When it comes to prostitution, what we usually have in mind is coercion, exploitation and abuse. This is based on evidence that in most cases sex workers don’t choose to sell their body, but are forced to do that. Last year Amnesty International was involved in an intense debate concerning its proposal for the decriminalisation of all aspects of consensual adult sex, including sex work that does not involve abuse or violation of human rights. This controversial stand caused immediate reaction of public opinion, as this open letter signed by CATW (Coalition Against Trafficking in Women) and more than 400 other international women’s rights groups, advocates, medical doctors, faith-based organizations, actors and directors expressing their dismay at Amnesty International policy proposal.
As controversial as it sounds, Amnesty’s choice to advocate for the decriminalisation of prostitution, as far as it is consensual, is based on evidence that is hard to be denied. The thing is that as long as sex work is considered a crime, it promotes trafficking and violence perpetuated by the pimps and the affiliated criminal groups. It is less safe for sex workers themselves not to have their job regulated by law and recognized as a proper job, considering also that many women actually choose to sell their body because of the profit and are not forced whatsoever.
This is not an easy stance but the aim of Amnesty International is exactly that of causing a debate in society that will eventually lead to the better protection of sex workers. This position did not come out of the blue but was the result of a two-year-long gathering of evidence and research, not to mention the work of other dozens of groups that have addressed this issue way before Amnesty did and have come to the same conclusions. The lived experience of sex workers under legal contexts constitutes one of the most substantial pieces of evidence in support of this standpoint.
Consensual sex workers themselves are demanding for decriminalisation. In the last months in England this demand is getting stronger, mainly because of the lack of safety for prostitutes. In facts, today in the UK the exchange of sex for money between consenting adults is legal, but associated activities, like brothel-keeping, are not. This means that often women have to work isolated, exposing themselves to a bigger risk. However UK case is not alone in Europe, where many countries don’t criminalise sex selling and buying itself, but don’t allow related activities, such as the opening of brothels.
Nevertheless in other European countries prostitution is a legal and regulated trade. In Austria sex workers have to pay taxes and undergo weekly medical checkups, while in Germany liberal laws regarding the sex trade allow the spread of the so-called “super-brothels”. In the Netherlands as well prostitution is legal and regulated, Amsterdam Red Light District being the symbol of the Dutch open policy on the matter. Here in 1994 Mariska Majoor, former sex worker, opened the Prostitution Information Centre (or PIC) to make it easier for people to find practical information about sex work and to create public respect for sex workers. In this interview to Elle last July Mariska says that the major problem of selling sex in Amsterdam is not safety, but the stigma of being a sex worker: “you can’t write it on your CV; it’s difficult to get another job or a bank account.” And she adds: “I never had a problem with the work. I had a problem with the people who walk by and look at me liked I’m a monkey in high heels. I found being an ex-prostitute harder than being a prostitute.“
It seems like the first issue to deal with before even trying to achieve decriminalisation of sex work is the stigma to which it is related and the lack of public awareness on the fact that sex work can be work, too. Projects like this collection of portraits by the Sex Worker Open University aim to normalise and humanise sex workers, fighting against stereotypes that prevent women from being free to use their body as they want without the fear of being abused, both mentally and phisically. The freedom of choice and the lack of judgement would be the first moment of any step toward the resolution of every problem related to both consensual and non-consensual prostitution.
(Cover picture: a march organised by the English Collective of Prostitutes to protest against violence against women. Photograph: Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images)