Dear Lena and Meryl, here's why criminalising sex work won't help


Eurydice Aroney

Meryl Streep

Meryl Streep

Sex worker and activist Laura Lee would like to tell Lena Dunham a thing or two. 

And Meryl Streep. 

Mostly what the 42-year-old would like to tell them is that they have no idea what it's like to be a sex worker. And that those actresses have no right – and zero expertise - to speak on her behalf or on behalf of the hundreds and thousands of sex workers the world over.

Lena Dunham

Lena Dunham Photo: Jamie McCarthy

Last week Dunham, Streep and others urged Amnesty International in an open letter calling on the human rights organisation to reject a proposal to endorse the decriminalisation of the sex trade at AI's main decision making forum, the International Council Meeting (ICM), which takes place in Dublin from August 7.


Sex workers are furious. For years, they have worked towards decriminalisation. They say it makes sex work safer for them and safer for their clients. They say that the Swedish model, which criminalises clients, won't protect them, will harass clients anyway; and force everyone underground. Sex workers also say the idea that all sex workers are trafficked and oppressed is just not true.

If sex workers or their clients are judged as criminals, or if your landlord must evict you under the law for using your home for prostitution, it makes detection or reporting of trafficking less likely.  Why report if you're likely to be charged or worse?  There are already ample laws that deal with trafficking of persons and sex workers support them.  

As Lee asks, why would you take advice from a bunch of actors over the advice of the World Health Organisation and other experts? Why listen to lobbyists instead of those with real research and lived experience?

"I really hope Amnesty can hold firm in the face of this.

"What we need to remember is that the draft policy is on top of two years of investigation in which Amnesty spoke to workers from all around the world, to the UN, to WHO . . .it isn't a decision they took lightly."

Let's be clear. The Amnesty draft policy calls for countries not to criminally penalise anyone for selling his or her own sexual services.  

In addition, it makes a very clear distinction between sex workers selling their own labour and those who are trafficked.  As the draft policy says, Amnesty International's longstanding position is that trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation should be criminalised as a matter of international law; and, further that any child involved in a commercial sex act is a victim of sexual exploitation, entitled to support, reparations, and remedies, in line with international human rights law, and that states must take all appropriate measures to prevent sexual exploitation and abuse of children.

There is a distinct difference – and decriminalisation ensures that if sex workers need help from police they can get it. It stops coercion, it helps protect sex workers from violence because they can seek support.

And Amnesty is not alone. The Amnesty draft policy document says that Human Rights Watch, Open Society Foundations and Anti-Slavery International among other groups, have also called for the decriminalisation of sex work; as well as a large number of sex worker organisations and networks, including the Global Network of Sex Work Projects, support the decriminalisation of sex work as a means to realise human rights.

Laura Lee herself won't be taking any clients next week as she waits for the decision from Dublin. That's a huge financial sacrifice from the 42-year-old who instead will be waiting by the phone and watching Twitter for a decision which will make an enormous impact on her – and on her industry.

She has been in the industry for 22 years - and because she tours both Ireland and Scotland for her work - has witnessed the very real impact that criminalisation of sex work has on her colleagues. 

"It takes precious police resources and sends them chasing down after our clients – sends violence way back through the roof."

Lee, who works with Scot-Pep to advocate for sex workers,  is desperately concerned for her clients too – if countries adopt the Swedish model, it's the buyers who will be prosecuted. She's had long conversations, particularly with clients she sees regularly.

"They are worried they might get a criminal record or that they might have to stop and they fret. 

"In many cases I am their lifeline  . . . they might have disability or their wife might have Alzheimer's. 

"Our clients worry about us, they worry about our safety."

Australia has its own peak body for sex workers, the Scarlet Alliance. The CEO of Scarlet Alliance Janelle Fawkes, says decriminalisation is the only way forward.

"That's based on our experience in NSW but also the evidence out of New Zealand which has a decriminalised model . . . that's looking at the research which evaluated those models and also at the lived experiences of sex workers.

"Why would you have the police as regulators of the sex industry instead of ensuring sex workers could access police about crime?"

Fawkes is delighted that Amnesty International has put sex work on the human rights agenda.

"Our motto has always been sex workers rights are human rights. There was a sense of elation that finally what sex workers had been calling for would become policy for a key human rights organisation," says Fawkes.

And she too is utterly baffled by the open letter. 

"To be honest, I am mystified why any woman or any feminist would think criminalising sex workers and criminalising other women, how that would have any value?"

"I can only assume this group of celebrities are so far removed from the real world that they think their fantasy roles in movies are real life and have missed the fact that the rest of us are out here  earning a living.

"They are largely a group of white women with very privileged lives who sell their labour – and that's what we do too."

It's a common refrain among sex workers both in Australia and internationally - that these wealthy white women are speaking about something about which they have no real knowledge. 

Jackie Parker, who has worked in rural Australia as a sex worker for 14 years, articulates the problem thusly: 

"[Someone like] Anne Hathaway [annoys] me. She got an award for playing a sex worker."

As Parker puts it, Hathaway is not a sex worker (despite her cinematic attempts) and nor are any of the others.

"She can't be talking on our behalf.

"Every time they talk about sex work, it's always about how we are forced and we don't have a choice but that's not the industry we have now.

"But I have never met a pimp, I've never been coerced. 

"If someone tries to tell me what to do, I tell them where to go."


Follow Eurydice Aroney  on Twitter: @eekiemout