Sex workers' rights are human rights

Curator's Note

I've chosen this video, produced by members of the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers -- a group of organizations, founded and led by sex workers, who advocate for their own human rights. This video documents and responds to the violations of sex workers' human rights in Cambodia, where, in 2008, the United States threatened sanctions if prostitution was not outlawed there. Were sex workers consulted about what prostitution in Cambodia looks like, about what might happen if the police were futher empowered to enter their homes and businesses? As a result of this law and increased enforcement, sex workers were detained, interrogated, incarcerated, and physically and sexually abused by those they were told were "rescuing" them from harm and from violence. How could this have happened?

There are many people and institutions who claim to be advancing work that would give people who sell and trade sex the same rights to protection under the law as any other worker, as any other person has the right to live free from violence, free from sexual assault, free from coercion at the hands of employers and police and state bodies. However, with alarming frequency, those efforts do not include the voices of those most impacted by them, those loudest calling for change: sex workers themselves.

Sex workers are far from silent on these issues. In Cambodia, at the time this video was made, sex workers had already been successfully raising public attention about police brutality and rights' violations. The release of this video, made in partnership with WITNESS, brought international attention to the disastrous consequences of Cambodia's anti-prostitution law. One of the two detention centers described in the video has been closed. The sex workers who made this video have been honored with an award from Human Rights Watch and have gone on to make many more videos about what life really looks like for sex workers in the Asia Pacific, proving that "only rights can stop the wrongs." 


Melissa--you raise many good points about the need to recognize sex work as work and to find ways to ensure that sex workers are treated fairly under the law.  I assume that things have gotten worse in Cambodia with the institution of new laws imposed by the U.S., but  a question I have regards how things were before this happened.  Were conditions better?  Also, do/did women choose sex work freely over other professions/occupations, or are some proportion forced into by family or other people with power in their lives?  I ask because I lived in Madrid, Spain, from 2001-2002 where there were a number of South Asian and Eastern Eruopean women who were sold into prostitution and trafficked to Spain to work for the profit of their "employers" in Spain and abroad.  In Spain the legal situtation is different--Prostitutes are in an alegal category which means that people can't take legal action against them for practicing thier trade, however, they also cannot take legal action to improve their working conditions or demand access to government healthcare.  It seems that teh alegal status protects them from physical violence in Spain, but that doesn't change the fact that the women did not choose to be there in the first place.  This makes me curious as to what percentage of sex workers really choose to work in this field as opposed to being coerced into it by others.

What sets this video apart from much of the news reportage and often even documentaries dealing with the criminalization of sex work is the way the interviews bring out what happens *after* the raid. There is often a tendency to not only make the moment of the raid the central point around which the narrative is organized, but also to treat such interventions as heroic, without interrogating possibilities of police complicity in the harassment of and violence against sex workers. It is on the rare occasions, such as in this video, when sex workers themselves describe their experiences of ‘rescue’ that one is reminded that raids and rescue efforts do not automatically translate into better situations in the lives of women in sex work, given that in their daily work-lives, they are at the considerably less influential end of bargains that they constantly negotiate with the very agents responsible for these operations. Watching this video reminded me of an incident that Nalini Jameela, a sex worker from Kerala, India, reports in her autobiography. She writes about her very first client, a senior police officer who had her arrested the day after what she describes as consensual paid sex. Caned and beaten at the local police station, Jameela’s only source of escape was to have sex with another police officer.




Conducting interviews in India this past summer on a research project I am working on, I found that the role of the police in victimizing sex workers has not gone unrecognized. In India, where adult consensual sex work has been decriminalized but ‘prostitution’, understood as commercial sexual exploitation and brothel-keeping are both punishable by law, the government has issued guidelines requiring police rescue teams to be accompanied by NGO workers. Media reports and documentaries in the last few years have focused on the work of some of these NGOs committed to preventing commercial sexual exploitation, but there seems to be less effort to document the *conditions* of rescue and ‘rehabilitation’. The extremely unpleasant and unhygienic conditions that the sex workers interviewed in the video Melissa posted offer a telling counter-narrative to heroic tales of intervention, however well-meaning they might be.




The points Melissa raises about sex workers' exclusion from consultation in the decision to criminalize the work they do is definitely worth underlining, as is the observation by the NGO worker in the video about how this turn of events has driven sex work underground. Again, this resonates in a way with what happened in India on the issue of amendments to the Immoral Traffic Prevention Act in 2006. It was certainly a different situation from what seems to have happened in Cambodia, in that the proposal in India is to *de*criminalize prostitution. However, it criminalized clients visiting brothels, a provision that invited strong protests from sex workers’ rights groups involved in fighting HIV/AIDS, who argued that this would urge clients to seek sex clandestinely, outside brothels where sex workers would be in a weaker bargaining position to insist that the client wear a condom. Like in the Cambodian case, sex workers had not been consulted in the amendment process till legal activists took up the cause and demanded that the parliamentary committee give them a hearing.




This pressing issue of the need for the inclusion of sex workers' voices in consultations about criminalization (or the nuances of decriminalization) raises a larger anthropological question about the role of NGOs in representation. As we all know, there are several NGOs out there, with commitments ranging on a spectrum from anti-trafficking to pro sex-work. Many of them are doing excellent work, as are several legal activists. However, as Melissa points out, their efforts rarely include the voices of those most impacted by what they do. My question is, can they ever do so without containing sex workers' voices within recognizable frames of reference actionable in policy circles? Can we ever access sex workers' articulations of their needs outside of often universalist human rights, crime prevention or HIV/AIDS discourses? My point is not so much to critique the work that NGOs or legal activists do, as to draw attention to the fact that sex workers' groups themselves must often work with NGOs or activists who possess the cultural and symbolic capital (not to mention the established vocabulary) to affect legislation and policy-making or, at the very least, to provide access to that elusive entity, 'international attention'. I was thinking about the discussion over Sameer Padania's post this week, on the question of why some videos get to circulate more than others, and wondered whether Human Rights Watch’s endorsement of the APNSW video facilitated a wider reach beyond the circles where it would initially have garnered attention. Without in any way undermining the excellent work by the APNSW and WITNESS in producing this video, I think it might be worth pondering further over the specific discourses of representation that access to circulation seems to call for.




Thanks for posting, and helping me think through some of these issues I am beginning to grapple with in my own research.

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