If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice, or representation. – Abigail Adams
As I’ve explained before, there are three major days observed by sex worker rights activists: the Day To End Violence Against Sex Workers (December 17th, the anniversary of the 2003 sentencing of the Green River Killer); Sex Worker Rights Day (March 3rd, 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); and today, Whores’ Day, the anniversary of the 1975 protest in which over 100 French prostitutes occupied the Church of St. Nizier in Lyon. In a very real sense, today is the birthday of the sex worker rights movement; though Margo St. James had already founded COYOTE two years before, the French protests were the first ones large and vociferous enough to gain media attention, and led to the formation of the French Collective of Prostitutes (which in turn inspired the founding of the English Collective of Prostitutes and a number of other, similar organizations). And had its growth not been stunted by the unwelcome arrival of AIDS (and its attendant demonization of anything sex-related), decriminalization might very well have been the rule among advanced countries by now rather than the exception.
The harm done by plague-hysteria was less in countries with more tolerant policies, so they were the first to recover; starting in 1988 a number of jurisdictions in Europe and Australia either removed or reformed laws criminalizing prostitution or attendant activities such as brothel-keeping and solicitation. Then around the turn of the century the movement seems to have reached critical mass, probably due in no small part to the power of the internet: Germany reformed its laws in 2001, New Zealand decriminalized in 2003, and sex worker organizations all over the global south (starting with Kolkata’s Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, founded in 1992) began to gain momentum in their struggle against traditional stigma and recently-imposed laws designed to cater to American prudishness. But the prohibitionists were by no means asleep; as I wrote in “Awakening”,
…they noticed that there had been a sea change in public opinion against interfering in private sexual arrangements between consenting adults, and so created the “sex trafficking” hysteria as a means of rallying the public behind criminalization again. As the “Nation Strategy” of Swanee Hunt’s Demand Abolition organization states, “Framing the Campaign’s key target as sexual slavery might garner more support and less resistance, while framing the Campaign as combating prostitution may be less likely to mobilize similar levels of support and to stimulate stronger opposition.” In other words, “since people now recognize it’s wrong for the government to stick its nose into private bedrooms, we have to pretend this is really about something else.”
Nor did it take the busybodies long to set their scheme in motion; the hysteria began in earnest in January of 2004 thanks in large part to a sensationalized New York Times article named “The Girls Next Door”, which was similar in tone, content and effect to William Stead’s 1885 “The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon” (the article which kicked off the previous panic over “sex trafficking”, or “white slavery” as it was called at the time). And though the crusade was rooted in American Protestant notions of “pure and pious womanhood”, it also proved popular with Western governments as a means of restricting migration without appearing racist or xenophobic.
Because of this, it is the poorer countries of the developing world which have borne the brunt of this jihad; it is they who are invaded by white Westerners playing at being saviors of childlike brown folk, they whose governments are pressured into enacting oppressive laws, and they whose women are abducted, beaten, robbed, gang-raped, starved and forced into sweatshops run by the garment industry which (coincidentally, I’m sure) bankrolls at least one of the biggest “rescue industry” icons. So it is both appropriate and encouraging that the most outspoken and effective activism in the world is being done by the sex workers in those countries, especially India, Bangladesh, Korea, Cambodia and Thailand. African sex workers are not far behind them, and their courage and persistence has won them allies both inside and outside the governments of South Africa, Malawi, Kenya, Rwanda, Zimbabwe and Namibia. The sex worker rights movement was born in the West, but it has come of age in the East and South, and it is their example which is most heartening to those of us struggling under the near-constant persecution of our profession in the United States.