Amnesty International has announced its intention to adopt a policy that seeks to decriminalize sex work—and Hollywood is not impressed.
In a public statement, Amnesty expressed the belief that decriminalization is necessary in order to respond to the grave abuses and injustices that are suffered by sex workers throughout the world and to protect their basic human rights. The organization has based its position on years of research, study, and intense data collection, all of which indicate that the criminalization of consensual adult sex work leads to greater abuses against sex workers.
Amnesty International made its intentions known early last week when it released its Draft Policy on Sex Work—and has faced intense backlash ever since.
A letter of protest has been circulating online, collecting signatures from individuals, prominent organizations, and some notable celebrities. The letter, addressed to Amnesty International’s Executive Director and Secretary General, is strongly opposed to the organization’s policy proposal and the decriminalization of sex work in general. It states that this policy “flies in the face of [Amnesty’s] historical reputation” and attempts to trot out evidence of the “catastrophic effects” of the decriminalization of sex work. Instead of harm reduction, it demands “harm elimination.”
This is a lofty goal. While eliminating all harm for all people is certainly desirable, it is also an impossible utopian fantasy. This kind of dogma does very little to help real people who are in real need. It also does not take into account the fact that different people have different realities. Concepts of what is and what is not harmful vary vastly between individuals and cultures. Although some people believe that sex work is inherently violent and harmful, others disagree, instead arguing that it is empowering and a matter of personal choice.
This, however, seems entirely lost on some elite, upper-class Hollywood celebrities.
Big name actors like Anne Hathaway, Meryl Streep, Lena Dunham, and Kate Winslet are only a handful of the high-powered stars who have signed the protest letter so far. Their support has garnered a great deal of media attention and has brought this issue well into the spotlight.
However, it’s unclear what kind of experience any of these women have with sex workers, aside from perhaps portraying one on the big screen. It does not appear that Anne Hathaway or Lena Dunham or any of the other celebrities listed on the letter of protest have ever traded sexual services for money or have any experience in or first-hand knowledge of the sex work industry.
This complete and utter lack of experience and perspective is disturbing when you consider the amount of power that they are able to wield over this issue. The voice of a single celebrity seems loud enough to drown out those of countless men and women who speak from a place of real knowledge. This is especially inappropriate given that Amnesty’s proposal—whether it is passed or not—is unlikely to ever directly affect, say, Kate Winslet's life.
Reflecting on this situation, I am reminded of my first class as a women's studies masters student at the University of British Columbia. The professor asked us, at the outset of class, if there was anything we, as academic writers, could not write about. I remember feeling slightly offended. I confidently answered back, “of course not!” I felt that no one should deprive me of my voice.
Looking back, I now realize how ironic this was.
As the year went on, I came to the realization that, in some circumstances, the sound of my voice only served to silence others—others with more knowledge, more experience and more investment. Although my intentions were good, I learnt that often, as an ally, the best thing I could do was stay silent and simply listen.
Actors and celebrities live their lives in the public eye. Due to the nature of their profession, they have a platform to voice their opinions on a mass scale—but this doesn’t make them experts and it doesn’t mean that we should listen to them.
Amnesty International’s policy on sex work has not been approved as of yet. It will be tabled during the International Council Meeting, which is set to take place only a few days from now in Dublin, Ireland. A spokesperson for Amnesty International has said that it is in the final stages of receiving feedback on the policy and that concerns from the public will be taken into account.
Here’s hoping that feedback comes from people with real experience, and those who just act like they have it.