A Sex Worker Explains Why Sex Work Should Never Be Illegal

Photographed By Lauren Perlstein.
This story was originally published on July 28, 2015.

Lena Dunham, Anne Hathaway, Kate Winslet — we love you all, but kindly take several seats. Those are just a few of the famous names signed to a letter written by the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women-International (CATW) opposing Amnesty International's new proposal to decriminalize sex work — a proposal Amnesty based on four research reports about sex workers in low-, middle-, and high-income countries in four regions around the world. The human rights NGO consulted with other NGOs, law enforcement and government officials, and, most importantly, sex workers to conclude that "criminalization, in its various forms, exposes sex workers to increased risk of human rights abuses" and that decriminalization would support "harm reduction and the human rights principles of physical integrity and autonomy."

The organization did not, however, consult with the Hollywood luminaries — Allison Williams, Lisa Kudrow, Emily Blunt, Emma Thompson, and Meryl Streep, to name a few more — who have, via the CATW's letter to Amnesty's Board of Directors, declared themselves "troubled by Amnesty’s proposal to adopt a policy that calls for the decriminalization of pimps, brothel owners, and buyers of sex — the pillars of a $99 billion global sex industry."

"These are actresses, but they are all human rights activists who happen to have the generosity to share the limelight on this issue," enthused CATW's Taina Bien-Aimé to the Daily Beast. "It’s really important, and we’re truly grateful they're signing their celebrity onto it." Many sex workers do not share Bien-Aimé's gratitude to these celebrities or to other signers of the CATW's letter and its online anti-decriminalization petition.

We asked Savannah Sly, a board member and Chapter Relations Coordinator for Sex Workers Outreach Project-USA who has been a sex worker for 11 years, to break down for us why the public is so much more interested in what Lena Dunham thinks of sex work than what sex workers think — and what Dunham and her fellow celebs are missing when it comes to protecting sex workers' health, rights, and dignity.

What do you think of the role of celebrity voices in the conversation around sex work?
"These famous voices are perhaps out of touch with the reality of sex work. Amnesty International is a massive, global human rights organization that has really thought about this and studied this; these celebrities are connected to anti-trafficking organizations, which have good intentions, and I don't like to discredit anybody's experience as a victim or anybody who's concerned about inequality — but [these organizations] fail to illustrate to these celebrities...that criminalization actually makes these inequalities worse.

"For some reason, celebrities are held up as just being wiser than the rest of us because they're famous, [and then] you have a bunch of seemingly nobody sex workers who are trying to speak for their human rights. It's just not as interesting or compelling to the majority of the American people. Who are they going to trust, this seemingly familiar person they've seen on TV a lot or a bunch of social pariahs?"

Who are the American people going to trust, this seemingly familiar person they've seen on TV a lot, or a bunch of social pariahs?

And, of course, one of the reasons that sex workers are pariahs in the first place is that sex work is illegal.
"Absolutely. This petition going around says that Amnesty International is making no distinction between the abuses of human trafficking and sex work, and they absolutely are; they state it at least three times in the first two pages of their proposal report. The decriminalization of sex work does not mean that all of a sudden, Amnesty International is pro-trafficking or pro-sex-slavery... They very clearly outline the harms of criminalization of both clients and sex workers and say, 'Here are the benefits of a decriminalized model: harm reduction, access to social services, decreased social stigma, which is so systemically violent.' I doubt that people are really taking the time to read [the proposal].

"The anti-trafficking movement has done a pretty good job of discrediting the voices of sex workers... I've been accused of being part of some 'pimp lobby.' I think people think that we stand to make a lot of money off of the decriminalization of sex work; it's actually totally the opposite. I think all of us would take a pay cut if sex work was decriminalized. In places like New Zealand...where it's legalized or decriminalized, rates there are considerably lower than here in black-market America. That's because it's sensible, it's safer, more people are participating in it in a safe way."

What are opponents of the decriminalization of sex work missing here?
"I like to look at the war on drugs and also the gay rights movement as parallels to the sex worker rights movement, where criminalization's heavy stigma drives certain activities and behaviors underground. People don't talk about them, they don't have legal recourse with the police if something does happen to them — and there's a lack of peer support, community, education, and resources. It's easy for celebrities and also people who identify as feminist to hear this story of a massive, multi-billion-dollar sex industry based upon the rape of women and children and be like...'I am against that.' They're not really looking at the broader picture of root causes — of poverty, migrant labor inequality, and addiction.

"Often, when people look at the narrative of sex-trafficking victims, they look at it as this static moment in time, like, This person is suddenly swept off the street into this world of sex slavery, and it's like, no, this person had a life before this — what brought this person into a such a vulnerable state? When we talk about people who are vulnerable in the sex industry, we're talking about people who don't have any resources or opportunities. They may choose sex work as a means of surviving. Taking away that tool for survival is not going to help those people; they're still going to be disempowered and vulnerable — and that's not even to speak to the broader population of sex workers who are fine with their jobs [and] choose it as an occupation that suits their needs. I include myself among that population, and I know thousands of other sex workers [like that] at this point."
If criminalization isn't the way to go, what can we do to combat sex trafficking specifically?
"There's a wonderful collective in India of thousands of sex workers called Sangram, and they've had tremendous results reducing [the number of] adolescents in the sex trade, and also abuses within the sex trade, through peer support — it's kind of a self-policing community. Many people roll their eyes when they think of a sex-worker community policing itself, but I think it would be very powerful and effective to let current or retired sex workers be the bridge to law enforcement and social services — because even if we decriminalize sex work, it's still going to be an industry shrouded in stigma and secrecy. It's going to take a long time for us to get over that stigma, and I think that building a strong community network of peers to...connect [with] the appropriate governmental or social service organizations would be an amazing way to start unearthing abuses and exploitation.

This is business. We call ourselves sex workers for a reason, and we want to be recognized as such.

"Sex workers need labor rights. We need to be recognized as a labor force. We have this narrative of 'victim,' 'pimp,' and 'john,' which I think are all really derogatory, racist, classist terms. Really, sex workers prefer to look at this as 'worker,' 'management,' 'client.' It's a more labor-rights-oriented way of looking at things... I stand firm that this is business. We call ourselves sex workers for a reason, and we want to be recognized as such."

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