Sex worker rights are human rights, and there can never be too many voices speaking up for them, nor too many occasions on which to speak.
- Maggie McNeill
Three times a year, there are days set aside by the sex worker community to make a concerted effort to call public attention to governments’ systematic denial of our rights, implemented by often-brutal police and supported by prohibitionists who want to see our trade eradicated no matter how many of us are hurt or even killed by the process. Though many of them deny this and insist they really want to “help” us, their chosen tactics (which include stalking, infantilization, pathologization, impoverishment, abduction, confinement, deportation and brainwashing, to name just a few) reveal the truth to anyone whose thinking is not clouded by dogma. So even though activists like myself call attention to this marginalization and maltreatment every day, it’s good to have several annual occasions on which our unified voices can ring out together to pierce the haze of ignorance, disinformation and disinterest. Those occasions are: the Day To End Violence Against Sex Workers (December 17th, the anniversary of the 2003 sentencing of the Green River Killer); Whores’ Day (June 2nd, the anniversary of the 1975 protest in which over 100 French prostitutes occupied the Church of St. Nizier in Lyon); and today, Sex Worker Rights Day (the anniversary of a 2001 festival in Kolkata attended by over 25,000 Indian sex workers despite efforts from prohibitionist groups who tried to prevent it by pressuring the government to revoke their permit). The symbol of sex worker rights used for all these days (and sex worker protests in general), the red umbrella, originated in yet another 2001 protest event, this one in Venice, Italy; it was adopted as the official emblem of the sex worker rights movement by the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe (ICRSE) in 2005.
In addition to all of these days I’ve added my own; every Friday the 13th I ask all of my readers who are not themselves sex workers to speak up for us, to show the prohibitionists and scoffers that we have many allies outside of our own movement. Now, I’m well aware that this is often difficult; many who truly feel that sex work should be decriminalized, and sex workers freed from persecution, nonetheless fear speaking out because they are afraid of being stigmatized as prostitutes (if female) or clients (if male). Several readers who have bought or sold sex asked me to suggest pro-decriminalization arguments that do not betray personal interest, and last Friday the 13th I provided some suggestions; since I’ve been asked the question again lately, I’d like to take this opportunity to repeat those suggestions.
If you’re generally…civil rights-oriented in your politics it’s easy; all you have to do is argue for decriminalization from a perspective of “people have the right to do what they like with their own bodies”. As I’ve pointed out in the past, every court decision…which upholds abortion rights also upholds the right to sex on one’s own terms, even if money is involved (abortion isn’t free, after all); ditto court decisions overturning sodomy laws…And obviously, the arguments for drug decriminalization also apply to prostitution. If you’re an atheist or skeptic, that’s easy too; in addition to the arguments above you can make statements like “prostitution laws are based on religion and xenophobia, not facts” and “the sex trafficking hysteria is a moral panic like the Satanic Panic and the Red Scare”.
The harm reduction perspective is another good one, and is the approach generally favored by advocates who have a human rights background or strong religious affiliation (including some members of the Catholic clergy): Prostitution has always been with us and we can’t make it go away with laws any more than the “Drug War” has made drugs go away. All the Drug War has done is to subject innocent people to invasion of their privacy and make drug users vulnerable to impure drugs, not to mention all those caught in drug-related violence; similarly, anti-prostitution laws help nobody and force prostitutes into the shadows where they can be harmed and exploited. Furthermore, many governments (including those of New Zealand, New South Wales and Brazil) have recognized that illegal prostitution invariably leads to police corruption, just as alcohol Prohibition did and drug prohibition still does.
Finally, there’s the feminist approach: why does society have the right to tell women they can’t make a living with their natural sex-based attributes when it allows men to do so with boxing, bodyguard work, etc? Furthermore, laws against prostitution invariably subject women’s dress and mannerisms to police scrutiny; women are accused of prostitution for dressing sexily, acting sexily, carrying condoms in their purses, being in certain areas, not wearing underwear, etc. This is “slut shaming” with criminal consequences.
Though women have traditionally taken the brunt of civil rights abuses resulting from prostitution law, this has changed in the last few years; “end demand” rhetoric has resulted in men being persecuted just as intensely as women (though not more intensely, despite the claims of those who support such campaigns). Furthermore, anti-prostitution laws (especially when re-branded as “anti-sex trafficking efforts”) are used as excuses for mass arrests of both men and women, confiscation of their property, collection and retention of their DNA and intrusive surveillance. This is why you should care about the rights of sex workers even if you aren’t one, don’t know any and have no intention of ever hiring one: laws which oppress marginalized minority groups are only the thin end of a wedge which is invariably driven deeper, blow by blow, until it is forcibly stopped.