Neither Victims Nor Voiceless: Sex Workers Speaking for themselves

 By Audacia Ray,
International Women’s Health Coalition
January 11, 2010 – 7:34pm

Audacia Ray's picture
Since becoming a part of the U.S. sex worker rights movement five years ago,
talking about contentious issues concerning bodies, labor, money, and rights has
very much become my calling. In the past year alone, I’ve been quoted on CNN
about the value of virginity, talked about South Carolina’s Governor Mark
Sanford on WNYC’s
The Takeaway
, and admonished the Boston
Herald for its slurs toward sex workers
. Suffice to say, I give my opinion
freely and often loudly.
I thought I knew a lot about sex work, rights, and organizing when, in
September, I set off for two weeks in India with my colleague Khushbu Srivastava,
Program Officer for Asia at the International Women’s
Health Coalition
. But as much as I am accustomed to being an “expert,” I
quickly realized that I knew next to nothing about the nuances of Indian culture
and the dynamics of the local struggle for sexual rights and reproductive
health. While there are many things that I learned during the two weeks I spent
time with our partners at CREA,
YP Foundation
, Commonhealth,
perhaps the biggest lesson I learned–as a leader, as an advocate, and as
privileged white lady from the United States who was way out of my element–was
to shut up and listen.
I spent almost a week in Sangli, a rural district that’s six to nine hours
(depending on who’s driving!) southeast of Mumbai. Maharashtra state, where Sangli is located, has
progressive laws that afford many rights to its citizens, particularly in
respect to accessing healthcare. However, populations that are already
marginalized in their communities and in local institutions—like sex workers,
HIV-positive women, and people who are not literate—do not know their rights or
how to navigate the legal structures and institutions that facilitate access to
these rights and services.
In Sangli, I spent time with the staff and organizers of SANGRAM,
which empowers individuals with the knowledge
and tools they need to understand and claim their rights. SANGRAM was founded in
1992 to address the growing HIV infection rate in Sangli district, and they soon
realized the value of mobilizing sex workers to become agents of change in
fostering a sustainable and effective response to the epidemic. Today, one of
the organization’s largest projects is a collective of 5,000 sex workers that
manages a peer HIV prevention education and condom distribution program in
Sangli. This collective also advocates to ensure equal access to health services
and end violence and discrimination against sex workers. While many
organizations train and bring in people from outside the community to help and
support people in need (the social work model), SANGRAM operates under the
principle that the only way to empower people is to provide them with the tools
they need to claim their rights and facilitate change.
It was inspiring to meet the HIV-positive rural women, illiterate sex
workers, and community health advocates who are working together to facilitate
change in their communities. Many told me how for years, doctors in the local
primary health centers refused to provide health services to sex workers or
avoided touching them by giving them inoculations with extra long needles. With
SANGRAM’s assistance, sex workers have been able to form alliances with some of
the doctors and achieve a higher standard of care and respect. Their efforts
have resulted in health system improvements that benefit the entire community:
advocates have been successful in demanding that the primary health centers be
functional, with trained staff, adequate supplies, and medicine.
In Sangli, I worked with SANGRAM to document their work and successes. On
International Human Rights Day, we released a five minute video about sex worker
organizing, the first collaborative media project of the International Women’s
Health Coalition & SANGRAM.
Since we posted the short documentary about SANGRAM and the mobilization of
sex workers in Sangli, it’s been interesting to read the posted comments and
reactions. One of the most frequent responses is a well-meaning but slightly
problematic one. To paraphrase: “It’s so great to see these women getting the
protection and help they need!” Obviously, the respondents want what’s best for
women, but this response doesn’t instill much trust in the agency of sex workers
to realize what’s best for them on their own. Furthermore, it casts sex workers
as damaged goods: victims in need of saving, delicate flowers in need of
Why is it that there has been a shift in how advocates describe those who
experience gender-based violence from “victim” to “survivor,” but when speaking
of people in the sex industry, the word “victim” has persisted? Why is it that
US-funded HIV prevention programs require a denunciation of sex work by
organizations best poised to reach sex workers with life-saving information and
services? Why is it that while in other social justice movements, the voices of
the people most affected are at the forefront, yet some feminists are quick to
leap into conversations about sex work and trafficking to speak for the affected
The basic answer to these questions is that many people regard the sex
industry as something that must be halted, one that at its core perpetuates
violence against the people who work in it, a business from which no good can
come. I won’t argue that the sex industry is a well-functioning industry that
respects the rights of all its workers, or that most sex workers feel safe and
fulfilled in their jobs. However, there are a variety of contributing factors
that might keep a sex worker in the business, even if the worker has the choice
to leave it for other work.
SANGRAM works to prioritize the voices of sex workers themselves, so that sex
workers can articulate what they need to be safe, healthy, and able to provide
for themselves and their families. Sometimes this includes an exit strategy, but
often the sex workers’ circumstances and the economic and social climate in
which they live make exit from the sex industry unrealistic.
Programs that are designed to rescue and protect sex workers from the
industry usually don’t comprehensively consider the well-being and economic
stability of the people they are supposed to serve. One of the tactics these
programs often employ is abstinence education – and we all know how well that’s
worked for sexuality education. Another recent example of an attempt to
rehabilitate sex workers is an initiative launched in India in which men
volunteered to marry
sex workers to get them out of the sexually exploitative situation of the sex
. As any survivor of intimate partner violence knows, marriage isn’t
exactly a safe haven from violence or HIV infection for women.
As a major Open Society Institute report titled “Rights,
Not Rescue
” indicates, programs that aim to get sex workers out of the
industry do little to reduce violence or improve health and working conditions
within the industry. According to the report, which analyzes rehabilitation
programs in
Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa, “None of the interviewed sex workers who
had completed rehabilitation programs had managed to obtain gainful employment
from their training.” Domestically, in a recent
program launched by the Dallas, Texas police to rehabilitate sex workers
half of 375 arrested sex workers chose rehabilitation over being charged with
prostitution, but only 21 of those who went through the rehabilitation program
had left the business upon follow up.
Despite these numbers and testimonies by sex workers about the problems with
rescue and rehabilitation programs, getting sex workers out of sex work is
widely posited as the way to end exploitation.
The exercise of human rights should not be contingent on whether or not you
think a person’s choices or circumstances are a good way to live or be.
Entangling morality with a conversation about rights and painting a portrait of
people in the sex industry as victims without voices only perpetuates their
The feminist movement is built on the principle that women should have
opportunities that are equal to those granted to men, a lot of which is about
economic opportunity – things like pay equity and the ability to own property.
It is also built on the struggle for women’s rights to control their own bodies
and make choices about their sexual rights and reproductive health that are
unfettered by cultural and familial demands. The struggle for sex workers’
rights is at the intersection of the struggle for economic justice and bodily
rights, and it is perhaps that combination that can often make discussing sex
work uncomfortable.


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