24 March 2016

Report on March 2016 meeting (held jointly with AIUSA Group 112)

March 2016 Meeting Report: Forum on Total Decriminalization of Sex Work

On Thursday, 24 March 2016, AIUSA Groups 112 (Philadelphia) and 342 (Chester County) hosted a forum on the issue of the total decriminalization of sex work. The meeting was held at the Ethical Society of Philadelphia.  

The guest speakers, who all support AI’s recent resolution on the total decriminalization of sex work, included:

(Selma James and Rachel West spoke via Skype.)


In August 2015 the International Council Meeting of Amnesty International passed a resolution calling for the total decriminalization of sex work worldwideThe resolution recommends that neither the sex workers nor the sex purchasers be subject to any criminal penalties. AI is neither the first nor the only international entity to espouse this position. However, it has attracted harsh criticism because of its prominent place among international human rights organizations.

Although almost all human rights organizations have come out against the criminalization of sex workers, the policy of decriminalizing clients remains highly controversial. Investigative reports indicate that the decriminalization of clients leads to an increase of sex trafficking

Remarks of Guest Speakers

Phoebe Jones

  • Launched the discussion by showing a video recording of testimony given by Rep. Elizabeth Edwards in support of H.B. 1614, proposing the total decriminalization sex work in the state of New Hampshire, a bill inspired by AI’s recent resolution. Although the bill was not passed, it has been tabled for further study by the NH legislature.
  • The position of Global Women’s Strike is “outlaw poverty not prostitutes.”
  • An inordinate amount of time in the justice system is consumed in prosecuting commercial sex between consenting adults.
  • Sex workers are the number one target of serial killers who know that no one cares about them.
  • Recommended the 2014 documentary Tales of the Grim Sleeper about the serial killing of 100+ prostitutes in Los Angeles over a twenty-five-year period.   
  • Criminalizing sex work increases the numbers of foster children in the system, as children are taken away from their mothers.

Rachel West  

  • US PROS is pleased that AI took the position of not criminalizing sex clients.
  • US PROS applauds the AI report which makes it clear that police should protect women and spend time tracking down traffickers instead of arresting prostitutes.
  • Black and immigrant women sex workers are disproportionately targeted by law enforcement.
  • The entire enforcement system is racially biased.
  • Under Pres. G.W. Bush, anti-trafficking measures were in reality anti-prostitute policies.
  • Trafficking involves force, coercion and fraud, whereas prostitution is between consenting adults.
  • Over 50 anti-trafficking NGOs have received over $680 million from the US gov’t. Although these organizations claim to have rescued over 300,000 children, these statistics cannot be verified. The Washington Post attempted to fact-check these numbers without success. “Special Report: Money and Lies in Anti-Human Trafficking NGOs” investigated these figures.
  • More trafficking actually occurs in the areas of agricultural and domestic labor.
  • A disproportionate number of African American women are tried in the NY trafficking courts.
  • In San Francisco, 45% of those arrested for trafficking are black, while only 3% of the population is black, indicating disproportionate targeting of this racial group.

Selma James 

  • Thanked AI for passing the resolution.
  • Had just returned from Thailand, infamous for sex tourism.
  • She found that Thai sex workers are strong, organized, and determined to get their rights.
  • Thai sex workers told her that they preferred sex work to the other alternatives: sweat shops or destitution.
  • The AI decision is rooted in the struggles of women in developing countries and in the battle against racism.
  • Public attitudes against sex workers reflect the division of women into those who are respectable and those who are not. 
  • In Soho (London), prostitutes were forcibly evicted from apartments where they were had been peaceably working so that the area could be upscaled. The English Collective of Prostitutes has been trying to get the apartments back for the women.

Questions from attendees and responses from Rachel West

Q: What about the disappeared women of Juarez, Mexico?
A: Most of these women were sweatshop (maquiladoras) workers.

Q: How many countries have a policy of total decriminalization?
A: Only New Zealand to date, and prostitutes there now have a collective. 

Q: What percentage of sex workers are male? How many prostitutes are men?
A: No real statistics are available, but most sex workers are women. Many are transgender. Police arrest women principally to “teach them a lesson.”

Q: Are prostitutes kept underground so that they cannot get social services? 
A: Yes. It’s hard to get social services if you’re invisible. In New Zealand, prostitutes can get needed services.  Enormous amounts of money are spent enforcing laws. Take that money and provide social services.

Q: My church has a group dedicated to rescuing women working as prostitutes. I’ve had my doubts about this. Could you comment?
A: Rescue them into what? For some women, prostitution is their only way to make a living.


Additional information on this subject (not part of the presentation and discussion at the meeting)

Three basic models of criminal justice policy with regard to prostitution

  • Total criminalization: making both the selling and the buying of sex illegal
  • Decriminalization of sex workers (sellers)
  • Total decriminalization: abolishing criminal penalties for the seller as well as the buyer
Other international organizations that advocate for total decriminalization:

  • Human Rights Watch
  • Global Alliance Against Trafficking in Women 
  • Global Network of Sex Work Projects
  • Global Commission on HIV and the Law
  • International Labour Organisation
  • Open Society Foundations
  • Anti-Slavery International
  • World Health Organization

AI has made it abundantly clear in all its documents that it remains opposed to the trafficking and coercion of sex workers (most of whom are women), as well as the sexual exploitation of minors (persons under 18 years of age).   

Representative of the opposition to AI’s resolution is this letter from Jessica Neuwirth, the founder and honorary president of Equality Now and a longtime member and activist with AIUSA.

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