On July 22, a long list of prohibitionists, working through the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, released an open letter to Amnesty International as part of their long-running fight to stop them from officially adopting a pro-decriminalization of sex work stance. The letter urged the organization to vote against a draft proposal supporting decriminalization at their International Council meeting in Dublin this coming week. Besides roping in many of the usual suspects in anti-sex work circles—Janice Raymond, Julie Bindel, Rachel Moran, Robin Morgan, Meagan Tyler, etc.—the petition sought celebrity endorsements in an attempt to use fame to advance its cause. And sign on the celebrities did: Lena Dunham, Kate Winslet, Meryl Streep, Anne Hathaway, Emma Thompson, Lisa Kudrow, Kevin Kline, Christine Baranski, and Chris Cooper were among the more prominent names included.
When I first read that list, besides feeling like half of my favorite films had just been ruined for me, I was also really worried. People look up to these names. Who would listen to us in the sex workers’ rights movement when they could listen to Meryl Streep? The battle to support Amnesty International’s proposed stance has been a long and draining one for sex workers internationally, and it saw some particularly nasty fights here in Australia when prohibitionists tried to shout down sex workers at Amnesty Australia’s annual general meeting last July. As absurd as it was that a bunch of Hollywood’s most privileged could consider their voices about our oppression more important than our own, there was a lot of power and money in that list of names, and I was concerned that it might actually shift the course of Amnesty’s vote.
It’s safe to say at this point that the reaction to the petition hasn’t been quite what CATW intended when they went for the celebrity angle, as far more than the usual pro-sex worker media outlets have run stories mocking the stars’ stance. While many outlets did report the story the way CATW wanted it told—as a tale of humanitarian Hollywood championing the rights of “prostituted women” and trafficking survivors against the “pimp lobby”—those outlets haven’t stuck with that tack, and for once, the snark and scorn towards clueless prohibitionists weren’t limited to sex worker Twitter and Tumblr. The result has been glorious.
Rachel Vorona Cole on Jezebel mocked the signatories with “Celebrities Have Vital Opinions About Decriminalization of Sex Work”. Emily Shire on The Daily Beast followed with “Prostitutes Tell Lena Dunham To Stop Grandstanding About Sex Work”, Bob Knudsen on Examiner.com with “Celebrities sign Uninformed Letter Against Amnesty International Sex Trade Study”, Death and Taxes Magazine with “Sex Workers Tell Lena Dunham, Other Celebs, To STFU About Shit They Don’t Understand”, and Reason.com chimed in with Elizabeth Nolan Brown’s snide “Celebs Protest Amnesty International Call To Decriminalize Prostitution”.
There were, of course, more sober responses to the CATW petition: Katherine Koster from SWOP on the Huffington Post in “8 Things To Know About Amnesty’s Draft Proposal On Sex Work”, Zack Ford on ThinkProgress with “How LGBT People Would Benefit From The Decriminalization of Sex Work”, Veronica Bayetti Flores on Feministing with “Stay In Your Lane: We Don’t Need Rich White Actresses’ Comments On Sex Work”, and even the right wing joined in with The Libertarian Republic’s “Prostitutes Are Telling Celebrities to Shut Up About Sex Work”. Elizabeth Nolan Brown went back for more with “Sex Workers Push Back Against Hollywood”. Grace Dunham, CATW petition signatory Lena Dunham’s sister, revealed herself as an unexpected ally, tweeting her opposition to criminalization in a surprise twist.
When you criminalize sex work you criminalize people trying to care for themselves and those they love
— Grace Dunham (@simongdunham) July 29, 2015
The story has now broken into the mainstream media: The Independent ran “Despite What Lena Dunham Thinks, Sex Workers Say ‘Keep The Law Off Our Bodies’”, Sarah Leamon in Vancouver’s Georgia Straight followed up with “Amnesty International Shouldn’t Listen To Anne Hathaway and Kate Winslet On Sex Work Policy”, and The Australian just put out “Sex Workers Reject Hollywood Position on No Vote For Decriminalising Prostitution”. The last piece only went up a few hours ago as of the time of writing, and this backlash only seems to be picking up steam as we head towards Amnesty’s vote on decriminalization at their International General Council Meeting from August 7-11.
And the CATW petition that started it at all? In response to that petition, the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP) started a counter-petition, attempting to match the CATW’s letter with a strong response from sex workers internationally. Despite all the star power behind the CATW effort, the few days’ head start they had, and mainstream media links to their petition, I woke up this morning to discover that the counter-petition had surpassed the prohibitionist effort in signatures. Clearly, this is not going as originally planned for the Nordic model crowd.
Personally, I didn’t see this backlash coming. As sex worker activists, we’re always up against people with more power and privilege than us. Of the two signatories to the CATW petition from my state (Western Australia), one is an arch-conservative member of Parliament, and one is an organization headed by a research officer in the Premier’s Department. Sex workers have to fight back against these people with only our own time and resources, without government backing or rich private funding sources. But the CATW decision to pursue celebrity endorsements seems to have unintentionally shone a light on that power disparity. The idea of Hollywood darlings pronouncing on legislation affecting the safety of marginalized workers they’ve never met is no less offensive to me than people in positions of political and institutional privilege doing the same, but it turns out that it does make the prohibitionist side look a lot more ridiculous.