Since becoming a part of the U.S. sex worker rights movement
five years ago, talking about contentious issues concerning bodies, labor,
money, and rights has very much become my calling. In the past year alone, I’ve
been quoted on CNN
about the value of virginity, talked about South Carolina’s Governor Mark
Sanford on WNYC’s The Takeaway,
and admonished the Boston Herald for its slurs toward sex
workers. Suffice to say, I give my
opinion freely and often loudly.
I thought I knew a lot about sex work, rights, and
organizing when, in September, I set off for two weeks in India with my colleague
Program Officer for Asia at the International Women’s Health Coalition.
But as much as I am accustomed to being an “expert,” I
quickly realized that I knew next to nothing about the nuances of Indian
culture and the dynamics of the local struggle for sexual rights and
reproductive health. While there are many things that I learned during the two
weeks I spent time with our partners at CREA, The YP Foundation, Commonhealth,
perhaps the biggest lesson I learned–as a leader, as an advocate, and as
privileged white lady from the United States who was way out of my element–was
to shut up and listen.
I spent almost a week in Sangli, a
rural district that’s six to nine hours (depending on who’s driving!) southeast
of Mumbai. Maharashtra state, where Sangli is located, has
progressive laws that afford many rights to its citizens, particularly in
respect to accessing healthcare. However, populations that are already marginalized
in their communities and in local institutions—like sex workers, HIV-positive
women, and people who are not literate—do not know their rights or how to
navigate the legal structures and institutions that facilitate access to these
rights and services.
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In Sangli, I spent time with the
staff and organizers of SANGRAM, which empowers
individuals with the knowledge and tools they need to understand and claim their
rights. SANGRAM was founded in 1992 to address the growing HIV infection rate
in Sangli district, and they soon realized the value of mobilizing sex workers to
become agents of change in fostering a sustainable and effective response to
the epidemic. Today, one of the
organization’s largest projects is a collective of 5,000 sex workers that
manages a peer HIV prevention education and condom distribution program in
Sangli. This collective also advocates to ensure equal access to health
services and end violence and discrimination against sex workers. While many organizations train and bring
in people from outside the community to help and support people in need (the
social work model), SANGRAM operates under the principle that the only way to
empower people is to provide them with the tools they need to claim their
rights and facilitate change.
It was inspiring to meet the HIV-positive rural women,
illiterate sex workers, and community health advocates who are working together
to facilitate change in their communities. Many told me how for years, doctors in the local primary
health centers refused to provide health services to sex workers or avoided
touching them by giving them inoculations with extra long needles. With
SANGRAM’s assistance, sex workers have been able to form alliances with some of
the doctors and achieve a higher standard of care and respect. Their efforts
have resulted in health system
improvements that benefit the entire community: advocates have been successful
in demanding that the primary health centers be functional, with trained staff,
adequate supplies, and medicine.
In Sangli, I worked with SANGRAM to
document their work and successes.
On International Human
Rights Day, we released a five minute video about sex worker
organizing, the first collaborative media project of the International
Women’s Health Coalition & SANGRAM.
Since we posted the short documentary about SANGRAM and the
mobilization of sex workers in Sangli, it’s been interesting to read the posted
comments and reactions. One of the most frequent responses is a well-meaning
but slightly problematic one. To paraphrase: “It’s so great to see these women getting the
protection and help they need!” Obviously, the respondents want what’s best for
women, but this response doesn’t instill much trust in the agency of sex
workers to realize what’s best for them on their own. Furthermore, it casts sex
workers as damaged goods: victims in need of saving, delicate flowers in need of
Why is it that there has been a shift in how advocates
describe those who experience gender-based violence from “victim” to
“survivor,” but when speaking of people in the sex industry, the word “victim”
has persisted? Why is it that US-funded HIV prevention programs require a
denunciation of sex work by organizations best poised to reach sex workers with
life-saving information and services? Why is it that while in other social
justice movements, the voices of the people most affected are at the forefront,
yet some feminists are quick to leap into conversations about sex work and
trafficking to speak for the affected communities?
The basic answer to these questions is that many people
regard the sex industry as something that must be halted, one that at its core
perpetuates violence against the people who work in it, a business from which
no good can come. I won’t argue that the sex industry is a well-functioning
industry that respects the rights of all its workers, or that most sex workers
feel safe and fulfilled in their jobs. However, there are a variety of
contributing factors that might keep a sex worker in the business, even if the
worker has the choice to leave it for other work.
SANGRAM works to prioritize the voices of sex workers
themselves, so that sex workers can articulate what they need to be safe,
healthy, and able to provide for themselves and their families. Sometimes this
includes an exit strategy, but often the sex workers’ circumstances and the
economic and social climate in which they live make exit from the sex industry
Programs that are designed to rescue and protect sex workers
from the industry usually don’t comprehensively consider the well-being and
economic stability of the people they are supposed to serve. One of the tactics
these programs often employ is abstinence education – and we all know how well that’s worked for sexuality
education. Another recent example of an attempt to rehabilitate sex workers is
an initiative launched in India in which men volunteered to marry sex workers to get
them out of the sexually exploitative situation of the sex industry.
As any survivor of intimate partner violence knows, marriage isn’t exactly a safe
haven from violence or HIV infection for women.
a major Open Society Institute report titled “Rights,
Not Rescue” indicates, programs that aim to get sex workers out of
the industry do little to reduce violence or improve health and working
conditions within the industry.
According to the report, which analyzes rehabilitation programs in
Namibia, and South Africa, “None of the
interviewed sex workers who had completed rehabilitation programs had managed
to obtain gainful employment from their training.” Domestically, in a recent program launched by the
Dallas, Texas police to rehabilitate sex workers, half of 375 arrested
sex workers chose rehabilitation over being charged with prostitution, but only
21 of those who went through the rehabilitation program had left the business
upon follow up.
these numbers and testimonies by sex workers about the problems with rescue and
rehabilitation programs, getting sex workers out of sex work is widely posited
as the way to end exploitation.
The exercise of human rights should not be contingent on whether
or not you think a person’s choices or circumstances are a good way to live or
be. Entangling morality with a conversation about rights and painting a
portrait of people in the sex industry as victims without voices only perpetuates
The feminist movement is built on the principle that women
should have opportunities that are equal to those granted to men, a lot of
which is about economic opportunity – things like pay equity and the ability to
own property. It is also built on the struggle for women’s rights to control
their own bodies and make choices about their sexual rights and reproductive
health that are unfettered by cultural and familial demands. The struggle for
sex workers’ rights is at the intersection of the struggle for economic justice
and bodily rights, and it is perhaps that combination that can often make
discussing sex work uncomfortable.