Posts tagged ‘decriminalisation’

Fancy picking Cheryl’s brains?

This month, AIDSLEX will host an “Ask the Expert” session on sex work with our very own Cheryl Overs and Valerie Scott (pictured). They will respond to user questions on the human rights of sex workers and on how laws can support efforts to respond to the HIV epidemic, including providing HIV prevention and health care services to sex workers. Users are also invited to pose questions concerning an Ontario court ruling in September 2010 in which sections of Canada’s Criminal Code related to sex work were deemed unconstitutional.

To submit a question, please write to Deadline is 15 November.

Cheryl Overs is a noted advocate for the rights of sex workers and has written widely on the subject. Valerie Scott is Executive Director of Sex Professionals of Canada (, which campaigns for the rights of sex workers. She was one of the applicants in the Ontario Superior Court case. More information on that ruling can be found at


04/11/2010 at 11:29 2 comments

Is the Lancet advocating Universal Access without universal justice ?

Leela Neena wants the price of sex raised, not ARV.

‘The criminalisation of homosexuality and the exclusion of illegal drug users and sex workers from health services have made more difficult the tailoring of interventions to these populations”

The Lancet

This statement can be read as the Pepfar compliant position : “it is Ok for sex work to be illegal so long as we can HIV test sex workers and tell them they are responsible for making their clients use condoms’

Well that may be  cynical but this statement seems to me to be yet more evidence that the stage is being set for the UN to recommend that homosexuality be decriminalised but not sex work, in line with US policy and the misperception or ideology that sex work is trafficking (or they are so entwined that no morally responsible person would consider decriminalising sex work).

It is very worrying to see even the Lancet separating homosexuality out from other relevant criminalised behaviours in this way. As Matt Greenall says  ” if it is possible to achieve Universal Access for sex workers and drug users even in contexts of criminalisation, then surely it is also possible to do so for men who have sex with men in the context of criminalisation?  From a public health and service provision point of view, I don’t understand the logic behind the different positions in each case. As programme managers, service providers and outreach workers all know, any sort of criminalisation severely compromises the ability to deliver programmes – it’s not worse for some groups than for others.”(

29/10/2010 at 10:33 Leave a comment

AFESIP vs APNSW post script.

In a post script on Somaly Mam and Afesip Cambodia, the Cambodia Daily ran a story today  based on a visit to AFESIP shelter in which  Andrew Hunter’s claims that unethical and possibly unlawful practices occur there were investigated.  The journalists were not allowed to interview inmates without supervisors to ask if everyone there is voluntarily  and knows they can leave. Even with the supervision  one of the interviewees  said she ‘did not want to be there at first’ but became used to it, which obviosuly suggests her original detention was unlawful.

The article  said that sex workers were captured by pimps that broke in the Afesip compound a couple of years ago.  Infact the women managed to breach the gate and barbed wire and got away on local moto-taxis.  Several of the women later protested against the outside the US Embassy at US officials  falsely claiming that their escape was  a ‘re-capture’ by ‘pimps’ rather than an assertion of several of the most fundamental human rights.

22/10/2010 at 01:23 1 comment

Decriminalisation is the starting point : what next for Canada?

I really like the following extract from an editorial on Prostitution and the Law in the Ottawa Citizen (Sep 30 2010.)  It captures an issue that I think is not well understood – that  removing  criminal laws against sex workers is only the first stage of the reform needed to improve sex workers lives.  Many people in the movement are struggling to respond to the demand for ‘evidence’ that removing the criminal law will itself achieve a whole lot of desirable outcomes, such as reducing HIV or human rights abuses. But no such evidence exists.  The question is wrong. The fact that sex workers are subject to abuses where sex work is legal, as well as where it is semi legal and completly prohibited,  tells us that more than absence of criminal law is needed.

Removal of the criminal law is essential.  It removes the main barrier to sex workers achieving justice. It creates a space that can be filled by effective rights based policy and labour regulations and law. This is what happenned in the much touted example of New Zealand.   But ‘decriminalisation’ is not a solution in itself, and it is not a solution if the gap it creates is filled with wrong policy and law.  Good regulations and policy don’t automatically kick in when criminal laws are removed  – even in rich and well governed countries, let alone where regulatory systems generally  are not well organised.  The process of struggling for effective rights based policy and labour law must now take place in Canada and it’s regrettable that the energy of activists there will first be diverted by an appeal against Justice Himel’s judgement.  What happens next in Canda will be important for the world and we are lucky indeed to have such  strong and determined sex workers  activists there to drive that process. Forward and Upward !

Cheryl  Overs

The judge who struck down Canada’s prostitution laws was doing her job, and doing it well. It will be up to our elected officials to ensure that the removal of those laws does not create new problems…Justice Susan Himel of the Ontario Superior Court found that the laws “force prostitutes to choose between their liberty interest and their right to security of the person as protected under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”

She did not take it upon herself to rewrite Canada’s prostitution policy. In fact, she went to great lengths to explain that her job was merely to determine whether government had overstepped its constitutional bounds in creating the current laws. She admitted that in removing those laws, she is opening the door to unlicensed brothels. “It is legitimate for government to study, consult and determine how best to address this issue,” she concluded, and therefore stayed her decision for 30 days. That stay could be extended.While the Ontario and federal governments have vowed to appeal, Parliament still needs to update the prostitution laws. Constitutionality aside, it’s clear that these laws have done nothing to make marginalized women less vulnerable to the monsters who prey on them.

Criminal law that targets the prostitutes themselves might not be the best way to protect prostitutes and their neighbours, but that doesn’t mean that anything goes. The ruling does not require cities to set up red-light districts. There are many ways to regulate prostitution to minimize the harm to women and to their neighbours. And there is certainly nothing in the ruling to prevent governments, at all levels, from working to help prostitutes get out of the business and, in many sad cases, get off of drugs and alcohol.

While Himel did provide a review of practices and policies in some other countries, it’s not her job to choose among them. Parliament should consider which model would work best for Canada. The city governments should have a voice in that discussion and, perhaps, a role in implementing any new policy regime.

The worst mistake would be for Parliament to avoid this question, as it has avoided abortion, same-sex marriage, polygamy and other difficult social issues. In the absence of appropriate regulation, communities could find themselves powerless to stop dangerous activity. This is a conversation Canadians need to have

04/10/2010 at 02:09 1 comment

Human Rights : part of the problem ?

by Cheryl Overs

The Prague City Council will consider a bill to legalize prostitution today. As in most other countries prostitution in Czech Republic exists in a legal gray area. Changes proposed by Deputy Mayor Rudolf Blažek will seek, among other things, to legalize sex work in brothels and  private homes. Mr Blažek sensibly commented to the The Prague Post.”It’s a possibility to step out of the black market and to include [sex workers] in the standard business regime,” Blažek told “Regulating prostitution and embedding it in the legal system would give more effective tools so the scene would not be as uncontrolled as it is now.”

However Mr Blažek has a problem,  and not for the first time. His government has considered similar steps in the past.  In fact, Blažek himself proposed comparable changes as early as 2001.  In 2003, City Hall and the Interior Ministry again sought such changes, the deal-breaker was that for the reform to go through the Czech Republic must withdraw  from the 1950 UN Convention for the Suppression in the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others. Such a move requires parliamentary approval, which was not forthcoming. The City Council will again formally request that Parliament take such a step now.

This is a fine state of affairs isn’t it? An enlightened local government in a Member State that wants to stop abuse of sex workers and reduce the public health risks posed by illegal commercial sex is prevented from doing so by a human rights convention.

This is not just an aberration of one of the conventions.  The notion that prostitution is an affront to human dignity is enshrined rights across international human rights law.  The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women */Article 6/*  says States Parties shall take all appropriate measures, including legislation, to suppress all forms of traffic in women and exploitation of prostitution of women. The Convention of the Rights of the Child places similar barriers on effective law and policy to deal with adolescents who are selling sex by dictating they be treated as children until they reach 18 years of age.

In the face of this, arguing for human rights as athe tool for ending the oppression of sex workers  is a lost cause.  Arguing for example that  laws against soliciting violate sex workers right to ‘freedom of movement ‘ are risible.

We can’t seem to rely on human rights or women’s organisations to either understand or challenge the threat to sex workers posed by human rights law.  Quite the opposite. Human Rights Watch just conducted what they call research (questioning a few sex workers) in Cambodia.  Their ‘results’  repeated what the APNSW and WNU had already published with the crucial difference that HRW did not  recommend repeal of the anti-sexual exploitation law that is driving the abuse. If  only those pesky violent Cambodian police would stop bashing and raping people the law would be fine with HRW. CHANGE and other women’s rights organisations supported the closing of Craigslist ads for commercial sex to protect victims of trafficking.

So while it’s very nice for sex workers to march about chanting  ‘sex workers rights are human rights’ the reality is that at best human rights offers sex workers very little, and at worst they form a potent barrier to sex workers realising their labour and civil rights.  This was what I had in mind when I surprised my colleagues in the sex workers rights movement by saying I would definitely not attend the Human Rights March in Vienna to listen to the Annie Lennox talking about human rights.  I won’t be blowing the vuvuzela of human rights or until I hear  some recognition from powerful human rights and womens organisations  that the current formulation makes human rights a  part of the problem not the solution.  To do that they will need to listen to sex workers and support our demands – demands that a mayor in the Czech Republic seems to understand better than human rights. ( but maybe not – he wants mandatory testing but that’s another story !)

17/09/2010 at 02:09 4 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.    (  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

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 Network

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 Watch 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).

11/09/2010 at 06:04 7 comments

New Ugandan sex worker organisation founded

Women’s Organization Network for Human Rights Advocacy released the following information on their newly founded organisation:

Women’s Organization Network for Human Rights Advocacy (WONETHA) is a  Ugandan sex worker led organization established in August 2008 by 3 passionate and determined sexworkers who have faced harassment, insults, stigma, discrimination and arrest without trial by misinformed societies and who have been stirred into  responsive action concerning the plight of other sexworkers in the same working conditions. (more…)

02/07/2009 at 07:46 4 comments


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