Last month, a group of Hollywood actresses including Meryl Streep, Kate Winslet, Anne Hathaway, and Lena Dunham signed a Change.org petition urging Amnesty International to reject a proposal to decriminalize sex work. The letter asserted that the human-rights organization’s reputation would be “irreparably tarnished if it adopts a policy that sides with buyers of sex, pimps, and other exploiters rather than with the exploited.”
In response, Amnesty highlighted research that shows that the criminalization of sex work can actually put sex workers in far more danger. “These violations include physical and sexual violence, arbitrary arrest and detention, extortion and harassment, forced HIV testing and medical interventions and exclusions from healthcare, housing, and other social and legal benefits,” the organization said in the statement.
Today, Dunham doubled down on her opposition to the legalization of sex work, tweeting:
I signed the petition against the Amnesty proposal on decriminalizing sex work after much research and careful consideration.— Lena Dunham (@lenadunham) August 7, 2015
I support Amnesty's mission, but I do not believe their proposal protects the exploited or properly punishes the exploiters.— Lena Dunham (@lenadunham) August 7, 2015
The total decriminalization of the sex trade is a complex issue, one that intelligent feminists can disagree on.— Lena Dunham (@lenadunham) August 7, 2015
I recognize that I'm not a sex worker or a trafficking survivor. But I'm blessed to have a platform that many close to this issue do not.— Lena Dunham (@lenadunham) August 7, 2015
Writing for The Nation, Melissa Gira Grant, a journalist, author, and former sex worker*, notes that opposition to the Amnesty proposal ignores the testimony of sex workers. “They have told Amnesty that sex workers’ rights are not only about the right to work, but the right to live free from stigma, discrimination, and violence,” she writes. Grant — who has previously spoken with the Cut about how the criminalization of sex work implicitly condones violence against sex workers — lays out the case for decriminalization:
Using the criminal law to control sex work means police are pitted against sex workers, and sex workers can pay the price with their lives. Sex workers who are also migrants, transgender, and/or people of color or ethnic minorities are intensely subject to this kind of criminalization and exclusion, as had also been documented by Amnesty—and others, like Human Rights Watch, UNAIDS, and the World Health Organization, all of whom support the decriminalization of sex work, a stance also backed by recent research in the medical journal The Lancet. Sex workers’ own rights groups, such as the 237 organizations in 71 countries under the Global Network of Sex Work Projects, report the same from their own experience: Criminal laws only add to the challenges—poverty, marginalization, access to health care—that many sex workers already face.
In effect, Grant argues, laws that criminalize sex work can have a disturbingly similar result as laws that restrict access to abortion: “Though these campaigns say they are concerned with rights and safety, the end game looks the same: to create so much danger around something that you condemn in the hopes it will just go away.” The whole piece is worth a read.
*An earlier version of this post incorrectly identified Gira as an organizer.