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Forget Hollywood: Decriminalizing Sex Work Helps Sex Workers

Hollywood actresses like Lena Dunham and Anne Hathaway have protested Amnesty International's proposal to decriminalize sex work. We talked to sex workers to find out what they think.
Screenshot courtesy of YouTube

When Samantha Acosta was working as an escort, she says someone posed as a client and sent her menacing messages. According to Acosta, he promised that he would find out where she lived, rape her, and kill her. Afraid of punishment, Acosta used a pay phone to call the police. She says she was honest with them: She explained her situation but she also told them that she was an escort. She says law enforcement officials told her it was very hard to track the phone number of her pursuer, but easy to prove that she was doing something illegal. Their advice according to Acosta? Let it be. The virtual stalking continued for two years, leaving Acosta helpless and without any access to legal protection. "If I was a non-sex worker they would have done something," Acosta says.


Most sex workers have long argued that criminalization doesn't eliminate sex work or violence. Instead, it makes them vulnerable to threats and violence. This year, Amnesty International officially agreed: On July 7th, the organization issued a draft proposal based on extensive research saying that criminalization of prostitution is harmful. They will vote on the proposal this week.

Catherine Murphy, a policy advisor for Amnesty, explained in an email that the proposal recommends decriminalization of sex work using an approach similar to the one taken in New Zealand. According to Murphy, the draft policy prioritizes sex workers, focusing on ways to protect them from prejudice and harm. (You can read our full breakdown here.) Two other models exist: the "Swedish model," which follows partial decriminalization where the selling is legal but the buying isn't, and full criminalization, which prohibits both.

Unfortunately, several prominent actresses have taken it upon themselves to fight the recommendation. On July 22, in a letter released by the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW), celebrities like Lena Dunham, Kate Winslet, and Anne Hathaway expressed that they were "deeply troubled by Amnesty's proposal to adopt a policy that calls for the decriminalization of pimps, brothel owners, and buyers of sex." Instead, these celebrities support an approach based on the Swedish model.


Murphy concedes that this backlash has come from serious misunderstandings and misinterpretation of the policy. Katherine Koster, Communications Director for the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP-USA), agrees. Critics claim that decriminalization will make prostitution into a human right. She disagrees with this interpretation, explaining that the policy "asserts that the human rights of individuals impacted by the sex trade need to be protected." The nuance is tiny but makes a difference.

Another such misinterpretation lies in what, exactly, the proposal does and does not support. Murphy says the draft policy does not advocate for decriminalization of exploitation and trafficking. She explains that "what we are proposing is that laws need to be focused on acts of exploitation and trafficking--rather than broadly criminalizing all sex work." In doing so, Amnesty's proposal is meant to benefit sex workers--and sex workers alone. Contrary to the CATW letter, "the proposal is not about the rights of buyers or anyone else."

The Swedish model, lauded by Hollywood's showy voices, may not be the best way to aid sex workers. Heralded as progressive, it did stimulate a temporary drop in prostitution when it was enacted in 1999. But the model fails because it pushes prostitution underground. And because it criminalizes clients, the legislation leaves sex workers with fewer clients to choose from--leaving them vulnerable to encounters with men who are unsavory, violent, or drunk. Moreover, in encouraging eradication of sex work, the Swedish model in turn stimulates harassment from police officers with hostile attitudes and reluctance to report violence for fear of attracting unwanted attention.


Amnesty's proposal came to a similar conclusion, saying that laws like "bans on buying sex or on solicitation, promotion, brothel keeping or other operational aspects of sex work" are "frequently used to criminalize sex workers and/or work in effect to make their working environments more dangerous." The International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe agrees, explaining in a letter that when sex work is criminalized "through laws and practices targeting sex workers, clients, or third parties--sex workers will be at risk of police violence, arrests, rape, blackmail and deportations." The Global Network of Sex Work Projects issued a similar letter of support. Both are signed by sex-worker led organizations.

Rather than consorting with pimps and johns, as CATW would have you believe, Amnesty's proposal takes the experiences of sex workers into account. It cites a 2011 initiative in Norway meant to enforce a law banning promotion of sex work, known as "Operation Homeless." The initiative led to "the systematic and rapid eviction of many sex workers from their places of work and homes." Kasja Wahlberg, a Swedish detective and the country's rapporteur on human trafficking, told the New York Times in September 2012, "You will see that in any country, when you criminalize both parts, the police go for the women."

Criminalizing only the buying of sex may seem like a good fix, but it's not as simple as putting a violent pimp in jail. Koster explains that laws that criminalize third party behaviors aren't as favorable to sex workers as one might think. According to her, this is because there's "an incredibly diverse array of labor relationships, ranging from extremely exploitative to more positive than any mainstream employer/employee relationship that I've ever had." Having a screener, working for someone, or working in a brothel or dungeon can be beneficial for some sex workers.


One sex worker I spoke to, Maddy H., explained that when she worked in a BDSM den, the management really cared about the well-being of the women who worked there. Still, there was an agreement that no one would go to the police. The den itself was legal but illegal activities did occur; security was therefore tight.

Although security around the dungeon was strict, the women who worked there sometimes found themselves without sufficient protection. Once, Maddy says, she heard another 18-year-old woman get assaulted and then saw the woman run out. The woman was never heard from again. When asked if anyone reported the incident to the police, she told me, "Absolutely not." She left the den immediately after the incident in part due to her lack of safety.

In an effort to prevent this sort of lapse, Koster explains that the proposal ensures that "sex workers are entitled to equal protection under the law and are not excluded from the application of labor, health and safety, and other laws." This places sex workers at the same level as workers from other industries.

As Cristine Sardina, the director of the sex-worker led Desiree Alliance, said over email, "[Decriminalization] gives sex workers autonomy and self-determinations of their bodies." Need proof? One government-commissioned study of the New Zealand model cited by Think Progress shows that sex workers are more likely to report violence to the police in that country.

So where does this backlash come from? Many of the sex workers that I spoke to agreed that the celebrities who signed the letter do not understand what is at stake and that they're not listening to the people who actually matter--sex workers. Celine Bisette*, a sex worker with a decade of experience in the industry, told me over email that while she is happy to see Amnesty International proclaiming that sex workers are entitled to protection of their human rights, the resulting response has made her sad. "I can only guess that they do not fully grasp the information contained in the document, because, frankly, this is a fantastic policy draft and I applaud Amnesty International for presenting it."

Koster agrees. She says that the "celebrity opposition to Amnesty's proposal arises from… not being connected to ongoing conversations about sex work and trafficking in the sex trade." Instead, it comes from a place where fearing for your own safety from both citizens and the police does not occur.

*Names have been changed.