New School Students Drafted for Opposition Research Against Sex Workers

Scott Long’s got a long, valuable piece putting more context to this Equality Now campaign to get the UN to roll back support for sex workers’ rights, which you should go read – militarized humanitarianism, “good intentions” and worse policy, imperialist sex wars, it’s got it all, and it’s a great read.

But what I want to point out is this note at the end:

…as long as we’re talking about power: a colleague noticed something interesting over at the New School for Social Research. The Milano School of International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy is offering a practicum for students to do research, in a project for Equality Now. “This project would analyze the legalization of prostitution and formation of sex workers’ rights groups. …  Equality Now seeks to better understand the movement to legalize prostitution and form sex workers’ rights groups in order to refute arguments for legalization and lobby for adoption of the Nordic Model instead.”

According to the practicum description, the students will:

Examine the history of sex workers’ rights groups in the following countries and answer the questions below: Netherlands, Germany, Australia, Venezuela, Brazil, Senegal, Ivory Coast, South Africa, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Nepal, India, Philippines and the United States (particularly in Nevada)

– What is the history of the formation of sex workers’ rights groups in these countries?
– Who are the groups, what are their funding sources, and where is the influence on their policies coming from (for example is a larger international NGO working with them)?
– Are the sex worker’s groups pushing for legalization in those countries where it is not already legalized? (Look only at India, Nepal, Philippines, US, South Africa)
– In those countries where it is not legalized, what are the local women’s rights groups in these countries saying about legalization? (Look only at India, Nepal, Philippines, US, South Africa)

Here’s a screengrab of the practicum description, including the disclaimer “Please keep in mind that this is a confidential work product developed for Equality Now and not intended for distribution or publication. We hope that you will enjoy working with us on this project.”

Please also keep in mind, this is an organization that is engaged in challenging the United Nations essentially for not listening to the correct sex workers, an organization who wants the UN to instead listen to sex workers who say that any sex worker who opposes criminalization is “injured.”

Back to Scott Long:

Now, it’s obvious what this is: it’s what we call oppo research, trying to figure out what your foes (bad people “inured to the wrong” of prostitution) are doing. Many organizations dabble in this at one point or another, though they don’t usually call on students at a distinguished university to help. But this is where the power question comes in. I don’t like the tone of the questions — the funding sources, the suggestion of foreign influence. Most sex worker groups are poor and marginal. In countries where sex work “is not legalized,” the organizations’ very existence is often endangered. Even where sex work is at least partly legal, they’re still stigmatized as advocating immorality, and any number of contrived crimes from promoting public indecency to spreading pornography to running a brothel can provide excuses to shut them down, and even jail their members.

So what exactly is this information going to be used for? Has the professor (a good guy, I think, with a history of work on migration issues) who’s overseeing the practicum asked Equality Now? Has the New School put safeguards in place to make sure its students’ research will only be used for ethical purposes, and will not endanger the safety, human rights, or freedom of sex worker advocates and activists? The school is asking its students to monitor sex workers’ groups for an NGO that really doesn’t like them. And the school needs to be answerable for any consequences. The history of power politics around sex workers’ rights and freedoms is too acute and recent — and the possibility of even inadvertently endangering people is too strong — for an academic institution to pretend this is purely an academic question for very long.

Given the number of sex workers I know who are New School alums, I’d think Equality Now could look a lot closer to home if they wanted  to understand “the other side.” In 2006, I met a number of them, at a conference hosted in part at the New School called Sex Work Matters (I can’t find a good web archive, but here’s the original CFP and an anthology from the conference, Sex Work Matters, published by Zed).

Still, for the students who are part of this practicum, or faculty or others who are familiar with it, what’s going on here?

Off to fund the movement.

Here’s a start for you: an absolutely scandalous little publication, literally called “Sex Worker Health and Rights: Where Is The Funding?” If that’s not shocking enough, there’s the Red Umbrella Fund, on whose advisory board sex workers sit and inform funding decisions.

It’s probably sexier for Equality Now to imagine these activists who are now getting a fair reception at the United Nations as vixens slinking around a smoky hotel conference room, funders nipping at their Louboutins, but the truth, humble as it is, is quite out in the open already.

The sad thing is, I’d be grateful to get this kind of support to research a solid history of the sex workers’ rights movement globally, and I can think of a dozen other people who should be doing this work. But to do it for someone who only wants this information to help them more properly put sex workers back in their place? That’s like enlisting in a Jesse Helms Family Foundation project to document ACT UP.

5 comments

  1. The absence of New Zealand in the list of countries to be studied seems rather telling, given Equality Now’s unfounded claims about the effects of its Prostitution Reform Act (and the broad support for it from feminist groups).

  2. any research is legitimate but legitimate research starts with the definition of the -usually subjective – hypothesis and description of the research parameters. The subjective hypothesis reveals the researcher’s purpose and mindset. The parameters show the level of verifiable objectivity. I am p-a-r-t-I-c-u-l-a-r-l-y skeptical of any research in sex work matters that from the outset skip the fundamental prerequisites, or at least do not share them with the reader. This seems the case here. I’m also skeptical of such a HUGE global and complex project that is presented as a student practicum. A practicum is a training vehicle. When published the scholar that leads the practicum is ultimately responsible. So we must now his hypothesis, as well as his credentials. So far it al sounds like “let’s do an oppo research project together. It’s fun and it’s needed.” Maybe I am wrong here, but the sex work issue continues to need an avalanche of objective research; Half-ass feel-good work is always a step back instead of forward. And indeed, the absence of New Zealand as a research country doesn’t bode well, as Nine says. And that’s an understatement

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