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Sex Workers Have Labor Rights Just Like Any Other Employee, Confirms NZ Court

2:58 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

New Zealand Prostitutes Collective (via Facebook)

Last month, the New Zealand Human Rights Review Tribunal made a landmark ruling on the violation of a woman’s human rights in a Wellington brothel known as The Kensington Inn, run by one Aaron Montgomery. But the case didn’t involve the typical media tropes of a worker being “sold into slavery” or abused by a sadistic client. Rather, the employee filed a complaint against both Montgomery and Kensington’s owner, M &T Enterprises, after Montgomery allegedly harassed her.

In February, the Tribunal published a decision siding with the worker—thereby confirming that brothel employees have the legal right not to be harassed by their managers, just like they do in any other profession.

When it comes to debates about sex work, feminists often raise the concept that it’s a “job like any other,” as journalist and former sex worker Melissa Gira Grant has explained. Yet the exchange of sex for pay remains a curiously radical notion for many around the world. While it’s certainly true that sex work is a real career born of both necessity and ambition for many, it also comes laden with social anxiety and culture-war taboo.

In New Zealand, however, the occupation’s decriminalization over the last decade has helped push back the country’s Victorian-era morality laws to foreground human rights in the sex sector. And last month’s Tribunal ruling further affirms sex work’s legitimacy as a profession and the workers’ agency as laborers.

In her complaint, the worker claimed Montgomery regularly made intrusive inquiries during the period of harassment in 2010, such as asking “several times whether she would have anal sex with clients and whether she ‘swallowed’ when performing oral sex” and “whether she was ‘shaved’”—i.e., had gotten a Brazilian bikini wax.

The worker had, as a matter of company protocol, supplied information about waxing and which services she would provide to be kept on file, making Montgomery’s alleged questions completely unnecessary. Moreover, the information was intended for negotiations with clients in order to facilitate her business, not to sate her boss’ curiosity.

According to the worker, Montgomery also made offensive comments about her appearance—such as “you should give up your burgers”—that damaged her self-esteem and made her job experience miserable. In other words, Montgomery was reportedly acting as if expected boundaries of civil discourse and privacy in a labor-management relationship somehow did not apply in a brothel. Read the rest of this entry →

Sex Workers in France Resist Attacks on Their Liberty

8:16 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

La fédération STRASS de Lyon 1er Mai. (via Facebook)

Originally published at In These Times

These days, French political culture appears to be retreating from its stereotypical liberalism on one of its best-known “vice” industries: the sex trade. Controversial new legislation in the country would criminalize paid sex—and sex workers see the proposed law as an assault on their dignity and safety.

The legislation—which just passed a vote in the Assemblée Nationale and is slated for a Senate vote soon—does not explicitly outlaw the act of selling sex, but it penalizes its purchase: A prostitution client may be fined up to 1,500 Euros. This penalty would build on a number of existing French constraints on sex work-related activities, such as pimping or running a brothel, that stop just short of outlawing prostitution altogether.

The aim of the legislation, which mirrors a widely praised model policy originating from Sweden, is to “reduce demand” by criminalizing the procurement of sexual services. But the ostensible moral purpose of the law—to protect women, especially underage girls, from exploitation and violence—obscures broader questions of economic agency, sexual prudence and social stigma. And that’s why many of its opponents are the very same people the law purports to “save.”

“What’s proposed with this law is actually not to protect these people. It’s just to increase the criminalization,” says Morgane Merteuil, general secretary of STRASS, a Paris-based national network of sex workers and their allies. STRASS, along with other critics of the legislation, including health experts and human rights groups, has argued that though the legislation does not exactly criminalize the act itself, criminalizing the purchase of prostitution services will still alienate sex workers from law enforcement, the healthcare system and other social supports. Read the rest of this entry →

What India’s Sex Workers Want: Power, Not Rescue

5:57 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Originally published at In These Times

Street art in West Bengal advocates labor rights, rather than criminalization or ‘rescue,’ for sex workers. The Durbar Committee is a self-described ‘collectivization of 65,000 sex workers’ based in India. (Wolfgang Sterneck / Flickr / Creative Commons)

Anu Mokal wasn’t breaking the law when she was out walking with her friend last year, yet to the police, her very existence was criminal. As a sex worker in the Indian state of Maharashtra, she lives under various laws aimed at criminalizing the sex trade, supposedly to protect women from exploitation. But it was the law that became her assailant that day when a police officer viciously attacked her, hurling insults and beating her severely.

Mokal pleaded that she was pregnant, but—according to Meena Seshu, founder and general secretary of SANGRAM, a sex workers’ rights and anti-HIV/AIDS organization—the officer accused her of lying and said sex workers had “no right to be mothers.” A few weeks after the assault, she miscarried.

India has not outlawed sex work itself, but sex workers face various restrictions on related activities such as soliciting in public or pimping. The law had left her defenseless, however, against the violence of the state. Fortunately, another advocate stepped in on her behalf: SANGRAM and its affiliated sex worker activist collective, Veshya Anyay Mukti Parishad (VAMP). The activists demanded that Maharashtra politicians investigate the beating and institute reforms, including a grievance commission to address abuses of sex workers’ human rights.

Mokal’s brutalization might seem like just a product of local police corruption or culturally embedded prejudice. But the attack echoed a deeper culture of oppression that sex workers face around the world at all levels of society, not just in the streets but in the social institutions that are supposed to protect them. Beyond the officer’s blows, this insidious political assault against sex workers even permeates the work of international humanitarian programs—funded in large part by the foreign aid that pours into the Global South from Washington’s coffers.

An obscure directive embedded in PEPFAR, the White House’s keystone global HIV/AIDS program, has for years explicitly barred U.S. support for any organization that aids sex workers. As it was originally written, the legislation dictated that in order to qualify for PEPFAR funds, both U.S.-based and overseas NGOs must actively pledge that they do not support prostitution. Though the actual implementation of the pledge has been stalled by years of litigation and a recent Supreme Court decision, it has nonetheless pressured both U.S. and international organizations to restrain their programs for sex workers for fear of the financial consequences. Advocates argue that the pledge effectively penalizes groups working with extremely vulnerable communities, leaving countless sex workers deprived of critical services and social supports.

Fortunately, the Supreme Court recently dealt a potentially lethal blow to the so-called “anti-prostitution loyalty oath” by ruling that the mandatory pledge violates the free speech rights of U.S. organizations. But there’s a catch: The court’s ruling applies only to U.S.-based groups. The law still looms large over the Global South, where international aid dollars continue to mold the political discourse on sexuality. Grassroots groups based in the Global South thus continue to face a financial penalty simply for rejecting Washington’s policy of condemning and shunning sex workers.

SANGRAM, which has established itself as a leading regional HIV/AIDS service group as well as a grassroots organizing network for thousands of sex workers, has proudly defied PEPFAR, though the U.S. remains a major funder of HIV/AIDS programming in India. The group turned down an annual grant of $20,000 allocated by a U.S. funder, Avert Society, out of concern that the State Department might interfere with Sangram’s pro-sex worker rights campaigning and peer-education efforts. (The group continues to receive funds from other international donors like the American Jewish World Service.) But with or without U.S. aid, it faces a political climate suffused with the pernicious pressures of America’s “soft power.”

Humanitarian oppression

When aid comes with political strings attached, poor governments are pressured to mirror Washington’s culture wars. “This loyalty oath has had a tremendous impact globally,” says Seshu. “Not only in terms of an aid conditionality vis a vis funding, but an aid conditionality that meant that there was something hugely wrong with working with sex workers or working with issues of sex workers.”

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Criminalizing Condoms: Sex Workers Get Policed but Remain Unprotected

12:49 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Originally posted at In These Times

If you worked a dangerous job, you’d expect the law to help protect you from workplace hazards. But for many workers in the sex trade, protecting their health on the job could land them in jail.

A new report by Human Rights Watch reveals how the criminalization of sex work in U.S. cities undermines civil rights and puts lives at risk.

Researchers say regressive prohibitionist policies make sex workers more vulnerable to sexually transmitted diseases as well as mistreatment and violence, sometimes at the hands of the very authorities that are supposed to be protecting them. The report focuses on a controversial police practice for targeting prostitutes: profiling people who are “caught” carrying condoms.

Taking a human-rights centered approach that views the selling of sexual services as a form of work, HRW found that sex workers are often deterred from carrying condoms for fear of getting nabbed by the cops. In New York, Washington, DC, Los Angeles and San Francisco, an item that would in any other circumstance be seen as a reasonable—and responsible—protective measure against sexually transmitted disease or pregnancy becomes form of contraband in anti-prostitution crackdowns. As a result:

despite millions of dollars spent on promoting and distributing condoms as an effective method of HIV prevention, groups most at risk of infection—sex workers, transgender women, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth—are afraid to carry them and therefore engage in sex without protection as a result of police harassment. Outreach workers and businesses are unable to distribute condoms freely and without fear of harassment as well.

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Sex Workers and Cabbies Swept into New York’s Anti-Prostitution Dragnet

1:45 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Photo: craigCloutier via flickr/Creative Commons

Cross-posted from In These Times

Two quintessential cliches of New York City street life are heading into more trouble with the law: yellow cabs and prostitutes. To combat the sex trade, the city is pursuing pimps via taxi. But some civil rights advocates fear the measure targets the wrong kind of traffic.

The newly signed legislation aims to punish cab drivers who abet prostitution, with a focus on those who “knowingly engage in a business of transporting individuals to patrons for purposes of prostitution, procuring and/or soliciting patrons for the prostitution, and receiving proceeds from such business in collaboration with traffickers and pimps.” The law imposes new criminal penalties, including fines or the loss of a license, for various forms of “promoting prostitution” while using the taxi.  It also mandates trainings to inform drivers about the legal consequences of “facilitating sex trafficking” and about social services available to trafficking victims. The evidence of cabbies’ involvement in the sex trade is anecdotal at best—there was recently a high-profile trafficking case in which livery cab drivers were nabbed in connection with “brothel on wheels.” But the ubiquity of taxis, popularity of paid sex services, and lack of parking space in the city has apparently led lawmakers to focus on yellow cabs as a critical link in the crusade against trafficking.

The reality of sex work in the city involves far more than dramatic stereotypes of pimps, johns and their drivers. First, advocates for sex workers point out that prostitutes are not necessarily trafficking victims, and that the language of the legislation threatens to blur the line between voluntary prostitution and trafficking, which generally involves coercion and economic exploitation. Read the rest of this entry →

Making Sex Workers Visible in the Village Voice Media Ad Controversy

3:07 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Members of the Sex Workers Outreach Project New York City (SWOP-NYC) and Sex Workers Action New York take to the streets. (Photos courtesy swop-nyc.org)

Cross-posted from In These Times.

In a perfectly “free” labor market, everyone theoretically has the right to exchange work for commensurate compensation. But a free market is not necessarily a just one. And when the commodity is sex, how free is too free?

Sex work, and its attendant culture wars, have moved over time from traditional brothels of urban lore to online marketplaces, raising new questions about private and public freedom. In the digital world, how should trust and power be negotiated between provider and client, both encircled by systemic gender and economic inequities?

On this slippery battlefield, anti-trafficking advocates are campaigning against Village Voice Media’s Backpage, an ad portal featuring “adult” ads notorious for facilitating sexual services involving minors.

Village Voice Media’s editorial side has mounted a counterattack with reporting aimed at debunking popular myths (those familiar salacious tales of powerful men exploiting innocent youngsters). Reporter Kristen Hinman cites research on underaged prostitutes that undercuts the stereotype of the classic prostitution ring, writing that “the typical kid who is commercially exploited for sex in New York City is not a tween girl, has not been sold into sexual slavery, and is not held captive by a pimp,” and that “Nearly all the boys and girls involved in the city’s sex trade are going it alone.”

That doesn’t mean the sex business is squeaky clean. Critics are unconvinced that Backpage can police itself (or “cover its collective arse,” as neofeminist blogger Maggie McNeill put it). Clergy and women’s rights groups dismiss the company’s free speech defense as window dressing.

“If I tried to sell crack online through Backpage,” Malika Saada Saar of the Rebecca Project for Human Rights told the Daily Beast, “the Village Voice would not stand up and say this is about the First Amendment… It’s convenient and politically easy for them to frame this as a free speech issue and it’s not. It’s a human rights issue.”

Sex workers agree that it’s a human rights issue. But they see the war on Backpage (and before that Craigslist) as the wrong answer to a wrong-headed question. Read the rest of this entry →