Should Sex Work be Legal?

I recently watched an old episode of the Ally McBeal series (1997) and came across the issue of solicitation; a senior partner at a law firm was accused for...

I recently watched an old episode of the Ally McBeal series (1997) and came across the issue of solicitation; a senior partner at a law firm was accused for using the services of a prostitute. His attempt to redeem himself was to point out the lack of time to find someone due to his busy work schedule. Meeting someone in a bar will only deceive them, thinking that it could lead to more, when all he wants is sex. So the “fair” alternative is to hire a sex worker.

Times have changed. From not being able to marry who they want, to going to school, working, or being able to vote, women now enjoy or should enjoy these fundamental rights. Women, just like men, can engage in sexual relationships without any commitments and there are now even online dating platforms to support this. In the shadow of anonymity both men and women can openly state their interests, whether they’re looking for relationships or just sex.

For money or not, women should be free to choose what they do with their bodies and they should be empowered enough to make that choice without suffering any consequences, without being ashamed and without being called degrading names.

The debate around decriminalisation

Last week, the press widely covered Amnesty’s International Council Meeting, where the organisation is expected to pass a new policy calling for the decriminalisation of sex work, aiming for “the attainment of the highest possible protection of the human rights of sex workers”. Hollywood actresses such as Meryl Streep and Emma Thompson, among many others, and organisations such as the European Women Lobby and Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW) are asking Amnesty not to support such a policy. However, sex workers rights groups under the Global Network of Sex Work Projects together with UNAIDS, welcome Amnesty’s initiative.

Both groups agree on the fact that sex work is an extremely complex issue and a successful legislative model has yet to be found. Needless to say, they are also looking at the issue from two very different perspectives.

Amnesty’s position comes from research on the ground, and its main purpose is to protect one of the most marginalised and discriminated groups around the world. It is difficult to believe that a person supporting human rights for all can disagree with Amnesty’s draft policy document; this is, of course, if they read it. Sex workers who chose this job, maybe as a choice or maybe because of lack of other options, should be able to enjoy the same rights as everybody else: to not be detained or abused by police officers for doing their job, to have access to health services, and to have the same protection under the law in case of violence, harassment or discrimination. Further, they should not suffer from stigma that will prohibit them to ever get out of prostitution if they want to.

The perspective of the opponents of the policy is that legalising prostitution will give legitimacy to pimps, brothel owners and sex-traffickers. They fear human rights abuses would be harder to prove and to prosecute. They warn that legalising prostitution will make men believe it is all right to pay for women, to own their bodies, and that it is just a form of entertainment. And their fears are legitimate.

However, the solution is not criminalisation.

Whether referring to women who exercised their freedom of choice and chose to enter prostitution, or to those who did not have a choice due to lack of other options or were victims of forced prostitution, there is no situation where sex workers should face criminal charges. And this is Amnesty’s position.

The real problem is the lack of choice. Sometimes women are sold into prostitution by their parents or partners. Sometimes they are legal or illegal migrants, and it is the only means of livelihood they could get. Sometimes they are single mothers and no one will hire them. It is, majority of the times, a job that comes from lack of choices; and no person, in any disadvantaged position, should be available to be bought for sex or for any work for that matter. Modern day slavery takes many forms – human trafficking, sexual exploitation, abuse of domestic workers, or even the forced labour occurring in the fishing industry; and modern day slavery is the war that we should all fight.

 Is legalisation the answer?

Unfortunately, no one knows. Amnesty’s research, as well as the information available online, points at the abject working conditions and the violence sex workers are subjected to, regardless of the legal framework of the country. Lack of reliable and updated data makes the decision process on what should be the ideal law very difficult. To make matters worse, data on human trafficking worldwide is extremely scarce.

Decriminalization does not equal legalisation; however, although Amnesty’s position refers primarily to decriminalisation, they seem to also favour full legalisation.

What is important to keep in mind in assessing legal framework on prostitution, is that different laws have different objectives. In Germany for example, prostitution is fully legal with the purpose of protecting the sex workers. However, reports seem to indicate that legalisation makes it harder for law enforcement officers to detain and prosecute people engaged in sex-exploitation or trafficking.

In Sweden, prostitution is officially acknowledged as a form of sexual violence against women and children, and the main purpose of their laws is to decrease sex trafficking. Therefore, it is legal to sell sex but illegal to buy; the assumption being that once the demand decreases, the sex industry will cease to exist. However, Amnesty’s research shows that even in countries where prostitution is legal but acts related to sex work are illegal, women engaged in sex work face discrimination when trying to access basic services, such as renting an apartment. This in turn makes it harder for them to make a living, forcing them to go underground. Thus, although it has been reported that the Swedish model has decreased the cases of human trafficking, the sex workers are still suffering. What seems to work in Sweden, however, are the programs that came with the law. Skills training and job-placement programs for women who want to get out of prostitution, referral mechanisms for victims of trafficking and counselling for men who want to stop seeking sex workers are a few examples.

It is critical to define laws and policies that both protect sex workers while acting against sexual exploitation and human trafficking. But while working with men to respect women and stop demanding paid services, the reality is that the main cause of prostitution, more often than not, is abject poverty and inequality. The global community talks about goals to end gender inequality and gender-based violence. We will know we have achieved it when no women or men will be faced with no other choice than to become a sex worker.

Human Rights
Irina Asaftei

Currently based in the Philippines, Irina is an international development professional with experience in non-profit and private sectors in Romania, Uganda, Singapore and the UK. Her interests lie around market-based solutions as a way of addressing human rights issues, with a focus on gender equality, access to health, and adequate housing. She holds an MBA on International Organizations Management from the University of Geneva.
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