Report: Sex Workers Face Widespread Abuses of Civil and Human Rights

Penelope Saunders

A recent report on the sex trade illustrates how stigmatization and criminalization of sex workers in the United States result in widespread abuses of civil and human rights.

This Friday, November 5, 2010, the United States will be reviewed as part of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process at the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva. The UPR is a relatively new way of addressing human rights in the UN system that came into being in 2008. During the review of the U.S. on Friday, other countries will ask questions about this country’s overall human rights record and propose recommendations that the United States will need to respond to over the next three months. The session can be viewed online as a webcast. This review is a historic occasion because the U.S. typically has a limited engagement with international human rights treaties and mechanisms.

Advocates for the rights of sex workers used the upcoming review of the United States to prepare the first comprehensive national statement on the rights challenges faced by people in the sex trade and people who are affected by anti-prostitution policies more generally (download a PDF of the 5 page report here). The report illustrates the ways in which stigmatization and criminalization of sex workers in the United States result in widespread abuses of civil and human rights, including the right to be free from discrimination; freedom from torture; the right to healthcare; and the right to equal protection under the law. These abuses are rampant in working class, majority African-American and Latino, and urban communities. Arrests for sex work can lead to a cycle of continued exclusion from housing, marginalization from formal employment, and re-imprisonment. Furthermore, law enforcement officers frequently commit physical and sexual violence against sex workers, while simultaneously failing to recognize that sex workers can be victims of crime, denying justice or support to sex workers who seek their help.

Two representatives from the Best Practices Policy Project, a group that coordinated the production of the report from sex worker advocates in the U.S in partnership with the Desiree Alliance and the Sexual Rights Initiative, are currently in Geneva presenting summary recommendations to diplomatic delegations and encouraging countries to ask the United States questions about its human rights record with respect to sex workers and other communities affected by the policing of sexual exchange. While few countries are prepared to be outspoken to defend sex worker rights, the activists on the ground report some encouraging conversations with country delegations, and remain hopeful that this will be the first time sex worker concerns are raised within the UPR milieu.

This Friday November 5, 2010 the United States will be reviewed as part of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process at the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva (http://www.ohchr.org/en/hrbodies/upr/pages/uprmain.aspx). The UPR is a relatively new way of addressing human rights in the UN system that came into being in 2008. During the review of the U.S. on Friday, other countries will ask questions about this country’s overall human rights record and propose recommendations that the United States will need to respond to over the next three months. The session can be viewed online as a webcast http://www.un.org/webcast/unhrc/index.asp. This review is a historic occasion because the U.S. typically has a limited engagement with international human rights treaties and mechanisms. 

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Advocates for the rights of sex workers used the upcoming review of the United States to prepare the first comprehensive national statement on the rights challenges faced by people in the sex trade and people who are affected by anti-prostitution policies more generally (download a PDF of the 5 page report here http://www.bestpracticespolicy.org/downloads/FinalUPRBPPP_Formatted.pdf). The report illustrates the ways in which stigmatization and criminalization of sex workers in the United States result in widespread abuses of civil and human rights, including the right to be free from discrimination; freedom from torture; the right to healthcare; and the right to equal protection under the law. These abuses are rampant in working class, majority African-American and Latino, and urban communities. Arrests for sex work can lead to a cycle of continued exclusion from housing, marginalization from formal employment, and re-imprisonment. Furthermore, law enforcement officers frequently commit physical and sexual violence against sex workers, while simultaneously failing to recognize that sex workers can be victims of crime, denying justice or support to sex workers who seek their help.

 

Two representatives from the Best Practices Policy Project, a group that coordinated the production of the report from sex worker advocates in the U.S in partnership with the Desiree Alliance and the Sexual Rights Initiative, are currently in Geneva presenting summary recommendations to diplomatic delegations and encouraging countries to ask the United States questions about its human rights record with respect to sex workers and other communities affected by the policing of sexual exchange. While few countries are prepared to be outspoken to defend sex worker rights, the activists on the ground report some encouraging conversations with country delegations, and remain hopeful that this will be the first time sex worker concerns are raised within the UPR milieu.

News Politics

Coalition Warns of Trump-Pence Ticket’s ‘Hateful’ Record

Ally Boguhn

“Let’s be clear, the Trump-Pence ticket is the gravest threat the LGBTQ community has ever faced in a presidential election,” said Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign.

A coalition of leaders from reproductive rights, LGBTQ, labor, and Latino organizations joined together Friday to speak on the political and legislative records of presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump and his newly announced running mate, Gov. Mike Pence (R-IN).

“Today Donald Trump doubled down on his hateful anti-LGBTQ agenda by choosing [as] a running mate … a man who has made attacking the rights and dignity of LGBT people a cornerstone of his political career,” said Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, during a press call hosted by the Hillary Clinton campaign. Speaking after news broke that Pence would join Trump’s ticket, Griffin outlined the many ways Pence had previously threatened the well-being of LGBTQ Americans, including voting against nondiscrimination efforts, signing a so-called religious freedom bill in the state, and opposing marriage equality

“Let’s be clear, the Trump-Pence ticket is the gravest threat the LGBTQ community has ever faced in a presidential election,” said Griffin.  

Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said that Pence’s selection was “proof positive” that the presumptive Republican nominee was moving to surround himself with “extreme ideologues,” adding that Pence had a track record of enforcing much of the anti-choice rhetoric Trump has wielded during his run for president. 

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“Donald Trump has promised to defund Planned Parenthood. Mike Pence actually led multiple efforts to shut down the government just so he could defund Planned Parenthood,” said Hogue. “As governor, he slashed funding for reproductive health-care clinics like Planned Parenthood to such a degree that it resulted in a public health crisis, with an uptick in HIV infections in rural areas of Indiana.”

“Donald Trump said … that he would punish women who had abortions. Under Mike Pence’s watch as governor, Purvi Patel … has been sentenced to 20 years in prison for attempting a home abortion,” continued Hogue.

“We now have two men in the race who don’t seem to get that women are half the workforce, and breadwinners in their families” said Liz Shuler, the secretary-treasurer of workers’ rights organization the AFL-CIO, in response to Pence’s selection. Shuler explained that Pence had voted against equal pay efforts such as the Paycheck Fairness Act and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act while in the U.S. House.

Pence also repealed Indiana’s construction wage law, which set a minimum wage for workers on public construction projects, “taking money directly out of the pockets of construction workers,” said Shuler. She compared Pence’s stance on labor issues to similar positions taken by Trump, who has previously claimed wages are “too high” and supports right-to-work laws, which as Rewire has previously reported, “have had negative effects on wages, income, and access to health care for people who work in states that have seen legislators attack collective bargaining.”

Martín Garcia, director of campaigns for the Latino Victory Project, worried about a Trump-Pence ticket’s impact on “Latinos across the country.” Garcia warned that Trump’s plan to deport 11 million people would “tear families and communities apart” and that his proposed border wall could “cost taxpayers millions of dollars.” He added that such policies would be in line with Pence’s rhetoric and policymaking.

During his time in Congress, Pence co-sponsored a measure which would have changed the rules on birthright citizenship, limiting it “to children born to at least one parent who is a citizen, immigrants living permanently in the U.S., or non-citizens performing active service in the U.S. Armed Forces,” according to ABC’s Indianapolis affiliate RTV6.

Commentary Sexuality

Auntie Conversations: Black Women Talk Sex, Self-Care, and Illness

Charmaine Lang

These auntie conversations were just as much about me as they were about my aunts and mama. I really want to know what to expect, what to anticipate, and perhaps, even, what not to do as I age and grow in relationships so that I, too, can have a fulfilling and healthy partnership.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

“You’re just being nosy,” one of my aunts said, after I asked her if she enjoyed having sex with her husband. I assured her this was all part of a research project on the intimate lives of Black women. She relented a bit, but still gave me the side-eye.

I’ve been engaged in archival research for the last year. While the personal letters of Black women writer-activists and the newspapers of the Third World Women’s Alliance are remarkable and informative, they provide little insight into the intimate lives and sexual desires of Black women. After all, sex improves our mood and alleviates stress: That immediate gratification of pleasure and release is a way to practice self-care.

So on a recent trip home to Los Angeles, I asked my aunties to share their stories with me at a little gathering they threw in my honor.

And they did.

I asked them: “What’s your sex life like?” “Do you want to have sex?” “Are you and your husband intimate?” “You know … does he kiss you and hold your hand?” And I learned that contrary to tropes that present us as either asexual mammies or hypersexual jezebels, the Black women in my life are vulnerable and wanting love and loving partners, at all stages of life.

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Between 1952 and 1969, my maternal grandmother had six daughters and one son. All of them grew up in South Central Los Angeles, witnessing white flight, the Watts riot of 1965, and the crack epidemic. At the same time, the women have kept the family intact. They are the ones who always plan big dinners for the holidays and organize food drives for their churches. And they arranged care of their mother toward the end of her life. I’ve always wondered how they were able to prioritize family and their own desires for intimacy.

So I asked.

My 57-year-old aunt who is a retired customer service representative living in Pomona, California, told me: “My lifetime of sex consisted of first starting off with getting to know the person, communicating, establishing companionship. Once that was done, the sex and intimacy followed. When you’re younger, you have no frets. You experiment all the time.”

I wanted to know more.

“You’re not just trying to get in our business? You’re actually going to write something, right?” was my mother’s response.

When asked about the state of her sex life, my 59-year-old aunt, a social worker, said: “I am a married woman without a physical sex life with my husband. His illness has a lot to do with this, along with the aging process.”

My Pomona aunt went into more detail about how as we get older our ability and desire changes.

“You try to keep pace with pleasing your partner, and he tries to please you. But it is hard when you are a full-time worker, wife, and mother, and you commute to work. You’re tired. Hear me: You’re tired; they are not. You grow older, gain weight, and get sicker. You start to take medicine, and all that affects your ability and desire to perform.”

“For me, in a nutshell, [sexual activity] feels like work: I don’t feel excited. When it happens, it happens,” she said.

I learned the combination of energy spent on wage work, domestic labor, and mothering is draining, dissipating the mood for sex or intimacy. A husband who does not have the same domestic responsibilities has more energy for sex. The unbalanced load equates to differences in desire.

I wondered: Did my aunts talk to their partners about this?

Illnesses, such as diabetes and cancer, can cause anxiety, depression, and fatigue, which interrupt lovemaking. Talking to a partner can help to create a new normal in the relationship.

However, as my social worker aunt made clear, “It takes two to talk openly and honestly, which I find very difficult most of the time.”

“To be vulnerable is hard because I do not want to get hurt emotionally, so I protect my heart from harm,” she explained. “[My husband and I] can be harsh and curt to each other at times, which leads to me shutting down and not expressing my true feelings. My husband can be prideful and unwilling to admit there are issues within the relationship.”

Aunt April, a 47-year-old Los Angeles teacher, had some things to share too. “My love life is complicated. After suffering an overwhelming and devastating loss in 2011 of my husband and mate of nearly 20 years, I’m very hesitant to fully try again.”

She hasn’t dated since 1991. After much counseling, grieving, and encouragement from her 12-year-old daughter, she decided to give it a try.

“I have been seeing someone, but I have a lot of fear that if I relinquish my heart to him, he will die. So, I think about sabotaging the relationship so that I don’t have to get to know him and start worrying about his well-being and wondering if he feels the same way I do. In my mind, it’s easier to be casual and not give too much of my heart,” she said.

Intimacy, then, is also about being vulnerable in communicating how one feels—and open to all possibilities, even hurt.

As a 34-year-old queer Black woman figuring out my dating life, my aunt’s words about communication struck me. At times I can be guarded, too, fearful of letting someone get close. I started to ask myself: “What’s my sex life like?” and “What role does intimacy play in my life as I juggle a job and doctoral studies?”

These auntie conversations were just as much about me as they were about my aunts and mama. I really want to know what to expect, what to anticipate, and perhaps, even, what not to do as I age and grow in relationships so that I, too, can have a fulfilling and healthy partnership.

“I enjoy sex more now then I did before,” my mama, Jackie, said. Now 55, she remarried in 2013. She lives in Gilbert, Arizona, and works in the accounting and human resource field. “My husband loves me unconditionally; with him, I’m more comfortable. It’s more relaxing.”

My mama expressed her ability to enjoy herself with her husband because of the work she put into loving herself and prioritizing her needs.

I always talk to my mama about my dating life: heartbreaks and goals. She always says, “Learn to love yourself first.” It really isn’t what I want to hear, but it’s the truth. Self-love is important and central to the success of any relationship, especially the one with ourselves. My social worker aunt often takes trips to the spa and movies, and my aunt April is an avid concertgoer. They have found ways to have intimacy in their lives that is not informed by their relationship status.

The journey to self-love can be arduous at times as we discover parts of ourselves that we don’t like and want to transform. But with much compassion and patience, we can learn to be generous with the deepest parts of ourselves and each other. And isn’t that a necessary part of intimacy and sex?

The stories shared by my womenfolk reveal a side of Black women not often seen in pop culture. That is, Black women older than 45 learning how to date after the loss of a partner, and finding love and being intimate after 50. Neither mammies nor jezebels, these Black women, much like the Black women activists of the 1960s and 1970s I study, desire full lives, tenderness, and love. My aunts’ stories reassure me that Black women activists from decades past and present have intimate relationships, even if not explicit in the body of literature about them.

The stories of everyday Black women are essential in disrupting dehumanizing stereotypes so that we can begin to see representations of Black women that truly reflect our experiences and dynamic being.