The Politics of Sex Work

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I’ll quote Bitange Ndemo’s piece on Taiwan’s Link between Personal Conduct and Economic Success, “Asian countries emphasise six key values that can be introduced to young children as well as older people. These include Respect (acknowledging others with simple greetings), Responsibility (taking care of your mess), Resilience (accepting failure and never giving up), Integrity (honesty), Care (helping those around you) and Harmony (accept others who may be different or do things differently), and re-emphasising all the time the living by these values in every decision or action that we take.” This does not make what follows an analysis of Taiwan, or Asian countries for that matter. It is however very much about the linkages that exist between personal conduct, public conduct, morality, crime (and the lack of it), exploitation, choice, class and economic success. At this point, I will emphasise on “harmony” as one of the key values. Keep that in mind as you read this.

Sex work. Prostitution. Intimacy for compensation. Umalaya. Hustling. The sex trade. The sex industry. Hooking. Arguably the oldest profession known has been in the headlines a lot. Amnesty International sparked international debate mid last year when the organization’s International decision making forum voted to adopt a policy to protect the human rights of sex workers. The resolution recommended that the highly influential international organization develop a policy that supports the full decriminalization of all aspects of consensual sex work and called on states to ensure that sex workers enjoy full and equal legal protection from exploitation, trafficking and violence. This recommendation came after a two year research concluding that this is the best way to defend sex workers’ human rights and lessen the risk of abuse and violations they face. One thing that seems to have escaped most commentators’ attention is the fact that the policy would also recommend that any act related to the sexual exploitation of a child must be criminalized. Recognizing that a child involved in a commercial sex act is a victim of sexual exploitation, entitled to support, reparations, and remedies, in line with international human rights law, and that states must take all appropriate measures to prevent sexual exploitation and abuse of children.

Amnesty International was not  the first international organization to recommend the decriminalization of sex work. The World Health Organization in its 2013 publication, “Implementing Comprehensive HIV/STI Programmes with Sex Workers: Practical Approaches from Collaborative Interventions” stated that community empowerment includes working towards the decriminalization of sex work and the elimination of the unjust application of non-criminal laws and regulations against sex workers, and recognizing and respecting sex work as a legitimate occupation or livelihood.

Last year, the United States Department of Justice arrested the CEO and six employees behind the online male escort service rentboy.com calling said site the largest “internet brothel”. While there may be legal justification for taking down the website in the United States as prostitution is illegal in that country, this move has sparked quite some debate all over the world about criminalization and what that means not only for the providers of the internet service but also for the users of the same, especially due to the fact that RentBoy has operated openly for the last twenty years.

The op-ed “Buying Sex Should Not Be Legal” by Rachel Moran in the New York Times, (coincidentally published on my birthday) and an interview with a friend, colleague and sex worker activist John Mathenge from the Global Network for Sex Workers raise an incredibly complicated set of issues that I wish to analyse on this incredibly complicated topic.

Mathenge says that the reasons for becoming a sex worker are incredibly broad. For some sex workers, poverty pushes them to it. Poverty and the fact that the individual does not have other professional options. He notes that indeed, there are individuals who are coerced into sex work through human trafficking and challenges at home while incredibly young. Ms. Moran’s story is quite tragically one of those. Forced to sell sex at 14 years of age. This is a story that has been heard countless times the world over. On this point, I agree wholeheartedly with her. Our children need to be protected. Our young girls and boys need to be protected from those who wish to sexually exploit them. Mathenge says however that sex work is different from human trafficking and sexual exploitation of children, both of which the sex workers in Kenya are completely against. In fact, he says, his organization, in conjunction with the Africa Sex Worker Alliance and the Kenya Sex Worker Alliance have conducted a project to link young people selling sex (children under the age of 18) in various countries in Africa with organizations working with children and encourage those willing to go back to school. Most of those reached did indeed go back to school.

There are sex workers however who actually choose the profession. For some, according to Mathenge, due to the fact that there is nothing else they are capable of doing. For others, like Mr. Rob Yeager, for convenience; so that he can have the ability and time to take care of his disabled partner. Even others actually enjoy the profession for various reasons including the sex and perhaps the fact that it makes more money than anything else they could have done. For these people, for these adults, it becomes a matter of choice. The freedom to choose what to do with their own bodies. The freedom to choose to get into a willing buyer, willing seller situation where the product in question may include a sexual act.

Which brings me to the question of commoditising the body. Commoditizing sex itself. Reasons for not doing this vary greatly. They are often influenced by the society’s understanding of morality and religion. They are often a product of having been brought up believing that sex is something so intimate that it cannot be spoken about in polite company. That the only reason sex can be had is when two people need to procreate (is it really?). That it is something about oneself that one needs to keep hidden. These reasons are a product of not nearly enough talk about gender and sexuality. Because if we did actually open up, and I have been successful in getting random groups of people to open up about gender and sexuality, we would uncover so many aspects of the same that we didn’t even know existed. We would get to a point where we understood that components of our gender and sexuality are so broad that understanding them would probably be near impossible. A conversation about gender and sexuality needs to happen when we are talking about sex work because that is exactly what it is about. Gender and sexuality. Our maleness, our femaleness, our cisgenderness, our transgenderness, our heterosexuality, our homosexuality, our bisexuality and all the other possible continuums in existence. It is about all that and the human need to exist in their space without prejudice, stigma or discrimination. To be allowed to make choices as long as these choices do not harm the next person.

The bottom line is this, sex work has existed in our society from time immemorial. Fun fact, it even exists in animals (although I’m yet to figure out when animals became our moral compass)! Sex work is going nowhere. We may continue to bury our heads in the sand and pretend that by increasing punitive measures that in some countries target persons under the age of 18 who sell sex, we will get rid of it. We may try creative punitive measures like the Nordic model where only the buyer is criminalized which in essence does an injustice to the sex worker. As much as some studies have claimed that this model has had some success, it still doesn’t make logical sense to make the buying of a product illegal and selling of the same legal. With due respect to Ms. Moran, our children are getting into the sale of sex at an incredibly young age. But that is not sex work. That is exploitation of children. That is paedophilia. That is wrong and the perpetrators of the same need to face the full extent of the law. Women are being unwillingly used for the sexual gratification of other men and women. Some men are being unwillingly used for the sexual gratification of other men and women. That is not sex work. That is sexual exploitation of human beings. That is wrong and the perpetrators of the same, just like the paedophiles need to face the full extent of the law.

Existing resources (meagre for most countries) need not be used to target adult consensual sex workers and the buyers of their services. They need to be utilized in eradicating human trafficking. In ensuring that our children are protected. In ensuring that women and men are not being exploited sexually or otherwise. In my opinion, sex work needs to be decriminalized. It then needs to be regulated. Regulated in such a way that people are not exploited. That everyone gets their due wage. That sex workers are able to report the violence they face to the authorities without the fear that they will be arrested. That sex workers are empowered enough to negotiate condom use with their clients thus reducing the rates of transmission HIV and other STIs. That sex workers get to contribute meaningfully to the society by having the trade taxed. I intentionally did not use statistics here because while numbers do wonders in giving us an outline of a situation, this conversation is not about numbers. It is about human beings who simply want to be allowed to live and do what they do. It’s about people. In the beginning I asked that you keep “harmony” in mind. It’s about just that. Accepting others who may be different or do things differently.

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