Sex Workers Can Speak for Themselves

WONETHA is a human rights-based organization and registered NGO, based in Uganda. WONETHA seeks to improve the health, social and economic wellbeing of female adult sex workers in Uganda. Veshya Anyay Mukti Parishad (VAMP), India, is a collective of women in sex work against injustice who have mobilized in order to speak out about HIV and AIDS, violence against sex workers and to fight for the rights of people in sex work. 

In a CNN piece published late last year, filmmakers Jane Wells and John-Keith Wasson make sweeping conclusions about sex workers: that they are all victims and that the best way to help them is by shutting down the “evil” sex industry. Their conclusion is troubling because, in order to arrive at it, Wells and Wasson had to blatantly ignore the voices of sex workers themselves who have proposed very different solutions than Wells and Wasson.

As representatives of two of the largest sex worker rights organizations in India and Uganda, we hope to ensure that the voices of sex workers are heard. We have won significant victories within our communities so that public systems – like health and police – promote, respect and protect our rights as citizens of our countries. We have forged important partnerships with feminists, health and human rights movements to create an environment in which all can live free from violence. We are not victims.

We are motivated to respond to this article because people like Wells and Wasson making such misguided, public judgments about sex workers undermine our efforts to ensure that the human rights of sex workers are not only acknowledged, but also upheld.

Here are a few key points Wells and Wasson fail to understand:

1) Sex work and sex trafficking are not the same thing. As sex workers and their allies, we are against all forms of forced labor. We work hard within our communities to identify traffickers and those who have been trafficked.  We are active participants in organizing and mobilizing for our rights and the rights of all people in our communities.

2) Wells and Wasson are right about one thing: sex trafficking is horrific. But it’s inaccurate and disrespectful to assume that all sex workers are victims who need to be rescued. Brothel raids and rescues, which is one “solution” to trafficking endorsed by the likes of Nicholas Kristof, often do far more harm than good. They provide police more opportunities to invade the lives of sex workers, abuse and detain them, sometimes in “rehabilitation” centers that function more like prisons. These rescue interventions simply make sex workers even more afraid of police, government clinics and NGOs – keeping them away from services, even the ones that might assist them.

3) Sex workers are in a unique position to identify and assist women and girls who have been trafficked. For example, VAMP noticed that some sex workers in their communities were underage. In response, VAMP developed a system, monitored by the sex workers themselves, to ensure that no trafficked women or underage girls work within their community. Committees from each community watch for signs of a trafficking situation and work closely with peers and the police to protect the rights and give options for the trafficked persons to best address the vulnerability that led to them being trafficked to begin with.

4) Sex workers are organized. We are part of a powerful, global labor rights movement. Sex workers have gathered in cities across the globe to discuss the challenges they face, share potential solutions and advocate for their rights to live and work without violence and fear. Working together, sex workers have created positive changes for themselves and their families, from dramatically reducing the spread of HIV to leading community initiatives to stop violence, whether from police officers or from clients. Still, Wells and Wasson think they know what is best for sex workers, and they cite imaginary statistics to make their point: They falsely state that a “small percentage of voluntary sex workers” are somehow condemning a vast number of women into sexual slavery. Actual research tells a very different story. The First Pan-India Survey of Female Sex Workers was published by Rohini Sahni and V Kalyan Shankar, University of Pune, in April 2011. This survey focused on 3000 women across 14 states in India. On the question of how these women entered sex work, out of 2972 valid responses, 79.4% of women said they entered sex work on their own volition.

5) Abolishing sex work is harmful, not helpful. By conflating sex work with sex trafficking, Wells and Wasson suggest that sex work must be abolished. It’s a policy approach that would undoubtedly hurt many sex workers—predominantly women—who are proud that sex work has allowed them to pay for their children’s school fees, buy a house, or leave an abusive husband. In low-income communities in India and Uganda, sex work is one of opportunities for a woman to earn enough money so that she doesn’t have to depend on a man financially. Wells and Wasson fail to mention how common domestic violence is for women across the globe, not just sex workers. Economic dependency on a boyfriend or husband is just one of many reasons why women tend to feel trapped in abusive relationships.

6) Making sex work a “moral” issue is also not helpful. The moralistic approach to sex work that recommends abolishing it is also at the core of other State sponsored strategies such as cracking down on sex work. These activities often simply reinforce and legitimize the abuse that police direct toward sex workers. Police in many communities, particularly in developing countries like Uganda and India, believe they can get away with bribing, beating and raping sex workers with impunity—and this belief is deeply rooted in their view of sex work as an immoral, criminal activity even though sex work itself is not a crime in India, for example.

7) Sex worker rights are inextricably linked to labor rights. Wells and Wasson identify important labor rights issues, such as the potential for harassment in the relationships between brothel managers and sex workers. But they simply throw the blame on sex work as a whole which demonstrates how little they know about the diverse realities of sex work. Many sex workers are skilled at negotiation and not under the control of anyone. Our well-documented successes all stem from collective action rooted at the grassroots level: from taking on police who have abused sex workers, to working with local leaders to encourage fair and equal treatment of sex workers, to increasing the number of sex workers getting critical medical care, to offering economic empowerment programs for sex workers looking for additional income.

Unfortunately, Wells and Wasson are not alone. There are many people who claim to speak on behalf of sex workers, using melodramatic tactics based on shoddy data to stir up readers’ desires to defend the defenseless. In the future, we hope more advocates will hear what sex workers have to say and will focus on the facts. Let’s begin with this one: Not all sex workers are victims.

Megan Schmidt-Sane is a staff member of WONETHA, a sex worker rights organization in Uganda, and Meena Seshu is the Secretary General of Sangram, a sex worker rights organization in India associated with VAMP.