Sorry Meryl Streep, Sex Workers Have the Right to be Human Too

The stand of Hollywood actors and carceral feminists against the decriminalisation of sex work is precisely the kind of stand that makes the lives of all sex workers harder and gives no space for their voices

Amnesty International’s recently leaked draft proposal to decriminalise sex work has ruffled the feathers not only of anti-sex work groups, but also some of Hollywood’s best and brightest. Several stars, including Meryl Streep, Anne Hathaway, and Kate Winslet, have signed a letter submitted by the Coalition Against the Trafficking of Women to oppose this move.

The draft policy is based on four reports about sex-work in low-, middle- and high-income countries around the world, which reveal how criminalising sex work has exposed sex workers to increasing human rights violations. In supporting decriminalisation, Amnesty argues that it is supporting “harm reduction and the human rights principles of physical integrity and autonomy.” In short, the new draft policy is based on the sex workers right to be human.

Three myths

There are several myths that the anti-sex work lobby propagates in its advocacy. The first is that those who support sex workers are no better than pimps and johns who are intent on encouraging the sexual exploitation of women and young girls. On the contrary, a key concern of those who call for supporting the human rights of sex workers is that it will reduce the exploitation and power of various actors within the industry and shift it into the hands of the sex workers. Rights enable two things: they confer recognition on women in the industry that they are in fact human beings entitled to human rights. The second is that these rights become powerful tools in their hands to fight exploitation and abuse, and demand safe working conditions including safe sex, and facilitate their claims as mothers, entertainers, patients and citizens.

A second myth is that the sex industry sustains the invisible hand of some kind of “universal patriarchy.” This claim tells us nothing about the structure and functioning of the industry, or how to dismantle or vanquish it. The sex industry takes on different incarnations at different moments of time. In the contemporary moment, it is embedded in economic relations and the structure of the neo-liberal market where everything is up for purchase. In an era of neoliberalism, homo economicus has come to exhaust the figure of the human and eliminated the space for political action outside of the relations of the market. While this is not an argument to support the rise of the consumer citizen and self-investing human capital, it does compel those opposed to sex work to consider at what point do they draw the line within the structures of neo-liberalism. When does homo economicus become an immoral project? Moreover, if decriminalisation brings about the stabilisation of wages as well as better and safer working conditions for women within the terms of the market, then how do we characterise a stand that is opposed to such an outcome? A focus on law and order and criminal justice does not attend to these larger narratives and structures within which sex work takes place.

The final myth is the fatal conflation between the sex industry and sex trafficking. This conflation has witnessed an alliance between those opposed to sex work with the carceral power of the state to address `the problem.’ These measures include the strengthening of border controls, raid and rescue operations by law enforcement in collaboration with NGOs, the discouragement of voluntary female migration, and the rise of a sexual security regime that impacts all women.

Making sex work unsafe

The primary outcome of such interventions has been to drive the industry underground and increase the conditions of vulnerability and exploitation. The link between sex work and sex trafficking is flawed in two respects: first, it posits that trafficking is almost always associated with sex work when in fact trafficking takes place across borders into a host of other non-sex work related industries; second, the focus on sex trafficking and criminal law deflect attention from the elephant in the room – the abysmal failure by states and NGOs to develop effective global and regional migration policies that facilitate safe migrations centred on the rights of the migrant. Trafficking is the outcome of a failure to develop such a policy as well as the persistent refusal to understand that in the absence of such a policy, people will continue to move, through clandestine migrant mobility regimes that are facilitated by traffickers and smugglers, when safe passages are not available.

The Amnesty report makes clear that the carceral power of the state cannot be used to eliminate the harms and abuse that women experience in the sex industry. Without rights, the reverse is in fact true. The Amnesty study reveals how a rights approach results in “harm reduction, access to social services,” and “decreased social stigma, which is so systemically violent.” The contrasting stand of the Hollywood actors and carceral feminists against the decriminalisation of sex work is precisely the kind of stand that makes the lives of all sex workers harder and gives no space for their voices. But the famous get heard, regardless of how uninformed their opinions. We need to heed the call of the sex workers who are demanding that actors in Hollywood, and carceral feminists armed with their anti-rights agenda -“Sit down!” Just for once, let the sex workers be heard.

Ratna Kapur is Professor of Law, Jindal Global Law School, Sonipat, India

Credit for featured image of Meryl Streep: Wikipedia