As I briefly mentioned earlier, yesterday was International Sex Workers Rights Day. I missed it; I didn’t know that it was going on until I’d already posted for the day, and I just didn’t have the time for a second post. So I planned to write about it today instead. I felt slightly guilty about that, but now that I’m well aware that the issue didn’t get nearly as much coverage as it should have, I feel really guilty. I tell you this not only by way of explanation, but also to say that if you blog, I know it’s easy to miss things and to not blog about something when you should. And it’s not too late to make it right.
That being said, to those who purposely avoided blogging on the topic, I understand why. Talking about sex work causes fighting, and not the feminist vs. troll kind, but the feminist vs. feminist kind. Positioning yourself in that argument isn’t a fun thing to do, particularly if you think that each side has at least a couple of good points, and it’s easy to avoid the question all together (this is of course, what we call “privilege”). But that doesn’t make avoiding it right. I’m fine with everyone voicing their opinions, but I do want to let everyone know up front that I will not allow things to get ugly, personal or insulting. And while I’m not going to insist that everyone post from a pro-decriminalization standpoint, I do insist that comments come from a perspective that promotes rights for sex workers — however you believe that those rights are best obtained. I’ve never had to ban a feminist before, or even ask one to stop posting; please don’t make me start today.
So. Why sex workers’ rights? Well, it’s pretty simple. Even those sex workers who enjoy their jobs get a hell of a raw deal. All around the world, sex workers are: investigated and arrested for making a living, deported even when there is evidence of non-consent, left without any form of job security, gang-raped and abused by their bosses but left without recourse for fear that they themselves will be arrested, and arrested for mere suspicion of prostitution, including carrying condoms (which only discourages safer sex).
We know that bad things happen to sex workers, that they are very often raped, abused, robbed, kidnapped or even murdered. But that isn’t even the worst of it — sex workers have horrible crimes committed against them but fear arrest too much to report, or do report and end up being mocked or further-victimized. Sex workers are raped by police officers. Sex workers are tortured and killed in cold blood, but their murderers may only be sentenced to 9 years in jail. Sex workers are murdered and then have their entire humanity reduced to their profession.
In the off chance that a case involving a crime against a sex worker actually makes it to court, we can expect that their profession will be trotted out and used against them at every possible chance. When there is little or no evidence that a woman is a sex worker, she’ll often be called one anyway (particularly if she’s a woman of color, trans* or low-income) — as an insult, as a way to call victims liars or suggest that they deserved the rape, or as a way to call victims liars and imply that they just might have deserved that attempted murder. In cases where the victim openly says that yes, she sells sex for a living, the gang rape she suffered at gunpoint by five men will be labeled “theft of services.” Not a suggestion that she’s lying — only a flat-out proclamation that a woman who works in the sex industry has given up any and all claims to personal bodily autonomy and the right to live safely and free of violence. Judges declare in courtrooms that sex workers cannot be raped, and then they are allowed to stay on the bench.
All of those cases I just mentioned are ones that I’ve personally blogged about. But here’s a newbie. A man accused of murdering a prostitute made this declaration about how one could not prove that he had committed the crime:
“Think of it as stolen property,” Svekla told his sister of the body left in her truck in May 2006.
“If you’re caught with stolen property, it doesn’t mean you stole it.”
Yup — a dead sex worker’s body is akin to stolen property. This is precisely what I’ve been getting at. The stigma against sex workers not only puts them in danger, forces them to live below the radar and makes reporting a crime next to impossible. The stigma against sex workers causes them to no longer be seen as human. Clearly, this guy is a murderer and a twisted fuck. I can’t say that the words that come out of his mouth are ones I would normally use to make a point about our society. But read the stories above, and then tell me that this is not only a more frank expression of those same attitudes. Because it is.
I don’t pretend that I have anything particularly original or insightful to say about sex worker rights, though I wish that I did. But I do know this for sure, and would like to believe that it goes without saying: women who work in the sex industry are women, too. They are punished and discriminated against for their status as women in the world. As feminists (who are not in the sex industry), we cannot ignore them either by refusing to discuss the issue or by discussing it without their input. In fact, as they are one of the most oppressed classes of women in the world, those of us who are feminists because we believe in social justice have an extra duty to not turn a blind eye.
For more about sex worker rights: a post by Jill at Feministe, more on Tamara Greene from BFP, a thought-provoking article at AlterNet about migrant sex workers (which has me for the first page but totally loses me on the second), a post from Ren about less dramatic but still very real discrimination against sex workers — and how it makes leaving the sex industry nearly impossible for a woman who wants to — and the SWOP East blog, which compiles links about sex worker issues on a daily basis. Got more? Leave them in the comments (so long as they meet the above requirements).