The decriminalization of any activity is bound to have its detractors. We see it with most controversial subjects, but few are more complicated or have bigger ramifications than the legalization of sex work.
Some countries have successfully adopted a model (popularly known as either “Nordic” or “Swedish”) where sex work has been decriminalized for the actual sex worker, but clients and pimps still face criminal sanctions for it. For the most part, it’s widely recognized by liberal media as an effective and fair method.
However, in a leaked Amnesty International document, a draft of internal policy suggested that sex trade as a whole should be decriminalized. This means that pimps, clients and brothel owners would also avoid any legal repercussions.
After two years of research in Argentina, China, Norway and Papua New Guinea, where they spoke with many actual sex workers, politicians and law enforcement officers, Amnesty International concluded that making sex work illegal is “more likely than not to reinforce discrimination against those who sell sex, placing them at greater risk of harassment and violence, including ill-treatment at the hands of police.”
But the fact that pimps, brothel owners and Johns would also get a free pass definitely bothered certain circles, surely none most publicly notable than a number of Hollywood stars that took it upon themselves to sign an open petition in protest of the document. Some of the names that signed it include Kate Winslet, Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson, Lena Dunham, Anne Hathaway, Claire Danes and Lisa Kudrow.
More than 3,000 other people have signed the petition, which calls for Amnesty to vote against the policy when it’s submitted at the International Council Meeting, taking place in Dublin, 7-11th of August 2015.
Here’s an extract from the signed petition by the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women International (CATW):
“We firmly believe and agree with Amnesty that human beings bought and sold in the sex trade, who are mostly women, must not be criminalized in any jurisdiction and that their human rights must be respected and protected to the fullest extent. We also agree that, with the exception of a few countries, governments and law enforcement grievously violate prostituted individuals’ human rights. However, what your “Draft Policy on Sex Work” is incomprehensibly proposing is the wholesale decriminalization of the sex industry, which in effect legalizes pimping, brothel owning and sex buying.”
The CATW petition also called supporting the overall decriminalization “a system of gender apartheid, in which one category of women may gain protection from sexual violence and sexual harassment, and offered economic and educational opportunities; while another category of women, whose lives are shaped by absence of choice, are instead set apart for consumption by men and for the profit of their pimps, traffickers and brothel owners.”
But while that sort of makes sense on paper, the truth is that Amnesty has done its homework. This is not a proposal suggested on a whim. There was a lot of careful study involved. The whole draft policy is worth reading.
The most important thing to remember is that good intentions and righteous advocacy are not always enough to make the right call when they aren’t coming from, you know, the actual sex workers whose lives are directly affected by these decisions.
I talked to Matilda “Red” Bickers, a Portland-based stripper and editor of Working It, a great ’zine written by and for sex workers. When discussing the subject of civilian interest in sex workers’ issues, Bickers expressed some skepticism.
“Too often [outsiders] limit it to what’s convenient to them,” Bickers told BaDoink. “They don’t come to memorials; they don’t demonstrate at the Capitol when Washington was implementing end demand; they don’t educate themselves. There are exceptions! There are beautiful exceptions. But most of them have their own lives and don’t have time to challenge their assumptions about the human rights of whores. They want to buy their punjammies and go home.”
Red is hardly alone in this matter. A number of sex workers have come out in defense of Amnesty’s petition. Savannah Sly, a board member and Chapter Relations Coordinator for Sex Workers Outreach Project-USA and a sex worker for over a decade, talked to Refinery 29 about the role of Hollywood stars chiming in on the matter.
“For some reason, celebrities are held up as just being wiser than the rest of us because they’re famous, [and then] you have a bunch of seemingly nobody sex workers who are trying to speak for their human rights,” Sly said. “It’s just not as interesting or compelling to the majority of the American people. Who are they going to trust, this seemingly familiar person they’ve seen on TV a lot or a bunch of social pariahs?”
Because of the well-regarded public profile of many of the celebrities who oppose Amnesty’s proposal, it’s easy for people to disregard what unknown sex workers want. After all, several of those Hollywood names are generally associated with pro-feminist issues and human rights advocacy. Inherently, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to help and having an opinion. The problem is that it’s not their life they’re affecting.
“At the end of the day, this is a proposal that impacts my life and not Lena Dunham’s,” Jane (not her real name), a 30-year-old sex worker who has been practicing in New York City for eight years, told The Daily Beast. “The fact that celebrities who have no stake in this and will not be impacted by it are getting the largest voice is frustrating and, frankly, dehumanizing. Weighing in on a situation that doesn’t impact your life is absolutely going to be harmful because it’s saying the people who are impacted don’t deserve to speak and your voice is more important.”
Jane also said she has never felt safe going to the police whenever she’s been victimized, and questioned sex workers’ well-being if they can’t securely look for the support of law enforcement.
“I’ve definitely experienced acts where I consider myself a victim of sexual assault and feel like there’s no option, knowing the person who hurt me made that decision knowing I couldn’t go to the police,” she continued.
Another petition, this one by the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP) is trying to get signatures to support the decriminalization. If you’d like to show your support for the rights of sex workers, please take a minute to sign it.