Category Archives: Red Umbrellas

Human Rights for Sex Workers: An Interview

This interview first appeared in The Beacon Broadside, December 17, 2013firstslutwalkTO

Melinda Chateauvert agreed recently to talk with us at Beacon Press about Human Rights Day and how important it is that the international campaign for human rights include sex workers, who have always been key activists in the struggles for gay liberation, women’s rights, reproductive justice, labor organizing, prison abolition, and other human rightsrelated issues.

Why is it important that human rights advocates include sex workers in their efforts and activism?

“Prettying up,” “normalizing,” or “sanitizing” the poster children (or martyred adult victims) of any movement means that the policy solutions will never address the people who are most vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. It’s rather instructive, for example, how the mainstream of the immigrant rights’ movement places students, military veterans, and “hard-working” successful workers/business people at the forefront. (The same can be said about gay rights organizations too.) This makes them “worthy” and “deserving” of citizenship rights in the US. But what about immigrants who seek residency and asylum because they are transgender or gay or lesbian? Or who, once they arrive, find they cannot obtain “honest” work and turn to the sex industry to support themselves?

For the labor movement, organizing in the sex industry itself is certainly one focus for activism. But in truth, winning a living wage for workers everywhere would mean that a lot of workers could choose to leave the sex industry, especially those who moonlight to make ends meet while holding on to their “legitimate” day jobs.

How do sex workers rights relate to other global human rights issues?

1) Global democracy movements: Sex workers have the right to participate in government as voters, and as officials, elected or appointed.

2) HIV/AIDS: Sex workers are front line adult educators to prevent new HIV infections worldwide. They can only do so however, when government officials, health agencies and law enforcement recognize them as people who have these skills and bring them into the process, and, preferably, let sex workers determine the best harm reduction practices for themselves.

3) Immigration and migration in a globalized economy: People move from place to place looking for work and economic opportunity, for money to remit to their families back home. That women and men would move from place to place (from Lagos to Capetown to Amsterdam for example) to work in the sex industry should not surprise anyone. What should concern us however is that the criminalization of undocumented or un-permitted migration makes all migrants vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. Without a visa or a passport, public officials as well as criminal traffickers can make the life of undocumented migrants hell.

Over the last few decades, sex workers have sought to reframe sex workers rights as a human rights issue. What are some of the steps they have taken?

Sex worker activists and advocates have historically called on lawmakers and the courts to decriminalize prostitution, so that people could work without fear of arrest and persecution, including harassment, stalking, prohibitions against renting apartments, from holding certain types of jobs, or from obtaining professional licensing. The discrimination that sex workers face is similar to the policies and attitudes that once prevented gays and lesbians from finding jobs and housing, from patronizing public establishments, and that threaten their rights as parents. While securing civil rights for sex workers remains an issue, activists have come to realize that the effects of discrimination perpetuates a climate of hate. Whorephobia—and its cousin slut-shaming—are dehumanizing, reducing “hookers,” “prostitutes,” “whores,” and “hustlers” to people who aren’t worthy of concern, and indeed, people who should be chased out of neighborhoods or locked up in prison. More seriously, because the police regard sex workers as lawbreakers, they often ignore or sloppily investigate crimes of violence against sex workers. Rape, battery, assault, domestic violence, armed robbery, and the kidnapping and murders of sex workers is dismissed because their jobs (a.k.a., their “lifestyles”) are considered dangerous and they were “asking for it.”

Activists have been challenging dehumanization in multiple ways. Recently, Canadian journalist Joyce Arthur called on editors, opinion columnists, and reporters to revise the style guides for terms referring to the sex industry after a Toronto Globe and Mail columnist called prostitutes “lumps of meat.”

On Monday this week, a New York Times editorial, “France’s New Approach to Curbing Prostitution”, praised the French Parliament for approving a law that would punish the clients of sex workers. It also dehumanized sex workers. The proposed law would “treat prostitutes as exploited and abused victims,” but where are the complaints from sex workers themselves about abuse and exploitation by their customers? Indeed, neither the NYT nor the commercial press is reporting on the thousands of French sex workers who are marching and protesting against the proposed law. By failing to acknowledge that sex workers chose to do the work they do, we deny them agency and control over their lives. Even saying that “we” want to “help” them get out of sex work is a denial of their agency and self-determination. Sure, some sex workers hate their work, many would like to change the working conditions, and some would rather do something else entirely. But so do a lot of fast food workers and even some blog editors.

To say “sex workers rights are human rights” is to recognize that people have the right to make decisions about their lives and their work, to say that they have the right to be safe from violence and harassment, to say that they deserve human dignity and to have a voice in society.

Macedonia March December 17, 2012

Remembering Violence Against Sex Workers since 1991

You might see a lot of red umbrellas today. Not because it’s raining or snowing; it may even be bright, sunny and warm where you are. But whatever the weather on this December 17th, people will be carrying red umbrellas to honor and remember the many victims of violence against sex workers.

Jasmine and Dora are two of those who will be remembered. I met Jasmine last year at the International AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C. A petite, Swedish blonde woman, it was her first trip abroad as an activist with Rose Alliance, Sweden’s sex worker advocacy organization. The mother of two children, Jasmine’s work in the sex industry was used by her ex-husband to have her declared an unfit parent on the grounds “she lacked insight and didn’t realise sex work was a form of self-harm.” She fought back and after four trials, was finally allowed to see her children again. Outside of court, the father of her children harassed and stalked her while the police did nothing. On July 11 this year, he killed her.

Two days earlier, Dora Őzer, a transwoman and sex worker in Kusadasi, Turkey was killed by a client. She was one of thirty-one transwomen murdered in that country since 2008, the highest among the Council of European nations, but Kemal Ordek, chair of Red Umbrella Sexual Health and Human Rights Association, suspects that far more have been murdered but remain unreported.

Jasmine and Dora are only two of the many victims who will be remembered around the world this Tuesday at events organized by sex worker activists and allies. In some cities, there will be public protests; in others, people will gather in private for fear of harassment even arrest.  At these commemorations, the names of 95 people who died will be read aloud. Some don’t have a name; all we have is a date, a place and an approximate age. “Unknown,” age 22, died in Redford Township, Michigan in November. Three times this year in Baghdad, gunmen attacked local brothels killing at least twenty-one unnamed people. In some cases, we know who killed them: Ivanice “Ivy” Harris, age 29, murdered by a US Marine in Waikiki on May 16th. For all of them we can and will call for justice.

Yet we cannot rest even if their murderers are convicted. Violence against sex workers is systemic. Their deaths and other violent assaults on sex workers are not just hate crimes, but also a sign that consensual sex remains highly stigmatized. Structural racism, gender discrimination, and the criminalization of migration and of poverty create other vicious barriers for sex workers and other marginalized people. We should all be concerned about violence, and seek to confront and expose the complex circumstances that make sex workers — as well as all sex outlaws and gender rebels — vulnerable.

Police officers have been indifferent to violence against sex workers, refusing to take their complaints seriously, or conducting their investigations haphazardly or sloppily. In 1982, the bodies of six women, all known on “The Strip” were found in Seattle. Over the next two decades, there were 64 more bodies.  But it was not until December 17, 2003 that police finally arrested Gary Leon Ridgway, the “Green River Killer,” who eventually admitted to killing 49 sex workers. Ridgway said he preyed on these women “because I could kill as many of them as I wanted without getting caught.”

A vigil for Ridgway’s victims and for all sex workers killed from hate and stigma was the idea of Annie Sprinkle, a San Francisco performance artist and sex worker. The Sex Workers Outreach Project USA held its first day of remembrance in 2003, building unknowingly on the Valentine’s Day annual marches in Vancouver’s Downtown East Side to protest against the deaths and disappearances of their sisters that began in 1991. In the late 1990s in Washington, D.C. HIPS and the punk collective Positive Force also organized candlelit ceremonies for murdered women who worked the streets.

If you see people gathered under red umbrellas today, stop and join them if you can, everyone is welcome. When that next sudden downpour occurs and you dash into the drugstore for an umbrella, maybe you’ll choose the red one. Remember that only rights can stop the wrongs.