What Amnesty International's call for decriminalisation means for Australian sex workers

'Sex workers face discrimination in every aspect of our lives.'

'Sex workers face discrimination in every aspect of our lives.' Photo: Stocksy

It's been 20 years since I started as a sex worker in Australia and today I'm chief executive of the Scarlet Alliance on a day when all sex workers will celebrate.

Scarlet Alliance advocates for the rights and inclusions of sex workers – from personal safety to being paid fairly for what we do.

I've always felt sex workers were shunned – we face discrimination in every aspect of our lives. Our families worry. Banks won't lend us money. And don't talk to me about health professionals.

So when Amnesty International said it was going to call for the decriminalisation of all aspects of adult consensual sex work, I became very emotional.


Now they have released their Policy on the Human Rights of Sex Workers and it's what sex workers always wanted. Sex workers in Australia who have been campaigning for decriminalisation of sex work for years as essential for our rights, health and safety.

Currently in Australia there are a number of active law reform campaigns lobbying for the full decriminalisation of sex work and for the inclusion of sex work in anti-discrimination legislation. And there is ample evidence in support of the benefits of the full decriminalisation of sex work, primarily from a health or criminal justice perspective.

The Amnesty Policy is important as it recognises the importance of the human rights of sex workers. The policy identifies the most prominent barriers to the realisation of sex workers' human rights and underlines states' obligations to address them. It is unflinching in its opposition to abuses such as human trafficking, exploitation, and gender inequality and each finding is grounded in the principles of harm reduction, recognition of the personal agency of sex workers, gender equality and general international human rights principles. It recognises that sex workers have the right to basic human rights that others take for granted and the decriminalisation of sex work is instrumental in achieving this.  

Cue the anti-sex work campaigners who will inevitably cry foul. There will be suggestions around the reasons why this policy is wrong, all of which will ignore that Amnesty International is independent of any government, political ideology, economic interest or religion.

They are funded by their membership and public donations meaning the organisation is unencumbered by financial influence. Some have suggested erroneously that the policy defends the right to buy sex or profit from sex workers. This is clearly not the case.

Instead the policy recognises and articulates that human rights abuses against sex workers is unacceptable and that just because of our choice to sex work, doesn't mean that we forego our ability to access basic human rights and our place in the community. Amnesty International has reinforced that there should be no substitute for facts when releasing their policy on State Obligations To Respect, Protect And Fulfil The Human Rights Of Sex Workers.

And what are the facts?

Women, men and trans sex workers are disproportionately affected by stigma and face multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination that increase our vulnerability to violence and to HIV. This is in no small part due to the regressive laws that excuse and perpetrate these violations us. This is particularly the case for sex workers of colour, trans sex workers, street-based sex workers, Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander sex workers, migrant sex workers, sex workers who use drugs and sex workers living with HIV. In Australia police engage in active entrapment of sex workers and in some states and territories, condoms can still be used as evidence against us.

Currently in WA a sex worker can still be detained by the police and cavity searched for no other reason than the fact that we are sex workers. And the list goes on. There are a number of highly problematic laws still in place in Australia that must be repealed. Decriminalisation of sex work would go a long way to addressing these issues.

Amnesty conducted broad and comprehensive consultations throughout Australia and globally. Scarlet Alliance and our members were involved in the consultation process. Sadly many others who were present at the public consultations didn't believe that sex workers had a right to speak about our lives. Jane Green from Vixen in Victoria who spoke alongside other Scarlet Alliance representatives during the consultations, recalls the opposition to sex workers speaking about our lives.    

"When the proposal to endorse the decriminalisation of sex work was discussed at Amnesty's National Meeting in Australia in 2014 sex workers who had been invited to speak were objected to, shouted at, called "pimps" and continually abused. Speaking about our lives and work, about our rights, shouldn't put marginalised people in a position where they are subject to abuse."

"Anti-sex work groups regularly use tactics of abuse and intimidation to attempt to silence sex workers.  

"But sex workers speak out about the need for our work to be decriminalised, because the recognition of our human rights is necessary.  We cannot be silent, because our safety as sex workers depends on speaking out.  

"So sex workers will not be silent, no matter how much they try to shout us down."

Jules Kim is CEO of the Scarlet Alliance