By Saemmool Lee
On Monday evening, Thanta Laovilwanyakul, a sex worker from Thailand, sat in front of a stage at Omni Commons Ballroom in Oakland. “We are criminals under the law, just for trying to do [our] best for better life, for looking after family, for raising our children,” she said speaking as Liz Hilton, who works at the Empower Foundation, translated from Thai. “For us, we are building ourselves out of poverty, try reach to access to education and access to justice.”
Laovilwanyakul was speaking at the “Public Meeting with Empower,” an event arranged to welcome the foundation and discuss their work. The foundation is a sex workers’ collective in Thailand that for 30 years has been promoting rights and opportunities for sex workers, especially access to education, health and legal advocacy. The meeting was hosted by the US PROStitutes collective, based in San Francisco, a multiracial network of women who work or have worked in different areas of the sex industry.
Laovilwanyakul has been a leader at the foundation since 1996. She is a single mother and her two daughters just completed their university studies. She said she wouldn’t have been able to support their education if she didn’t work in the sex industry for the past 20 years. “This is the proof that sex work also has value,” she said. As she spoke, she wore a T-shirt that stated “Nobody’s Wrong.” Hilton wore one that said “Good girls go to heaven, bad girls go everywhere.”
Laovilwanyakul spoke along with three other members who belong to the foundation. They arrived in the United States last week, and this is the first time that members of the foundation have toured this country. Before coming to Oakland, they presented at the 62nd United Nation Commission on the Status of Women in New York. They also spoke at community and university events in Philadelphia and at a conference in Providence, Rhode Island.
“Thailand criminalizes prostitution. We know here in America also criminalizes that,” said Chatchalawan Muangjan, who runs Empower’s “Legal Club,” a training and self-help legal resource project at the foundation. She said that there is a little bit of difference between the two countries, though—a lot of sex workers in the United States work in public spaces such as streets, whereas most of the sex workers in Thailand work in entertainment spaces such as bars.
Muangjan said that in Thailand, many police officers use violence toward the workers when they investigate. “The biggest problem is the stigma and the police,” added Laovilwanyakul. “We need to get the police out of our work and out of our lives.” She said that the way to do that is through “the decriminalization of sex work.”
Niki Adams, a spokeswoman at the English Collective of Prostitutes, spoke at the meeting along with the people from Thailand about “why decriminalization a really imperative issue.” Her organization helps sex workers defend themselves against unjust legal charges and spearheads campaigns for decriminalization, safety and for resources so that sex workers can leave the industry if and when they want. “I think it’s hidden, that hundreds of thousands of women around the world, are being arrested, raided, prosecuted, convicted, imprisoned under the prostitution laws,” Adams said.
Arsio Laechoe, from the Empower Foundation, spoke about some of the group’s projects. One of them was running a “Can Do bar,” which is a bar in Chiang Mai owned and managed by group of sex workers from the foundation. “We also have small room where we do many performances,” she said, referring to a facility other than the bar. “One of them is an interactive reality feature, so that people can understand the interaction between worker and customer.” Through this simulation, they are trying to encourage audiences to get a better understanding of the situations that sex workers face.
Like Laovilwanyakul, Laechoe is a single mother and a sex worker, and the main provider for her family. Adams emphasized that many sex workers are in financially difficult situations, living in a society where they cannot cover their basic survival needs. “Under those circumstances, prostitution is really an active resistance,” Adams said. “It’s saying, ‘I’m going to step outside the society’s rules, we are going to be sexual outlaws, in order not to face the exploitation and abuse that they get from other jobs and from living in poverty.”
Adams said that prostitution can be one of “the things that we have to do for survival. We are not ashamed though.” She continued: “It’s a strength for us to be able to fight against the stigma that we face as sex workers.”
The panelists also spoke out against forced sex work and trafficking. The US PROStitutes collective campaigns for the decriminalization of prostitution, but also for protections and resources so that no woman, man or child is forced into prostitution through poverty or violence. “As we organizing for decriminalization, we have made some gains and the movement is stronger throughout the US,” said Rachel West, a spokeswoman for the collective.
West showed small cards that the organization prepared for the meeting. On one side, they read: “decriminalize sex work for safety’s sake.” On the flip side of the card was an explanation of their expected results of decriminalization, such as increasing safety, because sex workers could work together and report violence without fear of arrest, or enhancing health, because sex workers could access services without discrimination. At the bottom of the card, there was a place where people could put their name and email address if they support the decriminalization of sex work. “That’s part of building a movement,” West said.