Equality Now, an international human rights organization, and their co-signers, in the now infamous open letter to the UN, have chosen to completely ignore the UN's recommendations regarding both sex work and sex trafficking. The UN took what appears to be extremely great care in separating and, at every turn, refusing to blend sex work and sex trafficking; even UNAids released a statement saying, "We do not view sex work as the same as trafficking or exploitation, which are...abuses and crimes."
Equality Now and its co-signers refuse to acknowledge not only the findings and recommendations of the UN, but also the clear distinction and care Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and others have obviously taken in reviewing, compiling, and releasing these pieces of information. Why? Why the erasure of sex workers, people who engage in consensual adult sexual transactions? Why, in these anti-trafficking letters, writings, and interviews, do sex workers not exist? Even rescued trafficking survivor Stella Marr told The Guardian by choice workers do not exist, claiming that "few people are prostitutes by genuine choice, too many end up murdered and the vast majority would leave the trade if they felt there was a viable alternative."
Regardless of whether most workers would leave the sex industry if there were "viable alternatives," when one reads anti-sex work propaganda such as the type found in Equality Now's open letters to members of the United Nations, there are no alternatives posited. Searching their website shows no plans, suggestions, or even far-reaching ideas about choices for sex workers who want or need other work. As with all anti-SW rhetoric, it simply ends with "End Prostitution," "End Sex Work," and "End Demand."
Equality Now quotes Michelle, a sex trafficking survivor from New Zealand as saying, "I believe the clients should be fined or [there should be] some other deterrent to stop them paying for sex. If there were no clients, then traffickers and pimps wouldn't be able to do what they do.”
But where should all these people go when the demand ends? If there are no clients for sex workers, then what do they do when they can no longer make a living in the sex trades? Will they magically amass all the training and education they would need for another comparable-earning job in another industry? What if they are survival sex workers in need of professional assistance? Will they magically either have all the therapy they desire or have no need for it at all? Will their families no longer need money, food, diapers, clothing, utility, or rent/mortgage payments? What will happen if this demand for consensual sexual transactions between adults simply ends?
In all the blogging, speaking, and writing, we never hear about anything other than horror. There is nothing beyond abuse; there is no information past the repeated rape and torture of these women and children who are victims of trafficking. No one wants to take the time to unpack and examine the marked and easily apparent differences between sex work, which is work taken by adult people who make adult choices, and sex trafficking, which actively harms its victims. There is no explanation of the differences between sex work "by choice" and "survival" sex work. There is also no plan for the future of sex workers in this alternative and imagined reality where sex work and sex trafficking are one and the same.
Equality Now has compiled what they call evidence from governmental bodies of countries with legalized or decriminalized prostitution called, "Does Legalizing Prostitution Protect Women and Girls (PDF)?" Amongst Equality Now's findings:
- Germany, in 2007, reported "hardly any measurable, positive impact has been observed"
- New Zealand, in 2008, reported "people in prostitution also noted they were not more likely than they were before decriminalization to report acts of violence they suffered to the police."
- Netherlands, in 2007, found "emotional well-being is now lower than in 2001... and the use of sedatives has increased."
- New Zealand is also reported to have said, "abuse and harassment of street-based sex workers by drunken members of the public is common"
- Senegal, in 2010, reported, "Women in prostitution are considered social outcasts."
What's really amazing about the PDF report of what Equality Now calls "mounting evidence" in their letter to the United Nations is the complete and total lack of balance. Even in the PDF, Equality Now makes to sure bold and emphasise only the worst parts of the reports. For example, in the report regarding New Zealand and abuse of street workers, the words are printed like this: "despite decriminalisation, the social stigma surrounding involvement in the sex industry continues"(source notation) and "abuse and harassment of street-based sex workers by drunken members of the public is common."(source notation); In order to emphasise only the worst experiences sex workers have and, simultaneously, direct the reader's attention from where the blame should be placed.
The mounting evidence consists of two pages of quotes, taken out of the context of their parent reports and bolded for emphasis on the worst parts of each quote. When read without the bold text, it is fairly easy to see the words "abuse and harassment... by drunken members of the public..." shows a very different picture than the originally bolded text would lead a reader to assume. The simple fact is, New Zealand street based sex workers reported a fairly common occurence in the life of a perrson in the sex trades; However, Equality Now would like readers to believe the abuse and harassment comes from someone inside the industry, thus reinforcing their rhetoric regarding abusive pimps and brothel-keepers. This is not to say pimps and brothel keepers do not exist; This is not to say sex trafficking does not exist; This is to say clearly: sex work and sex trafficking are not the same thing and the abuse and harassment street based sex workers suffer at the hands of ignorant members of the public is not the same thing as abuse and torture suffered by victims at the hands of their captors.
In fact, in reading the collection of quotes in "Does Legalizing Prostitution Protect Women and Girls?" there is not a single quote where shame, stigma, or whorephobia are attributed to the correct person or entity. There is no moment in all of this compilation and work done wherein stigma, shaming, and whorephobia are attributed to forces outside the commercial sex industry. No, each quote is meant for one singular purpose: to blend sex trafficking and sex work while blaming the sex trades for each and every ill. This is not to say the commercial industry is not problematic, as that would be as untrue and disingenuous as Equality Now's compilation of "evidence" against prostitution and commercial sexual transactions between consenting adults. The commercial sex industry is rife with issues: racism, classist discrimination, and misogyny among the big three. To pretend those issues don't exist is to do a disservice to all sex workers; But let's be honest here: combining trafficking and sex work does a disservice to sex workers and endangers sex trafficking victims.
Because of the stigma that happens, primarily perpetrated by ignorant and misinformed non sex workers, trafficking victims, who are usually labeled as "prostitutes" have the same lack of options, choices, and plans both by-choice and survival sex workers deal with on a daily basis. Sex workers, often seen by default as trafficking victims because of a seemingly compulsive need by anti-sex worker feminists and activists to blend trafficking and consensual sex trading, are erased and robbed of their agency and the acknowledgement of their choice to work in the sex industry. Both groups are often at a loss to find help in offices of governmental agency and there are very few non profit organizations who act in the best interest of their client when it comes to either sex work or sex trafficking. There is an undeniable stigma that immediately appears when either set of words are spoken and many anti-sex work organizations are notorious for wanting to assist only those with either the most horrific stories and the willingness to tell them repeatedly or those who desperately want to leave the sex industry and are willing to (or, in some cases, truly do) see their time in the commercial industry as trafficking, abuse, or rape.
In this moment, with sex trafficking and sex tourism so very much in the forefront of media and conversation as it is, both government agencies and non profit organizations have a real and tangible chance to help these women and children often caught in the tight web of traffickers. They have a chance to change lives, and many of them are failing miserably. Instead of helping people out of sex trafficking, following up with them, making sure they have choices, education, safe spaces for themselves and their families if the need for such a service to them exists, making sure counseling and therapy are available, committing to not prosecuting them for anything considered a "crime of prostitution" without requiring them to bare their souls and repeat the horrors they have seen (unless the surviving person makes the choice of their own volition), instead of doing this real work and real help, many of these agencies and organizations would rather take the easy way out and pick a fight where there is no need for one at all.
Agencies report they have trouble even communicating with sex workers or them to report violence to police. Instead of finding out a solution to the issue, educating law enforcement about the correct way to interact with sex workers, and working to eradicate the stigma, these organizations have chosen to outlaw what is many peoples' sole income.
What is it that makes sex work so distasteful to these new radical feminists that they are willing to ignore the pleas of thousands of people, to outright and blatantly ignore the recommendations from UNAids and other UN entities? What makes it so terrible as to make the same human beings they say they care for deserving of sitting outside in parking lots for hours instead of being invited in to a conference? What is so wrong that they become deserving of the abuse these people say they are fighting to make sure sex workers do not suffer? Why is it that, when sex work is being discussed, anti-sex work radical feminists become judge and jury, even deeming themselves more knowledgeable than actual sex workers regarding those sex workers' own thoughts and feelings?
Do you want to help sex workers? Try listening to them. Listen to what they say about their jobs, how they feel during and after a day at work, what they'd like to do with their future, what label they choose for themselves, not simply slapping a T for Trafficking Victim on them because sex work is distasteful to some.
To help the victims and survivors that do exist, you must see them as whole and complete human beings, not just the litany of horrors they are easily able to recount. Anti-trafficking organizations need to fight as hard to connect with governmental agencies and figure out long term and effective plans to assist trafficking victims and sex workers (whether they are transitioning out of the job or not) as they fight to feel entitled to abuse sex workers and erase the very victims and survivors they claim to want to help.