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Putting sex workers’ rights at the centre

Regardless of your view on sex work, denying that it is a job only harms those engaging in it.

Sally T. Buck/Flickr. CC (by-nc-nd)

In 2018 the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW) published the research ‘Sex workers organising for change.’ The research documents how sex worker rights organisations in seven countries address the various abuses in the sex industry and how they deal with the daily discrimination they face. The author led the research for GAATW in Spain.

The debate around sex work has been on my mind for a long time, together with my own social and cultural prejudices and beliefs as a white western feminist. As part of my job at GAATW I have also read a lot of literature on the topic. Sadly, the vast majority of these writings have only tended to confirm one of the two prevailing – and diametrically opposed – views on the issue. “In the highly polarised debates on whether sex work is inherently harmful to the people who sell sexual services, activists often fall into the trap of presenting two opposing, oversimplified stereotypes: the prostituted woman (an exploited victim without any agency) or the sex worker (an empowered, independent woman who made a free choice)”. Thus states our introduction to the new GAATW report, ‘Sex workers organising for change’.

I used to believe that a world where sex is not for sale is a better world. This belief has been highly influenced by my resistance to the capitalist logic to commodify every aspect of our lives, and was based on the idea that sex should go hand in hand with love, or affection, or some other kind of feeling that doesn’t involve money. Is this a romantic notion of sex? How much is it influenced by my religious and social background?

Conducting this research allowed me to put aside my own beliefs and assumptions, while carefully listening to the realities and motivations of sex workers. Doing so exerted an extraordinary influence on my view of sex work, and I’ve come away from it with a perception now much more grounded in the experiences of those actually working in the trade.  

While I still can’t answer those questions about sex, love, and money, listening to sex workers’ experiences made something very clear for me: if we are serious about protecting women’s human rights, criminalisation and stigma are not the answer. Rights are.

Sex workers rights are human rights

Protecting sex workers’ rights means protecting human rights. As Clarisa Velocci from Genera – a Spanish organisation advocating for women’s rights – said, “if women’s human rights are to be defended (...) then those of all women have to be defended, not just some and not the other”.

Sex workers, like all other workers, have the capacity and the right to choose their means of earning a livelihood from among their available options. This choice needs to be recognised and respected, and so has to be their work. So must their demands, which – again, like for any other worker – don’t amount to much more than safe places to work, labour rights, and social benefits.

Exchanging sexual services for money allows sex workers to pay their rent, buy their food and clothes, and send their kids to school. It makes it possible for them to support their elderly and extended family, pay for medical assistance, travel, go to the cinema, invite friends for dinner, and so on. In many families, sex workers are the main bread winners.

Sex work gives economic independence to many women. To ignore this fact is to be blind to the strongest motivation behind sex work.

The right of workers to freedom of association and to collective bargaining is one of the four fundamental principles of the International Labour Organisation. Organised workers are more likely to stand for their rights, improve their working conditions, and create self-managed protection systems. Organised workers are empowered workers, individuals who are less vulnerable to rights violations, to abuse and exploitation, including human trafficking. This is just as true for sex workers as it is for labourers in any other sector. Organising among sex workers should similarly be recognised for its transformative power. It should be lauded and replicated, as well as supported by human rights activists. 

Putting human rights at the centre

Sacrificing the rights of people engaging in sex work, even for the dream of a world without sex work, goes against the very principle of human rights. Once you move beyond theory and concepts, when you start scratching the surface and meet the people, you clearly see the negative impact that criminalisation and stigma have on them. This is about what sex workers’ realities are, not what we wish them to be: sex workers face daily human rights violations in both their worker places and their societies. Attacks on their dignity happen while queuing up at the police station to renew their ID, or while waiting in front of the doctor’s office. Even while they are picking their kids from school.

Listening to sex workers and challenging the knowledge we think we have is essential if we are to address the conditions in which sex workers are working, including those associated with trafficking. We need to break down the stereotypes about sex work, and recognise how organised sex workers are already advocating for security in the workplace, social protection, and participation in the decisions that affect their lives.

This is about what sex workers’ realities are, not what we wish them to be.

We need to start by recognising sex work as work. It is continually surprising how difficult it is for many people to acknowledge that sex workers make a living from providing sexual services. This is what they do. They may or may not like the work they do. You may or may not like the work they do. But liking or disliking a job has nothing at all to do with whether a form of income generation qualifies as a job. If it did, enormous sectors of the economy would cease to be ‘work’. Indeed, a 2017 Gallup poll showed that many people hate their job, but that revelation did not change anybody’s view that what they doing was actually work.

Some argue that sex work is not work because of the influence patriarchy and neoliberalism have over it. But can those same people name a single aspect of life that is not affected by patriarchy and neoliberalism? Should other areas of life, such as marriage or romantic relationships, be eradicated because they are tainted as well? Can they be?

Rather than seeking to criminalise sex work, or reductively debating whether or not it ‘is’ work, those who would like to see less of it in the world should focus on eliminating the conditions that make it the best available livelihood option for so many women.

Just before the end of a focus group discussion with sex workers in Spain, one of the participants threw a question at me: ‘would you ever consider becoming a sex worker?’ I couldn’t come up with a yes or no answer. Becoming a sex worker has never been among my best working options, so I haven’t had yet to consider the pros and cons of it and make a decision. The woman who put me on the spot couldn’t say the same.

The debate has to be re-started, but this time it needs to be based in listening to what sex workers have to say and putting their human rights at the centre.


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