Sex Worker Rights We support the rights of sex workers so they can live free from violence and abuse.

The Context

AJWS recognizes that sex work is a global phenomenon. Inspired by our deep belief in the essential dignity of every person, we support adult sex workers as they endeavor to protect themselves and their families from violence, sexual abuse and discrimination. We also fully support the access of sex workers to health care, housing, education and other essential services to which every person has a human right.

The exact number of sex workers worldwide is difficult to estimate because sex work is outlawed and clandestine in many places, and estimates vary by country. For example, in India—one of the most populous nations—an estimated 2-3 million women earn their living from selling sex.1 In Kenya, a much smaller country, there are about 140,000 female sex workers.2

The Problems

Unfortunately, sex workers frequently face harsh conditions and outright abuse—and they often have nowhere to turn for help. A review of more than 800 studies and reports found that sex workers experience frequent attacks: Clients assault, rape and murder them. Police arrest, extort and beat them. Health workers discriminate against them, sometimes refusing to provide services they critically need.3

Instead of stopping these abuses, police often make things worse. They carry out violent raids on brothels, and many sex workers detained in these raids have reported that they did not wish to leave their jobs. Nevertheless, they were forced into rehabilitation centers, where they were raped, beaten and lacked sufficient food and water, toilets and medical care.4

To make matters worse, many sex workers struggle to help their children pursue other opportunities in life. Because of discrimination against sex workers, their children often experience mistreatment at school, ranging from bullying and assault by classmates to expulsion by administrators.

Much of this suffering stems from laws that promote discrimination against sex workers and push them to carry out their jobs in unsafe conditions, without the basic labor rights and protections afforded to people working in other sectors of the economy. Although abuse against sex workers occurs in many countries, they suffer the most in places where sex work is against the law.5

Our Solutions

Since 2005, AJWS has supported adult sex workers organizing to assist each other and to reform their industry, so they can live free from violence and abuse. Today, AJWS provides about $500,000 in grants each year to 17 organizations in eight developing countries, making AJWS one of the most significant funders of advocacy by and for sex workers worldwide.

The organizations AJWS supports work to:

  • Stop violence against sex workers and ensure that they can live in safety, at home and at work
  • Challenge the rampant discrimination that sex workers and their children face
  • Train police officers on how to forge partnerships with sex workers to reduce crime and increase safety
  • Increase sex workers’ access to health care services
  • Stop harmful brothel raids that end in involuntary placement in unsafe “rehabilitation” centers
  • Identify and assist survivors of sex trafficking
  • Decriminalize sex work, as recommended by UNAIDS, Amnesty International, the UN Development Programme and the Global Commission on HIV and the Law

We support evidence-based approaches proven to reduce the risks that people working in the sex industry face. To effectively stop abuse against sex workers, experts suggest that many changes must take place—from supporting sex workers to educate each other about their rights to reforming laws that have limited sex workers’ access to safe workplaces, economic opportunities and critical services such as health care.6

In addition to learning from research, AJWS also listens to and learns from the experiences of people affected by grave challenges —including sex workers. We listen carefully because we believe deeply in the Jewish value of b’tzelem Elohim, respecting the essential dignity of every person, without exception.

As supporters of human rights, we believe every person has the right to:

  • Make decisions about his or her own body
  • Live free from violence, discrimination and other threats
  • Access quality medical care and accurate information about sexual and reproductive health

Three Frequently Asked Questions About Sex Worker Rights

What is the difference between sex work and sex trafficking? Is sex work really a choice?

AJWS believes that sex trafficking—the use of force, fraud or coercion to make someone participate in commercial sex—is an abhorrent violation of human rights that must be stopped.

AJWS supports the rights of adult sex workers, who choose to earn their income by selling sex. By definition, sex work requires consent.

Still, we recognize that many sex workers have chosen their profession from a highly limited set of economic options—and that this reflects persistent inequality present in countries around the world. Unfortunately, this harsh economic reality shapes the decisions of many kinds of laborers, not just sex workers.

Why do you support decriminalizing sex work?

We support decriminalization of sex work because research shows it has the strongest potential to reduce the risks and abuse that many sex workers experience.

In addition to learning from research, AJWS has also listened to sex workers and learned from their experiences. We listen carefully because we believe deeply in the Jewish value of b’tzelem Elohim, respecting the essential dignity of every person, without exception. We are also inspired by the Sh’ma, an important Jewish prayer about the imperative to listen, to pay attention to injustice and to mend the brokenness in our world.

Many leading international health and human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, Open Society Foundations, Mama Cash, UNAIDS and the World Health Organization, agree with our position on decriminalization.

If you decriminalize sex work, what does that mean for efforts to stop sex trafficking?

Some people hope that sex trafficking might be abolished simply by outlawing sex work, but this strategy has not yielded the intended results. Laws against selling sex, buying sex or owning a brothel do not effectively prevent sex trafficking. Evaluations of Sweden’s “end demand” policies, which target those who buy services from sex workers, have found that laws against buying sex only drive the sex industry further underground, making it much more difficult to identify and help survivors of trafficking.7

Some well-intended activists who hope to abolish sex trafficking have come to the mistaken conclusion that supporting the rights of adult sex workers means supporting sex traffickers, violence and coercion. This is a misunderstanding of what sex worker rights organizations do. In fact, many of the sex worker-led organizations that AJWS supports play a critical role in combatting sex trafficking by monitoring activities in red-light districts, identifying potential trafficking survivors and offering assistance. These organizations also seek to reduce exploitation of workers in general, and provide vocational training and other assistance to those who want to leave the sex trade and pursue different work.


[1] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/238406448_Moni_Nag_Sex_Workers_of_India_Diversity_in_Practice_of_Prostitution_and_Ways_of_Life_Sex_Workers_of_India_Diversity_in_Practice_of_Prostitution_and_Ways_of_Life

[2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3940432/

[3] http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(14)60800-X/fulltext

[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3287462/

[5] http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(14)60800-X/fulltext

[6] https://sites.sph.harvard.edu/hhrjournal/2013/10/toward-a-legal-framework-that-promotes-and-protects-sex-workers-health-and-human-rights/

[7] http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(14)60980-6/fulltext

 

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