It’s not something you expect to hear from a women’s rights group: our prostitutes are better than yours. But that’s the tone struck by Equality Now in their new campaign against United Nations recommendations that sex work be decriminalized. Claiming that the UN “ignores survivors of prostitution,” Equality Now and their allied anti-prostitution organizations have offered their own experts who have worked in the sex trade – who all also happen to agree with them that prostitution must remain illegal.
The UN’s reports concerning sex work weren’t front page news outside of some HIV and human rights circles. To recap: after several years of consultations with a range of stakeholders, including sex workers, two reports published by the United Nations in 2012 called for an end to laws that criminalize sex workers. A joint report from UN Development Program (UNDP), the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), and the Joint UN Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) assessed laws in 48 countries in Asia and the Pacific; likewise, UNDP’s Global Commission on HIV and the Law examined 140 countries. Both reports draw from hundreds of firsthand accounts; stakeholder submissions, including those made by sex workers, are available to read online. The joint UNDP/UNFPA/UNAIDS report reads, “Sex worker organizations were key partners in this study,” including developing study methodology itself.
What’s so galling for anti-prostitution groups about the results, then? “The legal environment in many countries exposes sex workers to violence and results in their economic and social exclusion,” the Global Commission report concluded – identifying more than 100 countries that criminalize some aspect of sex work. “There is no evidence that decriminalization has increased sex work,” the joint report finds. Evidence gathered also indicates that “the approach of defining sex work as legitimate labour empowers sex workers.”
This is absolute heresy for campaigners like those who staff Equality Now, who have spent 20 years reliving the feminist sex wars over prostitution, only now conducted at the level of international policy. Their aim is simple: to keep prostitution illegal, despite evidence that illegality is dangerous, and despite even sex workers’ own demands. This is why you will find a former prosecutor – Lauren Hersh, who resigned from the Brooklyn District Attorney’s sex trafficking unit – now leading this ostensibly human rights campaign. The people formerly responsible for enforcing these laws are now the same ones so loudly defending them.
This is why these groups are opposing the UN’s recommendations, which find that laws against sex work – and not sex work itself – lead to discrimination and abuse against people in the sex trade. To even question the role of these laws in exposing sex workers to harm puts their anti-prostitution campaigns on the spot. To go further and to recommend laws against sex work be removed, and that this is how the human rights community should move to protect sex workers, shakes anti-prostitution advocates at their foundations. That’s what they think their job is.
It doesn’t look like Equality Now particularly refutes the UN’s evidence, only their conclusions (“These reports,” they write to their supporters, “make recommendations in direct opposition to international human rights standards”) and who they believe. Their open letter to Michel Sidibe, executive director of UNAIDS, challenges the definition of sex work used in the report, drawn from sex workers’ own experience: “The reports draw a distinct line between “voluntary adult sex work” and “exploitative, coerced, often violent trafficking of people.” Through our experiences working with survivors of trafficking, we have learned that in practice it is often difficult to draw this distinct line.” How can the UN be sure, they imply, that the sex workers they listened to were who – really, were what – they said they were?
The supporters Equality Now has marshaled go further, questioning sex workers ability to testify on their own behalf. “I believe if a prostitute or former prostitute wants to see prostitution legalized,” writes former prostitute and Equality Now campaigner Rachel Moran, “it is because she is inured both to the wrong of it and to her own personal injury from it.” That is, if sex workers disagree with Equality Now’s policy aims, don’t listen: that’s just their trauma talking.
Considering that the United Nations has also recommended abolishing laws against homosexuality, would pro-criminalization advocates like Moran apply the same argument to lesbians, insisting that the UN first listen to former lesbians who have since rejected sex with women before defending lesbians’ rights? But sex work isn’t just an issue of discrimination based on sexual behavior; sex work concerns occupational health and rights. What would Equality Now make of the International Labor Organization (also a UN agency) and their decision, when they found poor working conditions in Cambodian garment factories, to step-up inspections with the support of garment workers’ unions and rights groups, rather than demand we outlaw all garment work?
This is also hardly the first time Equality Now has asked the public to ignore the testimony of sex workers who dissent with Equality Now’s stance. At a June 2012 picket outside the offices of the Village Voice to demand the alt weekly cease publishing sex workers’ ads, an Equality Now staffer told the few dozen people assembled that the ad service, Backpage, had acted as a “pimp” to those who purchase advertisements. Referring to the sex workers gathered in counter-protest, she continued, “They’re so normalizing this behavior that a group of Backpage advertisers have come out today to oppose us.” Pay no attention to those “prostitutes.”
It should be no surprise that sex workers strongly oppose the actions Equality Now says they carry out on their behalf. “At the launch of the Sex Work and the Law in Asia and the Pacific Report, we warned that there was a concerted push to eradicate sex work worldwide,” writes the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers (APNSW). “The evidence shows that if sex workers are empowered to realize their human rights, abuses within the sex industry can be addressed through labor rights and legal recognition.” The African Sex Workers Alliance notes that “many women who would otherwise live in poverty support themselves and their families through sex work: those who seek to further criminalize those women have no suggestions for replacing their income.”
Anti-prostitution groups like Equality Now would like to say they do care for people in the sex trade, and that the issue is simply that opinion is divided – so long as those opinions all lead to fulfilling their fantasy of a prostitution-free world. If getting there means passing tougher laws that endanger sex workers, well: they don’t want to answer for that. It’s time they do, and with clarity: how do they believe any of us should decide which sex workers are worth listening to? And how many sex workers should we continue to needlessly expose to police violence, HIV, STIs, unplanned pregnancy, losing their children, eviction, and outing in the press – all documented by sex workers, and in these reports – while they come to a decision?
Sex workers understand the stakes are much higher than debating whether or not the sex trade should exist. So long as they are regarded as less-than by society, sex workers’ lives will matter less, apparently even to some who claim to come bearing rights.
Gira Grant writes on sex, politics, and the internet for publications including The Nation, the Guardian, Wired.com, In These Times, Dissent, and Glamour. She is the author of Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work (Verso, 2014).
Photo by Flickr/Steve Rhodes