Many a cause célèbre would welcome the support of Lena Dunham.
The Girls star and creator has emerged as a leading voice for millennials, feminists, Democrats, and pro-choice advocates.
But while President Obama welcomed Dunham’s stamp of approval when he ran for re-election in 2012, there’s at least one group that would like Dunham to back off: sex workers.
Dunham and a slew of other celebrities—including Girls co-star Allison Williams, Academy Award winners Kate Winslet, Anne Hathaway, and Meryl Streep—have lent their fame to a campaign opposing Amnesty International’s draft proposal (PDF) on the protection of the rights of sex workers.
This proposal includes “decriminalizing all aspects of sex work,” Amnesty International Director of Media Susanna Flood told the Daily Beast.
Flood stressed in an email that “no policy has been adopted by Amnesty International and it is not possible to speculate about the eventual outcome of the vote.”
But if these celebrities—who are also joined by well-known activists, like Gloria Steinem—have their way, sex work will not be decriminalized.
They claim in their letter (PDF) that if Amnesty International endorses decriminalization at its International Council Meeting in Dublin next month, it will support a “system of gender apartheid” where “one category of women may gain protection from sexual violence and sexual harassment,” but those who are forced against their will into the sex trade are “set apart for consumption by men.”
As compelling as this claim is to outsiders, sex workers’ response to Hollywood is thanks but no thanks. You’ve got it wrong.
“If Kate Winslet and Lena Dunham are trading sex in a criminalized environment, then they should speak out [but] the role of an advocate and an ally is to step back and let these people speak,” 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.
She fully supports Amnesty International’s proposal.
“The second Kate Winslet starts trading sex for money, she should be full voiced about it,” Jane added.
However, the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW), one of the main backers of the campaign against decriminalization, offered only praise for celebrity voices.
“These are actresses, but they are all human-rights activists who happen to have the generosity to share the limelight on this issue. It’s really important, and we’re truly grateful they’re signing their celebrity onto it,” Taina Bien-Aimé, the executive director of CATW, told the Daily Beast.
“Amnesty International is not listening. I think Hollywood is the next step. If they [Amnesty International] isn’t listening to them, then who are they listening to?”
This reliance on celebrities as flashy voices of authorities is exactly what frustrates many sex workers when it comes to debates about their industry.
“At the end of the day, this is a proposal that impacts my life and not Lena Dunham’s,” Jane says. “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, who backs the Amnesty proposal, speaks as someone who has been victimized multiple times during her career, but has never felt safe going to the police.
“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 says.
She also lacks leverage with her clients because it’s clear she cannot safely turn to law enforcement for support.
“Even basic conversations about condom use are criminalized. Walking into a situation where I am going to be alone with a person for an hour, just hoping we’re on the same page about condom use is terrifying,” she says. “Wondering if this is the last session I ever do is never far from my mind.”
Sex workers’ vulnerability to johns and pimps is exactly why CATW and others argue against decriminalization. Why would one want to sanction an industry where people are so often exploited and abused?
But fear of arrest does not stop those attacks from occurring.
“When it [abuse] happens, you think about it for as many sessions [with clients] as you do, but you still have to pay your rent,” Jane says.
That sex work will continue whether or not it’s legally sanctioned is a point that those crusading against decriminalization miss, explains Kristen DiAngelo, the executive director of Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP)-Sacramento.
“It doesn’t matter what you say is going to happen. If someone needs to eat, or to feed their children, you can’t stop them. If the only thing they have to work with is their body, they will take the money over starving. That’s the way it works,” says DiAngelo, who has been practicing sex work on and off for four decades.
A glaring issue that Dunham, Winslet, and Co. also may not understand about the life of a sex worker is that once he or she is arrested, it is dramatically harder, if not impossible, to find a job outside of the sex trade.
In fact, say campaigners, criminalizing sex work perpetuates a cycle that financially entraps those who are trying to leave.
“Once you are arrested, you have a Scarlett Letter. Once you’re a known sex worker and you have one or two arrests, you’re not going anywhere. It locks you into this lifestyle,” DiAngelo says.
“The idea of trying to explain it to an employer is so humiliating. It’s all over her [a sex worker’s] record. Could you imagine asking someone for a job and that’s how they meet you?”
DiAngelo herself has returned to sex work, despite earning a college degree and working in the financial sector as a broker, because it was the best economic option after an autoimmune disorder forced her to miss work and go on disability.
She has continued to practice sex work, despite multiple sexual assaults and murder attempts.
The lack of police protection only rubs salt in DiAngelo’s wounds.
“I was a victim of a very brutal attack. While lying in the rape unit at the UC Davis Medical Center, I was told if I pressed charges, I would go to jail,” DiAngelo recalls. “I was bleeding from every hole in my body and held captive all night, but I was intimidated by police with the threat of a misdemeanor.”
The attack was the final straw for DiAngelo, and she insisted on pressing charges. She says her assailant ultimately got only 45 days for assault with a deadly weapon and went on to harm other women.
Meanwhile, “I wake up every night with the taste of blood in my mouth,” she says.
From her perspective, those who oppose decriminalization are well-meaning, but misguided.
“Everybody thinks they’re helping us. They never stop to talk to us,” DiAngelo says, choking back tears, “They just want to make it disappear.”
While she believes the celebrities opposing Amnesty International “probably have good intentions,” they’re far too quick to pat themselves on the back.
“They go home at night thinking they did something good and we’re cleaning up the bloodshed. We’re the ones trying to keep ourselves alive.”