ICRSE Letter to Amnesty International

More than 600 individuals including 100s of sex workers and researchers expert on sex work and human rights have also signed the letter.

Amnesty international sign
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Dear Mr. Shetty and the International Board:

We write to you in regard to Amnesty International’s “Draft Policy on Sex Work”, which will be submitted for consideration at AI’s International Council Meeting in Dublin, 7-11 August 2015.

The International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe (ICRSE) is a sex worker-led network representing 70 organisations led by or working with sex workers in Europe and Central Asia, as well as 150 individuals including sex workers, academics, trade unionists, human rights advocates, women’s rights activists, and LGBT rights activists. ICRSE, its members, and the signatories below are expressing their full support for Amnesty International’s “Draft Policy on Sex Work”. We commend the evidence-based draft policy that has been developed with careful consideration of the diversity of sex workers’ voices and experiences.

We are aware that Amnesty International will be pressured to back down from this position, but we urge you to show courage and tenacity and to adopt this policy. Sex workers worldwide are organising and advocating, often in very precarious and dangerous contexts, for the decriminalisation of sex work. Having Amnesty International take this position would make a significant contribution to promoting sex workers’ human rights and protecting them from discrimination and violence. A non-position by Amnesty International would be seen as an approval of the status quo and—in some national contexts—an implicit support for the criminalisation of paid consensual sex (namely through the criminalisation of clients), causing very grave consequences for the human rights of sex workers.

We, sex workers and those that support our struggle for human rights, know that any form of criminalisation (including criminalisation of clients) directly affects our livelihoods and working conditions. We urge Amnesty International to listen to sex workers and to support full decriminalisation of sex work.

We read with attention the letter addressed to Amnesty International by the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW). In the briefing note we included below, we would like to respond to some of their key arguments and highlight some of the gaps in the information that they provided.

We are urging Amnesty International to take into consideration the below arguments of the European sex worker movement, stay true to its values and vote in favour of decriminalisation of sex work. As long as sex work is criminalised—directly or indirectly through laws and practices targeting sex workers, clients, or third parties—sex workers will be at risk of police violence, arrests, rape, blackmail and deportations, and will be unable to report abuse committed by clients, third parties and members of the public.

By voting for this policy, Amnesty International will not side with exploiters and clients. On the contrary, Amnesty International will side with the universality of human rights and with sex workers, supporting us in our struggle to access justice and hold accountable those that abuse and attack us.

We hope that Amnesty International will listen to its own research, conducted over two years, to the growing evidence for decriminalisation and to the voices of all the current and former sex workers who are the most affected by laws criminalising sex work.



a. On the Swedish Model and its implementation

b. On legalisation and decriminalisation

c. On male and trans sex workers

d. On migrant sex workers

A – On the Swedish Model and its implementation

First of all, there is no evidence that the Swedish model reduces the numbers of sex workers or victims of trafficking. The Swedish National Board for Health and Welfare notes:

It is also difficult to discern any clear trend of development: has the extent of prostitution increased or decreased. We cannot give any unambiguous answer to that question. At most, we can discern that street prostitution is slowly returning, after swiftly disappearing in the wake of the law against purchasing sexual services. But as said, that refers to street prostitution, which is the most obvious manifestation. With regard to increases and decreases in other areas of prostitution—the “hidden prostitution”—we are even less able to make any statements.

In their annual report on trafficking, the Swedish police noted that “in 2009 … there were about 90 Thai massage parlours in Stockholm and vicinity, most of which were judged to be offering sexual services for sale. At the turn of 2011/2012, the number of Thai massage parlours in the Stockholm area was estimated to be about 250 and throughout the country about 450”. This is a threefold increase in three years.

There is, however strong evidence that this model is detrimental to sex workers, as it pushes them underground, prevents them from reporting violence, and deprives them of the ability to work together for safety. In particular, we urge you to understand the “The Danger of Seeing the Swedish Model in a Vacuum” and how sex workers are still marginalised and made vulnerable in Sweden itself by the Swedish Model.

Furthermore, we are concerned that the letter provided by CATW purposefully ignores the actual effects of the implementation of the Swedish Model in other countries.

A Norwegian governmental report stressed that “women in the street market report to have a weaker bargaining position and more safety concerns now than before the law (criminalising clients) was introduced. At the indoors market, prostitutes express concern for the ‘out-door’ calls”.

What Swedish Model advocates also conveniently and constantly forget to mention is that countries which have debated or considered the criminalisation of clients have not removed the criminalisation of sex workers themselves. Even worse, in such countries, the debate framed by politicians, some women’s rights and religious organisations, and the media about “abolishing prostitution” has led to a very significant increase in stigmatisation of sex workers and the associated development of policies and by-laws directly targeting sex workers.

For example, in Europe, Lithuania extended penalisation to clients, while retaining it for sex workers. In Northern Ireland, the criminalisation of clients was added to the other laws criminalising many aspects of sex work. In other parts of UK, each attempt to introduce the criminalisation of clients has been in addition to laws criminalising sex workers. In France, the three year legislative debate on the criminalisation of clients has actually delayed and possibly buried the removal of passive soliciting, a law which directly targets street based sex workers. Meanwhile, many French councils, emboldened by the debate on “abolishing prostitution”, have passed municipal by-laws banning sex workers from city centres and residential neighbourhoods, pushing them to the outskirts of the cities where they are more vulnerable to violence.

B – On legalisation and decriminalisation

We hope that directors of Amnesty International will have a clearer understanding than the authors and signatories of CATW’s letter regarding the differences between the legalisation and decriminalisation of sex work.

Sex workers globally—as well as the numerous institutions and international organisations including UNAIDS, WHO, and The Lancet, which have extensively researched the impact of criminalisation—advocate for the decriminalisation of sex work, referring to the system implemented in New Zealand in 2003.

We recognise the complex issues associated with legalisation. In Germany, sex work has been legal since 1927, not 2002 as stated in the CATW letter. What the new prostitution law of 2002 changed was to recognise contracts between clients and sex workers and introduce the right of sex workers to sue clients refusing to pay for their services. Thus, what is misleadingly called the “legalisation” of prostitution was actually the recognition of sex work as labour. Many issues in Germany are related to the non-implementation of the law in many federal states: in effect, many sex workers are criminalised in Germany through zoning laws. We reject the biased reporting made by CATW and object to the claims (unfounded and insulting to actual victims of torture) that “torture” is now available as a service in German licenced brothels.

Regarding estimates of the number of victims of trafficking, which is often wrongly conflated with the sex sector, the Federal Crime Office of Germanynoted: “The number of identified cases of human trafficking for sexual exploitation in Germany has been decreasing in the past years and in 2013 it has reached the lowest point since 2006”. In the Netherlands, the Dutch National Rapporteur on Trafficking in Human Beings concluded “that it is not (yet) possible to give an answer to the question of the extent to which legalisation of prostitution leads to more human trafficking.”

C – On male and trans sex workers

Moreover, the CATW letter ignores that sex work is a multi-gendered phenomenon and that both male and trans sex workers in many countries face some of the most serious violence and human rights violations. Although the majority of sex workers are women, to deliberately ignore the large number ofmen and trans people working in the sex industry shows an incomplete and dangerous understanding of sex work. Violence and murders of trans sex workers in particular, often by the hands of or with the complicity of the authorities and police, are revoltingly high and the voices of trans sex workers should not be sidelined and ignored.

Between 2008 and 2014, 1,612 reported killings of gender-variant/trans people in 62 countries have been documented, including 90 in thirteen European countries. Of those whose profession was known, 65 per cent were sex workers. In our region, Turkey has seen 35 trans women, the majority sex workers, murdered in the last five years. Notably, any form of criminalisation significantly increases sex workers’ vulnerability to violence on the part of the police and other perpetrators. Ignoring the voices of trans sex workers is a form of social marginalisation and violence.

D – On migrant sex workers

As a last point, we would like to focus on some of the issues faced by migrant sex workers.

In many European countries migrants may constitute up to 75 per cent of sex workers. They may lack documentation and may be subjected to violence and labour exploitation. What CATW ignores in their letter is—again—that the so-called Swedish Model or partial criminalisation puts migrant sex workers under a constant threat of police repression, arrest or/and deportation, denying their right to access to justice and redress. This is particularly relevant at a time when the world is facing the highest crisis in numbers of displaced persons since World War II. Around 60 million people are forcibly displaced worldwide, and those that reach Europe face limited access to decent work and often have little or no access to benefits. Some of those seeking refuge and migrating to Europe choose selling sexual services out of very limited options to earn their living. Any argument made towards the criminalisation of sex work that ignores the working and living conditions of migrant sex workers is not only dangerous but plays into the hands of the increasingly racist and anti-migrant agendas of some state and non-state actors.

The call for the criminalisation of sex workers’ clients in the name of preventing and ending trafficking in human beings has been rejected by many anti-trafficking organisations that have learned through decades of working with trafficked persons that the criminalisation of sex work does not solve any of the problems they experience, nor does it prevent or stop human trafficking.These approaches have not been shown to protect sex workers, halt human trafficking, or dismantle criminal networks. They have rather led to violence and rights violations against sex workers and others. The stakes are simply too high here not to speak out and call for a different approach. Amnesty International must remain strong and focused on the human rights principles at issue. The decriminalisation of sex work and practices around it reduces the opportunities for exploitative labour practices in the sex sector.

Laura Lee

Laura Lee

Irish mother, writer, animal lover, perpetual student and sex workers' rights campaigner.
Laura Lee

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