Civil Liberties

Celebs Protest Amnesty International Call to Decriminalize Prostitution

Decriminalizing sex work supports "gender apartheid" say the likes of Lena Dunham, Anne Hathaway, and Meryl Streep.


Les Miserables

After a long and careful consideration of the evidence, global human-rights org Amnesty International has come to the conclusion that decriminalizing prostitution is the best way to "respect, protect, and fulfill the human rights of sex workers." But actress Anne Hathaway played a French whore in Les Mis, so she has feels about the issue, too. Hathway is one of several high-profile actresses, including Lena Dunham and Meryl Streep, who are protesting Amnesty's "Draft Policy on Sex Work," which states that all "consensual sexual conduct between adults—which excludes acts that involve coercion, deception, threats, or violence—is entitled to protection from state interference."

Criminalizing the sex trade actually leads to increased harassment of and violence against sex workers, states Amnesty, including their abuse "at the hands of police." 

The Hollywood Reporter notes that "in the past, celebrities like Jon Stewart, Madonna and Kristen Wiig have not hesitated to back Amnesty International, one of the most influential human rights watchdog groups." But stopping the state from punishing people for having sex is simply too much in Tinseltown, apparently. In response to Amnesty's draft recommendations—which are slated for presentation in Ireland in August—a long list of celebrities joined activist groups and religious leaders in signing a protest letter.

The group—which included actors Angela Bassett, Kevin Kline, Marcia Gay Harden, Kate Winslet, Lisa Kudrow, Chris Cooper, Allison Williams, Emily Blunt, and Emma Thompson—said they are "deeply troubled by Amnesty's proposal to adopt a policy that calls for the decriminalization of pimps, brothel owners and buyers of sex." 

In other words, they want an "end demand"/Swedish-style policy that actually grows the number of people prosecuted for prostitution. Under such models, selling sex is decriminalized under very narrow circumstances, while penalties and enforcement efforts are ramped up in the direction of catching "pimps," sex-traffickers, and the people who want to pay for sex. The last category (aka "johns") has been a major focus of anti-prostitution and anti-sex-trafficking groups recently, under the implausible theory that we can end demand for commercial sex by making the penalties for solicitation severe enough, hence eradicating prostitution entirely. And no prostitution, no sex trafficking—voila!

"Without a vibrant sex industry, there would be no sex trafficking," the anti-decrim letter states. But evidence that the Swedish model has actually decreased sex work or sex trafficking in the country is mixed at bestwhile prosecution of sex workers themselves has continued more or less apace. "If the seller is foreign, she is to blame, and can be punished with deportation," note professors Charlotta Holmström (of Sweden's Malmö University) and May-Len Skilbrei (of the University of Oslo) on the London School of Economics blog

"Widely presented as a more tolerant and pragmatic approach, the legalized model still criminalizes those sex workers who cannot or will not fulfill various bureaucratic responsibilities, and therefore retains some of the worst harms of criminalization," pointed out EU-based sex-worker Molly Smith in The New Republic recently. "It disproportionately excludes sex workers who are already marginalized, like people who use drugs or who are undocumented. This makes their situation more precarious, and so reinforces the power of unscrupulous managers." 

Still, the so-called "Swedish model" sounds feminist if you don't think about it too hard, with its theoretical emphasis on not punishing women in sex work themselves and holding "pimps, brothel owners," etc. accountable. After all, if you believe the letter writers, decriminalizing these people will "in effect support a system of gender apartheid" (emphasis theirs). Legally, however the pimps, brothel owners, sex traffickers, etc. include a vast number of female sex workers and former sex workers, some teens themselves (this summer alone, there have been at least two U.S. cases of teen sex workers being charged with serious sex trafficking offenses for driving or recruiting friends to work with them). The very women these feminists and religious groups are claiming to save are the ones they're not only encouraging law enforcement to crack down on but ramping up the criminal penalties for.

And, as former cop and sex worker (turned advocate) Norma Jean Almodovar recently commented, sometimes sex workers want to work with "pimps" and at brothels. "Personally, when I was working, I hired a number of different madams to provide me with safe clients," writes Almodovar.

I was willing to pay them for their services, which included screening those to whom they referred me, and they also knew where I was and when I was with a client. Under the law, they are pimps too, but if I wanted to hire them and pay them for their services, what business is it of yours or the government? Can't grown women who are sex workers have agents and managers just as people who are writers, artists, in show business, sports, music industry and others do? Would you think it appropriate for some young athlete to try to negotiate a contract with a sports franchise by him or her self? Do some of those young people get ripped off by a manager or agent? Yes, and when they do, they have legal recourse, which is something that sex workers would like to have as well.

Despite the celebrity letter's assertion that "growing evidence shows the catastrophic effects of decriminalization of the sex trade," New Zealand—which decriminalized everything from street prostitution to escort services, living off the proceeds of prostitution, and brothels in 2003—has seen safer and better working conditions for sex workers on a number of levels; increased levels of condom use; and no increase in overall prostitution levels or instances of criminal sex trafficking. Kudos to Amnesty for embracing an evidence-based, harm-reduction-centered, rights-respecting approach to sex work instead of the empty rhetoric of saving women and children by using state violence against them.