International Sex Workers Day celebrates the June 2, 1975 occupation of Saint-Nizier Church in Lyon by over a hundred sex workers rallying for their rights, including equal police protection from violence and murder. To commemorate that date and the struggle still faced by sex workers today in many parts of the world, including this country, let us consider how we can be better allies.
But what does that mean, “better allies”? It means we need to quit trying to “rescue” people and instead fight for them to get the rights they deserve, as human beings.
The “rescue” industry that peddles tearful stories about girls sold into sexual slavery — with enough gory details to conjure to the imagination Victorian-era murder tourism, only with far more sex than death — is broken. The idea that you are “helping” someone by detaining them and incarcerating them, giving them a criminal record, forcing them to watch videos about their moral decay that can’t help them provide food and shelter for themselves or their families — that’s not “helping.” That will never be helping.
As Melissa Gira Grantï»¿ illustrates in an op-ed for the New York Timesï»¿:
In 2008, Cambodia enacted new prohibitions on commercial sex, after the country was placed on a watch list by the State Department. In brutal raids on brothels and in parks, as reported by the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers in a 2008 documentary, women were chased down, detained and assaulted. The State Department commended Cambodia for its law and removed the country from the watch list.
Human Rights Watch later conducted interviews with 94 sex workers in Cambodia for a 2010 report. “Two days after my arrival, I was caught when I tried to escape,” one woman said. “Five guards beat me up. When I used my arms to shield my face and head from their blows, they beat my arms. The guard threatened to slit our throats if we tried to escape a second time, and said our bodies would be cremated there.”
She was describing a “rescue” and detention at the Prey Speu Social Affairs center near Phnom Penh. Human Rights Watch urged the Cambodian government “to suspend provisions in the 2008 Law on Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation that facilitate police harassment and abuses.”
Read that again. This is not a description of what women went through before they were rescued. This is a description of what a rescue looks like. Does it still look like rescue to you? Who are we to determine that we can labor with our hands and our backs and our brains but not with this other part of our bodies? Who are we to deny people an option to survive with detention and violence? How is “rescue” better? And if these women were coerced into sex work, if they were traumatized by being forced into this type or any other type of labor, what are we saying to them when we lock them up and beat them?
What happened in Cambodia isn’t an isolated incident. In preparation for the World Cup this June, Brazil is “cleaning up.” Across the bay from Rio de Janeiro, in the city of NiterÃ³i, some hundred sex workers were detained by police, whose notion of “cleaning up” apparently involves robbing and sexually assaulting detained sex workers.
This is happening despite the fact that sex work is a legal occupation in Brazil, but it’s illegal for a third party to benefit from sex work. This is meant to deter pimping and trafficking, but as with so many efforts to “rescue” sex workers, this law only results in providing loopholes for police to ignore sex workers’ rights. The police raids have reached such a level of violence that a judge accused the prosecution of engaging in flagrant, all-out an anti-prostitution crusade.
No anti-sex trafficking or anti-sex tourism nongovernmental organizations have come out to denounce police violence against Brazilian sex workers. These are the saviors you’re donating to. These groups that are standing silently by as sex workers they’re purportedly trying to “save” get beaten.
“No one asks, in Brazil, what police intervention concretely means, because we know full well,” Brazilian anthropologist Thaddeus Blanchette tells the Atlantic‘s CityLab, which covered the issue. “So there’s this great disconnect between the rhetoric of saving women from violence and harm, and what cops actually do when they go into a sex zone with a mandate to ‘clean up.'”
This isn’t much different from countries like South Korea that treat sex work the same way they do organized crime. In South Korea, sex workers’s human rights are also violently violated during crackdowns and raids. Two weeks ago, the South Korean government announced they will pay rewards of up to one hundred million won (US$98,000) to informants who provide useful leads to enable even more thorough crackdowns on sex workers.
Before you brush this off as something that happens elsewhere, outside the security of the upright country we call the Land of the Free, I want you to consider one last case — that of Monica Jones, who was detained in Arizona for “manifesting” prostitution.
Phoenix’s municipal code says someone is “manifesting” prostitution if that person is “in a public place, a place open to public view or in a motor vehicle on a public roadway and manifests an intent to commit or solicit an act of prostitution.” Intent in Phoenix can look like a number of things, the code admits, and gives examples: calling to or otherwise engaging other people in the street, stopping people on the street, hailing cars, waving at cars, making “any other bodily gesture” toward cars, asking whether another person is a police officer, looking around for “articles that would identify a police officer” on a person or requesting the touching of genitals or breasts.
Basically, someone participating in shock jock Tom Leykis’ “flash Fridays” (where people drive with their headlights on and women, who listen to the show and are so inclined, flash them) is just as likely to be considered to be “manifesting” as a sex worker in the Phoenix equivalent of Western Avenue. But this is more than a wacky law that gives law enforcement a wide margin to interpret pedestrian behavior — in practice, the law has effectively turned socioeconomic status, race, and gender identity into evidence of sex work. If you’re homeless, or a person of color — and especially if you’re trans — it doesn’t matter if you’re walking to Sunday mass. Your very existence is a manifestation of prostitution, and you’re fair game to get picked up.
But people who are picked up aren’t taken downtown and charged. They’re taken to a church, where members of a “savior”-type of institution called Project ROSE detain them and force them to confess. When Jones asked for an attorney, Project ROSE members took her over to a prosecutor, also on the premises. People detained by Phoenix law enforcement and funneled into Project ROSE aren’t under arrest, but they can’t leave. They can’t see an attorney, only prosecutors. They are constantly threatened with jail time, with being outed as sex workers, if they refuse to accept Project ROSE’s idea of “salvation.”
Aside from denying people (sex workers or not) legal representation during questioning, due process, etc., Project ROSE believes that “salvation” is as easy as forcing detainees to listen to people lecture to them about the dangers of drugs. They don’t provide an alternative means for people that are sex workers to provide for themselves. They don’t even accommodate for them if they have another job to go to — if they miss one of the useless lectures, people in Project ROSE face jail time.
This is what “salvation” looks like to sex workers. This is what you pay for when you donate to hundreds of anti-trafficking organizations that refuse to see the difference between a sex worker and a victim of trafficking and treat both like beasts undeserving of even the rights we extend to the most violent offenders. This is why I oppose “salvation” for sex workers and why you should too.
You will never stop sex work with law enforcement. You know how you will decrease sex work? By fighting poverty. You know how you will decrease trafficking? By making it safe for sex workers to come to police to report coercion and abuse. That safety isn’t something you can expect to magically happen on the part of law enforcement, because it won’t. That safety requires rights. And it requires a community and a world that will stand up for those rights.
Today, if you are moved to honor International Sex Workers Day, I want you to take a look around and see how you can help alleviate poverty in your community. You may not think this is much in a battle for human rights, but it is. Human rights begin with food and shelter.
Header by drpavloff.