Why Pimping Must Be Legal Too. by Cheryl Overs with special thanks to Marc of Frankfurt for giving this article a much better name.
Sex workers rights activists are living in exciting times. We now have a formal mechanism for inputting into UN policy, the NSWP UNAIDS Advisory Group on HIV and Sex Work and the Commission on HIV and Law convened by UNDP is a golden opportunity for an authoritative recommendation that sex work be decriminalised. Substantial support for such a recommendation has already come from senior UN officials including the Secretary General and the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health.
When sex work began to be decriminalised in Australia more than 20 years ago I thought we were the first in a domino effect of collapsing sex work laws globally . I knew hardly anything of the outside world then. I now understand much better why the opposite has happened and why, with a couple of exceptions, laws against sex work have worsened for sex workers globally. Although those reasons are obviously varied and complex, I think the issue of removing laws against living off immoral earnings, brothel keeping etc has functioned as a ‘deal breaker’ that has impeded us forming the alliances we need to move the decriminalisation agenda forward globally.
Most of the agencies who support removing the offences that are used against women who sell sex ( and less often against men and transgenders) at the same time support retention of the offenses that are used against people that operate or service the sex industry. (pimps)
Why is this ? It’s the fashion in literature on sex work and law to follow any mention of sex business operators with (pimps) in brackets. At first I just thought the use of bracketed American slang to clarify who is being discussed was just another amusing folly fromAmerican friends. But perhaps by invoking this stigmatising term authors are providing a clue to better understanding the disconnect between sex workers and the allies we need to support our demands if we are to be successful. That we don’t have that support is clear. Of all the agencies and individuals calling for ‘removal of punitive laws against sex workers’ almost none are expressing support for removal of the laws against operating or servicing sex businesses ( pimping) . The ‘best’ we get is a call for better enforcement to ensure that innocent family members are not ‘wrongly’ charged with living off immoral earnings ( pimping ) .
Like all movements the sex workers rights movement is diverse so there are few policy positions that everyone in the global sex workers rights movementfully agrees on beyond the basic principles of the Network of Sex Work Projects. ( http://www.NSWP.org). However there is one proposition that stands out as universal – sex work is work. It’s written on our placards, chanted at our demonstrations quoted on our websites and publications. What this slogan means is that sex workers demand that labour law not criminal law is used to govern the sex industry and protect the conditions of the workers in that industry. For this to happen sex businesses and brokering commercial sex must be legal. To benefit from labour rights sex workers who are employees must have legal employers. To benefit from health and safety regulations self employed sex workers must have access to legal workplaces and the same legal structure around their work as other self employed workers. There is no point the sex workers role in commercial sex being legal while her employers or people from whom she rents space or advertises are criminalised. In fact in many countries where sex work highly criminalised in reality, the law on the books only contains brothel keeping, recruiting ( pimping) type offenses.( See http://prostitution.procon.org/view.resource.php?resourceID=000772)
It’s not surprising that sex workers look to labour law. Labour law and regulations and their important corollary, trade unions, are the mechanisms that have actually delivered improved working conditions to hundreds of millions of workers as they have been introduced over the last two centuries. Labour law is not a magic bullet, especially in poor countries, and sex workers know that. I remember I was fascinated when I first heard Cambodian sex workers passionately demanding ‘we must come under labour law’. They had learned a lot about workers rights issues from garment workers. ( in one of the most inspiring ‘civil society’ alliances I have ever seen) They knew that Cambodian garment factories haven’t transformed into perfect workplaces but equally they understood the role of labour law in garment workers’ journey from near slavery in dangerous sweatshops via the contemporary garment factory to their vision of the factory of the future. In this context the sex workers could very easily locate two primary differences between their struggle and that of the garment workers – the stigma and the law that criminalises ‘sexual expolitation and trafficking’ .
So why can’t our allies among academics, feminists and human rights agencies accept this ? Why do we so so many advocates argue for repeal of laws against soliciting and selling sex but not laws against brothel keeping and profiting from, organising or brokering commercial sex ? ( pimping) . Why do they make an argument for ‘decriminalisation’ of sex workers and suport laws that prevent ‘economic exploitation of sex workers’ (pimping) ? ( eg Canadian HIV/Aids Legal Networkhttp://www.aidslaw.ca/publications/publicationsdocEN.php?ref=199)
I have been surprised to see human rights abuses associated with anti-trafficking/sexual exploitation law attributed to poor enforcement of otherwise sound laws against people that operate sex businesses ( pimps) ( e.g. Off the Streets by Human Rights Watchhttp://www.hrw.org/en/reports/2010/07/20/streets-0) Why do human rights advocates dismiss sex workers view that the trafficking paradigm itself is flawed and the demands to repeal laws that prohibit sex buinsiness (pimps) ? I can’t understand support for banning sex work advertisements because the advertisers ( pimps) have failed to prevent the abuse of women. ( see about 2 million internet posts about Craigslist )
What do people want for sex workers ? A cosy cottage industry of all female sex worker collectives in which no sex worker facilitates or profits from the prostitution of another ? ‘ (pimps) ( or ‘pimps herself’ – I have actually read people talking about women trafficking themselves !) Although some sex workers might agree that a cottage industry of worker collectives would be nice, there is no sex worker in the world who doesn’t know that if you work in a criminalised environment you are affected by that criminalisation even if there is no specific law against what you are doing.
Of course I understand that people feel sorry for sex workers who work in horrible conditions and feel angry about the people that exploit them. We all do. I am sure the same well intentioned people feel sorry for garment workers too but the difference is they recognise their right to be employees and they don’t advocate criminalising the people that run garment factories . It doesn’t help sex workers struggle for rights to work these sentiments into professional policy advocacy. After all, sex workers know (pimps) best and they are demanding a fully legalised sex industry. The DMSC in India, the well known sex worker rights group, challenged (pimping) laws in court.
So here is an open message to all those who are advocating around sex work law reform. Please use precious advocacy opportunities to support sex workers position that sex work is work. This means that sex workers, like all other workers, need labour rights to reduce their vulnerability including to unscrupulous and abusive service providers and employers. To reach our agreed goal of being governed by labour law not criminal law, organising sex work and employing sex workers must be legal. Please don’t give expression to understandable disdain for the stereotypical violent male pimp by supporting laws against organising commercial sex or providing services and workplaces to sex workers.
There are excellent laws against kidnapping, assault, robbery and rape. Please use precious advocacy opportunities to press States to use them properly to address criminal abuse of sex workers, including by police who are the main perpetrators.
And please, please stop using the term (pimp).
Entry filed under: health, HIV and AIDS, human rights and law, research, sex work. Tags: advocacy, decriminalisation, legislation, Overs, pimps; legalisation; decrimialisation; Human Rights Watch, rights.