The Two Sides to Decriminalized Sex Work

Amnesty International, the human rights organization that has upheld the global standards for moral decency for over half a century, has made serious waves on the Internet in the past 24 hours. The group has just announced a comprehensive campaign voted into effect yesterday that formally decriminalizes sex work. At least, in their books. While many have been quick to celebrate the organization for recognizing the rights and much-needed safety measures for sex workers, others have been less enthusiastic and more outraged about the recent voting.

Here’s what you need to know about both sides of the issue:

The Basics of the Sex Industry

The sex industry (which includes sex trafficking, prostitution, and pornography) is by no means anything new, but in recent years – with the help of Internet – multiple truths behind one of the most polemic illegal businesses in the world have garnered a higher awareness than ever before. In 2014 alone the International Labor Organization estimated that forced labor generates $150 billion in profits a year worldwide, while Equality Now estimates that “at least 20.9 million adults and children are bought and sold worldwide into commercial sexual servitude, forced labor and bonded labor,” with 98% of these being women and underage girls.

Prostitution, another big component of the sex industry, makes an average annual revenue of $186 billion worldwide, and according to Havoc Scope, is comprised of at least 13,828,700 workers. But more than astounding statistical data, the sex industry is comprised of abuse, disease, and luring – with the workers being frequently beaten or drugged by consumers or pimps, the latter of which receive most (if not all) profits of the trade.

The Support for Decriminalizing

While the information of the sex industry is incredibly accessible, the industry itself is a hard one to eradicate, which means that sex workers globally are still enduring multiple abuses. Amnesty International’s proposal says that the decriminalization would be "based on the human rights principle that consensual sexual conduct between adults is entitled to protection from state interference" (i.e. not sex trafficking). The decriminalization further attempts to offer protection to workers while realizing that the reality of the industry not existing is presently unattainable.

Supporters of the decree thus praise the platform of safety offered to sex workers, who would now be able to report frequently encountered abuse, like physical violence, rape, or theft. Furthermore, the decriminalization would provide legal opportunities for business owners. As Felcitas Schirow, a sex worker and brothel owner in Germany (where sexual labor is legal) told BBC, "The owners of brothels could invest money, and the women could pick a good employer where they felt at home and who met their requirements."

The Opposition for Decriminalizing

On the other hand, those opposing Amnesty International’s decriminalization (public figures of which include Lena Dunham, former President Jimmy Carter, Meryl Streep, and Kate Winslet) are afraid that the legality would end up benefitting those in charge – pimps or brothel owners like Schirow herself. In other words, pimps would turn into business people, while prostitutes would still work for them.

And while the decree aims to provide a safe sexual space for workers while ideally simultaneously cut down on the industry’s power, “the number one criticism,” as BBC says, “is that it’s boosted sex tourism and fueled human trafficking to meet the demand of an expanded market.” In fact, one study shows a relationship between higher traffic numbers in countries with legal prostitution (like Germany, New Zealand, and the Netherlands), and another shows that the growing number of women who travel to decriminalized countries to engage in sex work end up trapped in unsafe lifestyles.

While the debate of a decriminalized sex industry is not a new one, the decision by Amnesty International has re-sparked the conversation over the benefits and consequences of changing a world muddled with dark clouds. With both sides presenting valuable arguments for and against the issue, a larger question arises: is there a right answer?

Photos by Murat Saka

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