Beyond Vice and Victimhood: Recognizing the Human Rights of People in Sex Work

Meena Seshu

Next month, the Parliament of India will vote on an amendment that could further stigmatize and violate the human rights of sex workers by criminalizing the purchase of sexual services in India.

Across histories and cultures,
people in prostitution and sex work have historically been cast as social
deviants. With the arrival of HIV and AIDS, they have been further stigmatized,
as carriers and transmitters of the disease, and have been excluded
from policy decisions that threaten their health and well-being.

Next month, the Parliament
of India will vote on an amendment to India’s 2006 Immoral Traffic
(Prevention) Amendment Bill

that will further stigmatize and violate the human rights of sex workers
by criminalizing the purchase of sexual services in India.

While the political appeal
of criminalizing the clients of sex workers is clear, there is no evidence
from any country that this is an effective strategy for the protection
of women sex workers from violence and abuse. Indeed, there is
growing evidence from numerous countries that criminalizing either the
sex worker or her client is likely to contribute to abuse and marginalization
of sex workers. Criminalization forces sex work to be clandestine
and gives latitude to the police to be abusive of sex workers, as well
as opening the door for criminal elements to become prominent in the
sex trade.

In 1998, Sweden passed a similar
law penalizing the purchase of sexual services. It was argued
at the time that this strategy would focus the force of the law and
law enforcement away from sex workers as the "weaker" and "exploited"
party in sexual transactions and would protect women sex workers from
the predatory impulses of their clients. After ten years, a number of independent
and credible evaluations

of the impact of this law have shown that far from protecting women
in prostitution, the law has made them more vulnerable in numerous,
unforeseen ways.

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Fearing prosecution, men have
made it clear that they prefer more covert venues for sexual transactions,
and a great deal of Sweden’s sex industry has apparently moved indoors,
a development greatly facilitated by the use of the internet.
Women sex workers still working on the street because they are unable
to move their work indoors have reported to researchers that the law
has made them more, not less, vulnerable to predatory and violent clients.
They note that the men who seek sex on the street are those who are
most desperate and violent.

Moreover, since there are fewer
clients on the street, those who are still there can be more demanding,
including insisting on sex without condoms and other unsafe acts.
Some experts have noted that because of the evidentiary rules attached
to it, the law has provided an incentive for men to refuse to use condoms
because condoms can easily be brought into evidence against them in
court proceedings.

Swedish women who remain in
street-based work also report that they are unable to maintain their
informal networks to warn each other about dangerous clients or support
one another in other ways. Transactions are more dangerous and stressful
as male clients want to hurry the negotiation, and it is harder for
the sex worker to assess whether the client is potentially violent or

Human rights and HIV/AIDS advocates
around the world have long looked to India as a model for engaging sex
workers and sex worker collectives as HIV/AIDS educators and key players
in HIV prevention nationally and internationally. Therefore, what India
decides is vitally important.

Support of sex workers is
critical during these challenging and precarious times, as policies
and laws that compromise the well-being and rights of sex workers are
emerging worldwide. We need to move the discussion beyond vice and victimhood
to support women’s rights and health together. The costs of not standing
together are great.

Topics and Tags:

Prostitution, Sex Work, Sexual rights

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