Parker has worked as a stripper in San Francisco, Las Vegas and NYC. She's also worked as a journalist in the Asia Pacific region writing about human rights, development and gender topics. If she were to be asked which industry was more exploitative to its workers, she'd probably go with journalism.


VAMP members after the raid (Photo by Dale Bangkok, courtesy of Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers)

VAMP members after the raid (Photo by Dale Bangkok, courtesy of Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers)

Sitting in a warm room in Phnom Penh with several other women from the Asia Pacific region, Kamalabai Pani, a sex worker and a board member of Veshya Anyay Mukti Parishad (VAMP, Prostitutes’ Collective Against Injustice) in India, became visibly upset when discussion turned to the efforts of U.S.-led feminist groups to discredit several United Nations bodies’ recommendations to decriminalize sex work in support of HIV prevention. These recommendations have been welcomed by sex worker-led groups as they believe criminalization endangers not only condom use but their very livelihoods.

In their writings and speeches, Western feminist groups have used the tactic of labeling sex worker collectives—essentially a form of trade union—as “promoters of prostitution” and “traffickers.” This lack of logic infuriates sex worker union advocates and the impact on sex workers’ lives is far more severe.

A warm woman with a demeanor of quiet strength, Pani spoke with anger recalling the raid on the VAMP community on May 20th, 2005. “These guys came to our brothel area and gave out contraceptives and sweets. Then they asked us details about the girls, how much they studied and things like that. The next day, a Friday, then came the police. There were about 40 people in plain clothes, 20-30 police in six vehicles that came to the red light area of Gokulnagar. They blocked off about five lanes and the houses. They did not ask us anything, they just came in.”

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Equality Now, Or Else?

by Parker on December 3, 2013 · 3 comments

in Activism, Politics

Meena Seshu (via her twitter)

Meena Seshu (via her twitter)

While Western-led feminist groups such as Equality Now continue to conflate consensual sex work with trafficking and violence, where do sex workers themselves  fit into concepts of feminism and gender equality, especially if they live in countries like India?

“When you are coming from a place like India, you have the whole caste system, stigma and discrimination to deal with.  The paradigm becomes all inclusive.  I wouldn’t talk about equality, I would talk about equity.  You cannot talk about equality when you have spaces so filled with unequal distribution of wealth and privileges,” suggested Meena Seshu, founder of SANGRAM, a women’s organization in India that supports sex worker self-organizing, when asked her thoughts on the subject.

Seshu, who also works closely with the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers (APNSW), considers herself a feminist, despite run-ins with feminist groups in India who labeled her a trafficker: “In the initial stages, they weren’t willing to accept that sex work is not violence.  If you are looking at sex work as violence, that stops the conversation with sex workers.  Sex workers were not willing to talk about violence against them with feminists.  They are against being victimized.  With feminists, their narrative is about the victimization of women.  Sex positive feminists were not willing to recognize the exchange of sexual services for money as part of sex positivism.”

In time, Seshu worked around these obstacles by simply listening to sex workers and supporting their work as a labor movement.  She had previously worked with Bidi workers’ (cigarette rollers) labor movement and saw potential in helping sex workers organize: “So our fight was just to give sex workers a voice.   The way we did this was to be very humble and say ‘look, we don’t know a damn thing.’ Previously, marketing targeted the client to use a condom.  Self-determination worked, giving sex workers condoms worked.”

SANGRAM, founded in 1992, is so successful that it was listed as a best practice model by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) on HIV prevention for working with sex workers.  However, the situation became complicated when USAID stepped up its commitment to the the President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) Pledge, which required organizations receiving funds from USAID to sign a statement showing they did not “promote prostitution.”   Seshu could not comply, as supporting sex work as legitimate labor was the backbone of SANGRAM.  She declined the Pledge in 2005 and made plans to return funds for that year.  What she did not count on was having her name brought up by former House Representative Mark Souder as a trafficker: “I started freaking out.  Trafficking is a criminal offense.  It was very, very messy and it lasted many months.  The department in the U.S. that combats trafficking had labeled me a trafficker.”

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