We asked sex worker rights groups and allies around the world to discuss what works and doesn't work when arguing for the decriminalisation of sex work. This series reports what they said.
New Zealand Prostitutes Collective
The Red Van
Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women
English Collective of Prostitutes
Women With A Vision
Warrior Women’s Association of Brazil
AMMAR Cordoba Argentina
Twenty years ago, the juvenile police in Cordoba, Argentina gathered street sex workers together to gain information on children prostitution in the downtown area. Sex workers turned the agenda upside down, and used the opportunity to protest against police abuses, mistreatment and violence. We, sex workers, simply protested and shouted out loud in our own words all the indignation we felt inside. Our bodies were tired of coming in and out of police stations and of suffering systematic police abuses. The juvenile police left empty handed. Sex workers did not. In that moment of indignation we bonded and began to organise. AMMAR Cordoba is a sex workers’ organisation that has been running solid for over two decades now.
The abolitionist wave came later, much later. It is not that there were no abolitionists before. But in 2010-2012 the abolitionist perspective appeared as never before in the media, political forums, and foreign funding applications. AMMAR Cordoba confronted the shift in every way possible. We publicly challenged the conflation of sex slavery and autonomous, consensual, adult sex work, decrying it as a way of fostering secrecy, stigma, violence and exploitation. We argued that abolition would neither undermine mafia organisations nor make women less vulnerable to corrupt state officials. We joined the provincial committee against slavery, and although abolitionist organisations are also there we make sure our voices are heard.
We denounced article 45 of the Argentinian Code of Conduct, which punished “scandalous prostitution” as violent and discriminatory, until it was abolished. We pushed back against constant and systematic police detentions, and reported abuses committed by the rescue industry. We respond, loud and clear, every time somebody says that we do not know what we want, or do not want to do what we do, or that we do not do it by ourselves.
When we were invited to participate in this forum and to answer the question ‘what works and doesn’t work for the decriminalisation of sex work?’ we looked back and the answer seemed to be one thing: politics.
When we clean the moral and sexual arguments out of the debate, it becomes a discussion about capitalism, labour markets, and the conditions that facilitate slavery and exploitation in labour relations.
We believe politics has to be at the very base of any sex workers’ organisation. Because sex work is political. When we started organising, much of our activities were related to public health, HIV prevention, non-discriminatory medical services and information. Those are very important activities for sex workers’ daily lives. But we believe sex workers’ organisations cannot only do that. They cannot have an NGO structure. It is paramount to adopt a union structure within the organisation, to have union delegates in different areas, to have political training, and to make common cause with other struggles against precarisation and exploitation. This is because when we clean the moral and sexual arguments out of the debate, it becomes a discussion about capitalism, labour markets, and the conditions that facilitate slavery and exploitation in labour relations.
Assemblies are – and must be – the common space in which sex workers’ struggles are built, and in which a truly representative voice is forged. There will never be a unique, single and uniform voice among sex workers – that is impossible in any union or social organisation. This is important to acknowledge, given how often we see individual and isolated testimonies of the ‘happy hooker’ or the ‘victim of systematic rape’. Those testimonies are shown as the universal truth of sex work. No universal truth exists.
Sex workers must have a collective voice politically debated in assemblies. The doors of those assemblies must be open to newcomers, and there must be money to cover expenses for political participation, such as transport and food.
Moreover, we have to fuel political debate in every possible way. For instance, AMMAR Cordoba maintains a ‘political fund’ that we only use after holding a political debate on what needs or problems that fund should cover. The debate around the destiny of that fund helps us to fuel other – wider – political debates. It is in the assembly where everything emerges: the problems, the proposals, the needs. Everything.
Union is strength
Alliances are essential. Since the very beginning of the organisation, AMMAR Cordoba has maintained a strategic alliance with Argentinean Workers Central (CTA), one of the strongest unions in Argentina and an advocate for informal, precarious and marginalised labour in the country. The support of key leaders inside CTA made this possible, as, at least in the beginning, many people could not understand what sex workers were doing there. We shared collective spaces in the union, shared ideas and life experiences. We realised all we have in common. We met people who had been under political detention during the last dictatorship in Argentina because they had pushed for a better social and economic system. We debated with other workers living in precarity, such as street parking attendants, cardboard pickers, and so on. This allowed us to see that we are workers in a perverse capitalist system. And it has pushed us to struggle collectively for our labour rights and to improve our quality of life, to have social security, a retirement plan, and so on.
Our alliance with CTA also taught us to speak the language of power. Engaging with politics made us listen, question, respond, debate among us and with others. It became more difficult for them to say we are confused, or that we do not know what we want. It is not about putting our desire, will or problems into words. It is about saying it in the words that reach power, in the language of power. Sometimes that is not enough either. There are people in power who only listen if those speaking use complicated words and have a bunch of degrees behind their desk.
That happed a lot during and after the abolitionist wave. Bearing that in mind, AMMAR Cordoba promoted another strategic alliance with professionals and activists in favour of sex work. In 2012 we launched the Network for the Recognition of Sex Work (Red por el reconocimiento del trabajo sexual), which is a tool for supporting sex workers’ claims and voices. The network has promoted campaigns, talks, roundtables, and open mic radio programmes, among others. We published the book ‘Stand in my corner’ (Parate en mi esquina), which is the first book in Argentina that is totally dedicated to arguing in favour of sex workers’ recognition.
Our organisation remains largely local, but we are looking to build networks with organisations in other provinces and countries. Since 2018 we have organised national gatherings where sex workers from other provinces attend to enrich the debate. We have also started to coordinate with the Latin American Platform of Sex Workers (PLAPERTS), doing training workshops and learning about the conditions in other Latin American countries. We feel that, little by little, we are building powerful networks that allow us to break the isolation of stigma and to politicise our needs.
AMMAR Cordoba started with struggle against constant police detentions. We still advocate for the conditions of street sex workers but are also open to those exchanging sexual services in other ways, such as online sex work. Our goal is to face the consequences of social exclusion, gender violence and institutional neglect. Today, our effort from the south of the globe is dedicated to building a collective proposal and a big campaign for labour rights, social security and retirement options as concrete achievements. We conducted a survey together with the National University in Cordoba and learned that 73% of our members are household providers, 80% are single mothers, 76% have children, 93% have no social security, and 91% have no retirement options.
This is precarity. This is political. We don't want our reality to be left in the shadows. We are confident that, if we remain organised and open to learning together, we will achieve the recognition of sex workers as workers.
Have your own ideas about effectively speaking about and arguing for the decriminalisation of sex work? Write to us.