We welcome Amnesty International’s Decision to Adopt Policy on the Human Rights of Sex Workers

Press release from The International Union of Sex Workers on

Amnesty International’s Decision to Adopt Policy on the Human Rights of Sex Workers

12 August 2015


The IUSW is deeply grateful to Amnesty International for adopting policy to protect the human rights of sex workers. In doing so, Amnesty has listened to hundreds of sex workers’ organisations across the world who call for a rights-based approach to address problems associated with the sex industry[i]. Criminalisation creates systematic human rights abuses and turns people in the sex industry into easy targets for perpetrators of violence.


Catherine Stephens of the IUSW comments “People in the sex industry, whether there by choice, circumstance or coercion, are entitled to equal human rights and the full protection of the law as other citizens. It is vulnerability which creates victims, not sex work itself, and evidence shows criminalisation increases our vulnerability. Policies that solve problems are based in reality and on evidence and we welcome Amnesty’s commitment to evidence-based policy that respects and protects the rights of people in the sex industry.”


Article 7 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.


By criminalising us when we work together, UK law effectively discriminates against sex workers’ right to equal protection of the law.


Criminalising our consent to sex (the “Swedish model” of criminalising clients) means that if we contact the police to report a crime against us they may choose to seek easy arrest results by targeting our clients rather than those who have harmed us. Sex workers in Sweden report increased likelihood of rape due to having to accept clients who give no personal information who then act in the knowledge that identification of perpetrators is more difficult and many recount stories of police abuse and disrespect, including being harassed at home, being made homeless due to police threats to prosecute their landlords as living off proceeds of prostitution, being told by police that sex workers cannot be raped and being gang-raped by a group of police officers.7


Criminalisation of clients not only breaches Article 7 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it contravenes Article 6.


Article 6 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.


From this it follows:

  • Every individual has the right to autonomy and bodily integrity.
  • A woman’s consent to sex is her own to give.
  • The state is not entitled to diminish or disrespect the validity of her consent to sex.


Article 17.1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others.
Article 20.1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.


Brothel keeping legislation, in the UK and elsewhere, concerns premises and location, rather than coercion or exploitation. The effect of this is that people who have sex for money cannot own or share property together without risk of prosecution. In addition, UK legislation on “controlling for gain” (“pimping”) is entirely unconnected with trafficking or exploitation. It criminalises almost every way of working with or for a third party and explicitly includes people working of their own free will.[ii]  The only way to exchange sex for money indoors and be free of the risk of successful prosecution is to do so entirely in isolation, breaching not only our human rights but vastly increasing the dangers we face. Gangs target us – for sexual predation and financial profit – knowing they will find either the easy target of a lone individual or occupants of a shared premise, who are at risk of arrest if they contact the police.


Women connected with the IUSW have received criminal convictions as a result of sending two dozen text messages – over a period of two years – ensuring another woman would be present for her shift at a brothel and for working from a holiday flat, rented for a fortnight, with another woman on the basis that both were running the brothel created by the other’s presence.


Article 21.1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.


People in the sex industry are isolated and endangered by criminalisation and stigma. Exposure risks police investigation of ourselves or our workplaces, potential problems with child custody, possible loss of employment (even if our sex work experience is completely in the past) and chance of eviction if we work from home.[iii] [iv] [v] These vulnerabilities impede us from participating in the policy discussions that will affect our lives and livelihoods. Sex workers who speak out have little personally to gain and much to lose – the hazards of drawing attention are exacerbated by anti-sex workers rights’ campaigners who prefer to try to dismiss us as “pimps” rather than respond to our arguments.[vi] [vii] The more closely we can be identified, the more dangerous this is – to clear ourselves of such accusations of illegality, we would need to make clear we work in complete isolation, informing those who might wish to do us harm of our vulnerability to attack.[viii]


Article 21.2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his country.


The harmful effects of criminalisation on access to services are widely recognised. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon specifically notes the harms of discrimination against people in the sex industry: “In most countries, discrimination remains legal against women, men who have sex with men, sex workers, drug users, and ethnic minorities. This must change.”[ix]


The UNAIDS Guidance Note on HIV and Sex Work describes problems caused by “laws, policies and practices [that] drive sex work underground” and increase stigma and discrimination against people in the sex industry. This view is endorsed by UNAIDS co-sponsors UNHCR, UNICEF, WFP, UNDP, UNFPA, UNODC, ILO, WHO, the World Bank and the UNAIDS Secretariat.[x]



The IUSW is a an unfunded organisation (all work is by volunteers) of sex workers and allies who believe that

  • everybody in the sex industry, whether there by choice, circumstance or coercion, is entitled to the same human, civil and labour rights as others
  • protection of human rights and safety must be a priority
  • practice and policy on the sex industry should be created through meaningful inclusion of those most affected – people who currently sell sex, not ideologically-driven NGOs or campaigners


  • policies that solve problems are based in reality and on evidence, rather than on ideology, emotion, stereotypes, dramatic individual cases or cherry-picked data.



[i] http://www.nswp.org/news/nswp-issues-statement-support-amnesty-international-and-launches-online-petition


[ii] Massey Judgement, Court of Appeal 2007

[iii] http://gothamist.com/2011/10/18/alleged_dominatrix-for-hire_assista_1.php

[iv] http://www.pinknews.co.uk/2013/07/08/canada-dancer-asked-to-leave-ballet-school-for-appearing-in-gay-porn/

[v] http://www.alternet.org/news-amp-politics/female-athlete-year-award-wont-have-olympian-suzy-hamiltons-name-it-after-she-says

[vi] https://twitter.com/pastachips/status/350555314971611137

[vii] An Unlikely Union Julie Bindel Gaze April 2013

[viii] http://lauraslifeandthoughts.blogspot.co.uk/2014/03/a-level-playing-field.html

[ix] http://www.un.org/apps/news/infocus/sgspeeches/search_full.asp?statID=297

[x] UNAIDS Guidance Note HIV and Sex Work April 2007

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