a draft policy arguing in favour of decriminalisation, saying sex workers should be entitled to the same rights as other workers. It argues that the criminalisation of prostitution "threatens the rights to health, non-discrimination, equality, privacy, and security" of a sex worker.

The World Health Organisation also condemns the criminalisation of sex work, and backs the new research by The Lancet which shows that decriminalising prostitution would help lower rates of sexually transmitted infections, particularly HIV/Aids. 

Con: Prostitution is dangerous

Many campaigners and feminists argue that prostitution, whether voluntary or not, is a form of violence against women. Care, a Christian charity argues that physical abuse and rape is commonplace in prostitution and campaigns for the criminalisation of all purchases of sexual services. In London, sex workers suffer a mortality rate that is "12 times higher than average", according to their research.

Pro: Decriminalisation will actually make sex worker safer

Rights groups argue that criminalising prostitution means that sex workers are less likely to contact the police to report abuse. The laws in the UK also takes sex workers' right to work together. If sex workers are allowed to work together in one building, they will be safer, says IUSW.

"If I decided I was too nervous to work alone, I would not be allowed to have a friend over to work in a pair for safety: it would technically mean I was running a brothel," explains one sex workers to the Independent.

UK laws "make life harder for those it purports to protect by precluding the possibility of establishing informal networks of self-regulation and protection" argues Luke Gittos, law editor for Spiked Online.

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