Controversy swirls over Amnesty International's statement on buying and selling of sex

Photo: Flickr/TomMaglieri

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On August 11, Amnesty International's International Council Meeting undertook a historic vote in Dublin that resulted in a resolution to support decriminalization of sex work

This decision is controversial because not all activists agree on the method to best ensure the safety of sex workers.

According to Jackie Hansen, a women's rights campaigner with Amnesty International Canada, everyone agrees that sex workers, who are already vulnerable, should not be persecuted. Where there is dissent is about how to deal with third-party managers, clients and brothel owners. 

The meeting's discussion bounced between two views -- that of decriminalization, which was adopted, and something closer to the Nordic model, she added in a phone interview with rabble.ca.

The Nordic model refers to laws employed as of 2009 in Sweden and Norway that specifically target clients buying sex but do not prosecute sex workers. A decriminalization model would criminalize neither the buyer nor the seller.

Hansen said Amnesty found that criminalizing the purchase of sex could also endanger sex workers because they would have to solicit clients where they can't be seen.

"They may have to work out of a client's home where they don't have security," said Hansen.

She said the decriminalization model was the best model to protect sex workers' human rights.

She also noted that there were conditions in which decriminalization wouldn't apply, such as when there was violence, coercion, exploitation or when children were involved.

"When talking about decriminalization there are cases in which sex work shouldn't be happening. No one should be forced to work in the sex trade. It should not be someone's only option. People should be able to freely enter and they should be able to freely exit."

Not everyone agrees with Amnesty International's support for decriminalization, however. 

"Prostitution is ultimately a symptom and expression of patriarchy, and Amnesty's decision to support full decriminalization reaffirms the idea that men are entitled to unlimited sexual access to women's bodies," said Janelle Velina, spokesperson for Vancouver-based Asian Women Coalition Ending Prostitution.

Some activists argue that sex work is inherently exploitative and that Amnesty's stance erases this exploitation.

"In a society where women were truly equal there would be no buying and selling of women for sexual acts," said Tiane Bien-Aime of the Coalition Against Trafficking of Women.

She says decriminalization would effectively turn third-party managers and brothel owners into businesspeople.

"Decriminalization of the sex trade means that the government says that pimps are businessmen, that brothel owners are normal establishments -- as normal as movie theatres. Basically it's telling society that women are for sale," she said.

Catherine Murphy, a legal and policy advisor at Amnesty International, penned a response to these criticisms in the Independent asserting Amnesty is not condoning clients, brothel owners or exploitative third-party managers.

The Canadian Aboriginal Women's Action Network also opposes total decriminalization of sex work.

"Aboriginal women are often either forced into prostitution, trafficked into prostitution or are facing that possibility," their website reads. "[Decriminalization] would only serve to make prostitution safer and more profitable for the men who exploit and harm prostituted women and children."

The decriminalization move was greeted with support from Vancouver-based Pivot Legal Society.

"We were thrilled with Amnesty's approval of the policy that went to their International Committee this week," said Katrina Pacey, executive director of Pivot.

She said Pivot supports the decriminalization model because criminalization drives the industry underground and deprives sex workers of control.

"You see sex workers unable to set up safer indoor venues to work… you see sex workers deprived of the ability to work collectively with others that would of course enhance their safety," she said.

She said these safety measures are actually prevented by criminal laws, and sex work becomes more dangerous because sex workers lack police protection.

Current sex work laws in Canada are influenced by the model in Sweden and Norway, Pacey said.

In Canada, it's legal to sell sex but not to buy it.

It's also illegal to communicate for the purpose of selling sex in a place where persons under the age of 18 may reasonably be present, it's illegal to advertise sexual services and it's illegal for a third party to receive material benefit from the sale of sex.

The Conservative government introduced these new laws last year to after the Supreme Court struck down existing ones in 2013.

Pacey said the intention behind laws that criminalize the buying of sex is to stop sex work from happening altogether. She said that, in Sweden, sex work continues to happen as much as ever but that it is less visible because it is more underground.

Neither Hansen nor Pacey could comment on how Amnesty's decision might affect sex work laws in Canada.

"The resolution empowers our International Board to develop a policy," said Hansen. "Once a policy is in place we will then review it alongside Canada's prostitution laws and we'll get a sense of where that takes us."

Amnesty International addresses a host of concerns about why it supports decriminalization as opposed to the Nordic model in an online Q&A here.

Megan Devlin is rabble's news intern for 2015. She hails from Toronto, but she's starting her Masters in Journalism in Vancouver. She got her start in journalism working at the Western Gazette where she was a news editor for volume 107 and online associate editor for volume 108.

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