"What will it all mean?" asked one of my friends. I admit to not being sure what it will change in the immediate future. But as a symbol, it's significant when the world's most recognized human rights organization acknowledges that criminalizing sex work violates the rights (and threatens the lives) of sex workers.
I've had the good fortune of getting to know a lot of sex workers over the last two decades, so for me it hasn't been a stretch to understand that criminalizing sex work increases the dangers, the sense of isolation and the stigma for those who work in the industry. It sorts sex workers into a different category of human - one who lives and works alongside the rest of us every day, providing us with services that we want, yet is denied the most basic rights that all of us enjoy.
If this was a question of a particular race or economic class being discriminated against in our own countries, we'd have been all over it decades ago. But it's about sex workers, and that subject apparently really weirds us out. So we have shamefully let this disgrace continue much longer than a civilized society ought to permit.
Criminalizing sex work shuts workers out of civil measures like employment tribunals and contract law. It relegates them to work in the shadows by denying them safe, legal places to work. It leaves them to the whims of police, who will be free to use their own discretion in deciding whether to treat the workers with respect or as lower life forms who they can feel free to abuse.
In many countries, including Canada, criminalization denies sex workers the right to work together, and never mind that there's a mountain of evidence and a whole lot of logical thinking to tell us that isolating people in their work puts them at greater risk for all kinds of bad things.
Around the world, major organizations like the World Health Organization and the United Nations have already endorsed decriminalization after their own careful investigations. Some might even argue that Amnesty International was late to the game, given all the research and reports that have stated over and over again that nothing is improved for sex workers or society by criminalizing the industry.
Yet we were almost sidetracked by an open letter signed by anti-sex-work supporters in the runup to the Amnesty International vote, accusing the organization of betraying its principles and siding with "pimps." We were almost sidetracked by movie stars like Meryl Streep and Lena Dunham, who signed that petition and significantly added to the level of media hype and misinformation that followed.
People actually gave credence to the uninformed musings of celebrities over two years of thoughtful investigation by Amnesty in drafting its policy. (Here's a great video from Amnesty on how that public battle all shook down, and that highlights the many ways that opponents used misinformation to try to create a backlash against Amnesty.)
As the British might say, I was gob-smacked by that turn of events. But I suppose I am grateful for it, too, because it reinforced that those who oppose sex work as morally wrong are fully prepared to sacrifice sex workers' safety and rights if that's what it takes to make their case.
They believe that their need to hate sex work trumps workers' needs for safer workplaces, fair treatment by police and courts, and the basic human right to live equal among us. I've suspected that's what they believed for a while now, but their hysterical misinformation campaign against Amnesty was the confirmation.
Will any of them rethink their positions now that one more respected organization has done its homework around sex work? I don't understand their way of thinking at all, so can't predict. There's something about the issue that seems to blind otherwise thoughtful people to common sense.
And those who are still on the fence are legion. Many excuse themselves for not taking a position because the issue is "just too complex" and they don't have time to think about it. (What, people should die and suffer because you can't be bothered to learn enough to form an opinion?)
But increasingly I am feeling the power of a global movement pushing for change. Maybe Amnesty's support will be a defining moment for busting through the general population's apathy on this issue.
Anyway. My biggest hug to Amnesty. Stay strong, you guys. You're on the side of the angels on this one.
This good read on Vice summarizes much of the Amnesty battle.
A good Q&A with Amnesty about its decision, particularly useful for its clarity around difference between decrim and legalization, and that you can support decriminalizing adult, consensual sex work while still being vehemently opposed to sex trafficking and exploitation.
And if you're all cool on this subject and want a good belly laugh, check out this parody of the moment that "sexwork exclusionary radical feminists" - SWERFs - learn of Amnesty's decision.