“If a customer is bad you need to manage it yourself to the end. You only call the police if you think you are going to die. If you call the police, you lose everything.”
–Sex worker in Norway
Amnesty International is today publishing its policy on protecting sex workers from human rights violations and abuses, along with four research reports on these issues in Papua New Guinea, Hong Kong, Norway and Argentina.
“Sex workers are at heightened risk of a whole host of human rights abuses including rape, violence, extortion and discrimination. Far too often they receive no, or very little, protection from the law or means for redress,” said Tawanda Mutasah, Amnesty International’s Senior Director for Law and Policy.
“Our policy outlines how governments must do more to protect people who do sex work from violations and abuse. Our research highlights their testimony and the daily issues they face.”
Amnesty International’s policy is the culmination of extensive worldwide consultations, a considered review of substantive evidence and international human rights standards and first-hand research, carried out over more than two years.
Its formal adoption and publication follows a democratic decision made by Amnesty International’s global movement in August 2015, available here, which was reported widely at the time.
The policy makes several calls on governments including for them to ensure protection from harm, exploitation and coercion; the participation of sex workers in the development of laws that affect their lives and safety; an end to discrimination and access to education and employment options for all.
It recommends the decriminalization of consensual sex work, including those laws that prohibit associated activities—such as bans on buying, solicitation and general organization of sex work. This is based on evidence that these laws often make sex workers less safe and provide impunity for abusers with sex workers often too scared of being penalized to report crime to the police. Laws on sex work should focus on protecting people from exploitation and abuse, rather than trying to ban all sex work and penalize sex workers.
The policy reinforces Amnesty International’s position that forced labour, child sexual exploitation and human trafficking are abhorrent human rights abuses requiring concerted action and which, under international law, must be criminalized in every country
“We want laws to be refocused on making sex worker’s lives safer and improving the relationship they have with the police while addressing the very real issue of exploitation. We want governments to make sure no one is coerced to sell sex, or is unable to leave sex work if they choose to,” said Tawanda Mutasah.
We want laws to be refocused on making sex worker’s lives safer and improving the relationship they have with the police while addressing the very real issue of exploitation. We want governments to make sure no one is coerced to sell sex, or is unable to leave sex work if they choose to,Tawanda Mutasah, Senior Director for Law and Policy
Extensive research, including four geographically specific reports published alongside Amnesty International’s policy today, shows that sex workers are often subject to horrific human rights abuses. This is in part due to criminalization, which further endangers and marginalizes them and impedes their ability to seek protection from violence and legal and social services.
“Sex workers have told us how criminalization enables the police to harass them and not prioritise their complaints and safety,” said Tawanda Mutasah.
Rather than focusing on protecting sex workers from violence and crime, law enforcement officials in many countries focus on prohibiting sex work through surveillance, harassment and raids.
Amnesty International’s research shows that sex workers often get no, or very little, protection from abuse or legal redress, even in countries where the act of selling sex itself is legal.
Papua New Guinea
In Papua New Guinea, it is illegal to live off the earnings of sex work and to organize commercial sex. Homosexuality is also criminalized and is the primary basis for prosecuting male sex workers.
Amnesty International’s research found these criminal laws allow the police to threaten, extort and arbitrarily detain sex workers.
Sex workers in Papua New Guinea suffer extreme levels of stigma, discrimination and violence, including rape and murder. A survey conducted by academic researchers in 2010 found that, within a six month period, 50% of sex workers in Papua New Guinea’s capital Port Moresby had been raped by clients or by the police.
Amnesty International heard harrowing testimony from those who had suffered rape and sexual abuse by the police, clients and others but who felt too afraid to report these crimes because they themselves are considered ‘illegal’.
Mona, a sex worker who is homeless, recounted to Amnesty International: “The police started to beat my friend [a client] and me… Six police officers did sex to me one by one. They were armed with guns, so I had to do it. I don’t have any support to come to court and report them. It was so painful to me, but then I let it go. If I go to the law, they cannot help me as sex work is against the law in PNG.”
The police in Papua New Guinea have used condoms as evidence against sex workers, who are often stigmatized and accused of being “spreaders” of disease. This discourages many sex workers from obtaining sexual and reproductive health information and services including on HIV/AIDS.
Mary, a female sex worker, explained: “When the police catch us or hold us, if they find condoms on us they bash us up and say we are promoting sex or you are the ones spreading this sickness like HIV. The police ask for money, they threaten us or say give us this amount. We give it to them as we are scared if we don’t give it to them they might bash us up.”
In Hong Kong, selling sex is not illegal if this means one person operating from a private apartment. However, working in isolation places sex workers in a vulnerable situation at risk of robbery, physical assault and rape.
As one sex worker, Queen, told Amnesty International: “I have never reported any crimes such as rape because I’m afraid I’ll get charged with soliciting.”
I have never reported any crimes such as rape because I’m afraid I’ll get charged with soliciting.Queen, a sex worker in Hong Kong
Not only do sex workers in Hong Kong receive little protection from the police but they are sometimes deliberately targeted by them.
Amnesty International’s research shows that police officers often misuse their powers to set up and punish sex workers through entrapment, extortion and coercion. Undercover police officers are permitted to receive certain sexual services from sex workers in the course of their work to secure evidence. Amnesty International also recorded instances of the police, or individuals claiming to be the police, telling sex workers they could avoid legal sanctions by giving them money or ‘free’ sex.
Transgender sex workers are often subject to particularly abusive police practices including intrusive and humiliating full-body searches carried out by male officers on transgender women.
“There’s a lot of groping and mockery,” reported one lawyer who has represented transgender sex workers in Hong Kong.
After their arrest, transgender women sex workers can be sent to male detention centres and special units for detainees with mental illnesses.
In Norway, purchasing sex is illegal but the direct act of selling sex is not. Other activities associated with sex work are criminalized including “promotion of prostitution” and letting premises used for selling sex.
Despite high levels of rape and violence by clients and organized gangs, sex workers have a high threshold for reporting violence to the police. “I went to the house of a man. He punched me two times in the jaw. I didn’t tell the police. I don’t want it on my records,” one sex worker told Amnesty International.
I went to the house of a man. He punched me two times in the jaw. I didn’t tell the police. I don’t want it on my records,Sex worker in Norway
Amnesty International heard how some sex workers who have reported violence to the police in Norway have been evicted from their homes or deported as a result of engaging with the police.
Under Norway’s laws, sex workers are at risk of forced evictions as their landlords can be prosecuted for renting property to them if they sell sex there.
A representative of a Norwegian sex workers’ rights organization explained: “If landlords don’t evict, the police will launch a criminal case against them…The police are encouraging landlords to take the law into their own hands and enforce it themselves.”
People who do sex work are also unable to work together for safety, or hire third party support like security, as this would likely qualify as ‘promotion of prostitution’ under the law.
Buenos Aires, Argentina
Formally the sale or purchase of sex in Buenos Aires is not illegal; but in practice, sex workers are criminalized through a range of laws that punish related activities, and which fail to distinguish between consensual sex work and human trafficking.
Amnesty International’s research found that sex workers in Buenos Aires reported a high threshold for reporting violence to the police.
“He [a client] paid me and I was about to get out of the car when he grabbed me by the neck and cut me with a knife. I gave him all the money I had and my cell phone, and he let me go,” Laura, a street-based sex worker told Amnesty International.
She said she did not report this violence or theft to the police because she felt it would have been a waste of time: “[They] won’t listen to me because I’m a street worker.”
Sex workers are often arbitrarily stopped on the streets by police and some are subjected to repeated fines and probation. It is unlawful for the police and prosecutors in Buenos Aires to consider an individual’s appearance, dress or manners when enforcing a law criminalizing communications around sex work in public. However, this type of profiling frequently occurs—with the police specifically targeting transgender sex workers in their operations.
While sex workers operating from private accommodation are often subject to violent and lengthy inspections and raids by the police in Buenos Aires, as well as extortion and bribes. Sex workers in Buenos Aires also reported challenges accessing health services, including immense stigma and discrimination.
We didn’t have any real access to health care services because whenever we went to hospitals we were laughed at or the last ones to be attended to by doctors,Transgender former sex worker, Buenos Aires, Argentina
“We didn’t have any real access to health care services because whenever we went to hospitals we were laughed at or the last ones to be attended to by doctors,” one former sex worker who is transgender told Amnesty International.
Amnesty International found this has led some sex workers to avoid services entirely.
No justification for abuses
“In too many places around the world sex workers are without protection of the law, and suffering awful human rights abuses. This situation can never be justified. Governments must act to protect the human rights of all people, sex workers included. Decriminalization is just one of several necessary steps governments can take to ensure protection from harm, exploitation and coercion,” said Tawanda Mutasah.
The policy consultation process was supplemented by Amnesty International’s existing human rights research which highlights violations and abuses against sex workers including:
Our 2010 report on Violence Against Women in Uganda where we highlighted the cases of women who were told that because they were selling sex they were “asking for it”, that “a prostitute can’t be raped”
Our 2012 public statement calling on Greece to stop the criminalization and stigmatization of alleged sex workers found to be HIV positive
Our 2014 report on the use of torture in Nigeria and how sex workers were particularly targeted by the police for financial bribes and rape
Our 2014 Urgent Action on the targeting and killings of sex workers in Honduras
Our 2014 Urgent Action on the eviction and abuse of sex workers by police in Brazil
Our 2015 report on Tunisia which detailed how sex workers are vulnerable to sexual exploitation, blackmail and extortion primarily by police.
Amnesty International joins a large group of organisations from across a range of disciplines and areas of expertise who are supporting or calling for decriminalization of consensual sex work.
These include the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women; Global Commission on HIV and the Law; Human Rights Watch; UNAIDS; the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health; and World Health Organization.
We use the term ‘sex work’ only for consensual exchanges between adults.