Decriminalizing sex work

The other day, Amnesty International passed a resolution calling on the group to establish a policy that “supports the full decriminalization of all aspects of consensual sex work.” Before I say more, a couple of key points: first, Amnesty didn’t adopt a policy supporting decriminalization; its membership called on the board to establish and adopt such a policy. Second, the membership was clear that while it’s calling for such a policy to be adopted, it’s not calling on national chapters to pursue the actions implied by the policy. In other words, it’s sort of like the Boy Scouts saying, “We have no problem with gay scout leaders, but bigoted groups that want to continue to practice discrimination by excluding gay leaders are free to do so in compliance with our policy.”

Still. It’s a good thing.

You can tell it’s a good thing by reading the ridiculous things opponents have said about it – and by looking at who the opponents were (as well as at who the prominent supporters of the new policy are). Opponents tend to be those who either a) wish to control women’s sexuality, b) are involved in law enforcement, from whom such changes would represent a diminution in “turf,” and/or c) have absolutely zero experience of sex work, from either the provider or the consumer side.

Supporters include sex workers all over the world, civil libertarians, and public health professionals.

Sweden’s foreign minister, Margo Wallstrom, said, according to The Times, “It is a myth about the happy prostitute who does this as a free choice. Unfortunately, I can now hear people saying ‘hurrah’ — all those johns and pimps who run the brothels. It’s a multibillion-euro industry.” It should be noted: Sweden has an insane, incoherent policy, often called the “Swedish model” that criminalizes the purchase, but not the sale, of sex. This is, of course, incredibly stigmatizing, and incredibly paternalistic. It’s based on the premise that women selling sex are victims, and men buying it are criminals. But those “victims” are workers, people seeking to support themselves and their families, and in the name of protecting them, the law criminalizes the purchase of their product.

Back to what Wallstrom said: this is so patently bullshit. First, there clearly are happy prostitutes. And in any event, the absence of happy prostitutes wouldn’t in and of itself be evidence against prostitution. It might be evidence against work. How many happy factory workers are there? Do they “[do] this as a free choice”? What about cab drivers? Or miners? Most of us don’t experience our work as anything so simple as a “free choice.” Why would we expect prostitutes to? Second (skipping over the “johns,” to the “pimps”) I don’t believe that “pimps” stand to gain much from a regime of decriminalization. Just as repeal of prohibition put bootleggers out of business, I would imagine that a full regime of legalization would make the pimp (to the extent such a thing even exists) extinct.

But hey. What do I know? I think protecting human rights of sex workers engaged in consensual transactions (what the called-for policy calls for) is a good thing.

[A note: to the extent that “trafficking” is an issue – and I know next-to-nothing about the issue, except for a pretty visceral reaction against most of the things most of the people agitating against “sex trafficking” say and do – bringing sex work into daylight will also necessarily bring trafficking into daylight. I’m definitely against human trafficking. I definitely have nothing against economic migration. And I’m entirely in favor of distinguishing between the two. And, of treating all human trafficking, whether sex-related or otherwise, the same.]

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