by Juhu Thukral
The idea of sex workers fighting for their human rights is a foreign concept to most people, even those who identify politically as progressives or feminists. Sex workers have lived on the margins of society through most of human history, and despite the prevalence of this work all over the world, sex workers are often treated as less than human, both in cultural attitudes and public policy. In fact, it cannot be said enough: sex workers are people—friends, neighbors, family members, wage earners, and parents—and they deserve the same human rights as everyone else.
What Human Rights?
Feminists and advocates of all stripes have argued that they want to work for the human rights of sex workers, often without an analysis of what human rights for sex workers might look like.
While many people would agree that access to human rights includes the right to be free from harm, to have access to health care and housing, and to seek safe employment that pays a living wage, there is fierce debate as to what any of this actually means. Some feminists argue that sex work is inherently harmful and that the very act of trading sex for money is a violation of a person’s sanctity or dignity, and is, in and of itself, an act of violence. For these feminists, the story ends there, even when sex workers all over the world speak out, not to ask to be pulled out of sex work, but to demand that their rights be protected as they work.
Others, like the Sex Workers Project, believe that a human rights framework includes active participation of sex workers from different backgrounds and experiences; efforts to combat violence, whether it is at the hands of customers or of the police; advocate for public health programs that promote the autonomy of sex workers, and work to empower sex workers so that they can make the best choices for themselves and their families, assessing their life circumstances as best as they can. These elements are key to any effort to respect the human rights and health needs of sex workers; to properly assist those who want to leave sex work for other work, and to protect the rights and safety of those who continue in sex work.
Another key issue that gets less attention is the fight over the role of the criminal justice system. Some feminists view prosecution and punishment through the criminal justice system as the cornerstone for helping victims of violence. Others view rule of law as one of many important keys toward guaranteeing human rights, but argue that an excessive focus on the criminal justice system is detrimental to many marginalized groups, including sex workers, who have been victimized by the police. There are fundamental clashes between the needs of a criminal justice prosecution, and the needs of a human being who would most benefit from a rights-based approach.
Feminists Line Up Differently on Law Revision
These debates, often centered on agency and autonomy, might seem theoretical and unimportant in the realm of people’s daily lives. However, the debate often plays itself out in concrete policy terms, especially around the issue of human trafficking.
While human trafficking involves the experience of force, fraud, or coercion in the any type of labor, such as domestic work, agricultural labor or sex work, it has been salaciously painted as being synonymous with prostitution. The idea that prostitution equals trafficking has been burned into the public mind by lurid headlines that scream of victims rescued from their captors, often without follow-up news items that might explain that the reality is more complicated, and that any number of prostitutes decided to go into that work because it was a way to make enough money to live on and also support their families, who are often in other countries.
Feminists who wish to abolish prostitution entirely have found strong allies in the Christian right and in the Bush administration. The efforts to incorrectly equate prostitution and trafficking as the same have culminated in recent efforts around the federal anti-trafficking law that Congress has been considering for reauthorization in 2008 (final vote still pending in early July).
The House version of the legislation includes a dangerous and unnecessary change to the Mann Act, a federal law that prohibits interstate travel for the purpose of prostitution. This change has nothing to do with human trafficking, and thus far, the Senate has bravely withstood pressure from some feminists and have not included this expansion in their version of the bill, SB 3061.
The federal anti-trafficking law, enacted in 2000, already defines anyone under 18 who is involved in commercial sex acts, and anyone in prostitution who experiences force, fraud or coercion as a victim of human trafficking. Changing the definition of trafficking so that law enforcement does not need to look at a person’s age or experience of coercion (the heart of the trafficking crime) will put the focus squarely on prostitution, rather than on labor and prostitution situations in which people are living under a climate of fear and experiencing genuine human rights abuses.
Are We Listening?
As law enforcement look for more victims, they will inevitably arrest more sex workers, and will lessen their focus on people who are trafficked into sectors other than prostitution. This will lead to untold harms to people who have been trafficked into other labor sectors and who cannot receive the help and attention they deserve; and to those who work in prostitution for reasons as diverse and complicated as any that go into deciding how to make money and build a life. At the Sex Workers Project, we find that most of our clients go into sex work because they can make more money and work more flexible hours than in other industries. In our 2005 study, 67 percent of the sex workers we interviewed did not make a living wage in other jobs such as waitressing, administrative work, or retail. For many, sex work was not their only form of work — 46 percent supplemented their income from mainstream jobs with sex work.
The people we see every day at the Sex Workers Project are just like everyone else—they want to know that if they are a victim of a crime, that they will receive the same attention as anyone else. What they do not want is to be classified as a victim of human trafficking as they go about the complicated business of living their lives and supporting their families as best as they can.
All feminists need to agree that when we hear the voices of sex workers advocating for their human rights, we need to really listen, rather than impose our own views of what life decisions we might deem acceptable.
Juhu Thukral, Esq., is the Director of the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center in New York City. She has been an advocate for the rights of immigrant women in the areas of health, work, and sexuality for over 15 years.
Also see Of Victims and Vixens by Angela Bonavoglia
Also see Nothing About Us by Ann Jordan