When great changes occur in history, when great principles are involved, as a rule the majority are wrong. The minority are right. – Eugene V. Debs
Did you feel the wind on sex worker rights change direction last week? Because it did, for the better and perhaps for the foreseeable future. It’s been a long time coming; the internet has made blogs like this one and many others possible, and platforms like Twitter have given a voice to sex workers who find writing difficult, and exposed readers who might never have visited a blog like this one to those voices. To be sure, it’s also given the prohibitionists another way to spread their lies far and wide, but given that they already had the mainstream media it’s been far less of a boon to them as it has been to us.
But people still have a way of not listening until the existence of a problem is shoved into their faces, all too often by tragedy. In Canada and the UK, murders and other violence against sex workers have pushed reasonable people (and even many unreasonable ones) toward decriminalization, but in the United States it seems to be AIDS which is doing the job. Many health officials have been pointing out for decades that criminalization encourages the spread of HIV, and though prohibitionists have tried to hijack that message toward the Swedish Model, “sex trafficking” hysteria and “end demand” charlatanry, decriminalization has slowly become the default position among health officials, even in countries with full or partial criminalization regimes. This trend culminated just a few weeks ago in a UNAIDS commission of experts in health and health law recommending absolute decriminalization of sex work and the sex industry everywhere, thus repudiating criminalization, legalization, the Swedish model, the Nevada model and all other such schemes at one stroke.
Shortly after the release of that report came the International AIDS Conference, whose leaders were clearly embarrassed and apologetic for the United states’ high-handed and asinine refusal to allow sex worker delegates into the country to attend the gathering; the executive director of UNAIDS said it was “outrageous…[that] when we have everything to beat this epidemic, we still have to fight prejudice, stigma, discrimination, exclusion, criminalization.” An American politician, Representative Barbara Lee of California, actually fought to have sex workers allowed at the conference, and the Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton said, “If we’re going to beat AIDS, we can’t afford to avoid sensitive conversations, and we can’t fail to reach the people who are at the highest risk.” Clinton is no supporter of sex worker rights; though she has often used the term “sex worker” rather than the prohibitionist term “prostituted woman”, she has also been as ardent a promoter of “trafficking” hysteria as anyone. But she is a political animal, and if she is beginning to make sex-worker-rights-like sounds it’s because she senses that it’s politically safe or even advantageous to do so.
Though American sex worker rights activists (who were already in the country and therefore much more difficult to silence) made several protests at the conference, the real coup was scored by activists in India who organized – without the help of any government, charity or “rescue” organization – a “Sex Worker Freedom Festival” in Kolkata, held at the same time as the main conference and connected to it by internet; this gathering attracted worldwide media attention, made vital contributions to the AIDS convention from the far side of the planet, and generally made US officials look both foolish and impotent.
But an article in the Guardian – in a section endowed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, even – showed the impact that the “alternative conference” had; even its title was cause for celebration: “Indian Sex Workers are a Shining Example of Women’s Empowerment”.
When…Pathways of Women’s Empowerment…began its search for inspiring examples of empowerment, in 2006, few might have imagined it would take us to a collective of sex workers in a town in the heart of Maharashtra in India. But the stories…I heard when I visited the Sangli headquarters of the Vamp collective not only summed up some of the most important lessons we were learning in the programme…they were also among the most impressive. “If I’d been married, I would have been HIV positive by now,” says one of Vamp’s stalwarts, Shabana, reflecting that married women are far more vulnerable than she is as a sex worker, unable to insist on condoms with their husbands as she does with her clients. And her face breaks into a smile as she describes the life she leads: the freedoms she enjoys, her choice of clients, and the autonomy and empowerment she has…
It is all too often assumed that disempowerment leads women to sell sexual services – as a last resort, as the ultimate step before destitution, and out of coercion rather than choice. The sex workers I met in Sangli, however, made it quite clear that being in business – they refer to their work as dhanda, meaning business – was not something they did out of desperation. Some had been married and returned to sex work full of pity for those women who had to put up with the privations and lack of freedom marriage brings. Some had tried other jobs, and found them tiring, exploitative and badly paid, echoing the findings of the first pan-India survey of sex workers. Sex work was, for them, an occupation they spoke of with pride, despite the stigma…
Vamp’s mission is to change society. Rather than treating sex workers as victims to be rescued or rehabilitated, it demonstrates the power of collective action as a force for women’s empowerment, mobilising sex workers to improve their working conditions, and claim rights and recognition…
The article also contained a link to a short documentary about three members of VAMP, “Save Us from Saviors”, which you can watch below. Of course, the comment thread was full of the usual “prostitution is exploitation”, “women are pathetic victims” and “think of the children!” rubbish, but the wind is shifting…and before too many more years, those who hold such opinions will find themselves just as much out in the cold as those who mindlessly hate other sexual minorities do today.