Sex Workers Rights : a glass half full or half empty ?

27/04/2011 at 10:25 Leave a comment

Cheryl Overs

Advocacy for sex workers’ rights is a mountain of challenges.  Not only is constructive dialogue impeded because the language is contested, but sex workers rights are problematised by confusion with various forms of sexual abuse. Sex workers have very limited opportunities to input, and those outside the US and Europe have little access to the technology and education needed to form an effective voice.

Despite this, over the last 20 years the Global Network Sex Workers Projects has successfully pushed the idea that sex work is work and have pressured governments the UN and the media  to replace the term ‘prostitute’ with ’sex worker’. More than mere political correctness, this shift in language had the important effect of moving global understandings of sex worker rights towards a labour rights framework that could potentially resolve many of the problems faced by sex workers. This language also questions the stigma of sex work because it represents greater recognition of sex workers as rights bearers with the capacity to make their own choices.

Despite the turning tides, there is progress that is yet to be achieved. There is mounting evidence of an insidious trend to conflate the labour rights of sex workers with the issue of sexual exploitation. Although one UN conventions, the Palermo Protocol defines trafficking as including force, abuse, deceit or coercion it, and several other protocols promote criminalisation of   ‘sexual exploitation’ which means any profiting from sex work and effectively mean outlawing the whole sex industry. This means that people who consent to sell sex are in the same category –  victims – as those who do not consent. This supports the ideological agenda that sex work should be eliminated because, among other things, it is inherently abusive and/or it drives trafficking.

Statistics on human trafficking and/or sexual exploitation are inconsistent and self evidently   flawed.   Ronald Weitzer contends that “anti-trafficking campaigners erase women’s agency in sex work arguing instead that it is violence against women”.[i] Weitzer  also exposes methodological flaws in sampling and response bias which have “[victimized] prostitutes” in the zeal to promote an anti-prostitution agenda. Yet several key institutions including the US government, UNICEF, United Nations Office in Drugs and Crime (UNODC) UNIFEM and several other UN agencies promote the idea that human trafficking is caused by the sex trade despite the lack of evidence.

As sexual exploitation and trafficking continues to elude a well-accepted definition we are witnessing the introduction of more anti-sexual exploitation and anti-trafficking laws that are driving crackdowns on sex work and closure of brothels that have resulted in abuse of sex workers and shifts from safe to very unsafe workplaces.[1] This is happening at the behest of the  US government’s Trafficking in Persons reporting process and in the absence of any proven causal link between sex trafficking and HIV.

The link between anti-trafficking measures and reduced access to HIV prevention and treatment has not been empirically established but there is ample anecdotal evidence from countries including Korea, Cambodia and Guatemala that such laws have reduced attendance by female sex workers at STI clinics and caused condoms to be banned from sex venues for fear they will be used as evidence of ‘trafficking and sexual exploitation’

Treating people who sell sex with  respect and enabling them to access safe workplaces and health services is clearly a  much more effective framework for the prevention of HIV/AIDS than attempting to close the sex industry down in a misguided attempt to prevent  trafficking and sexual exploitation.

When there is HIV programming for sex workers, it is often fraught with human rights violations. Female sex workers continue to be forced into unnecessary, costly and intrusive HIV and STI tests in all global regions and results are often not confidential. Some are shared with brothel owners, outreach workers and NGOs and the quality of pre- and post-test counselling frequently fails to inform sex workers of their right to refuse tests. In some places female and transgender sex workers are forcibly tested and pictures of HIV positive sex workers are even posted on the internet by police and penalties for prostitution are much higher for those who are living with HIV.

On a positive note, there are calls for a rights based approach. UNFPA has convened an standing Advisory Group on sex work with several UN agencies and some sex worker involvement. The Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health has also strongly supported calls for decriminalisation of sex work. [2] In Asia and the Pacific a meeting of government officials and NGOs concerned with sex work as held in Thailand last year. (Regional Consultation in Asia Pacific on Sex Work and HIV)  recommendations for decriminalization of sex work, including laws against sex businesses, were endorsed. So to was UN commitment to the  involvement of sex workers at all levels. There was a sympathetic response for calls to end violence faced by sex workers which are largely perpetrated by law enforcement agencies. It remains to be seen whether any of the government delegations have taken steps since to reign in the violent excesses of their police forces.

In March 2011, the US released a report to the UN Human Rights Council affirming that “no one should face violence or discrimination in access to public services based on sexual orientation or their status as a person in prostitution.” However, the policy that requires all organizations that receive global HIV/AIDS President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) funding to explicitly oppose prostitution remains in place and continues to  impede sex workers’ access to services.

These developments reflect the view that human rights should not be viewed as separate from HIV prevention and treatment programmes. While programmes need to look at the legal and human rights issues for marginalised populations, it must be ensured that these programmes do not breach the human rights of any marginalised group. To overcome this, sex workers must be meaningfully engaged as partners in the development and implementation of HIV programmes and be given the capacity to strengthen their advocacy, networks and external relationships.

Sex workers have long advocated for changes to the laws, rules and policies that affect female, male and transgender sex workers. While some demands are country specific – according to local legal systems and cultural context – across the world there is an urgent need for the legal recognition of sex work as an occupation and the recognition of sex workers as full legal persons. This would not only improve the lives of sex workers but also achieve public health, social and economic goals and advance gender and sexuality rights. Moreover, the agenda to decriminalize sex work has the potential to create an environment in which child sexual exploitation, human trafficking and other exploitation and crimes associated with criminalised commercial sex can be effectively addressed.

So far those calls have gone unheeded except for some supportive statements by individuals in the UN. There is a Commission on Law and HIV whose report may change that but only if it can succeed where others have failed. To do this it must take the politically unpopular step of rejecting the notion that there is value in a law against profiting from sex work and acknowledge sex workers right to trade as employees or sole traders. This is what is meant by accepting that sex work is work.

It is important that people who work for HIV prevention, treatment and care, see female sex workers’ concerns as interconnected – which incidentally involves the category ‘sex worker’ being  understood to include men.  It is to be hoped that the positive developments we have mentioned are expanded, that agreements made at the Bangkok meeting last year are acted upon and that such ideas continue to gain interest and support internationally. Hopefully, over time, we will also see sex workers take over positions as advocates within the Global Fund, the UN and the women’s and labour movements.

Until then the question remains – is the sex workers rights glass half full or half empty ?

Thanks to Rathi Ramanathon for her contribution to this post.


[1] Noy Thrupkaew http://www.plri.org/resource/crusade-against-sex-trafficking and Overs C Caught Between the Tiger and the Crocodile http://www.plri.org/resource/caught-between-tiger-and-crocodile-apnsw

[2] Grover A 20101 http://www.plri.org/resource/report-special-rapporteur-right-everyone-enjoyment-highest-attainable-standard-physical-and

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Entry filed under: health, HIV and AIDS.

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