Sex Workers Side With Proposal To Decriminalize Prostitution

A lot of debate over Amnesty International's proposal to protect the human rights of sex workers has failed to include the perspective of the people it will most affect

Aug 13, 2015 at 12:36 PM ET

Amnesty International’s new resolution to decriminalization consensual sex work has been met with mix reviews.

Some women’s groups, columnists and high-profile figures, including Lena Dunham, Meryl Streep, and Kate Winslet, spoke out against the proposal and signed a petition against it, arguing that decriminalization provides immunity to traffickers and pimps. Others took to social media to express their support, surprise and outrage. Some argue that those who fall into the latter camp aren’t engaged in sex work and their response is based on little more than their moral position, a stance that prompted the ire of sex workers.

Despite the pushback, Amnesty voted to adopt the resolution at its International Council Meeting in Dublin on Tuesday, firm in its belief—based on substantial research—that the harm reduction model is the best way to protect the rights of women and men engaged in consensual sex work.

Vocativ spoke with a former escort who worked for five years in France, Germany, and the U.S. to get her take on the proposal. Karen Hodes, who opted not to use her real name, is now a spokesperson for the Sex Workers Outreach Project, and human rights organization that advocates for sex workers.

What was your reaction when you heard that Amnesty was discussing a proposal to decriminalize sex work?

I was excited. Mainly because Amnesty International has a massive following and base among more moderate liberals and moderate individuals who are interested in human rights. The idea that this very mainstream presence against human rights abuses was going to be recognizing the safety and well-being of people involved in the sex trade was really, really exciting. I was looking through the mail and my boyfriend’s uncle had received a letter with the Amnesty candle on it. My boyfriend’s uncle is your average late-50s, mainstream, lightly liberal, lightly conservative person—the idea that people like him are going to be exposed to this is phenomenally exciting.

Why do you think that some people, and in some cases very high-profile people, are against the proposal?

I think there is really strong and well-funded misinformation campaign. They use contorted studies and reports that conflate prostitution and trafficking. If that’s all you’re exposed to and you hear that Amnesty is about to support rights for pimps and johns you’d be like, ‘Oh, yeah, of course, I’ll sign on to something opposing that.’ That and people who are disconnected from the industry and highly privileged are looking at worst-case scenarios of exploitation. Because they don’t have experience in this industry and because they’ve never been in economic situations where they’ve had to choose anything besides exactly what they want, they are thinking, Oh, let’s stop this—for people who otherwise would be making $2-a-day in a factory working 20 hours. It’s misinformation and looking at it from a perspective of privilege, and not really knowing the nuances and differences.

It seems that some people having this knee-jerk reaction against the proposal may not have read it. What is it that Amnesty is proposing?

It actually proposes a really wide and comprehensive range of stuff. It supports decriminalization, it supports destigmatization, it supports states in creating voluntary, non-coercive resources for people who want to exit the sex trade. It supports broader systematic improvements for groups that are most likely to face pressure to enter the sex trade—addressing discrimination against trans women and migrant groups. It also supports decriminalization as the best policy to protect the human rights of people who are involved in the sex trade.

So, it’s not going to make things easier for sex traffickers?

No, it’s not. Many large, anti-trafficking organizations and networks have spoken out in support of Amnesty’s proposal: the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women, La Strada International, which is Europe’s main network against traffic in human beings, the New York Anti-Trafficking Network. They’ve also stated that criminalization pushes things underground, that criminalization of clients get in the way of clients who are often frequently great at identifying and reporting incidences of trafficking. Criminalization actually increases trafficking and lots of mainstream anti-trafficking organizations have stated that. It’s misinformation that pits trafficking victims against the human rights of sex workers, and that conflict does not exist.

Amnesty is advocating for the decriminalization of sex work. Can you explain the difference between legalization and decriminalization?

Legalization means making sex work legal in very specific contexts. In Nevada sex work is legal only through registered brothels, or other places sex work is only legal if you register. Whereas decriminalization is removing all criminal laws relating to prostitution and the sex trade and in some circumstances working with groups of sex workers to create regulatory laws, civil laws, not criminal laws, civil laws to uphold labor rights and health.

What does this look like on the ground?

Legalization criminalizes the types of sex work that people who are most vulnerable and most likely to experience violence or exploitation are engaged in, like street-based sex work. Legal regimes also often criminalize people who are not natives of the country in which they are engaging in sex work. That’s a huge issue, especially in places like Germany and France where upwards of 70 or 80 percent of people working in the sex trade are migrant sex workers. Even though sex work is quote unquote legalized in those countries, 80 percent of people working there are not legally working in the sex trade. I would describe legalization as a regulatory system that continues to criminalize street-based sex workers, migrant sex workers and people who are not complying with the legal, regulatory framework. This ends up being really problematic because, again, the most vulnerable groups of people remain criminalized. All of the problems associated with criminalization continue to be there for people who are most vulnerable to trafficking, violence, HIV contraction, all that stuff.

What kind of impact would decriminalization have on sex workers?

Thinking about my experiences working in places where it was legalized versus the United States—and that’s not decriminalization, but legalization is better than criminalization—the main difference is that finding good places to work with good management is so much easier in Europe. I worked for escort agencies and had absolutely phenomenal experiences. In Germany, in particular, there are even sex worker working centers where you can go in and be like, ‘Do you have any advice about where to find work or where to work?’ In the U.S. you can’t have that. Even organizations that are harm reduction and want to help sex workers, in some states they would be committing a felony for referring people to places that they think are good places to work. There’s basically no information. Plus, the types of people who end up working in management positions in Europe are very different to people who wind working in those positions in the U.S. When you criminalize something you deter law-abiding or law-conscious people from taking on roles that pose legal risks.

And how is this different in the U.S.?

I hear so many stories of people who are working for agencies who have had really bad experiences: their pay cut—they’re taking at least 50 percent, agents not doing a good job of screening, people who own these agencies crossing sexual and emotional boundaries with workers, pressuring people to take clients or engage in acts they didn’t want to engage in. All of these things seem to be a lot more prevalent in this context where this is criminalized because there is no transparency in what’s a good agency and what’s a bad agency.

Some supporters of the proposal say that it will help protect sex workers from police harassment and abuse.

There are great examples of police being allies to sex workers in decriminalized or even legalized contexts, like the Ugly Mugs scheme, a UK initiative where social service providers, police, and sex worker communities work together to share information about bad dates [potentially dangerous clients]. A wonderful proposal—it could never happen in the United States.

What happens if a sex worker calls the police in the U.S.? What is the reception like?

A close friend of mine was being stalk and harassed and she called the police and the police told her that it’s going to be really hard to prove that he’s doing this stuff, it’s going to be really easy to prove that you’re doing something illegal, so I would just let it go. That’s one example. Other examples are if people call the police, if they have children and they’re divorced from the father of their children that documentation that they’re engaged in sex work can come up in custody battles, it has come up in custody battles. I know someone on the East Coast who was arrested a few times by cops and also exchanged sexual favors to evade arrest or had sex with a cop and was then arrested.

Have you had any personal experiences with the police?

Criminalization enables perpetrators to pose as law enforcement. My only bad experience working in this industry happened when I didn’t screen a first-time client well. That person showed up in my apartment, and after the appointment he took the money away and said, ‘I’m a cop. You probably don’t want to do anything about this’ and walked out. He then sent me a text afterwards being like, ‘Hey, just want you to know that the local police department knows what you’re up to. I’d suggest stopping.’ Whether or not he was a cop, that freaked the shit out of me. It basically enables any rapist to tell someone that they’re a cop and then rape the person. A similar incident happened in my city recently, a guy showed up at someone’s apartment and said, ‘I’m a police officer, you’re under arrest,’ handcuffed her and then he and three other people gang-raped her. He wasn’t a cop, but that’s what criminalization does.

Now that Amnesty have confirmed that they’re going ahead with the proposal, what are the chances it will actually be implemented?

It’s a long, uphill battle and sex worker organizations and rights organizations are going to need to do a lot for this to get implemented. I don’t see this happening in the U.S. anytime in the next 15 years, but maybe with a lot of hard work in the next 20 to 25. I do see it as a really valuable advocacy resource… that will help prevent harmful laws from being implemented, and hopefully help bring about policy changes that will help sex worker communities.