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Amnesty has it right: Decriminalization reaffirms sex worker rights

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On August 14, The Globe and Mail published an op-ed by Simon Hedlin, former political adviser for gender equality and human rights for the Swedish government, attacking Amnesty International's recent endorsement of a global effort to decriminalize all forms consensual sex work "that does not involve coercion, exploitation or abuse." He asserts that the Swedish model of governance, one that criminalizes the purchasers of sex, is both effective in reducing the criminalization of women in the sex trade and decreasing the number of sex trafficking victims.

In the Canadian context, Hedlin's assertions mirror common misconceptions regarding what decriminalization really means, contributing to growing sentiments that call for increased punitive measures for those within the sex trade.

Like many critics, Hedlin asserts that Amnesty International's position endorses -- or at the very least tolerates -- the potential increase in sex trafficking. He cites two studies that suggest that the legalization of prostitution has increased reported instances of human trafficking.

A closer reading of these studies reveals that the increase in "reported" instances of trafficking is not a byproduct of restricting the criminal justice system's ability to prosecute; it is symptomatic of a market economy driven by profits that create the conditions for marginalized labourers to be exploited and subjected to extremely poor and dangerous working conditions.

The main difference, however, is that sex workers who are exploited in a decriminalized regime will be more likely to report their abusers if they will not be subjected to criminal prosecution.

Hedlin draws on evidence from the Report of the Prostitution Law Review Committee on the Operation of the Prostitution Reform Act (PRA) 2003 released by the New Zealand government to argue in favour of the Swedish model. He quotes the report, claiming that decriminalization "could do little about violence [in prostitution]." But of course, this is an oversimplification of an extremely complex understanding of the sex trade. The full quote from the report actually asserts that data reproduces many misconceptions regarding the sex trade and decriminalization:

"The majority of sex workers interviewed felt that the PRA could do little about violence that occurred, though a significant minority thought there had been an improvement since the enactment of the PRA. Of those in a position to comment, the majority felt sex workers were now more likely to report incidence of violence to the Police, though willingness to carry the process through to the court is less common."

Though the evidence points us in a direction towards decriminalization, the positive outcomes associated with harm reduction are often replaced in policy discourse with narratives of fear.

If we look both domestically and internationally to the growing opposition to decriminalization, the common thread among pro-Swedish model or pro-abolition advocates hinge on heightened anxieties surrounding sex trafficking and the inherently exploitative sex trade. The political mobilization of the trafficked victim narrative can be effective in garnering support for "tough on traffickers" legislation (which already exist), but it also legitimizes the criminal justice system's intervention in the lives of sex workers who engage in consensual sex.

Critics maintain that Amnesty's support of decriminalization runs counter to their overall mandate of ensuring the individual and collective rights of people across the globe. It is somehow a normalization of violence against women and incompatible with foundational principles of human rights.

Canada's attempt to adopt elements of the Swedish model in the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act (PCEPA) comes as part of a broader strategy to strengthen the criminal justice system in an effort to combat those who create the demand for sexual labour, all in the name of protecting sex workers from exploitation.

Though this may rouse the support of some in the human rights community, it seems quite paradoxical to use a tool grounded in punishment and coercion to guarantee the right to life, liberty, and security of the person.

Granting sex workers the ability to protect themselves through decriminalization does not mean overlooking the abuses and violence that occurs with in the sex trade. It represents a fundamental recognition of human rights and dignity and supports the project of ensuring the voices of sex workers are heard on a national and global scale.

Strengthening the criminal justice system in this way that not only criminalizes those who purchase sex, but the very broad and vaguely worded legislative objectives that guide the PCEPA will inevitably result in riskier working conditions and the ability for police to apprehend, detain, and harass sex workers.

Amnesty's support for decriminalization should be seen as a larger project of attempting to challenge the stigmas attached to those working in the sex trade. If we can move towards constructing sex work as something that is seen as legitimate, and not just a social phenomenon that can be tolerated, we can begin to foster better working conditions and safer community networks that reinforce sex workers' rights.


Marcus A. Sibley is a doctoral student in the Department of Law and Legal Studies at Carleton University. Follow him on twitter @marcussibley.


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