Sex Workers Speak Out on Village Voice Ad Controversy
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Sex workers, even teenage ones, can’t be reduced to the sexual equivalent of crack. The entire idea of sex workers possessing personhood is premised on their right to control their bodies and by extension, their leverage over the services rendered.
Of course, activists should be wary of profit-making institutions conflating the individual’s freedom to work with the employer’s “freedom” from regulation or “right” to exploit. But a legal ban alone doesn’t change the forces of supply and demand. Some organizations take a human-rights approach to sex work (which can range from prostitution to exotic dancing) that focuses instead on engaging law enforcement and social agencies to protect sex workers from assault and harm—not just by pimps and johns, but by police, judges and immigration officers, too.
Globally, pro-sex-worker movements foreground the economic and political agency of people in the trade. Last year, advocates reported to the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rightsthat heavy-handed tactics allow authorities to use sex work “crime” as a pretext for discrimination, harassment and brutality against “street-based or outdoor workers, transgender or gender non-conforming people, people of color, migrants, and youth.”
In Red Light District Chicago's video campaign, sex workers voice their conviction that that they can proudly practice their profession while working to end trafficking.
Yet the perspectives of sex workers are sidelined in the public discourse on sex ads. Of the many politically savvy voices that fill the debate, few belong to the human beings on whose bodies this culture war is being waged. Maybe the ethical clarity that moral crusaders desire requires less talking and more listening to what sex workers know, need and want. SWOP-NYC argues:
Sex work is real work, which means sex workers have the basic labor rights we all expect, including a work environment free of violence and exploitation. Targeting companies that work with people in commercial sex will only lead to more shrouded interactions. This marginalization and isolation increases violence, HIV/STI transmission and stigmatization, hinders access to basic services, and promotes a loss of autonomy over the conditions in which people engage in the industry. There is so much we can do to prevent trafficking and support people who do want to move out of the sex industry, and these tactics only pull valuable resources from those strategies.
The voice commonly missing from the media coverage on the Village Voice and Craigslist is that of sex workers. It has become too easy to forget that there are real people involved with sex work with real human and labor rights.
Even people who object to sex work on principle or support anti-trafficking crackdowns can’t deny that sex work will always be a part of society, whatever the law says. In their struggle for justice and respect, sex workers don’t need to be “saved” from that reality, but they do need to be heard.
Michelle Chen has written for ColorLines, In These Times, South China Morning Post, Clamor, INTHEFRAY.COM and her own zine, cain.