Hollywood and Amnesty International Disagree Over Sex Trade

July 28th 2015

Kyle Jaeger

Amnesty International's work has been praised by many high-profile celebrities—from Bono to Jon Stewart—over the human rights organization's 50-year history. But a recent proposal to decriminalize the sex trade has garnered criticism from several Hollywood heavyweights such as Lena Dunham, Kate Winslet, Meryl Streep, and Anne Hathaway, who argue that the measure would perpetuate the sex work industry cycle of exploitation and abuse of at-risk women around the world.

The London-based organization has taken a strong stand in support of women's rights in the past, advocating for policies aimed at reducing the risk of violence against women—against gender-based discrimination and restrictive laws governing reproductive health. It has also advanced a pro-immigrant agenda that calls for an end to human trafficking at the Southwest border of the U.S. But this latest proposal is at odds with Amnesty International's human rights record, Dunham and others have suggested.

Its "Draft Policy on Sex Work" states that sex work, unlike sex trafficking, is predicated on consent; therefore, the organization contends, it is not the place of government agencies to interfere with the commercial sex trade. Additionally, because sex workers are often subjected to "harassment and violence" at the hands of police, the criminalization of the sex trade can hurt women more than it has been shown to help.

"Amnesty International recognizes the urgent need to robustly address abuses against sex workers," the authors of the draft policy noted. "In doing so, we acknowledge that the factors underlying sex workers' marginalization are manifold and intricately entwined with global economic inequalities and multiple forms of intersectional discrimination and oppression. Amnesty International does not ignore these factors and will continue to demand that states and the international community address these overarching issues through human rights based approaches, and will seek to hold them to account where they fail to do so."

But that promise of accountability is not enough to protect women who are at risk, opponents contend. In a letter addressed to the organization's Board of Directors, 400 signatories—including people affected by the sex trade industry, celebrities, women's rights advocates, and various other organizations—outlined their collective concerns about the proposal and expressed frustration with Amnesty International for their endorsement of the draft.

"We firmly believe and agree with Amnesty that human beings bought and sold in the sex trade, who are mostly women, must not be criminalized in any jurisdiction and that their human rights must be respect and protected to the fullest extent," the letter states. "We also agree that, with the exception of a few countries, governments and law enforcement grievously violate prostituted individuals' human rights."

"However, what your 'Draft Policy on Sex Work' is incomprehensibly proposing is the wholesale decriminalization of the sex industry, which in effect legalizes pimping, brothel owning, and sex buying."

A spokesperson for the organization told the Hollywood Reporter that sex workers were "particularly vulnerable to human rights violations," and that no official decision has been made with respect to the proposal. Amnesty International is expected to present the report at a conference in Dublin, Ireland, next month.