7 August

Is ‘Sex Work’ a Human Right?

At Amnesty International’s International Conference Meeting (ICM) in Dublin this month delegates will debate the proposition that there is a human right to engage in prostitution, or “sex work”.

Amnesty International has previously called for decriminalisation of prostitution and has asserted that sex workers face various forms of discrimination from the State and stigmatisation by society because of the illegality of their work.

The authors of the ICM proposal are at pains to highlight differences between ‘sex work’ – i.e., the consensual, contractual sale of sexual services – , and human trafficking or sexual slavery. Children and minors, says the proposal, cannot be considered capable of ‘agency’ in sex work such that even consensual engagement in these activities would be in violation of their rights.

Generally, the proposal is animated by an increase in personal autonomy that acknowledging this right would supposedly bring and by a desire to reduce harm done to people, some of whom are sex workers. In itself this is perfectly sensible but in this case the means chosen are seriously counter-productive.

If indeed there exists a right for autonomous individuals to engage in sex work then this must extend to married fathers and mothers. But it is difficult to see how such a right would amount to anything beyond trivialisation of the very act that consummated their marriage and brought their children into being. Sex acts would be, for them, a commodity they sell and their families would have to accept that the father or mother had chosen to turn his/her body into a product.

Insofar as married fathers and mothers have a right to engage in sex work so, too, must they have a right to coerce children and spouse into accepting their decision, even though it would very likely lead to the breakdown of their family.

What then of a human ‘right to a family life’? In suggesting that Amnesty International take up the cause for a ‘right’ to be a sex worker the authors of this proposal are simultaneously arguing that parents have a right to destroy their own families.

4 Responses to Is ‘Sex Work’ a Human Right?

Rob says: 9 August 2015 at 9:15 am

It is my right to wear clothes of the opposite sex if I so wish. Yet, if I chose to do so, my partner and children might be upset. Further, they may reject my choices and my family may be destroyed. Yet it is still my right to do so.

It is my right to engage in a sex life with whomever I please, so long as it is consensual and they are considered able to give meaningful consent. Yet, if I marry one person, they would most likely not appreciate me exercising that right with another person. Indeed, it may destroy my family if I do so. Yet, it is still, in the eyes of the state, my right to have those potentially destructive sexual relations.

It is my right to buy a sportscar, if I have or can arrange the means of doing so. Yet if I chose to spend my money on such a frivolous object when my partner had hoped it would be saved for a family holiday, it would be potentially cause the destruction of my family were I to chose to do so. Yet it would still be my right to buy the sportscar.

I could go on but I feel the point should be clear.

There are many instances where we maintain our rights and yet we gain certain responsibilities that could be seen to hamper those rights. The classic example is the right to free speech and the responsibility to not shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre.

In these situations, you have not lost your rights but you may be judged based on how you neglected your responsibilities.

thomasmoreinstitute says: 14 August 2015 at 9:24 am

Thank you Rob for your comment.

The point in the post was that there is, according to Amnesty International, both a right to a family life and (if the motion passes)a right to be a sex worker. Practically speaking these two rights serve to undermine each other. There are quite ordinary circumstances where the exercise of the ‘right’ to be a sex worker will undermine a spouse’s and dependents’ right to a family life. It’s not clear whether the right to a family life will ‘trump’ the right to be a sex worker or the other way around.

It is highly problematic to say that rights can serve as a license to undermine the common good, whether this happens in a family setting, or in a broader public one (such as falsely shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre).

Rob says: 14 August 2015 at 3:25 pm

Ah, so rather than my point about rights and responsibilities of the individual, it is an issue of clashing rights?
Well, again, there are many examples of this that easily come to mind e.g. the B&B owner’s right to religious freedom versus the homosexual couple’s right to equal treatment.
Most of those examples come to mind because they’ve been argued in the courts and fairly recently. The reason they’ve had to go to court has been that both sets of rights have been accepted as existing, and thus the claims of infringement by both parties have to be considered in context and in the light of the legal framework of the UK.
At no point during these discussions is anyone likely to say that either of the rights does not exist – well, barring some extremists. The rights do exist but they also do clash.
Thus the right to be a sex worker may, in some cases, clash with the rights of children in the home or indeed the partner of the sex-worker, but that doesn’t mean that there is no right to be a sex worker, or at least not in the way these issues are treated in the UK and similar minded countries.
I understand your concern regarding family life and the knock on effect for society, but certainly in recent decades, the UK government has left family matters to the family itself. I feel that the legislative bodies would say in this case that a partner would be free to leave and would be supported by the courts under the circumstances, but would not see this as necessitating the criminalisation of sex-work on its own. A stronger argument would be needed in the current framework.

thomasmoreinstitute says: 20 August 2015 at 9:13 am


Thank you again for your reply.

That seems to leave us in a rather messy situation, one in which the nature and strength of a right cannot be known in advance subject to the right being challenged and following a court ruling. I suggest that this seriously weakens the power of rights in law to protect those they are designed to protect, and in this particular case weakens the rights of children to be raised in a stable and loving home.

What you suggests about the courts saying a partner would be free to leave their family to pursue sex work sounds plausible, but it is difficult to imagine how this could be to the benefit of those concerned and more widely for the common good. Parents have responsibilities, but as you say these have been “left up to the family itself” and they are not supported by the state with the same vigour as human rights.

If we are to recognise a right to sex work as a human right (as Amnesty has now proposed) the state would be withdrawing yet another means of supporting the raising of children in a stable and loving environment. Moreover, given that most sex work is carried out by women (for it is overwhelmingly women) who do not want to sell their bodies for sex, proclaiming a right to be a sex worker will only muddy the legal waters about who is consenting and who isn’t.

It is one thing to legalise sex work, and quite another to proclaim a right to sex work.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *



Please prove you\'re not a robot *