Listen To Sex Workers – Who Don’t Exist!

I’ve written before about Equality Now (in Jacobin, and in Reason) – a humanitarian women’s rights NGO founded in part to eradicate sex work. One of their key tactics in this ostensibly feminist fight is to deny that anyone involved in the sex trade dissents with their approach. Lately their op-eds have turned explicitly against sex workers’ rights, which makes sense, as the past two years have seen the mainstream of the global health and human rights community joining sex workers in calling for an end to the criminalization of sex work as essential to protecting sex workers’ health and rights.

Equality Now appear to be losing credibility as human rights advocates. How can they claim to have the solutions when the same major actors they once successfully appealed to – various agencies within the United Nations, mostly – have begun to work more directly with sex workers in diverse work settings and a variety of legal contexts to document the harms resulting from sex work being criminalized? As more and more human rights and health advocates join with sex workers, demanding that sex workers be understood as the experts when it comes to setting sex work policy, when those policies informed by sex workers are at a 180 from the anti-sex work agenda of groups like Equality Now, the anti-sex work campaigners begin to look quite out of step with the same people they claim to protect.

This shift (along with this week’s UN General Assembly in New York) in part explains a recent uptick in appeals from women formerly involved in the sex trade, rehashing Equality Now’s talking points and promoting Equality Now’s campaign against the UN’s recommendations to decriminalize sex work. These women are engaged in work a respectable NGO can’t so easily take up in public, like claiming that any sex worker who opposes them is essentially damaged and brainwashed.

As one of these campaigners Rachel Moran wrote criticizing the UN’s stance*  in the Independent:

I believe if a prostitute or former prostitute wants to see prostitution legalised, it is because she is inured both to the wrong of it and to her own personal injury from it.

I asked Rachel Moran, given her claims, how those seeking more just and humane sex work policy – like the World Health Organization, like Human Rights Watch, like the United Nations Development Program and UNAIDS, for example – should incorporate this new standard of vetting reports and recommendations from sex workers into their advocacy. Which sex workers, I asked Rachel, should these agencies, their researchers, and their partners dismiss outright based on, as Rachel is endowed with determining, those sex workers being too “inured” and “injured” to have an opinion on their own lives?

You’ll be surprised (or not!) to learn that for this campaigner, anyway, this is a self-evident question, as “sex workers” apparently don’t even exist.

So. Abolition accomplished?

Our conversation below.

it is worth saying, “the UN’s stance” is how media are characterizing this issue, yet not all agencies within the UN have held the same views on sex work over time. Notably, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon stated that he opposed criminalization of sex work in 2008, and in 2012, UNDP’s Global Commission on HIV & the Law echoed and extended his call to include decriminalizing sex workers’ workplaces. UNAIDS at one point argued for programs to “reduce entry” into sex work and to “address demand” over prioritizing sex workers’ health and rights. But when sex workers and allies protested and organized, they then informed new guidance on sex work and HIV, which places more focus on sex workers’ rights and addresses HIV in the context of discrimination and criminalization. 

Update, 2013.09.24: the Global Network of Sex Work Projects has issued a statement on Equality Now’s attacks, which includes in part:

…recognising the human rights of sex workers and calling for the decriminalisation of sex work is a recommendation made by these reports in recognition of the fact that punitive laws, discriminatory and brutal policing, and denial of access to justice from people most at risk of acquiring HIV are fuelling the epidemic. It is not clear to us how Equality Now and other campaigners would, given this stark reality, write to senior officials at the UN and ask that action be taken that appear to summarily dismiss the voices of sex workers who were an integral part of both UN reports attacked by this coalition.

11 comments

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