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Sex Work and Sex Trafficking

In August of 2015, Amnesty International voted to recommend full decriminalization for consensual sex work – sparking World Wide Controversy about whether or not Sex Workers should be granted Human Rights.


  • The resolution recommends that Amnesty International develop a policy that supports the full decriminalization of all aspects of consensual sex work.
  • The policy will also call on states to ensure that sex workers enjoy full and equal legal protection from exploitation, trafficking, and violence.
  • The violations that sex workers can be exposed to include physical and sexual violence, arbitrary arrest and detention, extortion and harassment, human trafficking, forced HIV testing and medical interventions and losing custody of their children for no other reason than working as a sex worker.
  • They can also be excluded from health care and housing services and other social and legal protection.

What is the difference between Sex Work and Sex Trafficking?

  • Human trafficking is an egregious human rights violation involving the threat or use of force, abduction, deception, or other forms of coercion for the purpose of exploitation.
  • This may include forced labor, sexual exploitation, slavery, and more.
  • Sex work, on the other hand, is a consensual transaction between adults, where the act of selling or buying sexual services is not a violation of human rights.
  • Sex worker organizations oppose exploitation and recognize that sex worker organizations can be well positioned to refer victims of trafficking to appropriate services.
  • Conflating trafficking with sex work can be harmful.
  • Many anti-trafficking initiatives regard all sex workers as victims, relocating or detaining them in so-called safe houses against their will.
  • Other efforts, like those that have shuttered brothels, have deprived sex workers of their autonomy, income, and secure working conditions.
  • Such efforts have fostered distrust between authorities and sex workers, pushed sex work underground, and made public health outreach more difficult.

Amnesty International considers human trafficking abhorrent in all of its forms, including sexual exploitation and should be criminalized as a matter of international law. This is explicit in this new policy and all of Amnesty International’s work.

There is a stark difference between Decriminalization and Legalization and it is important to understand how they are applied under the Amnesty International Policy recommendation.

Decriminalization means removal of criminal and administrative penalties that apply to sex work, allowing it to be governed by labor law and protections similar to other jobs.

It is primarily concerned with regulations that advance the health and safety of workers.

In a fully decriminalized environment, a sex worker would be able to more easily access health care, housing, social services and defend themselves in child custody disputes.

Legalization creates narrow regulatory regimes based on other concerns and objectives, such as the health of clients, taxation, or public morality.  Legalization may include regulations that limit sex workers’ rights and protections, such as mandatory HIV testing. These may further stigmatize sex workers.  Legalization could also create mechanisms for abuse by authorities. For example, in the Netherlands where sex work is legalized, law enforcement has raided sex workers’ homes without a warrant and conducted mass arrests of sex workers veiled as anti-trafficking operations.

Full decriminalization of consensual sex work means that buyers and sellers of sexual services cannot be discriminated against for the purposes of arrest, housing, healthcare, transportation and/or public benefits. It also means that if they are the victims of a crime (such as rape, domestic violence, and even trafficking) they could report these crimes directly to the police without fear.

Problems with Legalization

Nevada has a highly regulated and legalized prostitution system as does Germany. Spain and India have unregulated legal sex work.  Australia and New Zealand have decriminalized policies in some places.  Sweden and Norway have 2 highly controversial sex work policies in place.  The Nordic models decriminalizes the selling of sex, but makes it illegal to buy sexual services.

Nordic Models of Decriminalization have Pros and Cons…

Proponents of these Models of Decriminalization argue the Nordic model shows actual harm-reduction, which cannot be offhandedly discounted.  They claim the rate of trafficked workers dramatically declines because the overall amount of sex trade declines.  At the same time, selling of sex is decriminalized, so that laws do not further victimize persons who choose to sell themselves.  Ideally, without fear, they may seek assistance from the police if they feel coerced, or abused in any way.  They insist sellers hold all the rights to determine the conditions upon which they engage in sex trade with their bodies.

The Swedish model attempts to wipe out prostitution by reducing demand, but this has not proved to be an effective strategy.

Those who support the Swedish (Nordic) point to the fact that pushing prostitution underground can have ugly consequences.

  • Violence against prostitutes can go unpunished, as women may be less likely to go to the police if they are considered to be at the margin of the law.
  • Street work, which had declined in Sweden, increased again after the law was passed, putting many women in more danger than before.
  • Prostitutes may also be less likely to seek medical advice.
Sex Workers argue that Sweden’s criminal justice system is designed to protect sex workers but it really doesn’t.
  • Because clients are still criminalized, it drives sex work more underground.
  • Relationships with police and landlords are often divisive and there is still widespread abuse.  Issues like child custody have become a point of tension.
  • Women are stripped of their agency and their rights to do with their body as they wish to.
Legalization – as in Nevada and Germany – is highly regulated and the very poor or undocumented workers are still criminally penalized for not being able to fulfill licensing and certification requirements.

Widely presented as a more tolerant and pragmatic approach, the legalized model still criminalizes those sex workers who cannot or will not fulfill various bureaucratic responsibilities and therefore retains some of the worst harms of criminalization.
It disproportionately excludes sex workers who are already marginalized, like people who live in poverty, use drugs or who are undocumented.  This makes their situation more precarious, and so reinforces the power of unscrupulous managers.

Fears over human trafficking and child abuse should not be dismissed lightly. But laws against both already exist and should be strictly enforced.

Prostitution, even if made illegal, will not be eliminated: old estimates put the value of the trade in America at $14 billion annually (it is now likely to be far higher). Rather than chase the elusive goal of stamping out a trade, the health and safety of sex workers who do their work willingly should be made paramount.

Sex Workers around the world support decriminalization of sex work as the Amnesty International policy recommends…and we should LISTEN TO SEX WORKERS when creating laws that affect their lives.

  • For inspiration from actual experience is the personalized blog sharing her story of incarceration and reentry: This Is How We Rise by Amber Batts of Alaska.
  • Bella Robinson of COYOTE RI offers a wealth of quantitative and qualitative information on sex work and sex trafficking.