The Arrival of Amnesty International into the Sex Workers’ Rights Movement

By S. Sleap

In August 2015, Amnesty International voted to adopt a policy to protect sex workers’ rights, including de-criminalization of consensual sex work. The public onslaught that ensued was so intense that Amnesty decided to make this video in response to the negative attention from journalists, feminists, women’s rights groups, sex work groups and activists alike.

The video illustrates the deep divisions that govern the feminist movement when it comes to sex work. What began as a debate over pornography in the 1970s, resulted in the sex wars which essentially divided feminists into ‘radical’ or ‘liberal’ camps. What this means for feminist organizing around sex work is that some feminists view it as an act of violence that is exploitative and subordinating, whereas others say this stance disempowers women and ignores sex workers’ rights. Not only has this fractioned the movement but also fractioned organizations. For example, different chapters of National Organization for Women have taken different positions on the issue.

The feminist sex wars divulged into a ‘war on sex workers’. As a result, the wider feminist movement has often remained outside of the sex work movement. Lauren Rankin comments that it will be a “serious black mark on feminist movement if we can’t get past this and support the human rights of sex workers”. She says that the movement needs more than just independent feminist activists, it needs “structural and organizational support”. Perhaps now with Amnesty International’s backing, this is what the movement might finally get.


 “This Decision from Amnesty International really nails the fact that the sex workers’ rights movements is a legitimate fight” – Meena Seshu, SAANGRAM India

Amnesty International may only just now be backing the sex workers’ rights movement, but it’s a movement that has been going for over 35 years. Carol Leigh (aka “Scarlet Harlot”) is viewed as one of the founders of sex workers’ rights movements in the United States in the early 1970s. She coined the term ‘sex work’ in 1978, and this was taken up by academics and activists in the late 1980s and 1990s. The term encompasses the many different roles there are in the sex industry: adult video performers, phone sex operators, exotic dancers, strippers, escorts and webcam performers. But most importantly, the term ‘sex work’ recognizes that it is a form of labor.

Although the early sex workers’ rights movement is considered to have organized largely in the USA and Western Europe in the 1970s, there was also sex workers organizing in the Global South. In 1982, the Ecuadorian Association of Autonomous Women Workers was founded, which staged a sex workers strike in 1988 (Kempadoo and  Doezema, 1998). In 1994, prostitutes staged a protest against the closing of a brothel in Lima with the slogan “We Want to Work, We Want to Work”. And ultimately that is what it is: work. Even in countries where sex work is legal, sex workers have problems gaining recognition for their profession. In this video, a sex worker from El Salvador describes her difficulty listing her profession as a sex worker when depositing money at the bank. By contrast, Bolivia has authorized that sex workers can list their profession on their National Identification cards.

This local organizing is now a part of what has grown into a transnational movement, with international networks such as the Global Network of Sex Work Projects. The Sex Worker Freedom Festival held in Kolkata in 2012, brought together sex workers groups from 43 countries. The festival was arranged as an alternative to the International AIDS Conference 2012 held in Washington D.C., as travel restrictions did not allow sex workers to enter the US, where it is still illegal. The restrictions that could have undercut the transnational sex workers movement, were turned on its head as sex workers “walked away from the Sex Worker Freedom Festival stronger as a movement” (NSWP).

This issue highlights the need for decriminalization of sex work globally. This map shows a basic breakdown of prostitution laws across the world. Sex Workers Outreach Project’s ‘Sex Work 101’ explains why decriminalization is better for sex workers than criminalization (illegal to buy or sell sex), the nordic-model (illegal to buy but not sell) or legalization. Criminalization and the nordic-model push sex work underground, leaving the sex workers vulnerable to danger, with less control and no police protection. Legalization imposes forced registration of sex workers, for which the associated stigma of being a sex worker can cause problems, e.g. when finding a place to live or looking for other work.


“Decriminalization is the beginning of the solution, it’s not the solution itself.” – Robyn Few, Founder of SWOP-USA.

Decriminalizing sex work does not eradicate the forces of oppression, discrimination and inequality that often lead an individual into the sex industry. But it does allow sex workers access to law enforcement and social services, so that they might begin to free themselves from the system of oppression that got them there. Decriminalization does not change the stigma associated with sex work, but it is the first step towards fighting that stigma. This video made by Sex Work Awareness aims to educate the public and challenge the stigma associated with sex workers.


  1. How Sex Workers’ Rights Made the Mainstream, Melissa Gira Grant, RH Reality Check (September 11, 2015)
  2. Amnesty International is Finally on the Right Side of the Sex Work Struggle, Melissa Gira Grant, The Nation (August 12, 2015)
  3. Global Sex Workers: Rights, Resistance and Redefinition, Kamala Kempadoo and Jo Doezema (Routledge: 1998)
  4. Solidarity is Not a Crime, NSWP (Sex Worker Freedom Festival, Kolkata India 2012)



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