Amnesty International recently released a policy proposal calling for the decriminalization of the exchange of sex between consenting adults. In the proposal, Amnesty states its position “is based on the human rights principle that consensual sexual conduct between adults—which excludes acts that involve coercion, deception, threats, or violence—is entitled to protection from state interference” (amnestyusa.org). The proposal further states that “Amnesty International considers children involved in commercial sex acts to be victims of sexual exploitation, entitled to support, reparations, and remedies, in line with international human rights law” (amnestyusa.org).
While many are in support of Amnesty’s proposal, including groups that regularly work with street based sex workers such as Women With a Vision, a letter of protest has been drafted and subsequently signed by more than 400 groups and individuals. Among the signatories were several notable women of Hollywood including actors Meryl Streep, Kate Winslet, Anne Hathaway, Angela Bassett, Emma Thompson, Lisa Kudrow, Lena Dunham, and Kyra Sedgwick. The letter of protest states that “Decriminalization of the sex trade renders brothel owners ‘businessmen’ who with impunity facilitate the trafficking of very young women predominantly from the poorest countries of Eastern Europe and the Global South to meet the increased demand for prostitution…” (catwinternational.org)
It would seem that the women of Hollywood who signed off on this letter did so in a misguided attempt to reaffirm the assumption that prostitution is inherently linked to and in fact drives human trafficking. It is irresponsible of wealthy, mainly white, celebrities who do not work with sex workers to take such a stance given their high platforms. Given the fact that the criminalization of prostitution, like the notorious War on Drugs, disproportionately impacts poor people of color-specifically transgender women of color- and results in them being separated from their communities, barred from resources, and stuck in the very same cycle of poverty that drove them to survival sex work in the first place, these women of Hollywood are likely the last people we should listen to in the international debate on sex work.
Such attempts to conflate prostitution and human trafficking are not new though they do show a lack of knowledge about the actual landscape that consensual sex works occurs in globally. Claiming that prostitution fuels human trafficking is often done as a means of blocking legislation that would decriminalize prostitution. The claim is often made that while consensual, prostitution is inherently harmful to those exchanging sex. Rather than addressing the socioeconomic factors that often lead people to participation in sex work these “advocates”, often from a higher socioeconomic class, would prefer further reliance on a corrupt criminal justice system.
Not only does claiming that prostitution and human trafficking are inherently linked oversimplify the issue, proposing that we solve an issue of poverty by criminalizing the impoverished is grossly irresponsible. Rather than highlighting the diversity among sex workers or the many reasons people enter the industry, the letter signed onto by some of Hollywood’s biggest starlets employs a narrative of harm that involves innocent young women lured into sex industry by men. The letter of protest cites Germany as an example of a case in which the decriminalization of sex work caused an increase in human trafficking, however the data does not support these claims (Germany legalized prostitution in 2001), “According to the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA), there were 636 reported cases of “human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation” in 2011, or almost a third less than 10 years earlier (feministire.com). “Thirteen of the victims were under 14, and another 77 were under 18″ (feministire.com). Thus it would seem that the decriminalization of prostitution resulted in the exact opposite impact of what this letter claims. It is not surprising that the drafters and signatories of this letter would rally behind inflated statistics about human trafficking in the hopes of stirring up a panic. The reality is that, as far as what is being reported, human trafficking in Germany has been decreasing over the past 10-20 years. “According to official statistics (statistics from Germany’s Federal Police Force), the number of officially identified victims of human trafficking decreased significantly in the past fifteen to twenty years. The same government reply from 1997 mentioned 1,196 victims of human trafficking in 1995 and 1,473 victims in 1996, while the statistics of the past four years on record show steady figures of an annual 610 to 710 victims of human trafficking for sexual exploitation, i.e. (approximately) 640 victims in 2011.” While human trafficking is an underground industry and it is impossible to know for sure how many people are being forced to enter the sex industry non-consensually, the data we do have on Germany shows that the legalization of prostitution hasn’t caused the reported cases of human trafficking to increase as the letter claimed. While there are certainly people who are forced into exploitative sex work, Amnesty International’s policy proposal very specifically states that such occurrences should remain illegal and focuses instead on those consensual encounters in which no one is forced or deceived and calls for their decriminalization.
Framing sex workers as victims of violence to inspire empathy is not a new phenomenon, “The first conceptualization of violence in American prostitution policy was through reformers’ abolitionist arguments from the first wave feminist movement” (Chuang, 2010). First wave feminists framed the main issue with sex work as “male lust” and “violence in the force and coercion used to transform innocent women to prostitutes, the wrestling of female virtue away from poor women” (Chuang, 2010). These early reformers also argued that community disorder and the spread of disease would ensue if the government did not enact harsh laws on pimps and solicitors in order to put an end to sex work. The rhetoric of early reformers has proved successful in that it has set the tone for the most common approach to sex work, criminalization. However, this rhetoric is problematic in that it strips away individual agency based on heteropatriarchal norms and assumes that reliance on the criminal justice system can halt the spread of disease, an issue of public health (“Heteropatriarchy” is a term that refers to the dominance of heterosexual, often white and wealthy, males in society at the expense of women, minorities, queer identified persons, and the poor. The gender norms imposed by heteropatriarchy would have one believe that women do not desire sex nearly as often or indiscriminately as men and therefore would have to be “tricked” in order to participate in sex work. Those who are a part of the mainstream feminist movement would agree that heteropatriachy is oppressive, yet many individuals and organizations replicate these systems of oppression when it comes to the issue of sex work).
Several transwomen and sex workers, including transgender sex worker activist Monica Jones, have spoken out against the criminalization of sex work in an attempt to reclaim their agency and show the world that sex workers don’t need nor do they want to be “rescued” by the criminal justice system. In November of 2014, Jones was arrested for “manifesting prostitution” after walking down the street in what the arresting officer described as a “form fitting dress” and accepting a ride home from the then-undercover officer. Jones was originally found guilty by a judge. However, an appeals court declared a mistrial and vacated Jones’ conviction in January of 2015. In March, Jones traveled to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva Switzerland to discuss the U.S. policy on sex work and the mistreatment of sex workers and transwomen by police. Jones told UN officials, “As long as the police can target my community (the transgender community) using these anti-sex-work laws, we will never be safe from violence, including the violence of incarceration” (Ludwig, 2015).
By calling for the continued criminalization of the exchange of sex between CONSENTING adults, the drafters and signatories of this letter are advocating for dependence on a broken criminal justice system based on heteropatriarchal norms and ultimately taking the form of the oppressor. As Women With a Vision, Inc is a fierce advocate for women of color and their right to self determination regardless of employment type or status, this organization supports Amnesty International in its proposal to decriminalize sex work and calls on the women of Hollywood and other signatories to reflect on this and other letters written by supporting organizations who are doing work everyday with those who will actually be impacted by the decision made.
Chuang, Janie. “Rescuing Trafficking from Ideological Capture: Prostitution Reform and Anti-Trafficking Law and Policy.” University of Pennsylvania Law Review. 2010.
Ludwig, Mike. “Monica Jones to the UN: US Must Decriminalize Sex Work.” Truthout. 20 Mar. 2015. Web.