Rewire: Why sex workers must be part of the global human rights agenda

by Ruth Messinger, American Jewish World Service September 23, 2012 – 8:15pm

A few years ago, I traveled to Thailand where I met a sex worker for the very first time. A 37-year-old mother of three, she very succinctly told me about her life: “These were my options: I could be apart from my children for 10 hours each day while working in a sweatshop sewing buttons on shirts, or I could spend the day with my kids and, at night, talk to an interesting Western man, lie down with him for 20 minutes in a familiar, safe place and make a lot of money. Which would you choose?”

Like many Americans in my generation, I was taught that prostitution is immoral, “dirty” and coercive. Selling sex for money has always been loaded with stigma—and it still is today.

Now I am the president of American Jewish World Service (AJWS), an international organization that supports the human rights of marginalized people in the developing world, including sex workers. In recent years, I’ve heard countless stories from sex workers themselves. Their stories are human stories, and their struggles are human struggles. Many sex workers that AJWS supports are mothers doing what they need to do to support their families, just like the woman I met in Thailand.

In some ways, these women are much like me: they work hard and they care about their kids. But our lives are radically different in one fundamental way. These women are denied the basic human rights I’ve always had: protection from violence, access to healthcare, and the opportunity to earn a living however I choose.

Nearly everywhere in the world, sex workers are detained, arrested, fined and driven out of their homes or places of work. In both developed and developing countries, discriminatory policies enable police to rape and beat sex workers and confiscate their belongings, including condoms, which increases their risk to HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.

Religious groups, police officers and non-governmental organizations routinely carry out violent raids on adult brothels. This violence is often justified as a “rescue operation” and legitimated by anti-prostitution laws. In Cambodia, for example, many adult sex workers are “rescued” against their will. They are retrained for jobs in low-wage garment factories or repatriated into their villages without access to the income they need to survive or to support their families.

Little is written about the aftermath of these “rescue operations.” Whether trafficked or not, women are often detained for months and, sometimes, for more than a year. Often, they return to sex work because it best meets their financial needs.

A sex worker rights activist in Thailand explained, “For people who do not understand the modern context of sex work, it may seem that sitting around in a shelter sewing clothes and getting free food and board is much better than working every night in a brothel. But in the brothel, we had our freedom; we were earning good money for our families; we were not a burden on Thailand; we even had fun. Our time, families, freedom and independence are just as precious as anyone else’s.”

To be clear, not all people involved in sex work are involved by choice. One of the core challenges in fighting for sex workers’ rights is making the distinction between sex work, a chosen profession, and sex trafficking, the forced migration of human beings—often minors—for sexual exploitation and coercive labor. Trafficking is a pervasive global problem, and many governments around the world have rightly passed anti-trafficking legislation. But I have learned from sex workers’ rights activists that the confusion between sex work and trafficking remains a barrier to identifying people who have been forced to sell sex and labor against their will. It also hinders efforts to respond to sex workers’ pressing concerns about their working conditions, physical safety and access to health care. Putting an end to trafficking must not infringe upon the rights of those for whom sex work is a choice.

I am proud that AJWS supports activists and organizations in the developing world working tirelessly to safeguard the freedoms that sex workers are far too often denied:

  • Freedom of movement to migrate
  • Freedom to access quality health services
  • Freedom to work and choose one’s occupation
  • Freedom to associate and unionize
  • Freedom to be protected by the law
  • Freedom from abuse and violence
  • Freedom from stigma and discrimination

For example, AJWS supports an organization in Thailand called EMPOWER. Since 1985, EMPOWER has fought for safe and fair working conditions for all Thai sex workers as well as migrant sex workers from Burma, China and Laos. An organization in India called SANGRAM has, since 1992, conducted peer education with sex workers to stop the spread of HIV and advocate for a health care system that recognizes their humanity.

At the end of the day, the distinction between trafficking and sex work is crystal clear. But an important question remains: which policies will most effectively safeguard trafficking victims without exposing sex workers to harm? An activist whom AJWS supports put it succinctly: “Nothing about us, without us.” If we intend to develop policies that are fair and just, we must collaborate with sex workers themselves to afford them the dignity that they and all of us deserve. It’s time for sex workers’ rights to be an integrated part of the global human rights agenda.