Image for Amnesty International ... the sex trade’s new best friend

Feminist Roundup

Amnesty International’s recently released Draft Policy on Sex Work, to be considered at the organisation’s 32nd International Council Meeting (ICM) in Dublin on 7-11 August this year, is a human rights travesty. 

Far from offering a well-researched, broadly based policy document, Amnesty has put forward a colourless effort, drafted no doubt by a lackey with unquestioning devotion to political correctness and a talent for repetitive verbal puffery.

The language of the draft document is all style and no substance. 

The policy document acknowledges that ‘systemic factors and personal circumstances related to poverty, discrimination and gender inequality can have a bearing on some individuals’ decisions to do sex work’, but insists that sex workers have ‘agency’ and ‘choice’ when entering sex work.

Apart from the fact that most, not ‘some’ people (mostly women) enter prostitution because they have no other option, Amnesty’s glib recognition of their ‘agency’ is patronising in the extreme.  They’re saying to the thousands of women forced into prostitution by these circumstances that even though they are poor, and suffering discrimination, at least they have agency.

Shouldn’t Amnesty be focusing more on ensuring women have a real choice – that they have real agency – by addressing the underlying poverty, discrimination and lack of education that lead women into prostitution?

The draft policy also fails to canvass alternative legislative options for sex work, particularly the Nordic Model – a model that decriminalises sex workers but criminalises those that purchase, or procure the purchase of sexual services – the johns, pimps and brothel owners. 

This model is obliquely referred to in the draft policy document as “overbroad criminalisation of the operational aspects of sex work”, and “indirect criminalisation” of sex workers.  Describing the activities of pimps and brothel owners as ‘operational aspects of sex work’ could perhaps win a prize as the ultimate in euphemistic use of language.  We might as well stop calling a spade a spade and start referring to it as a manually operated soil displacement device.

And what, exactly, is the ‘indirect criminalisation’ supposedly inherent in Nordic Model laws?  The draft policy document references the Supreme Court of Canada decision in Canada v Bedford 2013 SCC 72 in support of this assertion.  In the Bedford decision, certain sections of the criminal code relating to brothels were struck from the legislation on the grounds they were an unconstitutional breach of sex worker’s rights to personal safety. 

It was a lengthy matter and the ultimate ‘striking out’ of the offending provisions was stayed for 12 months to allow the Canadian government to address the issues raised by amending the relevant legislation.  They did this by introducing revamped sex work laws that closely followed the Nordic Model.

In the preamble to the Supreme Court judgment it was noted that the state owed a constitutional obligation to all persons to ensure their personal safety.  However, it was made clear that ‘While some prostitutes may fit the description of persons who freely choose (or at one time chose) to engage in the risky economic activity of prostitution, many prostitutes have no meaningful choice but to do so’ and ‘the conduct of pimps and johns is the immediate source of the harms suffered by prostitutes’ (see

former prostitute Natasha Falle noted that 97% of prostitutes do not engage in prostitution by choice ...

Responding to the decision, former prostitute Natasha Falle noted that 97% of prostitutes do not engage in prostitution by choice, and that ‘the voices of the overwhelming majority of women who want to get out of prostitution are being drowned out by a vocal few’ (see

Bedford is not exactly an unqualified endorsement of Amnesty’s proposed decriminalisation policy.  Neither is it a sound example of the supposed failings of Nordic model laws.  And the judgment features free use of the terms ‘prostitute’ and ‘prostitution’ – how did that sneak past the PC police at Amnesty?

Essentially, the proposed Amnesty policy roundly dismisses laws that criminalise the buying of sex because they allegedly compromise the safety of sex workers.  This is done in the absence of any evidence or proper analysis.

In fact, the entire draft policy document lacks academic rigour.

Amnesty’s supposed research into sex work in four disparate jurisdictions appears to consist of nothing more than anecdotal evidence, with only 80 or so sex workers interviewed in total - hardly a representative sample.  Further, it does not seem that any survivors of prostitution were interviewed.

The policy document mentions the ‘impunity’ offered to perpetrators of assaults against sex workers by legislative regimes that criminalise some or all aspects of sex work, including Nordic Model laws.  But despite this apparent concern about the perpetrators of such assaults being unpunished, the draft policy completely fails to consider any legislative measures that would work to make such offenders (mostly men) routinely accountable.

The draft policy also perpetuates several other simplistic notions about sex work – for example, that consensual sex work can be readily distinguished from sex work undertaken by trafficked sex workers, with the latter being something that must definitely be criminalised.  And that exploiting a child in prostitution must also be a criminal offence. 

Amnesty considers a ‘child’ to be a person under 18, but the policy fails to address a very obvious question - how can a person in prostitution change from someone who must be protected from exploitation to the fullest extent of the law, to someone who has total autonomy to engage in such work simply by the passing of one day?

The Draft Policy on Sex Work is nothing more than a series of ‘motherhood’ statements about the human rights of sex workers, and how the world’s sovereign states should work towards promoting those rights by affording sex workers the same workplace rights and remedies as any other worker. 

But nothing in the policy truly addresses the reality of prostitution – it naively assumes that decriminalisation of sex work will succeed in reducing the many harms of prostitution, including the violence and degradation suffered by prostitutes on a daily basis worldwide, and that sex work will henceforth be entirely legitimate.  And it makes these assumptions contrary to available evidence in jurisdictions adopting the decriminalised model.

For example, local government authorities in NSW – where prostitution is decriminalised - are struggling to keep up with the regulatory burden imposed on them by a state government that has abdicated any responsibility for the sex trade.  Recently, a Sydney council was forced to employ an undercover investigator to enter a local ‘massage parlour’ and avail himself of the services on offer in order to testify that an illegal brothel was being conducted on the premises.  Unbelievably, the court ruled that one instance of sex on the premises did not a brothel make, meaning the council needs to send several investigators to the premises at one time to make their case.

This is plainly absurd, and an unconscionable waste of ratepayer funds, but the council is in the invidious position of having to deal with constants complaints about a brothel that is clearly operating outside local regulations - next door to a primary school tutorial centre and 50 metres from a girls high school (see 

We can only hope the 450 Amnesty delegates attending the ICM next month will call for better evidence and a broader consideration of alternatives before voting on the sex work policy.

With its abject failure to address the demand side of the sex work contract, one wonders just exactly who will benefit from this policy.  And who is driving the push to promote prostitution as a job just like any other, given that around 60 per cent of Amnesty International sections did not submit a response to the original draft decriminalisation policy position on sex work?

Does the broader membership support this policy?

We need to ask why the International Board of Amnesty is continuing to aggressively pursue the adoption of a pro-sex work policy position.

Simone Watson’s Media Release

• Download…