lena dunham (a white lady with chin length brown hair, wearing a strapless yellow thing and pearls)

Stay in your lane: We don’t need rich white actresses’ comments on sex work

A group of rich and famous white actress/feminists who have probably never in their life traded sex or experienced criminalization have added their rich and famous names onto a letter condemning a proposal from Amnesty International to adopt a position to support the decriminalization of sex work. 

Amnesty’s proposal, which is in line with the position of many major public health and human rights organizations, states that “The available evidence indicates that the criminalisation of sex work is more likely than not to reinforce discrimination against those who sell sex, placing them at greater risk of harassment and violence, including ill-treatment at the hands of police.” Seems like pretty solid logic, no?

Apparently not. Apparently rich white ladies — the likes of Lena Dunham, Meryl Streep, Anne Hathaway, and Kate Winslet — have joined a list of outdated second-wavers and anti-trafficking organizations opposing the proposal. Rich white ladies have something to say!

Their position is misguided in several ways, probably most obviously because if you think about it for more than like two seconds in a row, you’d realize that if you asked people who trade sex themselves what they want, cops, arrests, overnight stays in jail, and court appearances probably don’t rank highly. Even if we’re talking about the “Nordic model,” in which criminalization shifts from those who trade sex to those who purchase sex, criminalization is a misguided direction based on the principle of saving women and children, and not in tune with evidence suggesting that full decriminalization actually helps keep sex workers safe. And don’t get it twisted: even though people who trade sex come in all genders, the foundation of these arguments around criminalization is that women and young people don’t know what’s best for themselves and need saving.

But guess what white feminists: even though it would be nice, I’m not even asking for you to think for more than two seconds in a row. One option is to actually ask people who trade sex themselves (game-changer, I know). You don’t even have to do the work. A recently released ground-breaking study asked LGBTQ youth who trade sex to meet basic survival needs where they experienced violence, and found that young people experience a lot of violence at the hands of law enforcement and the service agencies that are meant to keep them safe. When asked what they needed, young people in the sex trades said that they needed housing, employment, access to education, support.

This is not to suggest that people who trade sex are a monolith with one single opinion. There is a lot of heated disagreement on this among people who trade sex themselves and some who trade sex currently or who did so formerly do oppose decriminalization.

But here is what we know: policing and criminalization lay their biggest burdens on the most vulnerable people in our societies. We have discussed this here at length: police use of condoms as evidence of prostitution-related charges is just one example of the ways that criminalization puts the health, life, and safety of people who trade sex at risk (with trans women of color being particularly vulnerable to this kind of police profiling and harassment). But we can also see this in the case of Marissa Alexander, a Black woman who was criminalized for firing a few warning shots to protect herself and her child from her abuser. We can see this in all the cases when family members of people with mental illness called the police for help when things have escalated beyond their control, only to have police officers show up and kill their family members instead of help them. We can see this in the ways that police target and harass LGBTQ people of color. We can hear this in all the stories of people who have called the police for help only to experience further harassment, violence, or death because they weren’t wealthy or white.

At this point — one year after the murders of Eric Garner and Mike Brown set off the nation in a dialogue about the ways the police perpetuates violence against the most vulnerable people in our communities (and Black folks in particular), just weeks after Sandra Bland died in police custody — it takes more mental gymnastics than ever to imagine that criminalization and policing could provide any safety to people as marginalized and publicly stigmatized as those who trade sex. This is especially true if we’re talking about people who trade sex who are street-based. It’s especially true for people who trade sex who are Black or of color, who are trans or gender non-conforming, who are immigrants, who are poor, who are several or all of those at once. These are the people whom criminalization most targets — not rebellious college students who decide to give sex work a whirl, not the high-class girls working for elite agencies with whom politicians routinely get caught. It’s folks with records, folks who have no place to stay for the night, folks who might end up in deportation proceedings. It’s people who the police know they can extort sex from because they won’t be believed if they come forward with their experiences of sexual assault, people whose lives are routinely and systemically fucked up by criminalization.

But y’all think criminalization will help.

Stay in your lane, rich ladies. People who trade sex are organizing, leading research projects, creating political analysis, and identifying solutions. People who trade sex need people to listen to them. And they don’t need you.

New York, NY

Verónica Bayetti Flores has spent the last years of her life living and breathing reproductive justice. She has led national policy and movement building work on the intersections of immigrants' rights, health care access, young parenthood, and LGBTQ liberation, and has worked to increase access to contraception and abortion, fought for paid sick leave, and demanded access to safe public space for queer youth of color. In 2008 Verónica obtained her Master’s degree in the Sexuality and Health program at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. She loves cooking, making art, listening to music, and thinking about the ways art forms traditionally seen as feminine are valued and devalued. In addition to writing for Feministing, she is currently spending most of her time doing policy work to reduce the harms of LGBTQ youth of color's interactions with the police and making sure abortion care is accessible to all regardless of their income.

Verónica is a queer immigrant writer, activist, and rabble-rouser.

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