I used to think that people who did sex work had found themselves in a situation where they had no choice but to do sex work, and that the job of feminists was to help sex workers find alternative sources of income.
In 2010, at the XVIII International AIDS Conference in Vienna, Austria, I attended a session on sex work. There I asked a question that today I feel embarrassed to own up to: “Why would anyone choose to do sex work?”
You can imagine how the temperature of the room – full of sex worker rights activists – plummeted. I can’t even remember what response I got from the panel, but I do recall the conversation I had later with Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi, then the executive director of the African Women’s Development Fund, which I worked for at the time.
“Discrimination and stigma against sex workers generates violence”
Most of us grow up in patriarchal societies and are fed particular narratives around what is right and wrong from birth. As a young girl at a Catholic boarding school I was taught that only bad girls had sex. Some girls were described as ‘mattresses’ because, allegedly, all the boys in the neighbourhood had slept with them. It was only when stories started to spread about who I had slept with that I realised that rumours were just that. It took many more years before I began to question why society tries to control women’s bodies, choices and sexualities.
On the way back to our hotel after the conference, Adeleye-Fayemi explained to me that people are entitled to make choices about their life, that they may make different decisions depending on their current life circumstances, and that for many people sex work is a logical choice.
That car ride started a journey for me. I began to think about sex work as legitimate work, and eventually started to work with others to create spaces where activists, including sex workers and other historically oppressed groups, are able to share the realities of their own lives with other people.
Two years ago, I saw there was a need for a festival focused on sex, sexualities and pleasure, and brought together a group of feminist, queer and trans activists to co-organise such an event in Accra, Ghana. #AdventuresLive was a success, so we decided to make the festival an annual one.
The following year, in November 2020, our second festival took place, with the theme ‘Odyssey of Desire’. One of our sessions, Addressing Violence Against Ghanaian Sex Workers, featured Bridget Dixon and Mariama Yusuf, who work with Women of Dignity Alliance. They spoke about the violence that sex workers in Ghana face, from police officers in particular, who arrest and rape them, before robbing them of their earnings.
Dixon and Yusuf were clear that these acts of violence are perpetrated against sex workers because their work is criminalised. They call for its decriminalisation – a demand long made by sex worker activists. According to the Count Me In! consortium: “To a large extent, the violence in the lives of sex workers is created by the conditions of criminalisation. Sex work is not inherently violent but discrimination and stigma against sex workers generates violence and limits sex workers access to justice.”
Some of the stigma faced by sex workers comes from feminists who seek to end sex work, and conflate the trade with human trafficking. Yet the difference is clear. Sex work is undertaken by consenting adults and human trafficking is not. As stated in ‘Behind the Rescue: How Anti-tracking investigations and Policies Harm Migrant Sex Workers’,“...in reality, anti-trafficking investigations are often racist, anti sex-work and anti-migrant. The intersection of criminal laws, immigration laws and municipal bylaws are used against migrant sex workers while human rights violations against these workers are justified by labelling them as illegal workers and criminals.”
Listen, learn and unlearn
Clearly, people don’t switch in an instance from being a feminist who judges the work of others to advocating for sex workers’ rights – so I want to share some of what has helped expand my understanding of this subject.
I started reading books, articles and resources about sex work. I found the book ‘Women, Sexuality and Pleasure’ particularly helpful, and reviewed it for Feminist Africa. I also attended panels, events and conversations convened by sex workers and their allies. When you listen to the people who are most affected by an issue, you are more likely to gain a deeper understanding of that issue. On social media, I follow some sex worker activists, and their posts and insights into their work continue to give me opportunities to learn and grow. One such example is this Twitter thread by Christy Croft.
Sadly, the issue of sex workers’ rights continues to be a point of tension for the global feminist movement, and there are too many feminists who today feel how I felt ten years ago. All I can encourage those feminists to do is to open their hearts and minds, and to listen to sex workers. It is way past the time for all feminists to recognise that advocating for sex workers’ rights is a fundamental contribution towards the battle to end violence against women and girls.
During a recent learning session, ‘Under the Same Umbrella: Feminism and Sex Workers' Rights’ by AWID and the Red Umbrella Fund, I found myself reflecting on my own journey to this point. The title speaks of the indivisibility of feminism and the ongoing work to protect and advance the human rights of sex workers. Listening to the panelists – Vera Rodriguez from Red Umbrella Fund, Kay Thi Win from the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers, Geeta Misra from CREA, a feminist international human rights organisation – I realised that I finally understand that feminism and sex workers’ rights are indeed under the same umbrella.
I have done what CREA has long advocated: suspended judgement. To do so is to set aside your preconceived notions, and to open your hearts and minds to learn and unlearn.
It is time for us all to suspend judgement, and to join sex workers in advocating for rights and justice for all.