From Iceland — The Case For Sex Work Decriminalization: Global Frameworks, Local Contexts

The Case For Sex Work Decriminalization: Global Frameworks, Local Contexts

Published November 11, 2015

The Case For Sex Work Decriminalization: Global Frameworks, Local Contexts
Ragna Rök Jóns by Ragna Rök Jóns
Photo by
Julia Staples

Ragna Rök Jóns and Salvör Gullbrá spent weeks tackling sex work as a nebulous problem before the final culmination of this article, in relation to Amnesty International’s call for sex work decriminalization, and in response to the numerous counterclaims for its supposed misdirection. Together, we affirm that sex trafficking and forced prostitution are inviolable offenses against people; largely, women of colour, migrant women, queer men, and transgender women bear these injustices. That said, after the raids in New York and facing continued prejudice against sex work in Iceland, we realize how these supposed “calls for action” do not assist those most in need: people who took on sex work because of limited alternatives and those in dire need of protection, support, representation, and equal rights in labour and law.

Global frameworks

After days of discussion in Paris, Amnesty International delegates voted on a resolution that called for the development of “a policy that supports the full decriminalization of all aspects of consensual sex work” on August 11, 2015. A total of 400 members of Amnesty, from 60 different countries, met to vote on the organization’s international policy stance, which then translates into all of its subsidiary branches and organizational efforts. In particular, the resolution included a call to decriminalize sex work itself, sex purchase, and property ownership of sex trade hubs (such as brothels). Simultaneously, it explicitly decries human trafficking as abhorrent in all of its forms, including sexual exploitation, and states that it should be criminalized as a matter of international law.

The call was not, in fact, for legalization. Rather, it is an urging to decriminalize the work of sex and the workers who perform it, thereby removing the burden of criminality from the current load of labor, law, and work conditions. Amnesty deemed this decision necessary based on “evidence that the criminalization of adult sex work can lead to increased human rights violations against sex workers.” It thereby bypasses the state measures of police and prison systems that legally treat sex workers as criminals, instead of underground workers.

As Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International, noted with the resolution:

“Sex workers are one of the most marginalized groups in the world who in most instances face constant risk of discrimination, violence and abuse. Our global movement paved the way for adopting a policy for the protection of the human rights of sex workers which will help shape Amnesty International’s future work on this important issue.”

These forms of unjust human rights violations include “physical and sexual violence, arbitrary arrest and detention, extortion and harassment, human trafficking, forced HIV testing and medical interventions.” Importantly, it addresses that sex workers are not just cisgender women; they also include cisgender men, queer and transgender folks. These human rights injustices far too frequently result in exclusion from healthcare, housing, social and legal services and protections.

Amnesty’s resolution to back the decriminalization of prostitution was met with outrage by a number of Icelandic feminists; declarations of Amnesty’s moral blindness ensued. Before the suggestion was even approved by the international board, seven Icelandic women’s organizations had signed a petition criticizing Amnesty’s proposal, stating: “Sex work isn’t work. It’s violence.” Criticism spread like wildfire across Icelandic social media, where little of the debate seemed to focus on sex workers themselves and their lived experiences, but rather about whether sex work should exist or not. We, together, affirm that sex workers exist; that to “do away” with their existence adds a further violence to an already violent industry. With its general exclusion of sex workers’ voices, this erasure abets the disappearance of sex workers from a dialogue that has consistently overwritten and disempowered their priorities and concerns—much the same as with the stripping ban of 2010, which decided that migrant women were victims, instead of workers with voices.

Goodwilled as these opinions are, they do little to help the very real people working in the sex industry. Saying sex work does not exist does not make it any less real, and is actually dehumanizing to sex workers. Prostitution is real, regardless of whether it’s legal or not. The question is: How can the law do the best job to protect the lives and rights of sex workers?

Many of the current criticisms of Amnesty International and anti-sex work views more broadly, moreover, erase the existence of male, queer, and transgender sex workers, and the particularities of their experiences in the sex trade. Though no statistics exist in Iceland, due to institutional erasure, records from the United States, in Los Angeles, in one study, show that around 50% of 244 transgender women surveyed received their primary income through sex work; worse still, in general, almost 27.3% of adult transgender women are HIV-positive. Many of these transgender women practice sex work, in part because of limited employment opportunities, widespread discrimination in employment and housing, and increased healthcare costs. Many of the Icelandic criticisms of Amnesty’s decision do not propose alternative solutions to decriminalization, such as how to increase alternative employment options for current sex workers who wish to leave the industry.

So, then, what’s a whore to do?

Sluts allowed, no whores

Part of the problem with much of the dialogue surrounding anti-sex work policies lies in its gross conflation of sex work, prostitution, and trafficking. We argue for the decriminalization of not just consensual, but voluntary, sex work. This means that one does not merely consent or acquiesce to a sexual contract, but instead requires a worker to actively will, and ideally want, themselves to do the work. We are opposed to forced, involuntary prostitution, and sexual trafficking. We are also opposed to claiming that “all sex work is violence” and “no one chooses sex work,” a sentiment that echoes a commonplace second-wave feminist stance of the 1960s and ‘70s, where sex workers were supposedly just displaying a “false consciousness,” without the ability to exercise agency over themselves and their bodies. This was the case of the so-called “Sex Wars” among feminists of diverse orientations in the United States. This infantilizing rhetoric depicted sex workers as victims without free will and, if they voiced otherwise, they were seen as merely deluded. We strongly believe that instead of speaking for or over sex workers, we must empower them with platforms that allow them to speak for themselves, on their own terms.

Sex work can take many forms: it can include penetrative sex or not, therefore including stripping, phone sex, pornography, and any form of work that demands pay for sex or pleasure, broadly defined. Since many sex workers demonstrate a desire to hire others, primarily and especially for their safety (i.e., bodyguards or “sofa boys”), we cannot support policies that demonize and criminalize these people whose work consists of protecting the lives and rights of sex workers.

When people, feminist-identified or otherwise, come out as against sex work decriminalization, they automatically oppose a person’s right to choose what they do with their bodies. Taking away sex workers’ rights to choose to do work and receive payment often means taking away the only means of survival they have. Of course, the status of volition and consent are tenuous, contextual, unsteady, and contingent: new rubrics must be developed that allow for workers’ rights and autonomy to be respected and upheld, while condemning violence and punishing it by law. But, to do so, we must, first and foremost, involve practicing and veteran sex workers with diverse backgrounds, given that the work itself is far from streamlined or uniform.

Decriminalization is about making willing sex workers’ work safer. It’s not about whether we think it should exist or not. It’s about giving adults the human right to choose to survive by using their own bodies (as we all do, in different ways). The idea of saving all sex workers from themselves does not help them or makes them more safe, but actually excludes them from a conversation that they have the most at stake in, given the nature of their work. If a sex worker says they are doing their work voluntarily, we should take their word for it. If we are against it, we should be developing alternative employment routes, not criminalizing and thereby driving underground the work that they do.

Problems with the Nordic way

In Iceland, prostitution laws are based on the so-called “Nordic Model” from Sweden’s framework, where selling sex is not illegal or criminalized, but buying sex is. This system is supposed to protect sex workers themselves, while decreasing the demand for sex work. But even though sex workers aren’t prosecuted for their work in Sweden, the system as it is does not protect sex workers. Sex workers in Nordic model countries are often evicted from their homes by landlords, as providing housing for sex work is illegal. They are often harassed by police on the lookout for potential criminals, often resulting in police threats and actual violence. Sex workers who choose to work together for increased safety are prosecuted under the pimping legislation, and their line of work is used against them in custody battles to deem them unfit as parents.

Swedish sex worker, activist, and mother, Petite Jasmine, was one of this system’s many victims. Her children were taken away from her when Child Protection Services found out she was a sex worker. As her choice of career was considered damaging to her children, they were placed in the care of their father, a convicted abuser who would later stab Jasmine to death during her allowed visit to her son. A system where being a violent abuser is considered less damaging to children than being a sex worker is clearly not a system that aims to protect sex workers—nor will it stop domestic violence and violence against women. Sex workers’ associations in Nordic countries have repeatedly spoken out about the dangerous downsides of the Nordic way, but with little response from their governments.

As for Iceland, stigmatization of sex work is present, albeit not as visible as in other Nordic countries. Foreign-looking women are repeatedly the victims of this stigma. Recently, Madalena Bernabe Zandamela was denied entrance to club Loftið, the bouncers wrongly accusing her of working as a prostitute. We cannot dissolve or deny how white feminisms allow for women of colour to be thrown under the bus. Cynthia Trililani, spokesperson for Women of Foreign Origin in Iceland has described similar treatment from staff at various bars in Reykjavík. As the law on prostitution in Iceland says that it is forbidden to facilitate prostitution, it allows establishments like Loftið to harass people under the pretense of preventing prostitution taking place under their roof.

When debating sex work, it is easier to get confused whose opinions to listen to, as everyone seems to have one, be it feminists, politicians or the cafeteria crowd. However, in 2015, we actually have more access than ever to sex workers’ opinions, and a chance to find out what they think would make them safer and happier. As it is, they don’t feel like their human rights are being protected, and that the actually law deems them less than human by jailing them, harassing them and  making their work unsafe. We should listen to them.

When we consider sex work a crime, sex workers are stigmatized in society, resulting in them more frequently becoming the victims of violence and harassment. Just as it is a human right not to be forced into using your body against own will, it should be a human right to use your body as you want to.

References/Food for thought

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