JUNE 23, 2016 - 9:10 AM
New Amnesty International report urges legalization
by Tara Burns
A few years ago I and other advocates tried to report a crime (a felony) without the victim being arrested for
prostitution (a misdemeanor). On our third attempt a State Trooper explained to us that our problem wasn’t with the
police—who were just doing their jobs—but with the laws governing police behavior. The ofcer even agreed that the
anti-prostitution law was a cause of crimes against sex workers, saying, “women get in bad situations with
prostitution, you know, because prostitution is illegal and that makes it easy to take advantage of women in those
situations.” The relationship between violence against sex workers and the laws they work under has been
internationally researched and discussed for decades, if not centuries.
On May 26, Amnesty International released its new policy position, calling on states to completely decriminalize all
aspects of consensual adult prostitution in order to protect the human rights of sex workers and sex trafcking
victims. In doing so it joins the World Health Organization, Human Rights Council, United Nation Convention Against
Transnational Organized Crime, the Commission on Human Rights and the Joint United Nations Programme on
HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS). The documents released by Amnesty International, including their policy, an explanatory
note and a report on their research—carried out in four countries where they interviewed 15 to 30 sex workers and 24
to 40 service workers each—total just under 100 pages. Throughout their recommendations they talk about how the
criminalization of sex workers, sex workers working together, and third parties hired by or working with sex workers,
contributes to violence against sex workers and deprives them of access to equal protection under the law and
security of the body, as in the case I mentioned above.
Amnesty International recognizes that people engage in sex work for a variety of reasons: for some it is the
profession they prefer, for others it is the best of very limited options, or their only viable option for survival. When
people who are already marginalized or criminalized because of poverty, gender, race, immigration status, etc.,
engage in sex work—whether they do so through choice, circumstance, or coercion—the oppressions they face can
For example, while the majority of sex workers are not transgender, a disproportionate number of transgender people
turn to sex work because of employment and housing discrimination, or as youth because of family violence and/or
being kicked out. Within the sex industry, discrimination against trans women often leaves them with less safety in
their work conditions and a higher likelihood of violence and arrest. In Anchorage, when I requested all Municipal
prostitution charges in 2013 and 2014 I learned that the only person to be charged twice in just one year was a
transgender woman who worked on the street. Through the grapevine, I heard that in jail she was held with the male
population, where she was kept in isolation to prevent her from being assaulted.
Amnesty International is concerned about people who are coerced into sex work by a lack of other viable options.
They say, “States have obligations under international law to provide an adequate social safety net and to address
intersectional discrimination and structural inequalities in order to ensure that people do not have to rely on sex work
as their means of survival … [the] enforcement of criminal laws against sex work to discourage and/or penalize
involvement in sex work have a detrimental impact on the human rights of sex workers and do not offer support,
alternatives, or choices to people who do not want to engage in sex work.”
Amnesty International’s recommendations are 17 pages long, and well worth reading in their entirety (nd them at
amnesty.org). Here are some of the key points:
In response to the human rights violations caused by the criminalization of sex work, states must:
Repeal existing laws and/or refrain from introducing new laws that criminalize or penalize directly or in practice
the consensual exchange of sexual services between adults for remuneration;
Alaska has a state law against prostitution: AS 11.66.100 makes it illegal for a seller to offer, agree to, or
engage in sexual conduct for a fee and for a buyer to offer a fee for sexual conduct. Don’t worry, lap dances
aren’t considered sexual conduct. The municipality of Anchorage also has codes against prostitution, making it
illegal for a person to simply “practice prostitution”— I’ve heard one report of someone being charged under
this law for simply saying that they were an escort.
Ensure that any criminal laws that are applied to sex work are aimed addressing harm to sex workers, including
through clearly dened prohibitions on acts of coercion or exploitation, such as compelling a person to sell sex
(including through the abuse of authority). Such laws should not be applied in a way that conates all sex work
with violence and/or exploitation or acts as a de facto prohibition on sex work;
In this paragraph Amnesty International recognizes the potential for the exact problem that exists here in
Alaska: we have a “sex trafcking” law (AS 11.66.110-135) that turns many things prostitutes do for safety into
felonies. For example, having a place of prostitution (ie, working indoors and not on the street) is a third degree
felony and if a prostitute hires a driver, security guard, or receptionist that person is guilty of participating in a
prostitution enterprise, a second or third degree felony. Prostitutes who work together are guilty of trafcking
each other, a risk that makes them less likely to report when they are the victims of serious crimes like assault
or actual sex trafking.
Refrain from the discriminatory enforcement of other laws such as those on vagrancy, loitering, and immigration
requirements against sex workers; and Alaska was at the forefront of nding “manifestation of prostitution”
(which basically means walking down the street in a short skirt) laws unconstitutional when Anchorage’s loitering
for the purpose of prostitution code was found unconstitutional in 1978 (Brown v Municipality of Anchorage).
Unfortunately, the code remains on the books with just some slight editing. Because enforcement of minor
misdemeanors tends to be arbitrary, with ofcers deciding that some people deserve a break and other people
don’t, people perceived to be sex workers often face increased persecution and harassment under other
Ensure that sex workers are entitled to equal protection under the law and access to justice, and are not excluded
directly or in practice from the application of anti-discrimination, labour, health and safety, and other laws.
Sex workers need to be afforded access to our country’s constitutional promise of equal protection for all under the
justice system. They should be able to report when they are the victims or witnesses of crimes, like sex trafcking or
assault, without fear of being arrested themselves or being addressed in a sexual or threatening manner by law
Between 1971 and 1983 Robert Hansen was allowed to kill dozens of Alaskan sex workers, while his escaped
victims who went to the police were made fun of and threatened with arrest. It wasn’t until Hansen killed the
daughter of a politician that state agents moved towards stopping him. When sex workers don’t have access to
equal protection under the law, everyone is less safe. In England the Merseyside Police Department has made it a
practice to develop positive relationships with street-based sex workers; instead of arresting them, they visit with
them regularly and encourage them to report violence. Reports from sex workers are treated with the highest priority
and have a conviction rate almost 10 times higher than other reports. This has increased public safety by getting the
most dangerous criminals off the streets and lowering the overall rates of violent crimes.
Amnesty International also says that sex workers shouldn’t be excluded from health and safety laws, either via
discrimination or exclusion at the policy level. The rst time I ever encountered a violent pimp situation was at an
Alaskan strip club where one woman was bashing another woman’s head against the wall in the bathroom. When it
was broken up and they were asked to leave both women got on the phone with their pimp to plead their case. It
became clear that the victim had recently been recruited and travelled to Alaska to work with the pimp and her
attacker. I found myself in a heated argument with the manager over whether to call the police and whether to make
the victim leave with her attacker. She eventually agreed that the victim could stay and the other dancers could try to
help her, but she refused to call the police; each call to the police is a strike against a bar’s liquor license. In theory,
this makes Alaskan bars safer, but in reality the ban on cop calling can create an unsafe work environment for those
who work in the bars.
In 2013 when I read about an Australian brothel worker who, working under decriminalization, successfully made a
labor complaint against her boss for sexual harassment I thought bitterly of the many bad labor practices I’ve
encountered in the US sex industry—from Alaskan strip clubs to Californian hostess clubs and Pennsylvania escort
agencies—and how most of them never would have occurred if sex workers here had the same legal rights as sex
workers in Australia.
In order to protect sex workers from violence, states must:
Ensure that sex workers enjoy full and equal protection under the law as well as effective remedies, including for
offences involving rape and sexual violence, abuse of authority, assault, extortion, and all other crimes;
Introduce all necessary measures to ensure the effective investigation, prosecution and punishment of violence
against sex workers without discrimination, including legal or procedural reforms where appropriate, such as
standards of good practice which reect policing that is consistent with human rights; and
Provide training and monitoring measures for law enforcement ofcials and health and social service providers
to help protect the human rights of sex workers.
Throughout their research report, Amnesty talks about the prevalence of police sexual assault of sex workers in
each country they conducted research in, “in some cases amounting to torture.” If you follow the news, you
already know that police are frequently charged with sex trafcking and men who run programs to “rescue” sex
trafcking victims have been accused of raping the underage victims they work with far too frequently. In
Alaska, I surveyed and interviewed 48 people with recent experience in Alaska’s sex trade as part of my
graduate research. About a quarter of all respondents and 60 percent of those who could be legally dened as
sex trafcking victims said they had been sexually assaultbd y eofcer.
In the context of regulating sex work, states must:
Respect and protect the right of sex workers to just and favourable conditions of work;
Ensure that regulatory frameworks comply with international human rights law and that the safety and fulllment
of sex workers’ human rights is the paramount objective for any such regulations;
Ensure the meaningful participation of and consultation with sex workers, including those facing multiple forms
of discrimination, in the development of any regulatory frameworks; and
Recognize the rights of sex workers to associate and to form and/or join trade unions.
Feminists ask me all the time, “why don’t they just arrest the clients?” It’s not good for any businessperson for their
clients to be arrested. How would you pay your bills if your clients were arrested for paying you? Where would you
have to meet them for them to feel safe from the police?
Sweden has instituted a scheme often referred to as “end demand” or “the Swedish model” where clients and other
people around sex workers are arrested. For example, if their landlord nds out they are a prostitute, they must evict
them or they will be charged with pimping. Prostitution itself is regarded as a mental illness, leading sex workers to
lose their children and be horribly stigmatized.
Amnesty International’s research agrees with other research that nds this to be a bad scheme for the safety and
human rights of sex workers. It leads sex workers to meet clients in locations controlled by the client, rather than
establish their own safe work environments. It leads to difculty accessing public services, and to eviction and police
abuse for sex workers who are caught. It has not led to a decrease in prostitution.
A quote by one sex worker working under the End Demand model seemed to summarize much of the ndings: “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.”
Preventing Sex Traf cking
Amnesty International is against sex trafcking, for which it uses the UN denition:
AN ACTION -> A MEANS -> A PURPOSE
recruitment transportation harboring or receipt of persons
threat or use of force or other coercion,abduction, fraud, deception,
abuse of power or position, etc exploitation.
The Action, Means, and Purpose all must be present to establish sex trafcking, except when the victim is a minor—
then there does not have to be means. This denition also closely matches federal law in the United States. The
conation of sex work and sex trafcking, and subsequent criminalization of sex trafcking victims, “make sex
workers and people who have been trafcked more vulnerable to violence and harm” by criminals or ofcials.
In an Alaskan version of this phenomena State Troopers followed up with a woman who had reported that she was a
victim of sex trafcking by staging a prostitution sting several months later. In a recording, the ofcer can be heard
moaning loudly and saying “oh baby… I’ve never had that before… feel my heart beat?” In response to a complaint
about this that I led with the state, Colonel Cockrell of the State Troopers asserted that no sexual contact had taken
place during the recording and that this was a standard method of building rapport.
The Promise of Decriminalization: Safety for People in Alaska’s Sex Industry
In Alaska if prostitution had been decriminalized in the ‘70s Robert Hansen’s escaped victims wouldn’t have had to
fear the police; perhaps the police would have actually taken their reports and prevented the killings of dozens of
women. The dozens of victims of Sabil Mujahid and Jerry Starr (two incredibly violent sex trafckers arrested about
a decade ago) may have felt safe reporting their abuse to police, preventing years of violence for dozens of women.
Jase Connors, a reghter, might not have felt so comfortable and righteous threatening and extorting Alaskan sex
workers a couple years ago. A fellow sex worker may have felt safe enough to report witnessing or having
information about the still unsolved murders or disappearances of Mary Anne Alexie, Jael Hamblen, Jessica Lake,
Desiree Lekanoff, Michelle Rothe, Robin Vansickel, Jeri Brommels, Samantha Kent, Tracie Vincent and Kelly Sue
Dunn. Police may have taken reports from the 66 percent of sex workers and 80 percent of sex trafcking victims I
surveyed who said police had turned them away when they tried to report a crime. Women I know who are unable—or
nd it very difcult—to nd a job because of a prostitution charge on their record might be able to move on and leave
the sex industry in their past, if they wanted to.
"I would no more be a Master than a slave. It does not conform to my idea of Democracy." Abraham Lincoln 1856.