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Despite what Lena Dunham thinks, sex workers say ‘keep the law off our bodies’

Many sex workers actually find the job enjoyable and liberating

Alex Feis Bryce
Thursday 30 July 2015 13:12 BST
A sex worker activists holds a protest banner at the demonstration in Paris
A sex worker activists holds a protest banner at the demonstration in Paris (Reuters)

Can denying people the choice to decide what they do with their own bodies - or specifically when they consent to sex - ever be an advancement of their human rights?

That’s what a sensationalist campaign led by radical feminists is claiming. They are protesting against Amnesty’s leaked proposal that consenting sex work should be decriminalised, and, bizarrely, the Your Sister campaign has garnered the support of a number of Hollywood A-listers, including Kate Winslet, Anne Hathaway, Lena Dunham and Meryl Streep.

Perhaps the latter’s experience of playing Fantine, a sex worker, in Les Miserables made her feel like she had a glimpse of the reality of life as a sex worker. As far as representations of sex work go, that film’s all-singing, all-dancing portrayal of early 19th century Paris is perhaps more accurate than the ludicrous distortion its star now finds herself attached to.

It is pure, naked sensationalism - complete with misleading use of language to evoke emotive responses in attempt to dupe people broadly in favour of women’s rights (who isn’t?) and against exploitation (again, who isn’t?) into supporting their cause. Streep, Winslet and Hathaway have been duped - exploited one might say.

The first tell-tale sign that reality has been abandoned in favour of a cynical attempt to convert people to their narrow way of thinking is that their campaign poster is a rip-off of the Amnesty logo, with the phrase “protecting human rights” substituted for “protecting pimps and johns”. It was at this point that most people probably noticed the unsubtle attempt to reframe the argument. Amnesty’s campaign is about the rights and welfare of sex workers - not “johns”, “punters” or “pimps”.

Of course there are a minority whose experience of sex work is wholly negative and they need support - but it is much harder for them to access this in a criminalised setting. What’s the point of having human rights if you’re so marginalised and criminalised that you can’t enforce them? But, this is almost beside the point.

If you want to know about all the reasons why sex work should be decriminalised for the safety and human rights of sex workers then read the Amnesty document, the Lancet studies on sex work or speak to Human Rights Watch. Or, in what would appear to be an unthinkable step to the anti-Amnesty campaigners, speak to sex workers.

For every so-called “survivor” of sex work that they put forward to argue that if their work was criminalised they would have been saved, there are hundreds of current or former sex workers who will say please keep your laws off our bodies. We recently partnered with Leeds University to conduct the largest survey of sex workers in the UK. Some 91 per cent described their work as “flexible” and 66 per cent described it as “fun”. Over half find their job “rewarding”, “skilful”, “sociable” and “empowering”. However, 71 per cent experience stigma and almost half are worried about being targeted by criminals.

Amnesty - true to their core values - are opposing laws that discriminate against sex workers and restrict the choices they can make. They should be commended, not castigated for standing up for the rights of a group as marginalised as sex workers. Criminalisation breeds discrimination and ultimately harms sex workers. They need protection and access to justice, not judgement and state-enforced stigma.

The opponents of the proposals, blinded by an ideological objection to sex work, are advocating the use of the law to restrict sex workers’ free choices, their agency and their right to consent - and then reframing this straitjacket as necessary for their human rights. What a spectacular misunderstanding of what human rights are all about.

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