As the vote this weekend at the Amnesty International General Council Meeting in Dublin approaches on whether the human rights organization will adopt a draft proposal supporting the decriminalization of prostitution as policy, I spoke, via e-mail, to Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP) President Pye Jakobsson on NSWP’s petition to Amnesty urging them to vote in favor of it. Jakobsson is also the co-founder of Rose Alliance, Sweden’s sex workers’ rights organization, so she has key insight into the Swedish model of criminalizing sex workers’ clients championed by the the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, the prohibitionist organization behind the petition asking Amnesty to vote against the proposal for decriminalization.
Can you comment on the notorious petition by the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women urging Amnesty International members to vote against the decriminalization proposal when it’s submitted at the organization’s International Council Meeting in Dublin this weekend? It’s been signed by a gaggle of celebrities—Kate Winslet, Lena Dunham, Anne Hathaway, and Emma Thompson among them—and it received a lot of attention in the news last week. Why do you think so many in Hollywood are drawn to anti-sex worker anti-trafficking activism?
I find the whole thing revolting. actually. Right, so I get holding babies is getting kind of old, and animal rights is too mainstream to gain any real attention, so now they are hugging trafficking victims.
There are just so many problems with that, though:
1) Grown up women are neither children nor puppies.
2) People who are being exploited in the sex industry need rights, not hugs.
3) Just because you once played a hooker doesn’t give you any extra special insights [in]to what sex workers and/or people who experience exploitation in the sex industry need.
How can we fight back against that sort of star power to make our case in the court of public opinion?
I really want to answer [with] some fancy, clever version of “we have truth on our side,” but so far that hasn’t been enough.
Last weekend, me and a long-time activist looked at each other and said “Shit, we need to scramble up some celebrities.” Truth is, there are not many of those around. The actor Rupert Everett that supports ECP (English Collective of Prostitutes) is one. Rose Alliance has our own little celebrity if one is into kitsch European disco from the 80s, in our member (and yes, former sex worker) Alexander Bard. If you’ve never heard of his iconic group Army of Lovers, I dare you to look them up. But that’s it.
I am not really sure we want to go after celebrities unless they have actually worked as sex workers. I prefer sticking to sex workers themselves as the experts. I do think that it is time to hold all our so-called allies accountable. You say you are on our side? Now would be a really good time to prove it. This last week several people within the UNAIDS family, Amnesty, and other big organizations have been risking their own jobs trying to do what’s right. Now, that is commitment.
It is easy saying you are an ally because you feel all fluffy inside [on the] IAC (International AIDS Conference) when you walk around with a badge saying “Save us from saviours,” but what about the rest of the year? I know I am not very flexible on this—ask our allies in Sweden. We really don’t let them fuck around. There is no time for pretty words while people are dying.
I really think we need to demand more of our allies. It is time for some old school hardcore activism—either you are with us or you are against us. And no, owning a red umbrella does not count. We need our research spread, our petitions signed and more doors opened. We need to be included in decision making processes at all levels, and those who claim to be our allies should facilitate that. I got allergic to…buzz words of sympathy without any action or commitment the […] second [Swedish sex worker] Jasmine got murdered, and I haven’t changed since.
What kind of practical changes will we see if Amnesty International does adopt the decriminalization of prostitution proposal as policy? How will it help sex workers in concrete terms?
The cynic in me says it is just yet another human rights organization supporting decrim. I mean, [the fact of] UNAIDS (Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS), WHO (World Health Organization), and UNDP (United Nations Development Program) being on our side seems to be ignored.
But the activist in me says we are making some kind of history here, regardless of the outcome. I have been around sex work activism for about 20 years and I have personally never seen such broad support for decriminalization of sex work. There has been this shift where individuals within the UN family are standing up for us, AIDS organizations have been extremely fast in showing their support…It seems the human rights argument is starting to finally make sense to people who are supposed to give a damn.
Amnesty International has been in the news before with a very similar story, in January 2014—a leaked internal document demonstrated that the organization was considering adopting decriminalization as policy, with sex workers and our allies publicly defending the move and antis decrying it. Back then, Amnesty retreated into neutrality and delayed consideration of the issue until now. Why should we trust the organization to take a definitive stance now when they shied away from doing so before?
It is important to remember that last year it was on a national level, so it was a different thing, actually. Since then, AI has done consultations in various countries, as one of the demands from members was that Amnesty should only rely on their own research. That has now been done and the result is the proposal that is now on the table. So they didn’t shy away, they just have a really slow process.
What sort of misconceptions does the public have about the proposal, and how can we best confront these misinformed notions? For example, what have you found is the most effective, concise way to shoot down the Swedish model, the model criminalizing sex worker clients which the CATW petition supports?
Somehow the antis make it sound like the whole legal system will evaporate if we decriminalize sex work. So, normally, I calmly explain that […] no one wants to decriminalize violence, abuse and child labour. It’s just laws that applies to sex work, and for 99% of the population it won’t make any difference really, but for us, the difference will be huge. I also point out that we actually will be more protected, not less, as we will get access to labor rights as well.
Regarding Sweden, I point out that we do have consensus on one thing: the stigma is up [since the implementation of the Swedish model of criminalizing sex workers’ clients]. We all agree that’s the case, it even says so in the [Swedish] state’s evaluation of the law. The state, however, think [that] is a good thing. Needless to say, we don’t agree [on that]. I also think it is effective to point out that when the police and others defend the law when it is being challenged for pushing ‘prostitution’ underground they always answer, “That’s not true, if the sex purchasers can find the women the police can too.”[So] the police [are] obviously still targeting the workers, and guess whose phones [they’re] tapping? In Sweden they can wiretap any phone without a court order if they suspect a serious crime, like trafficking. And yes, in Sweden, sex work is conflated with trafficking and ‘prostitution’ can never be voluntary. So the police target the workers just like if they were criminalized. And we are not feeling very protected by them doing so, I can assure you.
Besides signing the petition to support the Amnesty decriminalization proposal, what can sex workers and allies do as individuals to help it pass?
Write letters to Amnesty from [your] local organizations and get your allies to do the same. Talk to people about it—my experience is that it is easier to get my neighbors to sign than the local LGBT organisation, as there is no organizational politics in it for them. Ask to put up a note in your local store, whatever, to make more people aware of what is going on. Explain that we are not adding or removing any human rights, we are just trying to make sure we all get access to them.
Regarding the petition, I urge everybody to keep encouraging people to sign. We cannot lose momentum. My [Facebook friends] are all signing before the 7th and that’s that. I told my dad he should sign using “Pye’s dad” as his title. When that wasn’t motivation enough, I told him he was potentially causing me global embarrassment. Pretty sure he has signed now, but [I] need to check. We really need to push for signatures, so please help us out for the next few days.