Foreign Policy Blogs

Sex work in the US: a global human rights issue

Sex workers internationally face incredible stigma, dehumanization and criminalization from politicians, health workers, police officers, the media and the general population. In fact most people seem uncomfortable with the idea of sex work, and struggle to understand how anyone could “do such a thing”. The language regularly used to describe sex work manifests this disregard for the humanity of those engaging in the trade.

To deal with the uncomfortable notion of people blatantly exchanging sex for money (exchanging sex for career advancement or material goods is generally considered a separate, unlabeled and less stigmatized act), many concerned citizens conflate trafficking with sex work, assuming that anyone engaged in the trade must be a victim, and must be forced into the situation.

Trafficking is of course a huge issue internationally, and it is much bigger than sex work—people are trafficked and forced to do all manner of labor. Sex worker advocates are quick to highlight that they do not support trafficking at all. At the International AIDS conference in Vienna this summer Ruth Morgan Thomas, Global Coordinator for the Network of Sex Work Projects elucidated , “There isn’t a sex worker that I know who thinks trafficking is not a gross violation of human rights. Not one of us would want to see anybody forced, coerced, deceived or threatened into sex work, or kept in sex work. But all of us use the agency we have in our lives as we experience and live them to make the best decision for ourselves. And for many people that is not from a range of options, but they still make informed decisions about that as their best option. “

But the distinction between sex workers and trafficking victims is often overlooked. Furthermore, the victimization that accompanies the image of trafficking, which is regularly integrated into responses by anti-trafficking organizations that emphasize “saving” those trafficked, can further undermine the dignity of survivors of trafficking. A report by the Best Practices Policy Project, Desiree Alliance, and the Sexual Rights Initiative highlights this issue: The current prosecution-oriented approach to anti-trafficking work in the US also traumatizes trafficked persons. People trafficked into the sex sector in the United States are forced to comply with law enforcement and endure possible “re- victimization” in order to get benefits and status. Migrant sex workers have become increasingly wary of service providers because of the operation of some anti-trafficking organizations that have provided information about work places to law enforcement authorities leading to raids, arrest and deportation.” Penelope Saunders, director of the Best Practices Policy Project, an organization dedicated to improving engagement with sex workers in the US, explained that one reason “it is difficult to engage in advocacy for sex worker rights in the US is because of the misguided approach prevalent in political circles that conflates sex work with human trafficking, resulting in policies that claim to help sex workers, but instead violate their human rights.”

Criminalization affects many sex workers—both citizens and migrants—as sex work is illegal nearly everywhere in the United States except for a few counties in Nevada. But most of the sex workers arrested in the US are profiled, rather than caught in the act. If police don’t have evidence they often arrest sex workers for loitering, being a “public nuisance” or failing to “move along” when ordered to do so by a police officer. Carrying numerous condoms is also often used as evidence of sex work, undermining sex workers’ abilities to protect themselves.

Police regularly see sex workers as sex objects rather than people. Many sex workers suffer violence or forced sex from the police, and if they try to report sexual assault can be scorned, laughed at or told they cannot be raped, since they sell sex for money.

Criminalization can also force sex workers into a cycle of sex work. When people are condemned for sex work they may struggle to get or maintain public housing, land a job in the formal sector or even attend school. In some areas of the US sex workers are labeled as “sex offenders”, a particularly stigmatizing label often reserved for child molesters or rapists. Carrying an identity card stamped with “sex offender” makes all manner of normal activity more difficult.

So why am I writing about sex work in the United States for this Foreign Policy Blog? The political culture around sex work in the US is so stigmatizing, and so serious that sex work advocates are at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva this week presenting a report on the human rights abuses against sex workers in the US. “In the US sex workers are often viewed as criminals who deserve punishment or whatever else comes their way—but if we can affirm their humanity in an international human rights arena, our efforts for change will have greater traction within the United States,” Saunders explained in an email from Geneva.

The political culture around sex work in the US also affects international sex work advocacy. Organizations seeking funding from the US for public health or HIV programs have to adopt an “anti-prostitution pledge” saying they will not support or work with sex workers. As the US is still the largest donor for international AIDS programs, this greatly impacts the services available for sex workers throughout the world. Saunders continued, “The US government has been championing an agenda that results in serious rights violations and abuses of sex workers domestically and abroad.”

The US opts not to sign many international human rights treaties, so it can be difficult to hold the US accountable for human rights violations. But the report cited above provides tight legal arguments using the treaties the US has ratified. The review will be presented tomorrow (Friday November 5) at 9 am in Geneva (4am Eastern) but will be archived and can be viewed here.

“By highlighting the egregious harms committed in the course of policing sex work,” Saunders concluded, “we hope to encourage the US to reframe its approach to people engaging in sexual exchange in a way that protects sex workers’ human, civil, and labor rights.”



Allyn Gaestel
Allyn Gaestel

Allyn Gaestel is a journalist focused on international affairs and human rights. She is currently in the United States finishing documentaries from India and the Caribbean. Previously she was based in Port-au-Prince, Haiti and earlier worked as a United Nations correspondent in New York. Her background is in political science, public health, women's issues, and development. She has worked in Haiti, India, Senegal, Mali, Democratic Republic of Congo, Mauritania and the Bahamas. You can follow Allyn on twitter @AllynGaestel

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