Amnesty International has drafted a proposal calling for sex work to be legalized worldwide. The proposal “reflects a growing body of research from UN agencies, human rights organisations, and social science which indicates that criminalisation, in its varying forms, exposes sex workers to increased risk of human rights abuses.” According to Amnesty, the policy is inspired by the principles of harm reduction, physical integrity, and autonomy. Amnesty has never had an official policy regarding sex work in the past, and many involved in the sex industry view this as a huge step in the right direction.
In response to the proposal, several celebrities and human rights advocates, including self-proclaimed feminist Lena Dunham, have drafted a letter condemning Amnesty’s decision and calling for the proposal to be discarded. The letter cherry-picks statistics, saying that legalization leads to increased sex trafficking, and that “without a vibrant sex industry, there would be no sex trafficking.” The letter is misguided and comes from a place of privilege and downright ignorance about the realities of sex work.
Amnesty International understands what Lena Dunham apparently doesn’t: women own their own bodies. Outlawing sex work is just another way in which the State exerts its control over women’s bodies (as most sex workers are women). For someone like Lena Dunham, an outspoken advocate of reproductive rights, to call for the criminalization of sex work and for more restrictions on women’s bodily integrity is the epitome of white feminist hypocrisy. Speaking for other women rather than listening to them is a habit that seems to haunt white feminism.
Since the letter’s publication, many sex workers have spoken out in defense of Amnesty International’s proposal and their own human dignity. Dr. Brooke Magnanti took to Twitter, saying, “If anyone thinks they know better about the current state of sex work conditions than sex workers, they are fucking deluded.” In reference to Anne Hathaway, who also signed the letter, porn star Stoya tweeted, “Oh, you played a prostitute in a movie? I played a nurse in a porno. Does that qualify me to talk about working conditions in hospitals?” Thousands of sex worker supporters have signed a competing petition asking Amnesty to stand firm in their proposal.
The legalization of sex work is of the utmost importance in fighting against violence toward women. Laws against sex work marginalize sex workers and leave them exposed to sexual abuse, police violence, and trafficking. When rapists attack sex workers on the job, those sex workers have little to no recourse against their attackers. For sex workers, any encounter with police means losing their livelihood and their freedom. Because of the underground nature of sex work, prostitution lends itself to trafficking and sex slavery. If sex workers were able to work without fear of being arrested, they would have much more say in the conditions of their employment, and it would be much easier to leave the business if they so desired.
If Lena Dunham and the other signers of the letter against Amnesty International’s proposal care about women’s right to bodily autonomy, they should retract their signatures. Claiming to be a feminist while simultaneously calling for restrictions on the way women can use their own bodies to earn a living is duplicitous and wrong. Lena Dunham, if you think feminism is about shouting over other women and telling them you know what’s best for them while using the violent apparatus of the State to enforce your moral norms, you’d best take a seat.