Anytime policies concerning human rights are discussed, it’s important to listen to the voices of those most directly affected. In the case of prostitution, many who have survived the experience say it’s incredibly exploitive and damaging.
But as the debate about Amnesty International’s proposed endorsement of the total decriminalization of “sex work” continues to play out online, some claim that those opposed to the policy are inadvertently taking aim at the LGBTQ community. Their argument stems from the wide-spread discrimination faced by LGBTQ people; they often have limited employment options and turn to “sex work” as their only chance for survival. Any effort to reduce the illegal sex trade could therefore compromise their ability to earn a living and increase the social stigma they face.
The problem with this interpretation is that implies that LGBTQ people forced to trade sex for money, food, or shelter are more-or-less willing participants; they’re simply making the best of a bad situation. The reality is far worse. Many are victims of multiple forms of systemic oppression, including poverty, racial inequality, and gender-based violence rooted in misogyny and homophobia. As a result, some LGBTQ people are left with no choice but to be prostituted. Decriminalizing the buyers who fund a predatory sex trade that feeds on the vulnerable doesn’t “empower” prostituted people—it legitimizes the harm they face within it.
An international group of LGBTQ service providers, allies, and activists has written an open letter to Amnesty that clearly makes the distinction between consent and systemic coercion. They encourage Amnesty to adopt policies that protect all people forced to sell sex, but prosecute sex buyers, traffickers, and other exploiters.
Read an excerpt from this important statement:
… While it may seem that the best way to support LGBTQ-identified individuals who exchange sex for money is to legalize and decriminalize “sex work,” such a policy fails to address the core issue of systemic societal homophobia and transphobia, and the consequent marginalization of vulnerable LGBTQ-identified individuals. Laws that decriminalize prostitution as a whole fail to recognize the egregious and inherent harms of commercial sexual exploitation on these prostituted individuals. For sexually exploited individuals, anxiety, depression, suicide attempts, and substance abuse are common consequences of their experiences. In addition, as it pertains to boys and young men, it fails to address the cruel logical end of homophobia and transphobia for many LGBTQ-identified individuals: they and their very bodies are so devalued that they are available for purchase as objects and commodities for the sexual gratification of others.
This is not a form of human liberation, but rather disempowerment and bondage masquerading as freedom.
A few Amnesty International country sections have stated in their materials that legalizing and decriminalizing “sex work” would “clarify and strengthen efforts to combat human trafficking.” This cannot be farther from the truth. The overt and subtle forms of force, fraud, coercion, and exploitation of vulnerability that are the hallmarks of human trafficking would only be increased, not ameliorated.
If Amnesty International is interested in working to eradicate sex trafficking, it would do well to consider legal frameworks and policies that protect these marginalized populations sold for sex and target their exploiters, including the buyers of sex. In the context of furthering the human rights of all, Amnesty International should endorse the set of laws, known as the “Nordic Model,” which decriminalizes the sale of sex but criminalizes its purchase, thus protecting and providing support to the individuals who are victims of systemic oppression and at the same time combating the demand that fuels the egregious exploitation of the most vulnerable members of our society. We implore Amnesty International to investigate the complexity of commercial sexual exploitation further and to carefully consider its position given the likelihood of the inherent exploitation that is at the root of any abuse of human rights.”