An open letter to Meryl Streep, Angela Bassett, Kate Winslet, Anne Hathaway, and Lena Dunham.
Dear Ladies of the Silver Screen,
Though you might never call me “sister,” our jobs aren't so different, really. We all play make-believe, wear costumes, and improvise. We strive to stay present and authentic with our scene partners, and we perfect the art of convincing people that we're falling in love.
Actresses and whores have historically kept close company. If we lived in Shakespeare's time — when it was illegal for women to perform onstage but perfectly legal to be a prostitute — we might have worked at the same brothel next to the Globe and put on plays after hours in secret.
But let's cut to the chase.
As you may know, Amnesty International has recently come out with a groundbreaking draft of a new proposal on the rights of sex workers. Calling for a harm reduction approach, it includes full decriminalization of the sex industry. The language is firm:
“The available evidence indicates that the criminalization of sex work is more likely than not to reinforce discrimination against those who sell sex, placing them at greater risk of harassment and violence, including ill-treatment at the hands of police. This, in turn, interferes with and undermines sex workers' right to health and public health interventions, in particular HIV prevention, and serves as a contributing factor in the denial of access to justice, police protection, and legal due process, as well as the exclusion of sex workers from social protections such as health services, housing, education, and immigration status.”
Your names, along with dozens of others, appeared at the bottom of a July 22 letter asking two Amnesty executives and its Board of Directors to reject this draft.
Look, I know you are all very concerned about the safety of sex workers, particularly those who may be forced, coerced, or trafficked.
I am, too. So is Amnesty, which is why it's following the model set by the World Health Organization and Human Rights Watch, which also recommend a harm reduction and decriminalization approach.
From what I gather, you are hoping they'll amend this draft so that sex work is only partially criminalized — perhaps only going after traffickers and clients.
But criminalizing one side of the equation makes the exchange illicit and drives the industry further underground, discouraging people from going to the police when they encounter a shady situation. Clients, who could potentially be allies in our fight against exploitation, are treated like enemies.
I know that you're also probably concerned about the clients — who are sometimes not our allies, but our predators. Like, for example, one West Virginia man named Neal Falls, who recently booked a session with a girl named Heather via Backpage.com only to attack her with the intent to kill. (Luckily, Heather was able to grab Falls' gun.) Police later found a “kill kit” (which included knives, axes, and shovels) in his trunk, along with a piece of paper with six other prostitutes' names written on it.
Lt. Stephen Cooper, chief of detectives in Charleston, W. Va., told NBC, “I believe Heather did stop a serial killer….They prey on women like Heather and women who may be working in the sex industry…They go after them, because they think they can get away with it.”
Sex workers, regardless of whether they do their jobs by choice, circumstance, or even force, deserve to be treated as citizens, laborers, and sometimes even heroes. But as long as our work is criminalized, we will continue to be seen as disposable and have impeded access to justice.
It's not just an issue between workers and clients, either. Exploitation within the sex industry is also a problem, one that I, along with dozens of my colleagues who are also sex workers, are committed to addressing. But it's difficult to do so while in fear of arrest and police harassment.
We are on the front lines, carrying the banner of the World's Oldest Profession, and we deserve equal protection under the law and the right to do business safely, legally, and without fear.
Ladies, it's possible that you don't like to think of what I do and what you do as the same thing, but the only real difference in our jobs is that you wear more clothing and get paid more. Ladies of the night and ladies of the stage and screen should be in each other's corners. Whether we are escorts, porn stars, fashion models, comediennes, or actresses, we are all women using our bodies and our charms to carve out a place for ourselves in this patriarchal world that wants so desperately to see us fail.
So I implore you to open your ears and eyes, ask the hard questions, and rescind your support for the petition that encourages Amnesty International to reject their proposal to decriminalize sex work.
We need you on our side. Please don't turn your back on us anymore.
It's not too late.