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California’s Prop 35: A Misguided Ballot Initiative Targeting the Wrong People for the Wrong Reasons

7:11 am in Uncategorized by RH Reality Check

Written by Melissa Gira Grant for RH Reality Check. This diary is cross-posted; commenters wishing to engage directly with the author should do so at the original post.

Banner: No Prop 35, Sex Workers are NOT Sex Offenders

No on Prop 35 Banner

California voters hold the power this Election Day to decide if many thousands of people convicted of prostitution-related offenses in their state must now register as sex offenders. These are their neighbors, their friends, their family — whether they know it or not — and many are women: trans- and cisgender women, poor and working class women, and disproportionately, they are women of color.

This attack on women already made vulnerable to violence and poverty is just one of the possible consequences of Proposition 35, a ballot initiative marketed to voters as a tough law to fight trafficking but is instead a “tough on crime” measure backed with millions of dollars from one influential donor, written by a community activist with little experience in the issue. If it passes? Advocates for survivors of trafficking, civil rights attorneys, and sex workers fear that rather than protect Californians, it will expose their communities to increased police surveillance, arrest, and the possibility of being labeled a “sex offender” for the rest of their lives.

Trafficking is a hot-button issue, where even defining what is meant by the term is contentious and deeply politicized — but at a minimum, it describes forced labor, where the force may be physical or psychological in nature. The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that nearly 22 million people may be involved in forced labor worldwide, the majority of which does not involve forced labor in the sex trade. In the United States, anti-trafficking law developed over the last ten years has advanced definitions of trafficking. In addition to Federal law, states have passed their own trafficking laws, which overlap with existing laws against forced labor, child labor, minor prostitution, or prostitution in general.

A good deal of advocacy around trafficking is concerned with proposing new laws, with several organizations — such as the Polaris Project and Shared Hope International — focused on introducing copycat legislation state-after-state, focused on increasing criminal penalties associated with trafficking and moving resources to law enforcement. There is little evidence that strengthening criminal penalties and relying primarily on law enforcement are strategies to end forced labor; in fact, advocates who work with survivors of trafficking, as well as people involved in the sex trade and sex worker rights’ advocates, have documented the limitations and dangers of a “tough on crime” approach on trafficking. Still, the “tough on crime” approach has become dominant in what some anti-trafficking advocates now call “the war on trafficking.”

Treating Those In the Sex Trade as Sex Offenders

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Why Sex Workers Must Be Part of the Global Human Rights Agenda

1:19 pm in Uncategorized by RH Reality Check

Written by Ruth Messinger for RH Reality Check. This diary is cross-posted; commenters wishing to engage directly with the author should do so at the original post.

Nevada Brother Sign: Angel's Ladie

Nevada Brothel sign (Photo: Joe Tordiff / Flickr)

A few years ago, I traveled to Thailand where I met a sex worker for the very first time. A 37-year-old mother of three, she very succinctly told me about her life: “These were my options: I could be apart from my children for 10 hours each day while working in a sweatshop sewing buttons on shirts, or I could spend the day with my kids and, at night, talk to an interesting Western man, lie down with him for 20 minutes in a familiar, safe place and make a lot of money. Which would you choose?”

Like many Americans in my generation, I was taught that prostitution is immoral, “dirty” and coercive. Selling sex for money has always been loaded with stigma — and it still is today.

Now I am the president of American Jewish World Service (AJWS), an international organization that supports the human rights of marginalized people in the developing world, including sex workers. In recent years, I’ve heard countless stories from sex workers themselves. Their stories are human stories, and their struggles are human struggles. Many sex workers that AJWS supports are mothers doing what they need to do to support their families, just like the woman I met in Thailand.

In some ways, these women are much like me: they work hard and they care about their kids. But our lives are radically different in one fundamental way. These women are denied the basic human rights I’ve always had: protection from violence, access to healthcare, and the opportunity to earn a living however I choose.

Nearly everywhere in the world, sex workers are detained, arrested, fined and driven out of their homes or places of work. In both developed and developing countries, discriminatory policies enable police to rape and beat sex workers and confiscate their belongings, including condoms, which increases their risk to HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.

Religious groups, police officers and non-governmental organizations routinely carry out violent raids on adult brothels. This violence is often justified as a “rescue operation” and legitimated by anti-prostitution laws. In Cambodia, for example, many adult sex workers are “rescued” against their will. They are retrained for jobs in low-wage garment factories or repatriated into their villages without access to the income they need to survive or to support their families.

Little is written about the aftermath of these “rescue operations.” Whether trafficked or not, women are often detained for months and, sometimes, for more than a year. Often, they return to sex work because it best meets their financial needs.

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Erasing Criminal Convictions for Survivors of Trafficking: One Step in the Right Direction

11:17 am in Uncategorized by RH Reality Check

Written by Juhu Thukral and Melissa Sontag Broudo for RH Reality Check. This diary is cross-posted; commenters wishing to engage directly with the author should do so at the original post.

A photo of a woman as she walks away.

(Photo: d. FUKA / Flickr).

People get involved in sex work for all kinds of reasons, but most often, out of life circumstance and a need to support themselves and their families. This need to seek safety and security is universal, and it says something about how deeply felt it is, given the level of stigma sex workers endure as they do their work. Unfortunately, because so much of sex work is illegal, sex workers are constantly being arrested. This even applies to people who have engaged in sex work who were trafficked and coerced or threatened in some way.

Trafficking in persons is about people experiencing some level of force, fraud, or coercion in their work. This means they are living and working in a climate of fear. But because most people, including the police, have a very specific idea of who is a “victim” of trafficking, they often get it wrong and arrest people involved in sex work without asking or giving them a chance to say they have been forced or coerced. We have worked with people who are transgender and are survivors of trafficking, but have either been unable to report their experience to the police because they are too afraid from past experiences with police, or have faced ridicule or outright disbelief if they do report. Compare this experience to young cisgender women (the term “cisgender” refers to people whose present gender identity matches the sex/gender they were assigned at birth), who generally fit a more commonly understood idea of who is a victim of human trafficking, and are more likely to be believed if they do speak up.

The ideas that inform people’s beliefs about human trafficking, and ultimately determine whether they believe someone is a victim or not, often stem from stereotypes or misconceptions perpetuated by the media. Stereotypes include ideas about the gender of victims or what they look like, what their sexual or other histories are, and the kind of work they do. These misconceptions are compounded by people’s beliefs and fears about victimization, gender, and sexuality. But in order to craft workable solutions on trafficking, we need policies that actually prevent this terrible practice, and support victims in finding their own voice and seeking the help they want and need. Keeping people out of the criminal justice system is crucial, both because it cannot play the holistic and preventive role we need, and because it is itself a place where abuse takes place.
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Our Current Approach to Sex Work: Flawed Laws, Flawed Policies, and Flawed Programs Will Not Right Our Wrongs

12:51 pm in Uncategorized by RH Reality Check

Written by Meena Saraswathi Seshu for RH Reality Check. This diary is cross-posted; commenters wishing to engage directly with the author should do so at the original post.

Cross-posted in partnership from the HIV Human Rights blog and part of RH Reality Check’s coverage of the International AIDS Conference, 2012.


Just two months back, I marched with hundreds of sex workers in India to demand justice for Anu Mokal. Anu, a sex worker, was picked up by the police at a bus stop one evening, charged with ‘soliciting’ customers at the bus stand, abused and beaten up. As a consequence, Anu, who was then four months pregnant, suffered a miscarriage.

With the support of a collective of sex workers, Anu filed a complaint against the policemen who assaulted her. But two months down the road, has her complaint progressed any further? No. Has the promised State inquiry into the incident taken place? Unlikely. If it has, the results have not been made known. Has Anu been given a fair hearing? Not that I know of. (Instead, while she was complaining, she was told that sex workers cannot be mothers). Have the policemen faced any action for assaulting a woman in a public place, an action that was witnessed by others? No.

Anu Mokal’s case is emblematic of the situation faced by the more than one million sex workers who live and work in India. On the one hand, they routinely face violence, including the violence of stigma. On the other, they are not able to rightfully claim their place in the sun as citizens, who deserve respect, dignity, justice, and rights – like any other citizen of our country. This is why the banner leading our march says:

“The violence of stigma we dare to survive
Of dignity we dare to dream.”

Freedom from abuse and violence is a human right that we will continue to fight for at every forum, including the Sex Worker Freedom Festival, which is on at Kolkata at the same time as the International AIDS Conference takes place in Washington DC. (Come to Kolkata and support us, you guys!) But for now, I want to go a little deeper into this whole thing and show how flawed national laws, HIV policies and programs contribute to reducing freedoms for sex workers and depriving them of their daily rights.

To begin with, sex work is itself seen as a moral blot by all sections of society – from opinion makers in the media to the forces of law and order. I see this as ‘moral criminalization’, a situation in which public morality ‘criminalizes’ sex workers, regardless of their legal status. But when laws, policies and programs reflect this kind of thinking, the situation gets much worse.

We still have:

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Empire State Stupidity: New York’s Condom Policies Undermine Public Health and Human Rights

9:58 am in Uncategorized by RH Reality Check

Written by Martha Kempner for RH Reality Check. This diary is cross-posted; commenters wishing to engage directly with the author should do so at the original post.


When Julia Roberts pulled a strip of colorful condoms out of her boot in her break-out roll as a prostitute in 1990’s Pretty Woman and declared “I’m a safety girl,” I breathed a sigh of relief.  While I was waiting for her inevitable happy ending (and forgetting to be outraged by the offensive messages of this modern fairytale), I was glad to see that she was protecting herself and her future by avoiding STDs (and pimps and kissing on the mouth). Turns out that my reaction to her condoms is one of the many things about the lives of sex workers that wasn’t exactly on-target in this star-making movie. Rather than being considered a sign of good protective behavior, in New York City carrying condoms can be used as evidence of prostitution, and therefore a crime.

Apparently, New York Police officers use possession of condoms (especially more than one condom) as one of the factors in determining whether there is probable cause to arrest someone for prostitution or loitering for the purposes of prostitution.

One judge told the New York Times that he would not be swayed by condoms as evidence:

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Report: Sex Workers Face Widespread Abuses of Civil and Human Rights

7:06 am in Uncategorized by RH Reality Check

Written by Penelope Saunders for – News, commentary and community for reproductive health and justice.

This Friday, November 5, 2010, the United States will be reviewed as part of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process at the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva. The UPR is a relatively new way of addressing human rights in the UN system that came into being in 2008. During the review of the U.S. on Friday, other countries will ask questions about this country’s overall human rights record and propose recommendations that the United States will need to respond to over the next three months. The session can be viewed online as a webcast. This review is a historic occasion because the U.S. typically has a limited engagement with international human rights treaties and mechanisms.

Advocates for the rights of sex workers used the upcoming review of the United States to prepare the first comprehensive national statement on the rights challenges faced by people in the sex trade and people who are affected by anti-prostitution policies more generally (download a PDF of the 5 page report here). The report illustrates the ways in which stigmatization and criminalization of sex workers in the United States result in widespread abuses of civil and human rights, including the right to be free from discrimination; freedom from torture; the right to healthcare; and the right to equal protection under the law. Read more

The Right Time for Change in the Fight Against Human Trafficking

1:56 pm in Uncategorized by RH Reality Check

Written by Melissa Ditmore and Andrea Ritchie for – Information, commentary and community for reproductive health and justice.

In 2007, the junior U.S. senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, sponsored a Senate resolution creating the National Day of Human Trafficking Awareness, which we observed on
Sunday, January 11. Human trafficking is rarely on the pundits’ list of priorities for President Obama’s administration, but he knows that early action in this area could have global impact. For starters, he should reconsider the current approach of raids, raids and more raids. It’s not working.

The Sex Workers Project at New York’s Urban Justice Center recently interviewed law enforcement personnel, service providers who have helped hundreds of trafficking victims, and a small sample of immigrant women trafficked into sex work and other forms of labor, including domestic work. We found that while there have been some successes, raids are generally an ineffective anti-trafficking tool, and in many cases are harmful to people who have been trafficked.

Trafficked women reported that they were repeatedly arrested, in some cases up to ten times, in police raids on brothels and other sex work venues, without ever being identified as trafficked. Yet that is the ostensible purpose Read the rest of this entry →