Someone is Wrong on the Internet: sex workers’ access to accurate information

27/09/2012 at 10:56 Leave a comment

Over the last few months I have corrected information about sex work that has been put out on the internet by friends and colleagues in organisations that I actively and passionately support. This raises the question, have I turned into the fool in the cartoon?   We all need to keep a check on ourselves and ask our friends to pull the modem plug if we descend to nitpicking on the internet instead of having a life.  With a little help from my friends I’ve done that and fortunately I pass the test becase there are sound reasons why I corrected some statements. They follow.

1.       New Zealand is the only country where sex work has been fully decriminalised.

I know this is party pooping and I am really sorry to spoil a good story, but it is illegal to buy or sell sex in New Zealand without health precautions  – for now that’s condoms but in future it could be something else.  So it’s only accurate to say that sex work is fully decriminalised if we turn a blind eye to that part of the law.  As I understand it only a few people have been charged. Some people in New Zealand think the law against unprotected commercial sex helps sex workers, which is fair enough.  It’s a local issue that would pan out differently if it was replicated elsewhere.  However the sex workers rights movement historically opposes criminalisation of unprotected commercial sex because in sex workers words, ‘viruses and germs don’t travel on money’ and ‘HIV doesn’t know if a worker and a punter are fucking or a married couple’.

So this is not about opinions in New Zealand or anywhere else.  It‘s about  recognising that a legal framework that criminalises behaviour in the context of commercial sex but not other sex is not decriminalisation. It’s worth speaking out aganst erosion of the definition of decriminalisation.

2.       Pepfar Kills Sex Workers

This is a very handy slogan but it leaves people puzzled because it is an odd thing to say about a program that has delivered life-saving medicines to millions of people, presumably including sex workers.  The slogan of course means The Pepfar Anti Prostitution Pledge, not Pepfar itself.  I guess people could find that out if they listen for a moment. But most won’t.   

Around the time of the conference I noticed one organisation announcing that the US government refuses to provide services to sex workers. In fact, as Hilary Clinton pointed out in the opening plenary, the US remains one of the largest donors to sex work programmes globally. ( please note that I come at this having been profoundly personally affected by the anti-prostitution pledge. I spoke at the Robert Carr Memorial Lecture at the Washington Aids conference) I imagine the US is the largest bilateral donor for sex work porgrammes.

The same INGOs – CARE, MSF, PSF, PSI, FHI and others – have the multi-million dollar USAID contracts for services to sex workers now that had them before the pledge. The programmes operated by those organisations that signed the Pledge are second rate by definition because they are limited by their commitment to the US government. But they do deliver condoms, information and clinical services so it’s a stretch to say they are killing sex workers.  When the pledge was introduced one country and few individual organisations rejected the Pledge and were defunded amidst much publicity. The government of Brazil made up the shortfall but it’s difficult to know if any other gaps still exist or are significant. Perhaps there is documentation that shows such gaps so that sex workers are in fact dying because the USG and their national governments have left them without condoms, information and clinical services. But I can’t find it.  What I can find however is organisations that have signed the pledge sitting at the same table as sex workers discussing sex workers rights without apology or explanation. Shameless. Where are the ‘PEPFAR KILLS’ banners when you need them?   

3.       Brazil. 

The discussion about sex work law in Brazil has always fascinated me as it is often said that  sex work is legal there. In fact although there is no law against selling sex but there are laws against many other aspects of the sex industry including brothel keeping and procuring. There are many countries where this is the case.   This can be seen as legal ambiguity or it can be seen as the law seeking to punish only perpetrators of harm.  Either way the result is the same in terms of access to safe workplaces and human rights. My point is that the question ‘is sex work legal or illegal? ’ can’t be answered.  To ask it is to invite an ambiguous answer.

To formulate the correct question we need to replace the noun (sex work) with verbs that match the actual offences. So the question should be ‘what activities are criminalised by prostitution law?’ The answers are actions – soliciting, brothel keeping, procuring, advertising, profiting etc. which are carried out by a range of people, not only the sex worker.

There has always been pressure to limit the definition of decriminalisation of sex work to the Brazilian scenario. I think that’s because even people that don’t want sex workers punished are squeamish about decriminalising ‘the pimp’. But if sex work is work there is no logic in criminalising the people and places needed for it to take place. Nor is it a practical solution, as a look at the Brazilian sex industry shows.  


None of this is a criticism of anyone in particular. It’s easy to see how Chinese Whispers applies and information gets distorted or loses integrity in translation as it travels among well intentioned folks. This is especially so given sex workers’ lack of access to academic journals  and almost no resources having gone to supporting sex workers to form and sustain the structures they need to conduct independent analysis and disseminate accurate information. Nevertheless over-simple or inaccurate accounts of sex work law and policy flags up a worrying process in an environment where many sex workers groups must rely entirely on what they are told and are not in a position to question or verify that information.

Sex workers and non sex workers alike are of course entitled to believe that  laws that punish sex businesses or impose health conditions on sex workers and clients are good for sex workers, especially in local contexts, in the short term or in less than ideal circumstances. For example in some places mandatory health checks which clearly violate medical ethics in reality provide sex workers access to health care that would not otherwise be available.  However no matter how many people or institutions hold those views,  the definition of decriminalisation, and therefore the aims of the global sex workers rights movement, should not change to incorporate them.  Rather we should be focussing on convincing more people of the established position of the sex workers rights movement –  that the criminal law has no place at all in managing commercial sex.

Entry filed under: research.

The told, and told again, tale of sex trafficking What the 100% Condom Use Program looks like with sex worker involvement

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