Comment: Amnesty sex worker vote ‘a victory for evidence over ignorance’

By Alex Feis-Bryce

Yesterday’s landmark vote at Amnesty International’s forum in Dublin to advocate for full decriminalisation of consensual sex work marked the end of a heated and polarising campaign. On one side were sex workers, health and support professionals and academics and on the other side was a bizarre coalition of self-identifying radical feminists, religious fundamentalists, Jimmy Carter and some Hollywood actors like Lena Dunham and Anne Hathaway, who clearly brought a great deal of expertise to the debate. Although, in Anne Hathaway’s defence, she did play a sex worker in a Hollywood movie so maybe she felt that gave her a unique insight. As one sex worker asked on twitter, would then playing a nurse in a porn film make her an authority on medical matters? Even the Guardian newspaper made a brief and shameful intervention with an editorial which essentially argued that, while sex workers may have rights, for Amnesty to defend them was 'distracting.'

Amnesty’s position in favour of decriminalisation was the result of two years of research which involved – much to the horror or the anti-sex work lobby – speaking to sex workers and closely examining the impact of different legal settlements throughout the world: criminalising the clients in Sweden and Norway; legalisation in Germany; and decriminalisation in New Zealand. They found the Swedish Model which has been exported to other Nordic countries and even Northern Ireland has only served to endanger sex workers. They gave specific examples of how sex workers had been evicted after reporting being raped to police in Sweden.  Surely, this isn’t what supporters of this law, who hailed it as 'feminist', envisaged.  They even quoted a high profile advocate of the model, the head of Sweden's anti trafficking unit, who said, "of course the law has negative consequences for women in prostitution but that’s also some of the effect we want to achieve with the law."

The document outlining Amnesty's position was well-presented and clearly emphasises that their proposals were based on their findings, and the overwhelming international evidence that criminalising consenting transactional sex between adults seriously compromises the human rights of sex workers. 

Amnesty are not alone in thinking this. They’re following in the footsteps of UN AIDS, Human Rights Watch, Global Alliance Against Trafficking in Women, Lancet medical Journal and the World Health Organisation to name just a few of the organisations advocating for decriminalisation based on evidence. Also, according to a poll in the Telegraph, so do a significant majority of the British public.

Those campaigning against Amnesty’s position resorted to a strategy that made UKIP’s general election campaign look, by comparison, like a sophisticated and well-evidenced critique of modern Britain. Just as Nigel Farage seems to have morphed into an exaggerated caricature of himself throughout UKIP’s curious rise, if it was suddenly revealed that the standard-bearers of the anti-sex worker campaign were actually the well-executed parodies of skilled character comedians it would all suddenly start to make sense. My only surprise would be that I’d been duped by characters that I should have known were too extreme to be real people.

The usual tactics were adopted by those advocating for the eradication of sex work at whatever cost. These included the standard conflating of consensual sex work with rape and trafficking, which is so grossly offensive to genuine victims, and referring to sex worker rights activists and those providing frontline services as the 'pimp lobby'.  I can never quite tell how far from reality their fantasies have drifted; whether they actually believe that we’re in some way the hapless pawns of this mysterious, malign network of international pimps or just that somehow advocating for the rights and safety of sex workers somehow benefits pimps. If it’s the latter, aside from being totally wrong and ignoring all the evidence to contrary, they're shamelessly slandering people who have devoted their lives to supporting sex workers.  The pro-rights lobby would never resort, for example, to calling them the ‘rapist lobby’ or the ‘murderers lobby’ because they support criminalisation which, according to the evidence, results in sex workers being targeted by the most dangerous offenders and rapists. We wouldn’t do that because we have dignity and think that a debate which goes to the very heart of people’s safety and their livelihoods shouldn’t be conducted in the gutter.

Another rather strange claim made by the anti-sex worker brigade was that rather than listen to current sex workers (or 'prostituted women' as they call them even if they’re actually men) who will actually be affected by the policy, they should listen to former sex workers (or 'survivors of the sex trade' as they call them) who won’t be affected by the policy at all. A rather novel approach to policy-making: focus primarily on those it would have affected a few years ago. I think they’re suggesting the thousands of current sex workers who say decriminalisation would significantly change their lives for the better are not in a fit state mentally to know what's best for them: they are living with false consciousness. For those arguing this point from a feminist position, it’s a rather curious interpretation of feminism: perhaps I missed the part about denying people a voice and the agency to make choices about their own bodies.  Then they tried to say those sex workers who did manage to have their voices heard thanks to Amnesty were unrepresentative and privileged.  Let's recap: when making policy which affects sex workers we should listen to former sex workers more than current sex workers because former sex workers are more representative of current sex workers than current sex workers.

So, while sex workers, academic experts and those providing non-judgmental support services for sex workers all over the world are rejoicing at this watershed moment in the human rights and safety of sex workers, a small alliance of self-described radical feminists and religious fundamentalists are lamenting the failure of their desperate and cynical campaign. It was a campaign started with Julie Bindel leaking the Amnesty policy document to the Daily Mail and it was characterised with a small mindedness, a fear-mongering and a casual relationship with the truth that even the Daily Mail would be ashamed of. The campaign deserved to fail, not only for its methods but also for the ideology that drove it: the idea that sex work is morally repugnant and should be eradicated at whatever cost. Yesterday was a victory for evidence over wilful ignorance, a victory for human rights over bigotry and a victory for giving sex workers a voice over silencing them.

Alex Feis-Bryce is the director of services for the campaign National Ugly Mugs 

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