The Rights of Sex Workers

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March 3 was the 18th celebration of International Sex Worker Rights Day. This day has a fascinating history and is all the more relevant when one considers that there are a number of Democratic Party candidates running to become president who support the decriminalization of prostitution (though some have compared Kamala Harris’s stance to that of Norway’s — and to call Norway’s model, or the “Swedish model,” actual decriminalization is not really accurate — but Kamala’s comments, which can be found here at about 14:50, are not quite like Norway’s odd system), Not to mention some states are seeing a shift, such as in New York where some Democrats support decriminalization, and in Nevada where prostitution is already partially legal and regulated inside of brothels, though even in Nevada prostitution is not universally legal (there are counties in the state where it remains criminalized, including Clark County where Las Vegas is located).

On March 3, 2001 there was a sex workers rights festival in India. This festival was organized by the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, a group in India who support and protect sex workers (the committee’s name means “Unstoppable Women’s Synthesis” in Bangla, the language of the Bengali people). India is one of the countries where prostitution is actually legal — albeit in a limited capacity, and they have a system of legality similar to Norway’s wherein people who attempt to procure prostitutes are liable to be legally punished — alongside other countries like Honduras, Indonesia, Israel, parts of Mexico, and various other nations.

So how can allies of sex workers support them intelligently? How can those of us, who want to see reforms eventually make life safer for sex workers of various types, help sex workers right now? Because after all, the sex industry is more than just individuals selling sexual services; it’s a full industry with people of all genders, all nationalities, all political beliefs, all religious beliefs, and more.

First, we can learn to listen to sex workers. This sounds easy but it’s evidently very different for at least one very influential group: lawmakers. A key example of lawmakers refusing to listen to sex workers is the notorious FOSTA-SESTA law, which passed with bipartisan support despite efforts by sex workers and their allies to get it stopped and has since its passage endangered the ability of sex workers to vet potential clients. The law also targeted websites which had the potential to make their lives safer. “This was unlike anything we’d ever seen,” said Meg Vallee, herself a sex-trafficking survivor and founder of OC Umbrella Collective, an organization that actually supports sex workers. “The immediate impact was swift and, honestly, terrifying. We watched people literally walk back to their pimps knowing they had lost any bit of autonomy they had.”

This sort of tragedy can only be avoided by listening to sex workers and learning to respect their insights, experiences and thoughts on legislation that affect them and their ability to safely make a living. If you want to learn how you can begin to support sex workers, then connect with pro-sex-work and pro-sex-worker organizations. These organizations include local groups like DECRIMNOW and larger international organizations like the U.K.’s SWARM (Sex Worker Advocacy and Resistance Movement).

As sex work becomes less and less taboo to talk about (though it’s still very risqué and isn’t something everyone, even people in the industry, feels comfortable talking about) more and more articles like this one can be found online, giving sex workers themselves a platform from which they can speak out.

Another way that we can support sex workers is to amplify their voices. It’s one thing to support sex workers in theory, such as by supporting decriminalization of sex work, but it’s another altogether to actively seek out and listen to sex workers. This is an important part of the learning process since the dominant narratives surrounding sex work have been created and marketed primarily by opponents of decriminalization. This leads to dangerous ideas and harmful narratives about sex work, such as the myth that sex workers are people in need of rescue, which lends legitimacy to bad ideas like FOSTA-SESTA and the Norway model of “decriminalization,” which itself is a way to try and gain the support of ignorant people who don’t listen to sex workers while ensuring that sex workers themselves have little to no income even in countries and regions with some semblance of decriminalization.

By listening to sex workers instead of just claiming we support decriminalization or legalization, we can learn the thoughts of the people in the industry and recognize the vital differences of opinion that reflect the careful thought and the wealth of the experiences the people in this industry have. An example of this can be found in this article by Maggie McNeil, which discusses who exactly law enforcement officers mean when they say they want to punish “pimps,” a line many supporters of sex workers fall for because they don’t realize quite what it means in practice. In the United States, many who propose going after so-called “pimps” actually mean isolating sex workers and using the law to dismantle the relationships that sex workers have which enable them to be independent, and the article also points out real problems with the Swedish model of handling sex-work.

Listening to sex workers is essential for legitimate and thoughtful advocacy. It’s not enough to understand that myths spread by people who view the continued criminalization of sex work as a noble path to “saving” sex workers are nothing more than myths; it’s necessary to actually respect existing sex workers and boost their voices whenever possible. It’s also necessary to do our parts to combat harmful myths and stigma against sex workers.

Allies of sex workers need to actively push for more opportunities for sex workers to discuss their own thoughts and experiences, but also understand that there are places wherein it’s dangerous for sex workers to do this themselves, and play a role in creating conditions wherein it’s safe for sex workers to actually use their voices. Right now the main people who are able to speak in spaces of influence are former sex workers and victims of sex trafficking. This often excludes people in the industry who enjoy their work and some people in the industry are afraid to take opportunities to speak up and out even if they are given opportunities because the backlash doesn’t just have to come from people in the moment. It can follow them and lead to harassment, stalking, or worse. It’s up to allies to create safe conditions for sex workers to speak wherever they can, and with that comes again this recurring theme of listening to sex workers instead of making assumptions about what they want.

Another key way to support sex workers is to ensure that their labor gets paid for. Not everyone in sex work needs sex work to survive, but even people who don’t rely on that income to survive should have their labor valued. Paying people for their labor is the most direct and reasonable way to ensure that labor is respected. Fund sex workers when their labor benefits you. If you’re an ally of sex workers, you shouldn’t limit the labor you do in this cause to just fighting for opportunities for them to speak, but also fight so that when they speak they get compensated for their work. Everyone’s labor, including their advocacy, deserves just compensation, and sex work is not exempt from this rule. If you make use of the labor of sex workers, do more than just credit them. Fight when and where you can, so that they receive real compensation.  

In the wake of this year’s celebration of International Sex Workers Rights Day, let’s endeavor to listen to sex workers. Let’s stop making assumptions about them and instead center their voices whenever we can and work as allies or partners to create opportunities for them to speak, and conditions which grant them the peace of mind to share their thoughts with us.


Featured image: Graffiti in New Zealand (NCSphotography/Flickr)

Luciano Joshua Gonzalez-Vega is a Puerto Rican secular humanist writing about politics, history, and human rights. He works as a social justice intern at the American Humanist Association.

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