U.S. Sex Worker Advocates Expose Human Rights Violations Before United Nations

by Cara on November 4, 2010

in human rights, International, law enforcement, misogyny, paternalism, patriarchy, rape and sexual assault, sex work, sexual exploitation and harassment, violence against women and girls

Trigger Warning for discussions of human rights violations against sex workers, as well as sex trafficking and sexual violence.

Tomorrow November 5, the United Nations will, for the first time under its Universal Periodic Review (UPR) system, review the human rights record of the United States. That’s a pretty big deal period, especially since the process is composed not just self-assessment by the nation being reviewed, but also reports by civil society organizations.

Undoubtedly, a lot of really important issues (such as prison rape) are going to be addressed by those organizations, and all kinds of human rights violations by the United States are going to be openly discussed. But one issue set for discussion will not only likely surprise observers, but also be considerably underrepresented in any media coverage that the review garners: that of sex worker rights, and the U.S.’s appalling record with regards to violating the human rights of sex workers.

The U.S. Sex Workers Outreach Projects (SWOP-USA) reports:

This Friday November 5, 2010, the United Nations Human Rights Council will review the human rights record of the United States as part of a new process – the Universal Periodic Review (UPR). The UPR calls for a review of member nations’ human rights records every four years, and this is the first time the U.S. has participated. The Human Rights Council will base its review on the U.S. government’s own self-assessment, as well as reports submitted from civil society organizations. U.S. sex worker advocates are engaged in this process, working to highlight the appalling record that the United States has in regards to communities of people engaging in the sex trade.

A comprehensive national report on sex workers’ rights was prepared by the Best Practices Policy Project and the Desiree Alliance earlier this year. The report draws on the perspectives of networks, such as SWOP USA, and organizations working with sex workers, people in the sex trade and people who are affected by anti-prostitution policies in the United States more generally. Two representatives from the Best Practices Policy Project are currently in Geneva presenting summary recommendations to delegations and encouraging countries to ask the United States questions about it’s human rights record in regards to sex workers and to include issues pertaining to sex workers in the recommendations they will raise in Friday’s session.

The Best Practices Policy Project report (pdf) is a highly comprehensive and informative document that strongly centers intersectionality and emphasizes not only the generalized risks of violence and civil rights violations that sex workers face, but also how those risks are even more severe for those sex workers who are particularly marginalized on the basis of race, trans* status, immigration status, and perceived sexual orientation. It’s only 5 pages long and a really strong overview of the oppressions faced very day by sex workers in the U.S., so I urge you to read it.

Before the U.N., the Best Practices Policy Project representatives are presenting the three most key recommendations from the report, which are as follows:

The United States should implement comprehensive criminal justice reform that includes measures to stop human rights abuses committed in the name of anti-sex trade laws. This would include repealing laws, including laws against prostitution-related offenses, and eliminate policies, such as “prostitution free zones”, that erode legal protections barring law enforcement from detaining individuals on the basis of how they are perceived or the way they are dressed (ie racial and gender profiling). The application of felony-level charges against sex workers and people living with HIV should be halted as should sex offender registration requirements of those arrested for engaging in prostitution. Criminal justice reform must also address the frequency of abuse of sex workers, or those perceived as such, by law enforcement and other state actors. Similarly, reform must ensure that people involved in the sex trade or profiled as such receive appropriate responses from authorities when they are targeted for violence and other crimes.

The United States should ensure health rights for those engaged, or perceived to be engaged, in sex work and the sex trade. In many jurisdictions in the United States condoms are used as evidence of criminal activity in the enforcement of anti-prostitution laws. Individuals involved in street economies face tremendous stigmatization in health care settings. Sex workers urgently need access to health care services including harm reduction oriented programs, which often are prohibited from receiving federal funding.

The United Sates should reorient national anti-trafficking policy to a rights-based framework and repeal the US governments “anti-prostitution pledge” requirement on foreign aid. Migrants involved in the sex trade who experience exploitation require services and legal support, but the response to human trafficking in the U.S. currently focuses on law enforcement approaches that alienate and traumatize victims. U.S. anti-trafficking policies and practices undermine the health and rights of sex workers domestically and internationally, including requiring recipients of HIV and anti-trafficking funding to adopt a stance condemning sex work. These requirements should be repealed.

It’s my personal view that all of these recommendations should be seen as straight-up common sense. I wrote about the last recommendation much more comprehensively a few months ago, and I’m going to let that post on the issue stand on its own.

The first recommendation is one that I’ve also discussed before, but is most commonly placed in dispute, and the second relies heavily on the former. So let’s repeat it again: a large majority of sex workers agree that laws which make their work illegal do not help them. They criminalize an incredibly marginalized population specifically on the basis of their marginalization. They do not protect a group already incredibly vulnerable to violence from it, but rather make that violence easier for police officers, clients, and others to commit. They ensure that sex workers who want to leave the trade cannot, by giving them highly stigmatized criminal records. And they use laws intended to keep primarily women and children safe to label primarily women, including those who entered sex work as children, as sex offenders. They label them as those likely to commit sexual violence, when they are actually among those against whom sexual violence is most likely to be or have been committed.

We can and should fight human trafficking — including forms that are not sex trafficking, and which receive extremely little publicity — without fighting sex workers. We can and should fight violence without fighting the existence of marginalized populations. Just like we always can and should fight elements of rape culture without fighting either sex or victims of assault.

But this is a point that seems to be continually lost on governments all over the world, family values conservatives, and many feminists. An illustrative example rose at the end of last week, with yet another campaign to drive sex workers who advertise their services online underground:

SWOP-NYC in collaboration with SWOP-USA strongly opposes the misguided campaign against Backpage.com. This campaign is part of a trend of actions against adult services sections online including a recent action against Craigslist.

The campaign against Backpage.com has been framed as a way to “protect innocent women and children” (as per State Attorneys General, Letter to Attorneys for Backpage.com, September 21, 2010, available at: http://ago.mo.gov/pdf/Backpage.pdf). However, the forced closure of this site will not diminish the prevalence of trafficking and, worse, will substantially harm victims of trafficking and people in consensual sex work.

“This campaign purports to protect people, but it actually has the opposite effect,” explained Liz Coplen, Board Chair of SWOP-USA. “Criminalization and repression of consensual sex work drives sex workers underground, creating the conditions which lead to the exploitation and abuses of trafficking.” The models that have been internationally accepted as best practice for addressing sex trafficking center around working with sex workers to end exploitation and abuse, not further criminalizing and marginalizing the work.

“First they complain when they see us on the street, then when we are off the street they try to shut our work down by closing the advertising venues. And they claim it’s to protect us! It’s hypocritical, discriminatory and ultimately makes sex workers more vulnerable to the violence they are supposedly so concerned about,” said Michael Bottoms.

Looking at the letter itself (pdf), the paternalism just oozes off the page:

We are writing to request that you immediately take down the adult services portion of backpage.

We believe that ads for prostitution– including ads trafficking children– are rampant on the site and that the volume of these ads will grow in light of craigslist’s recent decision to eliminate the adult services section of its site. In our view, it is time for the company to follow craigslist’s lead and take immediate action to end the misery of the women and children who may be exploited and victimized by these ads. Because backpage cannot, or will not, adequately screen these ads, it should stop accepting them altogether.

We recognize that backpage may lose the considerable revenue generated by the adult services ads. Still, no amount of money can justify the scourge of illegal prostitution, and the misery of the women and children who will continue to be victimized, in the marketplace provided by backpage.

Call me naive, but I can’t quite bring myself to believe that this many state Attorney Generals are really so obtuse as to believe that the kind of people who sell the right to rape children will be dissuaded by a single website cutting off their ads and decide “Well, I guess that ends the child rape business for me.”

No, I’m sorry — that’s going to require not only some hardcore dismantling of rape culture, but also serious investigative work on behalf of law enforcement. I doubt that any trafficking victims have been spared rape as a result of campaigns like these — as I’ve pointed out time and time again, rapists will always find new ways to rape. (The goal, of course, is rather to stop people from being and becoming rapists.) Meanwhile, all sex workers trying to sell their services in the safest ways they know how have been pegged as “victimized … women and children” suffering “misery” — as supposedly well-meaning people actively create misery for them by preventing them from finding and screening clients from the safety of their own homes.

This bullshit needs to stop, both in the U.S. and everywhere else. Sex workers need to be treated like adults with agency, and their oppression as a marginalized group needs to be recognized for what it is and combated, rather than compounded by supposed anti-oppression efforts. The rights of two highly vulnerable and oppressed groups — trafficking victims and sex workers — shouldn’t be and don’t need to be placed in conflict with each other. And the fact that said groups sometimes do overlap and often are difficult to distinguish is indeed part of the reason why it makes absolutely no sense to punish one in attempt to support the other.

My hopes are realistically tempered, but I wish all luck to those activists preparing to go before the U.N. While I unfortunately doubt that a transcript will be made available, for those who can watch video, the Universal Periodic Review will be streamed live and available for archived viewing here.

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{ 4 comments }

1 bent November 4, 2010 at 4:21 pm

This piece is absolutely fantastic, thank you so much for writing it. You really break it down in such a thoughtful yet provocative way. This bullshit needs to stop, indeed!

2 RD November 5, 2010 at 4:59 am

Cara, this was so amazing that I am crying now from reading it. Thank you so, so much for writing about this, and so eloquently.

3 Katrina November 5, 2010 at 12:14 pm

It will be a long time before sex workers are treated like human beings instead of helpless victims or sluts who are asking for anything bad that happens to then. Society as a whole have to realize that all sex workers do need the protection and aid that will be addressed at the UPR . I personally wouldn’t mind legal prositution that is regulated. Clearly making it illegal doesn’t put an end to sex work and if it’s regulated then it would be even easier to find sex trafficed girls. I’m hope that Swop-USA’s bullet points are taken seriously and will be heard in full. I have no connections to sex work and I still want to see all women have equal access to the law no matter what they choose to do with their bodies. I know sex trafficing is a huge problem, but punishing prositutes and taking away their rights is not the way to go.

4 RD November 5, 2010 at 9:38 pm

There is a really, really good news follow-up to this. As a result of the report and efforts of sex worker rights folks on behalf of the report in Geneva, Uruguay recommended to the human rights commission that the US pay special attention to the rights and vulnerabilities to violence of sex workers. The US has three months to respond.

This is huge, and amazing.

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