In their own words: sex workers explain why decriminalisation is crucial.

Sex work.

Yes, you read that right and whether you are comfortable with it or not, it exists – and it’s not going away.  In Australia, there are thousands of sex workers and  many more around the world.

In many of those countries, including Australia, we are discriminated against and criminalised simply for making our own choices about our own lives.

The legislation regime in Australia is complex. In New South Wales, along with New Zealand, sex work is under full decriminalisation. NSW and New Zealand are the only two places on earth where, for the last 20 years, sex work has been fully decriminalised. This should not to be confused with the rest of Australia, where Federal and State laws either legalised or criminalised sex work.

So what IS the difference?

In July 2015, Amnesty International released their draft policy calling for the global decriminalisation of sex work. Since its release, the document has received a wave of criticism from the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW) who wrote an open letter in retaliation.  The CATW sought support from some human rights groups and signed on big name celebrities like Anne Hathaway, Meryl Streep, Lena Dunham and Angela Bassett to further their cause.

Meryl Streep was a celebrity ambassador against the widespread decriminalisation of sex work.

Sex workers loudly denounced the CATW letter, and regarded the high profile support by these Hollywood celebrities as yet another ploy to give credence to the underlying  aim of this “anti” stance.   That aim is not to protect sex workers, but to garner money and power in order to bully Amnesty International into rejecting the draft policy on decriminalisation.

Sex workers and their allies strongly support Amnesty’s draft policy proposal because it has arisen from  years of studies conducted by human rights organisations such as UNAIDS, the Commission on Human Rights, the Human Rights Council and United Nation Convention Against Transitional Organised Crime.

Listen to Mia interviewing sex worker Madison Missina on the No Filter podcast here:

In its draft policy, Amnesty admits that that full decriminalisation offers sex workers better legal protections, safer working environments and makes sex workers less vulnerable to exploitation. These studies also found that when sex workers do work under criminalisation, we are subject to discrimination, increased stigma, police brutality and a higher risk of violence. Even when sex workers themselves are not criminalised but the legislation takes the form of criminalisation of purchase of sex (ie the Swedish/Nordic Model), there is a direct effect of making work places significantly more dangerous.

Lena Dunham also signed the open letter by the CATW denouncing Amnesty International’s proposal.

Studies in some countries have shown that police extort money from or rape sex workers without recourse. Police immunity against violence against sex workers makes sex workers suspicious of law enforcement and far less likely to seek police assistance when they are in danger.  This also leaves workers vulnerable to clients who choose to take advantage of the fact that workers have little access to recourse.  When police are regulators of the sex work  industry it often leads to corruption and abuse by those in power. It is important to remember that sex workers are not criminals by any definition so it is inappropriate to have police regulate them.  – In fact, decriminalisation in NSW was originally introduced to stamp out police corruption.


Rights, not rescue

It can hardly be argued that rescue organisations, such as CATW, have resorted to producing many misleading statistics in their fight against the change in Amnesty International policy.  They often stir public sympathy by stating that “under decriminalisation, trafficking and slavery increase”.  This is false.  Trafficking has not risen in NSW or NZ since decriminalisation was introduced. Rather, workers gain more autonomy, are safer as they can safely approach police if they need to and are able to make clear to clients that they are not easy targets.

The real faces of sex work don’t always fit with our stereotypes.

Under decriminalisation, offences like trafficking and slavery are still very much illegal and Amnesty International has made a commitment that any policy changes will not impact this stance against these offences. There are already laws in place to prosecute those crimes.  Decriminalisation is about worker safety and labour rights.

In India, around 800,000 sex workers are fighting for decriminalisation. Why? Because under decriminalisation laws they can have more control on how a booking is conducted, they can insist on the use of condoms and can also take comfort in knowing that they have the law on their side if a crime is committed against them.

Carmen Sandiego.

As sex workers, we are not asking anyone outside of our industry to like our industry. We are passionate enough about it to do that for you.  But we are asking people to understand that we are human beings, first and foremost, and we are making individual choices about the way we earn a living.

Plus, when it comes to forming laws on our industry, it is imperative that we, the sex workers, are consulted, and that our vast knowledge and lived experiences are taken into consideration. Our fellow workers from around the world are important to us.  As a marginalised and stigmatised group we look out for and protect each other and above all, no laws should be made about us without us.

You can urge Amnesty International to stand firm on its decriminalisation stance here.

Click through the gallery to see the real faces of sex workers:

Any payment taken for producing this article will be donated to the #Hookers4Heather campaign. You can find out more about Heather and her story and also donate here. 

This article was produced with the collaboration and consent of several sex workers.  To learn more about them and their push for decriminalisation of sex work follow them on Twitter: @CarmenOnTour  @Holly InAlbury, @AvaGraceVIP and @NtyNikki. Sex workers have consulted with @KateOnTheGo in relation to the legal aspects of this article.

Read more:

“As a sex worker, being told that I’m a victim is offensive.”

‘My life as a male sex worker.’

Inside the world of a transgender sex worker in Australia.