We must decriminalize sex work in order to end human trafficking

In a state currently fighting to end human trafficking, supporting the full decriminalization of sex work is a deeply unpopular but very important stance. The victims of human trafficking in Georgia receive widespread sympathy and support, while at the same time often suffering from laws designed to criminalize sex work. Trying to find a different job with sex work charges on your record is exceedingly difficult. Georgia Governor and First Lady Kemp have unveiled proposals that would allow survivors of human trafficking to restrict access to their criminal records for this purpose. A much more direct approach to this that would protect far more people, both those who are trafficked and sex workers, would be to do away with criminalizing the selling of sex within the state of Georgia.

Many advocacy groups for sex workers exist and most have a consensus on what can best be done to protect those most vulnerable to criminalization. According to the Consensus Statement for the Global Network of Sex Work Projects, major demands are for sex work to be acknowledged as legitimate work, for sex workers to be protected under the law, and to be free from violence and discrimination. 

Arguments against the decriminalization of sex work often echo the concerns of those against human trafficking, but the actual wants and needs of sex workers are specifically to protect themselves from being trafficked. The decriminalization of their profession would give them the ability to report crimes committed against themselves and others without the fear of arrest. Sex workers and people who are victims of trafficking both have trouble getting protection from law enforcement because of the current laws against sex work. If sex workers do not have to fear prosecution from law enforcement, they will be able to report human traffickers present in the sex trade. As it stands, sex workers risk arrest and jail time if they report exploitation or the presence of minors. 

Let me be completely clear on something: when sex workers cannot go to the police for fear of prosecution, their lives are put in danger. The rates of violence against sex workers are staggeringly high. Voluntary sex workers and human trafficking victims alike face the same rates of violence and rates of arrest. Criminalizing the voluntary actions of people in the sex industry does not stop people from being trafficked, but it does stop them from being able to go to the police without the possibility of being arrested for their own persecution. Regardless of how they got to where they are, both voluntary sex workers and the victims of human trafficking should be able to go to the police for protection. 

It is not enough to say that you support victims of human trafficking if you are not willing to support legislative changes that can actually reduce exploitation in the sex trade. There’s a reason it is called “the oldest profession”; sex work has been around long before us and will be around long after we are gone. Like any form of labor, it can become exploitation if there is not accountability and protection for laborers. Decriminalizing sex work will not decriminalize illegal business practices and crimes. Sex work can be legal; slavery, human trafficking, rape, and child exploitation are still against the law. The difference is that those who come forward as victims of the latter will not be categorized as criminals for association with the former. It may not feel as morally pure of a stance, but it is the most effective and humane way to protect those most vulnerable to human trafficking. 


(Image Credit: Global Network of Sex Work Projects)

Call them, simply, workers

Yesterday was May 1, 2011. Around the globe, millions marched. Among the workers marching were sex workers, domestic workers, other denizens of the informal economy. Today is May 2, 2011. What are those workers today? Are they considered, simply, workers or are they `workers’, part worker, part … casual, part … informal, part …shadow, part … contingent, part … guest? All woman, all precarious, all the time.

Categorizing workers as part of a somehow other-than-formal work force and work space naturalizes their exclusion and subordination. Why should they have full rights when they’re not full workers? Minimum wage? For `real’ workers, yes. For live-in domestic workers? Not yet.

Why should informal workers have full `protections’ when they’re not full partners in the social industrial contract? They didn’t sign on. They’re informal. How could they have? They were coerced, trafficked, seduced, forced into their current jobs. They must have been. Otherwise, how could they have accepted such abysmal working conditions? The logic is impeccable … and wrong.

Over the weekend, sex workers in South Africa and India brought the lie of the informal economy logic to light. In South Africa, three Cape Town sex workers are suing the State for harassment. They say they were repeatedly taken into custody and held for forty-eight hours, after which they were released without being charged. The three women argue that when they were arrested, they were not `on duty.’ They were not arrested as sex workers but rather as women who at some point or another have engaged in sex work.

This some-point-or-another is the main insight of The First Pan-India Survey of Sex Workers, a major study of sex workers in India, released on Saturday, April 30. Over the past two years, Rohini Shani & V Kalyan Shankar surveyed three thousand women sex workers from fourteen states.

They found that poverty and limited education matter, but not in the way many expect. Poverty and limited education push girls into labor markets early on, often at the age of six or so, but not into sex work. The largest principal employment sector for the very young was domestic labor. The majority of women waited until they were somewhere between 15 and 22 before entering into sex work. That means women had been wage earning workers, for nine to sixteen years before they entered into sex work.

Over seventy percent of the women said they entered sex work of their own volition. For the vast majority, income was the reason. Sex work pays better than domestic labor, agricultural work, daily wage earning or so-called petty services.

In other words, from the perspectives of the sex workers, sex work is one of a number of `livelihood’ options, as Shani and Shankar conclude: “Sex work cannot be considered as singular or isolated in its links with poverty, for there are other occupations as well which fit into the category of `possible livelihood options’ before sex work emerges as one of them. Sex work is not the only site of poor working conditions. For those coming from the labour markets, they have experienced equally harsh conditions of highly labour intensive work for very low incomes. It is from these background cases, that the significance of sex work as a site of higher incomes or livelihoods emerges.”

From South Africa to India and beyond, the sex worker story centers on the fluidity of identity. In South Africa, three women argue that sex work is a job. It’s not an identity, it’s not permanent. Like any other job, when the worker leaves work, she gets to become herself … again. As herself, she has rights, including the rights to dignity, security, and the preservation of freedom.

In India, the researchers learned that context counts. They had to accept women’s multiple work identities if they wanted to depict and understand women’s choices and situations. As women sex workers described their working lives, they moved fluidly among various occupations, often in the same time period. For Indian women struggling in an unforgiving economy, no occupation is an island entire unto itself.

South African sex workers suing the State, Indian sex workers discussing their lives have something to say to workers, trade unions, researchers, and allies everywhere. Sex workers are not like workers nor are they labor lite. They are workers. While it may be true that none of us is free until all of us are free, they tell us that none of us can talk about women workers’ freedom until all of us recognize the fluidity of women workers’ identities. But for now, as a start, call them, simply, workers.


The Security of Sex: The (South) Africa Problem

On April 22nd, South Africa will hold its latest round of elections and for the first time in the last 15 years, the African National Congress (ANC) has serious competition.  The upstart Congress of the People, headed by former ANC leader Thabo Mbeki, was created in December to address concerns over corruption in and the direction of the ANC.

Though the ANC is expected to win by large margins, it is clear that South Africa is changing and the extreme violence and poverty are taking their toll on the stance of the historic party.  But what is the actual difference between the parties?  And what would all of this mean for women, sex workers in particular?  With the looming 2010 FIFA World Cup, South Africa continues to be plagued by infrastructural issues as well as climbing rates of violent crime, particularly crime related to violence against women and children.

Over the past year, specifically, there has been a large pattern of “corrective rapes” committed against lesbians; the majority of these acts are committed by gangs of men rather than a single person.  The most notorious of these rapes was committed against one of the most famous female soccer players in South Africa, Eudy Simelane, last April.  She was gang raped and left in a ditch after being stabbed 25 times in the face, chest and legs.  While some focus on homophobia as an explanation for these acts, the brutality and pervasiveness of these acts implies larger underlying issues related to violence and gender. Women of all backgrounds and orientations are being affected by rising violence, which is more and more being attributed to an “increasingly macho culture, which seeks to oppress women and sees them as merely sexual beings.” Lesbians are being targeted in particular because their orientation is seen as antithetical to these gender roles in which women are expected to be more and more diminutive to men.  Attacks such as these are then not specific to sexual orientation but signify a larger social policing of women.

Likewise, trafficking has become a growing specter within South Africa.  Unlike in the U.S., the state is primarily confronted with trafficking occurring between different regions of the country itself. It involves primarily women and children from rural provinces like KwaZulu-Natal and the Transkei into urban areas primarily around Cape Town and Johannesburg.  Trafficking of different populations has risen in recent years for a variety of reasons.  In this instance, I am referring to the trafficking in persons for body parts as well as for the purpose of slavery.  Demand for human potions made from human body parts and progressively younger girls for sexual purposes has risen recently as they have become associated with ‘traditional’ cures for HIV.  Likewise, increases in refugees within South Africa and neighboring countries have made more individuals, children especially, vulnerable to slavery.  Demand for young girls for sexual slavery is expected to rise exponentially for the Cup.  However, focus on trafficking for the Cup ignores the existing gender issues embedded within South Africa itself, while also refusing to distinguish between those migrating to meet the demand and those being violently exploited.  The idea of legalizing prostitution for the duration of the Cup was floated in Parliament in an attempt to regulate sex work and protect workers.  The issue, however, was never meaningfully discussed and limiting legalization to just the Cup would ensure no meaningful change.  Without these things in mind, it is impossible to truly address the issue.

When one considers the platforms of the two major political parties in South Africa, however, it seems as if no attention is being given to violence against women at all.  The ANC mentions women only in passing within their official platform claiming only that they will “combat violence and crimes against women and children by increasing the capacity of the criminal justice system to deal with such violence.”  Does that mean building more prisons or increasing sentences and police?  While the actual meaning of the statement is unclear, the disinterest of the ruling party is quite apparent.  On the other hand, COPE gives a great deal more detail first saying that “workers have rights” and that “workers should have social protection to safeguard income,” which is promising for trafficked workers, and going on to “consider legislation that will make it difficult to withdraw charges on violent crimes and specifically crimes against women and children” and  “establish specialised units to combat identified priority crimes and crime areas in each of the provinces, including crimes committed against women and children”.

Though COPE vaguely mentions the issue more often, neither party acknowledges the growing trend of violence or prioritizes addressing it.  Jacob Zuma, head of the ANC, was even accused of rape himself and the woman was degraded in the courtroom.  Political meetings and platforms deal with women’s issues only nominally, if at all, and certainly do not address issues of violence.  Lisa Vetten, a gender rights activist within South Africa, points out that the system has even gone backwards in recent years with specialized sexual violence and family units being disbanded as well as an increasingly unfriendly court that is more focused on procedure than a victim-friendly orientation.  Likewise, sex work remains unaddressed beyond larger hyperbolic discussions of trafficking and slavery by NGOs and within the larger media.  It is then apparent that women’s safety and work remain on the margins and outside of politics.

(Photo Credit: Gays Without Borders)

The Security of Sex: Take This Job and Shove It

Last September, a recently graduated co-ed, going by the pseudonym Natalie Dylan, decided to put her virginity up for auction on the Moonlite Bunny Ranch website.  She has claimed that she is doing so for a number of reasons from social experiment to paying for graduate school.  What’s interesting here, remarkably, is not that there actually exists a 22 year-old co-ed whose virginity is intact or that she is able to command $3.7 million for the opportunity to pop it. Instead, the ambivalence expressed both in the popular and feminist media have raised larger issues as to how we discuss women’s sex work and female sexuality.  The media is fascinated, shocked and constantly debating whether or not this “poor girl” actually knows what she’s getting into, whether or not she’ll regret it. Would she regret it less if she lost it to a former beau in the back of a car or on a bed of roses or on her wedding night?  Who knows and, honestly, who cares? I am not concerned with virginity.  I don’t recall any fireworks, club invitations or a hardy handshake at the time the money-making capacity apparently went down a notch or two. I am instead concerned with this idea that sex work may be considered to be degrading and exploitative in all situations.

As with everything else in feminist circles, discussions around sex and sex work seem to orbit ad nauseum around this elusive notion of choice.  Interestingly, unlike many discussions around choice, the most virulent debates do not hinge on who has the right to do what but actually on whether or not an individual may ever have the ability to choose to do sex work.  For some, this is an absolute impossibility.   During December session of the Transnational Network of Women’s Issues, which was held on the issues of trafficking and slavery, the two guest speakers illustrated the ambivalence towards choice in sex work perfectly.  When asked to place trafficking and slavery within the global structures of power, Carolina De los Rios, a case a manager with the Polaris Project said that “Poverty is triggering this work…These women work to support their family. They feel trapped by immigration [status] and threatening …Initially they made the choice but after a while they don’t want to do it.”   On the other hand, Jessica Leslie of Free the Slaves gave an example of quarry workers who had returned to the same type of work without the threat of debt bondage.  She remarked that they had returned “not necessarily because they liked the work or wanted to do that kind of work but because it was a work they knew and knew they could do to survive… The question was not whether they chose to do a kind of work but whether or not they were in a situation of bondage… It is the circumstances around that type of work that make it slavery or not.”

The distinction made by Jessica, however, is not generally made in regards to sex work.  While it is generally acknowledged that people do not go into quarry, domestic or other types of work associated with low-income communities because they like it, these types of work and workers are still discussed as having agency.  Yet, sex work is generally discussed in terms of being forced by different factors, primarily poverty; I am assuming sex work done by women as it generally what the media assumes unless we’re talking about Senators or televangelists and transgender workers are mentioned rarely if ever. Except that sex work is not always done simply out of financial necessity.  The example of Natalie Dylan and recent stories of highlighting higher-class escorts makes that clear enough. So, what distinguishes sex work from other forms of labor?

This whole discussion seems to go back to the public myth that there is something sacred about sex or at least that there is something more respectable about hooking up with a random stranger in a club as opposed to having regulars to pay the rent. Somehow the combination of SEX and MONEY breeds disaster, especially for women who might be doing so outside of a traditional marriage.  If women were simply having sex in parked cars for free, like teenage caricatures, I wonder if there would exist as much of a police presence.  Perhaps so, as much of the discussion orbits around these women either being fallen and needing to be saved or being burdens upon the community.

I asked Carolina to clarify what she had said before, wanting to know if sex work was inherently abusive.  She said “Yes definitely…we believe that these women are exploited in the sex industry. Many of these women have been trafficked.  Some never knew what they were getting into. They may have made the choice initially but then they were pretty much trapped and when they were not able to leave.”  This may be true but are workers victims because of something innately degrading about the work or is it the working conditions as mentioned by Jessica?  The dangers associated with sex work include rape, battery, low wages, poor working conditions, manipulation by pimps, and blackmail.  These dangers are not caused by sex work but can be drawn back to either the immigration status of workers or criminalization.

Does the media obsess over victimhood in sex work because society still feels that “promiscuous women” don’t deserve services, respect or legal recognition of their labor? Or must women’s sexual fragility be rescued incessantly from the man in the shadows?  It would seem that when it comes to conceptualizations of sex work, we have not yet departed from the notion that women’s sexual purity must be protected, that women are merely vessels to be exploited by hypersexual and predatory men.  Such an approach to analyzing sex work and trafficking ignores the larger powers at work in these situations and actually reinforces archaic constructions of female sexuality that disempower women and demonize men. These constructions trap all of us.

(Image Credit: Rewire News)

The Security of Sex: Inaugural Edition

In case any of you may have missed it, January was a big month in the District of Columbia.  A new American President and government were sworn-in to much ado and it was celebrated with a larger than life level of pomp, circumstance and security.  It seemed as if every newscast, article and discussion on the inauguration was incapable of discussing anything else, but what was actually meant by “security”? The obvious security presence involved the area immediately around the National Mall, which was cordoned off, surrounded by thousands and National Guardsmen/women, patrolled from above and regulated.  However, the geography of security expanded far beyond the areas around the mall and affected much more than was necessary for general safety of the Mr. Obama and the invading throngs here to see his inauguration.  Those living and working within the district realized that security was just as, if not more so, concerned with regulation as safety.  The two have actually been conflated; something, which becomes apparent through debates regarding the closing of bridges linking Virginia to DC.

Making this more apparent is actually the exercise of section 104 of the District of Columbia’s Omnibus Public Safety Emergency Amendment Act of 2006, which allows the Chief of Police to designate “Prostitution Free Zones”. The area around 5th and L St, NW was declared a PFZ and heavily regulated by MPD during the inauguration period.  Such a name insinuates that perhaps that when such places have not been designated or any areas beyond “the zones” may be considered legal areas of prostitution. Alas, they are not and the absurdity of this designation has not been lost on commentators including Jay Leno, who seems to be in the minority of people aware of the law.  Prostitution within DC is criminalized; a person receives a $500 fine and 1-90 days imprisonment for the first offense with the punishment graduating in severity from there with each additional arrest. 

So what is a “Prostitution Free Zone”?  Anyplace “where the health or safety of residents is endangered by prostitution or prostitution-related offenses” may be declared a “zone” for up to ten days using taped signs and banners.  This means that “any group of two or more persons congregating on public space for the purpose of engaging in prostitution or prostitution-related offenses” who haven’t dispersed after being warned may be arrested on site and be fined $300, imprisoned for up to 180 days, or both (there is a list of acceptable group activities).  While normally one must be caught engaging in the act, these zones require no such proof for individuals to be arrested.

These penalties and targeting seem excessive for an act in which no one is physically harmed; they do after all include mandatory imprisonment.  Yet, DC Chief  of Police Charles Ramsey  justified the institution of the “Prostitution Free Zones” and quickly rebuffed the idea that prostitution may be a “victimless crime” saying, “nothing could be further from the truth for those residents who must endure the presence of prostitutes and their paraphernalia in our neighborhoods”.  He goes on to congratulate the city in combating “the presence of brazen street walkers in many of our communities” which is a “serious problem”.  While I’m sure that brazenness is in fact quite serious, it hardly seems an argument to justify such restrictions on movement, congregation and labor.  It also seems oddly reminiscent of justifications for “Black Codes” after the Civil War.  Such a comparison, however, seems less odd when you notice that Chief Ramsey seems to be talking solely about street workers, who are primarily woman-identified, low-income and African-American, as opposed to those who work primarily in brothels, massage parlors or out of their homes.  These are the people targeted by “the zone”.  This law and the continued focus on punishing prostitution within DC is yet another way in which the law has been utilized to regulate Othered bodies and continues to regulate black bodies.

Ironically, despite all this talk about extreme security due to the swearing in of the first African-American president in U.S. history: the inauguration of Barack Obama still only utilized half as many security personnel as the 2005 inauguration of George W. Bush.  The true irony? These numbers only refer to those personnel who were dealing immediately with those entering the city and the mall, it does not include the task forces sent to “clean-up” the city for the throngs.  While war was being waged on sex workers, as it continues to be, tourists and locals alike gathered in the millions to see hope personified and sworn-in, to physically see their government transition to one which respected basic human and civil rights, one based in the community organizing and that might actually repeal some of the sexual Puritanism of the last eight years.  Yes we can! But why aren’t we, really?

(Photo Credit: The Kojo Nnamdi Show / Daniel Lobo)