Sex & Relationships

Reassessing Sex Work

HIV prevention programs must be based on more expansive views of sexuality -- particularly when it comes to sex work.
Many points have already been raised about the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) that focused on how the funding initiative misses out on key issues: the vulnerability of girls and how marriage is not a guarantee of protection from HIV infection. PEPFAR's unabashed funding requirements attached to abstinence, faithfulness programs, as well as the "anti-prostitution loyalty oath," makes it an obvious target of criticism, mainly because countless studies worldwide (and in the U.S.) have shown the ineffectiveness of such strategies.

Getting to the heart of the matter, a series of forums organized at the Faculty of Law at the University of Toronto from April 1-2, 2008, offered an opportunity to tackle the core of the conundrum: sex and our ways of viewing sexuality. Oishik Sircar, Women's Rights Fellow of the International Sexual and Reproductive Health Program of the Faculty of Law and lead organizer of the forum aptly entitled, "Confusing Conflations," invited the participants to explore the issues of sex and trafficking and how, despite their constant overlap and connection, they are hardly identical issues.

The first day included a screening of "Tales of the Night Fairies," by acclaimed Director, Shohini Ghosh. The film featured women from the DMSC (Durbar Mahila Samanyay Committee or the Durbar Women's Collaborative Committee), that stemmed from The Shonagachi HIV/AIDS Intervention Project (SHIP). By featuring the lives of women in sex work, the feature grapples with the complex issues around consent, agency and exploitation in prostitution. On their own terms and in their own voice, the real women (and one male sex worker) featured in the film challenge the usual "images" of prostitutes (especially women) as one-dimensional characters, helpless victims in need of "rescue."

Prof. Kamala Kempadoo, of York University Toronto, pointed out how there are now a myriad of recognized views about sex and sexuality that challenge the traditional binary of "good" and "bad" sex so that the "acceptability" of sexual relations is no longer solely framed as an issue of whether it happens within or outside marital relations.

In the case of prostitution, one position which has gained prominence is the struggle for the recognition of "sex workers' rights." Coining the position of collectives of sex workers as "rights" has led to profound interrogations of the subject of rights, women as well as specific classes of women, having for a long time been excluded from the realm of rights claiming.

Yet Prof. Kempadoo also acknowledged that the category of "rights" (especially legal rights) has its built-in limitations and doesn't preclude questions about serious issues of alienation which has often been pointed out as more heightened in sex work, because of the place sexuality occupies in many societies. Because many societies attach a gamut of beliefs around identity, relationships and at the same time, stigma around the sexual, "sex workers rights" isn't really a comprehensive articulation of the issue of prostitution in as much as it is a strategic claim.

Prof. Ashwini Tambe, of the Women and Gender Studies Institute and Department of History, University of Toronto meanwhile challenged the participants to question prevalent thinking about prostitution and trafficking in absolutist terms. The usual way of representing the positions vis-a-vis trafficking and prostitution has not only led to conflating one with the other but also tends to reinforce the discourse as solely about being anti/pro legalization, anti/pro prostitution/trafficking.

Within social movements, while many feminists still stand divided about the legal questions about prostitution and trafficking, there is still admittedly a huge difference between the position of "traditional" and religious-based positions on prostitution and feminist ones.

One more question which emerged from the discussion was whether a big part of the debates within social movements has to do with unquestioned notions about the law, particularly the use of criminal law to "solve" social problems. As useful as penal law strategies have proven in making that initial step towards the recognition of "Violence against Women" (VAW) as wrongdoing, what is the net effect of exclusively invoking the coercive (police) power of the state in the context of rights protection?

For the participants of the forum, many of whom were law students, the discussion that followed proved to be a valuable source of insights about the limitations of legal categories and strategies as well as the many paradoxes of legal theory and practice, in relation to the construction of harm in the context of and alongside sexual acts. Law students were ready to admit how their concern for trafficked women in prostitution usually arises out of an idea and image of "victimhood" that is somehow constructed and reinforced by law.

Indeed, while the notion of a "victim" in law structures liability, in practice it also plays out as the requisite of "legitimacy" when women seek and claim protection. In other words, law shapes what women should be (as victims) worthy of protection.

This whole idea of "worthiness" (in making claims and seeking protection and assistance) also plays out in familiar schisms between some "child rights" and "women's rights," positions. This is also seen in the context of anti-trafficking campaigns which privilege "child trafficking" and ends up serving as the dominant image to represent all experiences (including women's experiences) in trafficking and prostitution.

PEPFAR, in accordance with its worldview of sex, divides up the rest of the world's civil society groups doing anti-trafficking work into the pro/anti prostitution. Often compared to the "Global Gag Rule" or the Mexico Policy which precludes USAID funded organizations doing family planning work to from having anything to do with addressing abortion, PEPFAR's far reaching consequences goes beyond the selective distribution of funding in HIV/AIDS programs.

In the short feature, Taking the Pledge by the Network for Sex Work Projects, groups working on massive education and empowerment campaigns within sex workers networks from Thailand, Cambodia, India, and Brazil spoke about the adverse impacts of the U.S. "Anti-Prostitution Pledge" embedded in PEPFAR. In each case, groups offering services which were most accessible to sex workers were eventually denied funding because their position on prostitution was not up to PEPFAR's standards.

The "anti-prostitution" oath not only tends to push the agenda of prohibition vis-a-vis prostitution, but also favors strategies that are categorically "law focused" (the passage of anti-trafficking and sex trafficking law) and penal in character, criminal prosecution over health based interventions that reach out to educate sex workers. While addressing any harm logically entails penal law, the construction of "harm" in this case, goes well beyond listing what "trafficking" entails alongside stringent penalties. PEPFAR also foists upon its aid recipients, a categorization of the worthy and unworthy. As "U.S. foreign" policy, it adds another whole dimension to local politics in the South around trafficking and prostitution. The end result of course is the exclusion of sex workers from the South from the recipient list of program interventions. Within PEPFAR's framework, sex workers from the South are clearly the undeserving and unworthy.
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