The myth of sex work is distorting the voices of the exploited women

“Sex workers’ rights” are being used as a cover for neoliberal pro-prostitution politics in the global south.

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During my travels researching my book on the global sex trade, I encountered vibrant "sex workers' rights" movements in the global south, namely East and South Africa, India, South Korea and Cambodia.

I was told by a number of activists that the abolitionist position was "white feminism" and that such feminists, including black, Asian, and indigenous sex trade survivors, were imposing colonialist views of "sex work" on people of colour in the sex trade.

In response to criticism about Amnesty International adopting a policy of blanket decriminalisation of the sex trade, Kenneth Roth, director of Human Rights Watch, tweeted: "All want to end poverty, but in meantime why deny poor women the option of voluntary sex work?" Roth had plenty of support for this statement, but lots of dissent. One of the many replies from human rights activists was by sex trade survivor Rachel Moran, who asked: "Roth, wouldn’t you say, if a person cannot afford to feed themself, the appropriate thing to put in their mouth is food, not your cock?"

Ruchira Gupta is founder of Apne Aap, an NGO dedicated to preventing intergenerational prostitution in India which supports more than 20,000 vulnerable girls and women.

According to Gupta, India is being used as a site for neoliberal pro-prostitution politics to be tried and tested because the women in prostitution in cities such as Kolkata, Mumbai and Delhi are disenfranchised and voiceless.

In March 2015, at the beginning of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) session, Gupta was "warned off" by a senior UN official while on her way to accept a major prize for her work. She was told that "trafficking" was fine to mention, but that prostitution was not, because it would offend those that consider "sex work" to be labour. But Gupta refused to capitulate, because she has seen for a number of years how the pro-prostitution lobby has distorted the reality about the sex trade in her country.

“In India, the term 'sex worker' was literally invented in front of our eyes,” says Gupta. “There was no poor woman or girl [in India] who thought that ‘sex’ and ‘work’ should go together. The pimps and brothel keepers who were on salaries began to call themselves ‘sex workers’ and they became members of their own union, along with the customers.”

During a research trip to Cambodia, I had arranged to meet a group of women through the Women’s Network for Unity (WNU). The NGO, based in Phnom Penh, says it represents 6,500 Cambodian "sex workers" who are campaigning for decriminalisation of the sex trade. 

A board member of the WNU decided to attend my meeting with the women. During the two hours we were together, she talked for and over the women, looking frustrated and irritated when I directed my questions to them and not her.

The women were desperate to tell their stories of the daily violence and abuse they endure from punters. All told me how much they hated selling sex for a living. I asked the women about the benefits of being in the Union, and was answered not by the women, but by the WNU member. She spoke solidly for five minutes, ignoring any interruption from the women themselves. "If they are beaten by the police, they are given legal training on their rights; if they are arrested, the WNU will provide food during the time they cannot work; and if one of the women dies, they will help to buy the coffin," she explained. Knowing their rights "empowered them", I was told.

The women did not appear to be empowered. Some had become pregnant by buyers and were caring for the babies. Three were HIV positive. All of the women had been raped on multiple occasions. Each told me they could get out of prostitution if only they had $200 to buy formal identification papers, because this was the only way to secure legitimate employment in the service industry or a factory. None of the women were familiar with the international campaign to de-criminalise the sex trade, and all said that they wanted out.

None of the women, the translator told me, used the term "sex work" to describe what they do, or "sex worker" to describe who they are. One of WNU’s aims is "to challenge the rhetoric around sex work, particularly that concerned with the anti-trafficking movement and the 'rehabilitation' of sex workers". All of the women asked me where they could get help to escape the sex trade. In the meantime, WNU board members and paid staff travel the region, speaking at "sex workers' rights" conferences, distorting the voices of the exploited women.

This NGO seemed to consider the concept of "sex workers' rights" to be above and beyond the importance of the lives of the women themselves. I asked the board member if they were planning on raising money to help the women out of prostitution. She told me: "No".

Julie Bindel is author of “The Pimping of Prostitution: Abolishing the Sex Work Myth”, published on 28 September by Palgrave MacMillan, UK, and by Spinifex, Australia and New Zealand