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On Amnesty and that open letter

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As most readers of this blog will probably be aware, Amnesty International recently proposed adopting a policy in favour of sex work decriminalisation. The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women – a radical feminist organisation for whom “trafficking” means, simply, prostitution – had kittens, and got a whole bunch of celebrity women (and others) to sign an open letter calling on Amnesty to reject this proposal. You can read the proposal here and the CATW letter here. (There’s also a counter-letter from the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe, an actual sex worker-led organisation, which you can read and sign here. And please do.)

Much has already been written about the CATW letter, so I’ll limit my own critique to two points:

1. Any anti-sex work argument that cites Germany and/or the Netherlands without even mentioning New Zealand is either ill-informed or simply dishonest. The celebrities may fall into the former category, but CATW and many of the ordinary signatories know full well that New Zealand, and not those other countries, is the preferred model of “the HIV/AIDS sector, including UNAIDS” – which CATW’s own letter describes as the main inspiration for Amnesty’s proposal. Their failure to mention it can only be deliberate, presumably in an effort to prevent the ill-informed – the people who do think Germany and the Netherlands are what decriminalisation means in practice – from learning of the existence of the New Zealand model, and deciding to find out more about it.

2. It is equally dishonest to portray the policy proposal as one that “sides with buyers of sex, pimps and other exploiters rather than with the exploited”. This is what the draft policy actually says:


It is patently clear from this paragraph – the only one in the draft policy addressing client and third party criminalisation – that it is precisely “the exploited” (by which CATW mean all sex workers) whose rights Amnesty is aiming to protect. CATW are free to disagree that decriminalisation would protect them, of course, but an honest response to this paragraph would require at least acknowledging that as Amnesty’s aim.

On top of that, the policy has an appendix – the summary of research findings Amnesty undertook with sex workers in four different countries (Argentina, China, Norway and Papua New Guinea). This runs to four pages, and includes a number of direct quotations from the sex workers Amnesty spoke to. I’ve read and reread and reread the four pages, and I can’t find any direct quotes by clients or third parties.

Here’s a sample of the quotes from Norway:

Amnesty 2Amnesty 3Amnesty 4

One would almost have to wonder what CATW think it means to “side with” a person, if not to support abolishing a law that that person says puts them in danger.

Now it could be argued that we don’t know how many sex workers told Amnesty that actually they think criminalising their clients is in their interests. This is true; we don’t. But the fact is that every research study I have ever seen from anywhere on the impacts of client criminalisation has found that sex workers consider it to put them more at risk. Every last one. Even the official reports used by the Swedish and Norwegian governments to justify their laws. Even the City of Oslo report used by statistically illiterate radfems to justify the laws. So to make that argument would be disingenuous. But to not even acknowledge the existence of the research findings, while simultaneously claiming that Amnesty is siding against sex workers? That’s worse than disingenuous. It’s bad faith.

And if you are a journalist who reported on the CATW letter without reading and referring to what the Amnesty document actually says? Shame on you.


About Wendy Lyon

Fighting a lonely battle for evidence-based policy and the proper use of apostrophes.

6 responses »

  1. aformersexworker

    I don’t like posting here because of the appalling way I was treated when Stormont placed my life in danger. It is impossible (and unhealthy) to feel ok with people who are ok with that degree of harm being imposed upon you (try it and see how you feel). The second night I had to sleep cuddled up to a commando knife without anyone protesting, or even spending 5 minutes of their precious time letting me know it was a clear breach of the data protection act that I could get taken down at once (not 10, very dangerous, months later) was a denial of my humanity and right to life and a bridge too far for any form of forgiveness, let alone pretending it never happened to “be polite”.

    You must hate me very deeply…I wonder why? Because I would have gone to war if you had been placed in similar danger.

    Even so, sometimes you gain a new perspective that is very important to the whole issue and needs sharing.

    I realised right away, in 2012, that Moran was being promoted and steered towards one specific purpose.

    Ireland has a unique situation in that, in 1983 bilateral decriminalisation of street work (then the only independent sex work) “just happened” because of an unrelated constitutional challenge, not as part of any other socio-political agenda. That lasted 10 years until bilateral recriminalisation to agenda in 1993.

    What happened was predictable in theory, but never to the extreme that happened on the ground.

    In 1983 pimping, organised crime and other abuses like under age girls vanished completely. By 1987 these things did not exist (as compared to fully criminalised London where they were rife), and drug abuse was almost unheard of (even regular drug abusers preferred to work straight or sober – you were safer and made more money that way).

    There was a knock on effect into indoor work where sex workers we empowered to lay down their own terms and conditions, simply because they could walk out and work independently on a moments notice if they did not like the terms and conditions laid down. As a result, indoor sex workers were paying between 20% and 30% to “the house” during the decriminalised period as opposed to 40% and 60% after recrimnalisation.

    In 1993 organised crime began to vie with each other to bring the independent street workers indoors and profit from them in a variety of forms as soon as the bill to recriminalise was proposed.

    As soon as the bill was enacted there was a massive leap in prescription and non-prescription drug use among the women left behind. After ten years of being stigmatised but decriminalised, and seeing the gardai as a positive force, the stress of living in constant fear of arrest (because bills do not pay themselves), hiding from patrols, was intolerable.

    There was no time or energy left to police the junkies and under age girls.

    In 1994 and 1995 Ruhama and affiliates were openly fighting recriminalisation on all the grounds stated above.

    This isn’t just about Ireland, because of the unique and incidental way decriminalisation happened the huge beneficial effects were the result of decriminalisation alone, so it is a case study for a whole planet.

    Moran was presented and promoted as an “impossible girl” an underage sex worker with a pimp and a drug problem during the decriminalised period, prepared to insist (but never produce) dozen more like her. She was a fake show-not-tell to hide all the already proven benefits of decriminalisation before anybody could cite them.

    I knew all this at once, but what I missed until now is that whoever presented and promoted Moran for those reasons did so *knowing* that they were hiding real benefit to sex workers and striving to impose unnecessary harm – knowingly – meas rea.

    Not really a sex worker at all during the decriminalised period Moran might well have been completely unaware of this aspect. It is a giant leap from being able to run a scam for money and attention to consenting to being the instrument of harm to real people and thus, a monster.

    That adds up to one of the most chilling things I have ever seen in my life.

  2. Thanks for posting and including a link to ICRSE letter. Great comments and thought. Please keep advocating for us and teaching sex workers like me, and the interested public what needs to be done to create a safe working environment for sex workers. I use that word, because I think most people would agree that workers deserve to feel safe at work. We who work in the sex work are just doing a job just like everyone else. We deserve to be safe just like everyone else.

  3. Pingback: Celebrating Hollywood’s “gender studies scholars” | Research Project Korea

  4. Pingback: Dépénalisation du travail du sexe : Amnesty s’engage | Contrepoints

  5. People have the right to use their own bodies any way they see fit, including charging a rent for its use.

  6. Pingback: The Flaws of ‘Language’ in the Sex Industry | Fanny Pack

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