The Human Rights NGO Amnesty International cast a historic vote to decriminalize sex work on Tuesday. I spoke to Melissa Gira Grant, author of the book Playing the Whore, about what this really means and the connection between Black Lives Matter and sex work.
Tuesday, Amnesty International delegates gathered in Dublin, Ireland voted to endorse a policy of decriminalizing sex work. But weeks earlier a leak of the policy sparked a backlash, including a petition critical of Amnesty, which was signed by female celebrities, as Vero wrote about previously.
Melissa Gira Grant is a journalist and writer who covers politics, tech and sex work for outlets like The Nation, The New York Times, Wired, The Atlantic, Glamour, The Guardian, In These Times, The Washington Post, Dissent, Slate, and Salon. She is also the author of Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work. I interviewed her for my WBAI radio show on Wednesday. Here is part of our conversation.
Why is the vote so significant? What does it mean?
What they’re doing by deciding as an organization that they are going to bring this issue of sex workers’ rights under this larger umbrella of Human Rights work that they take on [is] not only sending sort of a signal to their members to take this issue on but I think they’re also sending this message to other Human Rights organizations and activists. [A message that] sex workers’ rights– including the decriminalization of sex work to protect sex workers from the harms they might experience because what they do is considered a crime or they themselves are considered outlaws or criminals– are a mainstream human rights issue right now. And I think that is the most significant part of what they’ve done.
What was the leaked document?
If you actually looked at what was leaked, and most news outlets didn’t, what you would find in that document was a brief on research that Amnesty did in four different countries where selling sex might not be illegal but a lot of the activities around it are criminal. They found that that creates dangerous situations for sex workers and environments where sex workers’ rights, when they are violated, they have very little recourse in the legal system.
There is one quote-unquote Feminist framing that sex workers are victims as opposed to criminals. Then there is this other Feminist framing which is that sex work is inherently empowering. There is this false dichotomy where sex work is the most degrading thing in the world or the most empowering thing in the world. And what’s so interesting and frustrating and puzzling to me is does it matter? The point is, it seems to me, for anyone who cares about the quality of life, protecting the safety and health, recognizing the humanity of sex workers, [that] it doesn’t matter if you see it as a Feminist thing as a sexist thing. It’s not going anywhere. Do people actually think that they’re going be able to prohibit it out of existence?
I don’t think so. I would say that the issue of empowerment comes in at: are you empowered to take advantage of your rights? Are you empowered to get justice when you experience violence? Are you empowered to negotiate the conditions of your own work? And criminalization makes all these things really, really hard. So what you have happening for some folks on the opposition, what they’re primarily opposed to is sex work itself existing ever… And so I think that’s why we end up in this kind of circular thing of are you empowered and did you choose it or whatever. And you know, to be honest, when police arrest you they don’t ask you are you empowered or are you a victim. They’re just going to take you away.
It seems like people want to know what your position is on sex work as opposed to [evidence of the impact of criminalization on] sex workers.
Exactly and it becomes this performance, it becomes this… conversation about our feelings on sex work rather than having a real grounded conversation about what’s going on in people’s lives. What do they need. Let’s have pro and con conversations about policy. Let’s do that. But let’s not do that in this abstract way that has nothing to do with the lives of sex workers.
The thing that’s so frustrating about the empowerment conversation is it’s a double standard. We don’t apply this to anybody else in any other job. We don’t say to the fight for 15 folks, “do you really love McDonalds? I dunno! I’m not so sure.” Why is this somehow the exception where labor organizing is somehow impossible? Where people think it condones an industry? Would we say [that about] workers in other industries that are dangerous or that we don’t accept? Are we trying to protect people from the very dire situations that all workers face when their rights are not respected? Or are we trying to express some kind of opinion?
A lot of the Feminist project has been about defining a particular kind of valuable woman. She has a career, she loves her job, she has this perfect equitable relationship with her partner, she’s professional, she’s educated. And I think anybody who sort of falls outside that frame is seen as somebody to help, not a partner.
What is the evidence about how decriminalization improves the lives of sex workers?
HIV isn’t just about individual behaviors, its about the environment that you live in…. When sex work is criminalized or when police target sex workers, whether or not what they’re doing is considered criminal, one of the ways they look for a pretext to harass them is to turn out their purse and see if they have condoms. So this is a really classic case of creating an environment where because of how police workers are interacting with sex workers, because of how sex workers are profiled in public spaces, we are actually damaging their ability to care for themselves and their health. And we were doing this in New York until very recently. How much money does our Department of Health spend making condoms available to all New Yorkers? And yet we’re also paying the police to take them out of their hands.
How much harder is it to have recourse to protection when it is criminalized?
A few years ago I wrote about a man who had targeted several transgender women in Philadelphia, some of them sex workers, some of them trans women that he thought were sex workers. And he killed a trans woman — after other women had already known that he was targeting the community. After they had already gone to the police and asked for help and been denied help by the police.
When we’re talking about violence that sex workers face, we’re not just talking about violence that they face from customers but we’re talking about state violence and police violence. And whether you’re talking about sex workers in Jamaica Queens or whether you’re talking about sex workers in Bangalore, India, the rates of violence that they’re facing from police targeting them are much higher than the rates they’re facing from customers.
So that is something that isn’t even just about criminalization. That is about this very complex set of issues that have to do with how police officers use prostitution laws to profile Black women and trans women, which I think is moving only further to the top of the agenda especially when we look at how Black Lives Matter this summer has taken a turn towards talking about Black women and how Black women are criminalized. That’s where I hope this conversation goes in the United States. To bring it under this larger and very upsetting umbrella of police harassment and police profiling and police violence.
I actually have a lot more hope about addressing these issues under police violence and under Black Lives Matter movements than under feminist movements that historically have been really slow to jump on board.