Sex work (or prostitution as many know it) is a subject surrounded by fierce discussion, often about human trafficking. In much of the discourse, the line that separates the concept of sex work from human trafficking seems to have all but disappeared.
Discrimination, indignity, violence and diseases – all issues sex workers in many countries face regularly. But not because it necessarily is ‘part of their job’, but because society condemns and criminalises them.
A 17-year old girl from Thika (Kenya)has been arrested by the local police for soliciting sex. She gets assigned a police cell . The chief commands one of the officers to deliver him the girl the following morning. She is raped repeatedly. When the chief is done with her she can go back to her cell. Two other officers follow this pattern for days. Then finally, the girl is released.
I can imagine you thinking of sex work as something a bit strange. When you hear that 85% of women working in the Red Light District does so against her will, it makes sense to wonder why we still accept this in the Netherlands. I can imagine you might turn against sex work if you hear only about exploitation and abuse. And I can even understand that, in terms of your religion, or values around sexuality, you find it strange that some people use sex to earn money. It is easy to follow the mainstream media who present you this information on a silver platter. Before I learned differently, I believed the same.
June 2015. It’s the first time I’m on the phone with Nadia, Coordinator of the Red Umbrella Fund. Nadia tells me that the Red Umbrella Fund supports sex workers in order to improve their work and living conditions. I think about a documentary I once saw: ‘Jojanneke in de Prostitutie’. It was supposed to be about sex work, but all that I saw were conditions that made me think of human trafficking. I wonder why someone would support something degrading like sex work? This required some research. Disbelief turned out to be naivety and ignorance changed to knowledge.
In no time, I am transformed in a firm advocate of decriminalisation. Why? Because the ‘degrading ’ part is in the way sex workers are treated, not in the work itself.
The story of the girl from Thika is just one small example of what I read in Open Society’s report on violence and abuse against sex workers in Kenya (2008). In Kisumu, another city in Kenya, sex workers are often directly claimed by senior police officers. One women was kept imprisoned and abused in the house of one of the agents. After four days, when a new victim was arrested who could take over her place, she was released. The way female police officers treat sex workers isn’t much better. Arrested sex workers are not aloud to walk, but have to crawl. They are forced to perform stripteases in order to be humiliated. Often they have to sleep on the ground and don’t get proper food. At night they get ordered to mop the floor with urine and water mixed together, for no other reason than it being possible.
This doesn’t only happen in Kenya. Rape and violence by police and customers is common in many countries. Sex workers are regularly banished from their community and denied access to healthcare. In Cambodia, for example, sex workers can’t reach out for HIV medication. Are we ever going to solve the worldwide HIV problem if the most vulnerable group to this disease can’t receive any help? I don’t think so. One sex worker declared that she has accepted a two dollar offer for sexual intercourse because if she didn’t, her child wouldn’t eat that night. Without labor rights and basic human services, she has no choice but to agree to such low prices.
The stories hit home, injustice is something that always touches me very deeply. The problem is actually pretty simple: with such a lack of respect respect, sex workers aren’t seen as worthy human beings. If society doesn’t accept you, you don’t have much money and your job is illegal, you end up in very vulnerable positions. Violence and exploitation then become inevitable.
Why do we have such a problem with sex work?
Sex work is ‘the voluntarily sexual exchange between two people upon payment.’ In my opinion nothing is wrong with this. If free sex is accepted, why isn’t payed sex? Or are we struggling with the addition of the word ‘voluntary’ which is a word that doesn’t seem to exist when people think of sex work? We all know human trafficking is horrible. However, by criminalising sex work we create an ‘underground world’ where it is extremely difficult to separate wrong from right. It won’t only do harm to those that voluntarily work in the business, but also, and maybe even more, to the ones that don’t. This already existing underground will grow, and real human trafficking victims will disappear in the mass. This is an underground world wherein rights don’t exist. A world that’s hard to reach for rescue teams. A world wherein sex workers become even more vulnerable to addiction, violence and disease.
A great example of this underground world involves the issue of HIV. In countries like Tanzania and China, but also in the United States, sex workers are being arrested by the police, simply for carrying condoms.
If the choice is getting arrested or taking a risk and working without condoms in order to feed your child, what would you do?
The consequence is, as you can imagine, that many sex workers start working without condoms.
Some say sex work should be replaced by ‘normal work’. Actresses like Kate Winslet and Meryl Streep agree. They oppose Amnesty International’s new decriminalization policy. Ignoring the fact that some sex workers actually do enjoy their work, it is also very easy to make statements like these when you live in Hollywood, where money flows. Think of the woman who accepted two dollars for her services in order to feed her child. How will she find a ‘normal job’ in a country where there is a shortage in jobs? Factors such as poverty, lack of education, health and social status have a lot of influence on freedom of choice. That is why we have to realise that alternatives to sex work, if desired, are only possible when the economy allows it.
Forcing a sex worker to do 12-hour shifts in a textile factory for a pittance, which happens a lot, is definitely not the right solution. That looks more like human trafficking than sex work. NGOs who support these so-called ‘rescue operations’ should be ashamed. The woman who wants to feed her child needs nothing more than human rights and protection of her safety.
Amnesty International posted a video in which a women speaks about sex work, the money she earned doing it, and how it made it possible for her to save her children from a violent father. It reminded me of an interview with Marjan Wijers, researcher on human trafficking and sex work, which she did for magazine De Groene Amsterdammer:
‘Feminists should be the ones fighting for the rights of sex workers. The stigma on prostitution touches every women. It keeps the idea alive that the right of protection against violence depends on their honor or sexual purity.’
What is more powerful than a women saving her children from an abusive father? That doesn’t deserve discrimination or a jail sentence, only respect.
Eva Jansen, for the Red Umbrella Fund
This post was translated from Dutch. You can find the original post here.