11/09/2010 at 06:04 7 comments

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: , , , , , .

Three New Papers About Sex work Human Rights : part of the problem ?

7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Callboy  |  12/09/2010 at 13:29

    Thanks for addressing this deeply entrenched taboo.

    The moral driven stigmatization consolidates due course of social processes of power, hierarchy and regulation into criminalizing our sex industry. This has to be researched and discussed in further detail.

    We need our own research centres, as you have already set up one. Thanks. And we need our own whore colleges and virtual sex worker academies as sexworker.at is one.

    Behind is an eternal fight between Brain-Money-Power-Culture and Appetite-Sexuality-Reproduction-Nature. A struggle between older, conservative, sustainable people of the establishment and younger, hedonistic, precarious, marginalized sex workers and sex biz entrepreneurs…

    But our culture shall be regarded that mature and wealthy(?) to be able incorporating more diversity including sexual lifestyles and decriminalized but self-regulated sex industry into a generalized concept of modern culture and non suppressive but inclusive society.

  • 2. genderbitch  |  12/09/2010 at 14:46

    “the offences that are used against women ( and less often men and transgenders) who sell sex ”

    This is deeply transphobic. There are trans women, trans men and trans nonbinary/genderqueer folk. The phrasing “women, men and transgenders” is erasure and misgendering of the trans people who are also women and the trans people who are also men. It is deeply bigoted to strip our genders from us.

    I’d also like to point out that trans women are overwhelmingly in sex work due to how many of us get denied jobs and support on all zones (due to transmisogyny), which means that trans women are often affected more than cisgender women (women who are not trans) and men (trans or cis). I don’t know how many nonbinary/genderqueer folk are affected, there’s little to no numbers on it.

  • 3. genderbitch  |  12/09/2010 at 15:13

    Oh but other than the cissexism, this is a brill article.

  • 4. Douglas Fox  |  13/09/2010 at 11:18

    Good article.
    I am a gay male sex worker and my partner runs an escort agency representing women and gay/bi men.
    When I became involved in sex worker rights I spent most of my time defending myself from my fellow sex worker activists rather than fighting anti sex work groups.
    My crime was that I identified with sex worker managements and defended their rights along side the rights of every sex worker. I did not and still refuse to differentiate between sex workers. Anyone who makes money through selling sex is a sex workers in my opinion and all are affected by bad law and all need the protection of sex worker groups and unions equally.
    It is totally pointless to argue for decriminalisation of sex work if that is not also to include decriminalisation for sex worker managements. Sex worker managements are especially persecuted by authorities because they provide safe places for sex workers to work and where sex workers can be easily contacted and organised.
    Sex workers should have the same rights as any other worker. They should be able to choose how they wish to work. Either through a third party, in some form of cooperative, or as self employed independents working either alone or sharing with a colleague. Also they should have the choice to access union representation or not, the same as with health etc etc. If we want pensions and retirement facilities for sex workers etc then we will have to recognise sex work as a business with hirearchical structures similar to any other profession. I know my partner for example would like to offer private health care and even creche facilities for those he represents but to do this we first have to be treated like any other profession.
    I hope you don’t mind but I would like to ref your article on http://www.harlotsparlour.com/ where I am an editor.

  • 5. genderbitch  |  13/09/2010 at 12:46


    Trans women are women. Separating gender into men, women and transgender erases and harms trans women (and trans men) because you are essentially claiming that I am not a woman (and trans men aren’t men).

    If you wanted to express that certain laws specifically target women who aren’t trans, you should have said cisgender women (cisgender is the opposite of transgender). Then you wouldn’t have erased the gender of trans women.

    The phrasing itself was transphobic and even your correction of your phrasing is pretty bad too. Makes sense now?

  • 6. genderbitch  |  13/09/2010 at 14:35

    I’ve been asking around and actually pre op trans guys would be affected by any laws that operate based on bodily structure and are originally targeting cis women.

    And post op trans women would also be affected by those laws. So I really think you’re not being entirely accurate here.

    Doing more research though, will get back to you.

  • 7. cherylovers  |  15/09/2010 at 05:49

    I would certainly be inaccurate if I was talking about the US. I am not 100% sure but I think its true to say that globally laws against prostitution are used more against women while laws against homosexuality, indecency and public order offenses are used more against men and MTF transgenders when they are working.

    on language, I would agree with you if English was the only language. The language of gender, sexuality and identity and people’s ideas about it are so varied. Language like khatoey,( thialand) fafafini, ( Sth Pacifdic) srey sroy, ( Cambodia) mak ni, ( malaysia) travesti ( Latin America); waria,( Indonesia) hijra and ali ( india) all capture different ways of not just talking but thinking about this. Some of them are used by hundreds of millions of people and are thousands of years old. Some fit with your formulation but others don’t. Some even mean ‘third gender’, which is an anathema on your analysis. I dont think any term is universally acceptable/applicable, but, based on Latin and how we use it, transgender seems to me to be an OK technical term for writing about the hundreds of of millions of people in different countries that do not live in the gender they were designated at birth.

    Meanwhile I really do respect your view and thank you for it. I love your blog. Love anyone who is as angry as me about the same stuff. XXX

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