I’ve been a sex worker rights activist for going on a decade now, and I’ve lived in New York all that time. My focus in the early years was very local, meaning that I was concerned with what was happening in my own life and the lives of the people I worked with and cared about. I wanted us to stay safe, get rich, and not deal with douchebag clients – you know, all the dreams a girl could have. When I got involved with $pread magazine and became an editor in 2005, I started to pay more attention to what was happening outside of my little bubble. Being responsible for the news section of the magazine meant that I started to learn more about what was happening in sex worker communities not just across the country, but also across the world.
Over the last few years, I’ve been lucky enough to be able to work more closely with sex worker rights activists globally, and I gotta say that it’s kind of blown my mind. In the fall of 2009 I spent a week in rural India, a few hours south of Mumbai, with SANGRAM and the sex workers at VAMP. We collaborated on a video about sex worker organizing in India, and it gave me immense respect for the work these activists have been doing. In India, there are sex worker unions, and hundreds of sex workers show up at events and rallies. They are loud, and they are a unified community struggling hard for their rights and getting some traction. During one conversation I had with an older woman about the differences in our activism, she said, “In America, you have everything. You have cameras. You use the internet. But you aren’t fighting the government together the way we are. You need to come together and collectivize. It’s the only way.” It really resonated with me. In a place where sex workers have to walk to one well that serves the neighborhood to get water for their huts, their community is infinitely stronger than ours, probably because there’s less obsession with individuality.
Since that fall, I’ve been seeking out other opportunities to learn more about the global situation of sex workers. This past month, I got the opportunity to go to London for Sex Worker Open University, a nearly weeklong event organized by a collective and held in the Arcola Theatre complex in Hackney. There were many sessions every day, an interesting blend of skill shares by and for sex workers, and presentations about policy and activism work. The event ran from Wednesday, October 12 through Sunday, October 16– you can see the full program here and feel envious – and on the Friday, we had an evening of conversation among activists from all over the world.
During the activist conversation, we heard from the German group HYDRA, which just celebrated its thirtieth anniversary. Some sex workers who work in Germany reported that there isn’t much of an activism scene there because sex work is fully decriminalized, so although there’s certainly stigma and violence that affects workers there, they don’t feel a huge urgency in fighting for their rights. SWASH, a Japanese group that was founded in 1995, talked about the community based research they have been doing about migrant workers in the sex industry. They also talked about an interesting loophole in their law, which specifies that vaginal intercourse is illegal, so everyone offers oral, anal, and manual services to get around the law. A Danish sex worker talked about how exhausted she is trying to deal with all the crappy laws and bad attitudes about sex work in Denmark. Brothel prostitution is legal in Denmark, but it’s heavily regulated. She talked pretty gleefully about a campaign sex workers did during the Copenhagen climate change summit a few years ago, though. The conference distributed cards discouraging visitors from buying sex (because it’s “unsustainable”) and the local sex workers offered discounts to anyone who brought them one of the flyers. A woman from Turkey talked about the complex ways in which sex work and trans women’s rights are entangled. In Turkey there are licensed brothels, but getting licensed is a humiliating process and isn’t usually open to trans women. She said that in the trans women’s organization she works in, all the women are sex workers, but there’s a lot of stigma associated with that so they don’t always talk about it. They’re pretty focused on anti-violence work instead of the pursuit of sex worker rights. She said, “Right now the trans women’s movement is struggling to convince people not to kill us! It’s a long way from there to the conversation about rights.”
But even with those differences, a lot of the activist stories were similar: the groups are small, they are totally grassroots and run by volunteers, they are fighting against well-funded feminists who are obsessed with anti-trafficking rhetoric and refuse to listen to sex workers. Almost all of the countries represented have somewhat less restrictive laws than we do: the UK, Germany, Canada, France, Denmark, Japan, Sweden, Finland, Spain, and Turkey all have some legalized forms of sex work that go beyond what we’ve got. Seriously, the US is a really fucked up place. The conversations I had at SWOU underscored that for me.
One of the things that sucks about sex work in the United States is that in addition to criminalizing everything the government can possibly find to lock people up for, we sure do export a lot of bad ideas, like the anti-prostitution loyalty oath (APLO), which is a requirement of receiving funding from USAID. If you’re an organization in a developing country (where most of these funds are directed), you have to sign this thing and say that you don’t support prostitution, which could include activities like, oh, handing out condoms to sex workers. But at SWOU, instead of conversation about shitty policy from the US, there was a lot of conversation about shitty policy from Sweden. The Swedish model (elegantly dissected by Laura Agustín) shifts criminalization toward the clients, because sex workers—of course—are victims and therefore shouldn’t be punished (half right). This model is spreading like wildfire in Europe and in the United States too, though of course we don’t like things that are Euro-sounding, so here it’s called End Demand. (Here are the NYC campaign site, and the Illinois one too).
I came home feeling excited about all the bad ass work that is happening around the world, lead by sex workers who are pissed off and want to see change happen. But I also felt damn tired. We have so much work to do to face less violence, less stigma, and less of that weird combination of sexual interest and pity that so often gets thrown our way. But even if it seems like there is just. so. much. bullshit. in the way, it’s reassuring to know that there are folks around the world stirring things up.