Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want rain without thunder and lightning. - Frederick Douglass
In my column for International Sex Workers’ Rights Day, I mentioned that it was started by an Indian sex worker rights organization named Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC), which has over 65,000 members. Yes, you read that correctly: sixty-five thousand, in other words more members than all American sex worker rights organizations combined (and multiplied several times). As I’ve said before about Cambodian activists,
…can you imagine this many American hookers making this kind of effort? If [they]…can unite against oppression, why can’t we?…sex work activism here is marginal at best; I daresay few Americans realize that the sex worker rights movement even exists. And it’s our own fault; we’re just too damned afraid to speak up for our own, too afraid of government-inflicted violence, too afraid of social and legal persecution, and too brainwashed by false notions of “sisterhood” to fight the twisted lies spread by neofeminists.
Though the Western cultural imperialists of the “rescue industry” imagine white Westerners to be more “enlightened” than brown-skinned people from poorer countries, and claim that prostitutes in those countries are invariably helpless victims, the opposite is closer to being true: American whores and our allies have a great deal to learn from Asian sex worker rights organizations, who are anything but helpless. DMSC recently celebrated its 20th anniversary, and you may find this article (via Dr. Laura Agustín’s March 8th column) enlightening:
…a mere passage of two decades can seem irrelevant in the life of Sonagachi—the red-light area in Kolkata and among the largest brothel districts in Asia. Yet, in these 20 years, 38-year-old Swapna Roy has seen a change in the way people refer to her—from being sneeringly mentioned in the coarse Bengali equivalent of slut, Roy today is a jouno kormi — a sex worker…she is…the joint coordinator of a project which sensitizes around 3,000 sex workers on safe and hygienic practices…“We have come to realize that sex work is like any other work and I’m like any other worker. In these two decades, we have learnt to appreciate this.”
…Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC) [is] a collective of 65,000 sex workers from West Bengal…[which] works for women’s rights and is at the forefront of the fight against HIV/AIDS and related issues…[it] has been responsible for bringing out into the streets—and into middle-class drawing rooms, through newspaper and television coverage—the issues facing sex workers, including the demand for legal sanction for the profession…15 February [marked] 20 years since a team of medical professionals, led by Smarajit Jana of Kolkata’s All India Institute of Hygiene and Public Health, visited Sonagachi on an HIV intervention research study. In due course, Dr Jana realized that for the sex workers, their children’s education, access to financial services and fending off police harassment and torture by local thugs was more important than urging a client to use a condom. So Dr Jana founded DMSC…From 12 members in 1995, DMSC draws its current strength of 65,000 members from 48 branches across the state, each headed by an elected secretary…Some sex workers…have health insurance, while some have got voter identity cards with the Election Commission of India recognizing their [DMSC] membership as valid identity proof. State Bank of India has also begun to recognize sex work as a profession while opening accounts…DMSC also runs 17 non-formal schools for children of sex workers, and two hostels…Members of Komol Gandhar, DMSC’s cultural wing dedicated to dance, drama, mime and music and run by the children, get invited regularly for paid shows…The Durbar football team, largely comprising children of sex workers, has for the first time in the 2011-12 season, participated in the nursery football league conducted by The Indian Football Association, West Bengal…
“We don’t dissuade adult and willing girls from entering the profession. It is easy to say sex work is bad, but most girls come from poverty stricken families and are uneducated,” says Purnima Chatterjee, who sits on a self-regulatory board, which works as a watchdog body in all DMSC branches against trafficking and introduction of minor and unwilling girls into the trade…“We know of so many girls who got raped when they went to work as household help or in factories. Many of them opted to come to Sonagachi and get paid for sex. Who are we to stop them?” retorts Pushpa Sarkar, who works at Avinash clinic (for sexually transmitted infections) run by Durbar and is also on the self-regulatory board…
Banks recognizing sex work as a profession? Schools and sports teams for the children of openly-declared prostitutes? That’s like science fiction in the United States, where fanatical prudes pretend escorts are incapable of charity and government agencies steal their children (a tradition “trafficking” fetishists are trying to export to India). The industry, ambition, courage and teamwork of Indian sex workers put the weak, diffuse and toothless efforts of their American sisters to shame.
Nor is it limited to India; anti-sex worker groups claim that essentially every whore in Bangladesh is a pathetic slave, but on March 3rd the prostitutes of Dhaka took to the capital’s streets to protest harassment by police and other “authorities”. Korean hookers are literally battling police for their rights, and videos made by both Cambodian and Thai sex worker rights organizations call international attention to abuses perpetrated by the police at the urging of fanatics like Somaly Mam. A group of 7000 sex workers in Nairobi plans to take its demand for decriminalization to the high court of Kenya after the city government insisted their trade would remain criminal, and even the whores of Botswana have been able to secure the support of a prominent local human rights group in their bid for rights. Sex workers in Thailand even produced their own study:
“We have now reached a point…where there are more women in the Thai sex industry being abused by anti-trafficking practices than there are women exploited by traffickers,” [said Chantawipa Apisuk, the director of Thai sex worker rights organization Empower, at the recent release of a report, "Hit & Run: Sex Workers' Research on Anti-trafficking in Thailand"]…More than 20,000 sex workers make use of Empower’s contact points…and…sex work is now widely regarded as a quasi-legitimate profession, with its own form of employers and self-employed workers. Inevitably…prostitution remains a crime in the eyes of many…but the kindlier view, that they are victims of human trafficking, isn’t a great deal of help either, Chantawipa said…The “Hit & Run” report is an effort to assess the state of the profession. More than 200 sex workers helped the foundation conduct a survey over the course of 12 months, in bars, restaurants and brothels across the county and even into Burma and Laos…Migration, it was noted, is part of the “culture” of sex work, and the brokers involved in transporting people are generally seen as helpful. Most don’t charge exorbitant rates…
But the anti-trafficking law regards sex workers as victims, so those who enforce it believe they are “rescuing” the prostitutes. That just makes things worse…”Before I was arrested I was working happily, had no debt, and was free to move around the city,” said Nok, a Burmese. ”Now I’m in debt, I’m scared most of the time, and it’s not safe to move around. How can they call this ‘help’?” Once “rescued” and after a period of detainment, the foreign workers are deported (only to return at the first chance) and the Thais usually have to undergo vocational training…[Empower’s] aim now is to get the government and other concerned parties to stop using the word “victim”, to stop putting trafficking and sex work in the same category…[the] research project [was launched]…with a one-day exhibition at the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre, displaying the “Mida Tapestry”, sewn by migrant sex workers as a way to document and show the impact police raids have on their lives. It carries a second message in that the detained sex workers are regularly forced or offered sewing lessons as a cure-all for social ills.
Everywhere in the regions dismissed as the “third world” by Westerners, sex workers are organizing, protesting and demanding that officials cease hounding and persecuting them. In many of their countries sex work is every bit as criminal as it is in the US; these activists face the same possibility of brutal reprisals as American sex worker activists do. But unlike their timid American counterparts, Asian and African sex workers recognize that anything worth having is worth fighting for, and that they aren’t going to win their rights by merely commiserating with each other.
One Year Ago Today
“Out of Context” shows how prohibitionists use studies of imprisoned or addicted streetwalkers to produce bogus “prostitution” statistics, and provides links to several methodologically-sound studies that tell a very different story.