International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers was on December 17th. I am sorry that I didn’t write about it before it happened, as there were events around the world that I would have loved to help advertise. Too often clients, employers, and police subject sex workers to violence, and too often little is done to stop it. Attitudes toward sex workers often partake of the same sort of victim-blaming, slut-shaming words and behaviors often faced by sexual assault survivors, as part of a larger set of cultural attitudes that seek to limit women’s equality. SAFER believes that campuses are made safer by resisting violence against sex workers, and we hope that sex workers might be made safer by promoting safer campuses – challenging deeply ingrained cultural attitudes takes work from all sides to chip away, change, and remake our culture.
Effectively supporting sex worker activism can be a complicated challenge from outside such an experience, however – it’s important for me to recognize that my position may be a relatively privileged one and is definitely one without experience in that field. I tend in such cases to look for guidance from voices who have experiences I don’t have, and experiences with sex work can vary greatly. Many people are forced into it, either through coercion or from a lack of other legitimate economic options. Others choose sex work because it provides a better economic option or because they get pleasure from it. How people entered the field may strongly shape their reactions to attempts to end violence against sex workers and to combat human trafficking.
As a case in point, Sex Work Activists, Allies and You (SWAAY), who I found through the Feministe post that tipped me off that I had missed International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, will be protesting a recent Google Foundation grant to organizations that aim to end human trafficking. While SWAAY recognizes the importance of fighting slavery and coercion, they believe that three of the funded organizations, including the lead partner, take anti-sex worker positions and encourage the criminalization of sex workers. A particular concern for them is that many organizations led by sex workers or former sex workers seem to be having more difficulty accessing funding then those that are promoting solutions from the outside.
At least one of the organizations of concern to SWAAY has partnered with GEMS, however, an organization founded by a woman who is a survivor of commercial sexual exploitation in her teenage years, and an organization whose work I really respect. GEMS does tremendous work to help survivors (largely children and adolescents) of what they term “commercial sexual exploitation” develop educational and employment opportunities and deal with the traumas associated with their lives before and after being exploited.
The complexities of navigating the rhetorics and realities of anti-trafficking work were recently highlighted in a recent, fascinating Bitch article. The author, Emi Koyama, highlights the emphasis in much anti-trafficking work and media coverage on increased policing and decreased investigation of the complex factors of poverty, racism, abuse and homophobia that inform many people’s experience of human trafficking.
While very much recognizing the validity of the concerns raised (as one tiny example, I am totally weirded out by the almost unalleviated use of “victim” in the several anti-trafficking websites I reviewed, GEMS very much excepted), I also am moved by the work that many of these organizations are doing on behalf of people, many of them children, who clearly did not make a choice to become sex workers. Sexual abuse of children is something we definitely need desperately to combat in all its forms, and I think it is very important to separate issues of children and adults in sex work.
I have a lot to learn about sex worker activism and anti-trafficking, and this post is intended to raise issues I’m thinking about, not to reach a conclusion. One point on which I definitely agree with SWAAY is the need to support more organizations led by sex-workers and former sex-workers. SAFER similarly strives to be led by students and recent graduates because we believe that personal experience is a key source of information to guide effective activism.
To take it back to where this post began, look to sex worker and former sex worker activists like GEMS, Sex Workers Outreach Project-USA (organizers of the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers), and SWAAY to learn from those who have experienced sex work how we might best work to end violence against sex workers. I hope that we can all work together to develop and promote thoughtful, judicious policies, programs, and laws that recognize and prosecute abuse, but also recognize and respect adult choices in situations where a choice was freely made. Certainly, I hope we can all agree that respecting, and not criminalizing, sex workers is the first step we all need to take.