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The Lena Dunham Twitter fight over legalizing sex work, explained

Lena Dunham speaks on stage at Variety's Power of Women awards.
Lena Dunham speaks on stage at Variety's Power of Women awards.
Brian Ach/Getty Images

Lena Dunham's Twitter feed, between messages about green tea KitKats and the relative merits of jet lag versus getting high, has been the somewhat unlikely ground zero of a week-long debate over whether women would be better off if we decriminalized prostitution.

Not long after the NGO Amnesty International announced that it was considering changing its policy to officially endorse decriminalizing all aspects of sex work, including buying sex and running a brothel or escort agency, Dunham and several other celebrities signed a petition calling on the group to reject that proposal. They also signed an accompanying open letter calling decriminalization "a policy that sides with buyers of sex, pimps and other exploiters rather than with the exploited."

Dunham, whether she knew it or not, was placing herself in the middle of a fight that has been running for years — and ended up on the wrong side of a number of human rights advocates, as well as many current and former sex workers. She was deluged with criticism on Twitter, and seemed to spend much of last week responding to the torrent of disapproval.

The question of whether all aspects of sex work should be decriminalized can be a contentious one, and one that coincides with some even more contentious debates within certain feminist circles.

This dispute goes much deeper than just Amnesty International, let alone Dunham’s Twitter feed. This is a fight that gets to how we as a society think about the morality of sex work, and about laws that limit women’s freedom over their own bodies.

There is a huge divide in the human rights and feminist communities over how to treat sex work

Dunham, intentionally or not, has landed in the center of a debate that divides advocates within both the feminist and human rights communities: whether sex work should be decriminalized. Even that is really about a much, much deeper disagreement over who in the sex work industry — which everyone agrees is rife with abuses — needs saving from whom.

There are some points of agreement. Both sides believe that sex workers are often subjected to violence, exploitation, and other forms of abuse, and want to stop that. And both, for the most part, believe that criminalizing sex workers themselves is wrong: Both sides agree that women should not go to jail for selling their bodies.

But that's where the agreement ends. The two sides have very different views of sex work itself — and that leads them to advocate for very different policies to protect sex workers.

The case for decriminalizing sex work

This side counts a number of major human rights and public health organizations among its supporters, as well as many current and former sex workers. For them, sex work itself is not the problem. Rather, they believe that violence, trafficking, and exploitation within the sex industry are largely the result of laws and norms that marginalize sex workers and leave them vulnerable to abuse.

They believe that people should have the right to engage in sex work if they choose to, and that the end goal should be a sex industry that is safe. Therefore, they support policies that decriminalize the industry as a whole, including, for example, laws that legalize or decriminalize buying sex or running a brothel or escort agency. The goal is to destigmatize the industry and bring it out of the shadows — something that they believe cannot be done if most of it is still criminalized.

This is what Amnesty International's newly-adopted guidelines call for: the decriminalization of all adult, consensual sex work, with the goal of attaining "the highest possible protection of the human rights of sex workers." Human Rights Watch has taken a similar position, as have the World Health Organization and UNAIDS. They believe that allowing the sex industry to come into the regular economy will make it easier to protect sex workers’ rights. And extreme abuses such as human trafficking or child prostitution, they argue, are better addressed specifically, rather than by criminalizing the entire industry as a whole.

The case for keeping sex work criminalized

The other side of this debate, the side that wants to keep most aspects of the sex industry criminal, tends to take one of two positions. In the more extreme version, advocates see sex work itself as inherently degrading and exploitative. To them, all prostitution is a crime against women. Accordingly, their goal is to end it entirely.

The less extreme version of this, the one that Dunham advocated on Twitter, says that prostitution can in theory be a legitimate choice, and that for some women it is, but that many other women are coerced or trafficked into it. This argument tends to focus on, for example, girls who are recruited into sex work before the age of consent or women whose history of abuse or poverty leaves them especially vulnerable to exploitation. They argue that this exploitation is so entrenched in the practice that the only way to protect vulnerable women and girls is by stopping all sex work.

Interestingly, though Dunham took this softer position, the letter she and other celebrities signed took a much harder line. Put together by a group called Society Against Trafficking in Women, the letter refers to prostitution in all forms as "a form of violence against women," and argues that "should Amnesty vote to support the decriminalization of pimping, brothel owning and sex buying, it will in effect support a system of gender apartheid." (Since the letter's publication, Amnesty has in fact voted to endorse the new policy.)

This side of the debate tends to include more religious-leaning groups, though not all its supporters are religious. It also, notably, includes New York Times columnist Nick Kristof, who once infamously live-tweeted a brothel raid in Cambodia, the same country where he had previously bought two women who had been trafficked into sex work.

Why they'll never agree

One of the key issues at the heart of this debate is whether sex workers themselves, who tend to favor decriminalization, should be treated as trusted authorities on sex work and given a central voice in the debate.

Sex workers, unsurprisingly, tend to take the position that their voices should be authoritative about their own industry and their own experiences. They and other advocates of decriminalization are, at heart, making an argument based on personal freedom. They argue that sex workers have the right to do what they want with their own bodies, even if other people don't like it.

As Melissa Gira Grant, a writer and former sex worker, wrote last week in the Nation, "[S]ex workers’ rights are not only about the right to work, but the right to live free from stigma, discrimination, and violence."

Opponents of legalization struggle to answer the charge that they are interfering with adults' rights to participate in sex work safely and freely. For that reason, perhaps, they tend to focus on the most extreme forms of exploitation within the sex industry, such as human trafficking and child prostitution. Legalizing sex work at all, they argue, makes those severe problems more likely.

At one point during this fight, for instance, Dunham cited a recent Kristof column in which he wrote that decriminalization "invariably benefited johns while exacerbating abuse of women and girls," because "a parallel underground market emerges for underage girls."

But that answer evades the question of whether adult sex workers should have the freedom to work without danger or stigma. No one in this debate questions the fact that child prostitution is a serious crime that needs to be addressed. But child prostitution, like human trafficking, is driven by far more than simply whether or not the sex industry is decriminalized. And keeping the sex industry illegal, underground, or dominated by criminals hasn't ended either practice thus far.

That is the debate in a nutshell. Both sides care about women. Both sides warn that adopting the wrong policies will have terrible consequences for vulnerable people. But they'll never agree, because in the end they're having totally different conversations.

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