This is a video keynote speech I produced to be shown at the LOVER magazine conversation on sex work in Utrecht, Holland on June 23, 2010. It was shot and edited by David Beasley. Though the bulk of the conversation at the event is about local prostitution law, I was asked to provide a rights-based perspective to get the conversation started.
Thanks to Marije Janssen for the invitation. Hopefully next time I’ll be delivering my speech in person.
The sex industry is complex and contains many different worker experiences, from extreme violation of human rights to middle class employment, and many experiences in between. This means not just that it’s hard to talk and write about, but that it’s really difficult to make effective policies that protect the people who work in the industry from exploitation and other potential harms while not encroaching on their livelihood and bodily autonomy. People who work in the sex industry do so by choice, circumstance, or coercion – and sometimes it is difficult to distinguish among these situations. It is vital that we as policy makers, advocates, managers of programs at non-governmental organizations, and members of civil society — including people who work in the sex industry and people who patronize the sex industry – ensure sex worker rights and access to health and social services.
I am a former sex worker and a current sex worker rights advocate. I work with local sex worker communities in my hometown, New York City, to create visibility and awareness of the stigma and discrimination that sex workers face. I also do information and communications technology development and technical assistance for grassroots groups through my work with the International Women’s Health Coalition and the Global Network of Sex Work projects. As the co-founder of the Sex Work Awareness project, I lead media training workshops for sex workers who are seeking to do media advocacy work and improve their ability to interface with mainstream media. I host a monthly public storytelling series, the Red Umbrella Diaries, where sex workers tell stories about their lives. I am committed to putting sex workers at the center of conversations about our welfare.
To improve the lives of all people in the sex industry, including women, men, and transgender women, we need to have a vision of what the ideal would be. And even though it seems like a somewhat fantastical and out of reach exercise, I think it’s important to dream of a better future for sex workers. Ideal conditions for sex workers would recognize and protect their human rights and dignity. For me, a positive future for sex workers would have two different dimensions: economic justice and bodily autonomy. In a better world, people would be able to freely choose how they make a living and with whom they choose to share their sexual selves.
Throughout the world, wage inequalities between men and women are firmly entrenched. Women make less money than men in all industries except for the sex industry. Whether women are in the sex industry because of the coercive acts of men who know what women’s market value is or because of the economic circumstances of their lives, many will not have the option to leave the business unless there are viable jobs that pay as well or better than sex work. The fault of this situation does not lie with the sex industry(!), but rather with the greater structures of sexism and valuing of women’s erotic labor over other forms of work. It is a problem that needs to be fixed on a grand scale and cannot be solved by eradicating the sex industry.
Throughout the world, women are robbed of their bodily autonomy through rape, early and forced marriage, inability to access safe abortion, and intimate partner violence – to name a few. Although some advocates regard sex work as violence against women, it is the culture at large that is harming women, and perpetuates violence against all women, especially those who are transgender, poor, and vulnerable to abuse. To view the work itself as harm is a narrow vision.
It is only with economic justice and bodily autonomy for all people, including men and transgender women, that a better reality for sex workers can be attained. So my charge to you, and to people working to improve the living conditions of sex workers around the world, is to consider the (much needed) steps that will take us closer to this distant but hopefully not impossible dream.