With Amnesty International’s announcement that its membership will vote on a policy of decriminalization of prostitution this weekend and subsequent protests from celebrities, there’s been considerable verbal diarrhea spewed from the mouths of rich people on the topic of “privilege.” Sex workers like me—people who have the time and energy to advocate for human rights—have been dubbed, over and over, “a privileged minority” by vicious anti-sex work mouthpieces like Meghan Murphy. Of course, it’s a common tactic to delegitimize the very people who are most impacted by structural inequality—if real “prostituted women” are too busy being tied up in someone’s basement to speak for themselves, well, golly gee, they must need someone to speak for them. This is the Spectacle of the Trafficking Victim.
The Spectacle of the Trafficking Victim exists on a continuum of celebrity culture. Our cultural victim narrative and the spectacle it provides—from voyeuristic television shows like 8 Minutes to posters of young girls in bondage—exist only for themselves. This narrative neither reflects, engages, nor critiques reality, offering little more than momentary titillation. The complicated facts of sex work exist beyond the glittery veneer of the spectacle, a veneer that acts as a distraction from our white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy. It’s why we’re more likely to hear public praise for Nicholas Kristoff and his tragedy porn about trafficked little girls in the Times than for the sex workers who provide actual, tangible support for women who have been victimized in the sex industry.
Sex workers who paint nuanced portraits of their own lives have the power to expose our self-referent culture’s take on sex industry victims for what it is: fraudulent. As such, people in the business of philanthropy have upped the anti (uh, sorry). Digging deep into their designer bag of tricks, women like Stella Marr and Somaly Mam give glowing performances as the victim, despite not actually having been victimized. Their performances are applauded by the masses, their sick, cultural desire for the spectacle overriding the actual, lived realities of the people these performances affect most. As a culture, we have come to see selfies as realer than the self; likewise, we understand the spectacle of the victim to be more real than the complex realities of sex work as told by sex workers themselves.
Given the close relationship between anti-sex worker arguments and the phenomenon of the spectacle, it should come as no surprise that the most impressionable opposition to Amnesty International’s adoption of a pro-decriminalization of sex work stance has come from celebrities. There is no lack of praise for Meryl Streep, Lena Dunham, Angela Bassett, Anne Hathaway, and others for their deeply misguided and inherently egotistical letter in opposition to Amnesty International’s pro-decriminalization draft proposal. As Taina Bien-Aimé, executive director for the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, explained, “Amnesty International is not listening. I think Hollywood is the next step. If Amnesty [International] isn’t listening to them, then who are they listening to?” The implication being, of course, that celebrities are more relevant than actual sex workers, which seems odd considering the relative privilege of the Hollywood elite and that whole “privileged-people-can’t-speak-for-others” tack that prohibitionists take.
No matter how “progressive” celebrities believe they are, the cult of fame is central to a self-propagating society of the uncritically accepted spectacle. The egotistical insistence on the stars’ own standpoint above those of sex workers is evidenced in the celebrity endorsed statement that “sex work is a term invented by the sex industry to mainstream and normalize the inherent violence, degradation, and dehumanization that defines prostitution.” This despite the fact that the term “sex work,” coined by pioneer sex worker activist Carol Leigh in the 1970s, is an instance of sex workers upholding their agency to define their labor. Quite obviously, sex workers are not advocating for the right to be violated, degredated, or dehumanized. To the contrary, sex workers have, for decades, offered radical suggestions for eliminating human rights abuses—suggestions only recently given serious consideration by organizations like Amnesty International. We have argued against the criminalization of producing and consuming erotic labor because we know, first hand, how terribly exploitative the status quo is. We know that to support criminalization—on either side—is to be woefully out of touch with structural inequality. And I can think of no one as out of touch with structural inequality as people who peddle spectacles and fame for a living.
Conceivably, sex workers are also in the business of selling spectacles—our wares are illusions of intimacy, after all. But herein lies the contradiction—sex work is only a spectacle to and for onlookers. For sex workers, it is labor. Sometimes it is horribly complicated and nasty labor, but it is labor nonetheless—more specifically, criminalized and stigmatized labor. And when our experiences are removed from a labor framework, all that remains are the soulless, self-referent images of sex work, images that will always sympathize with dominant cultural narratives rather than with the actual, lived experiences of sex workers themselves.
Although the labor of sex work is undeniably stratified, all sex workers are bound by their experience with social stigma. The criminalization of prostitution—as we’ve said a million times—only exacerbates this stigma and the violence it causes. That is why we demand Amnesty International put aside any allegiance they have to the spectacle of the trafficking victim and, instead, allow room for the complexities of the real world.