Sex workers in Washington, DC, and Brazil develop creative strategies to fight stigma, violence, police repression, and HIV
By Darby Hickey
SEP. 2007 • Issue 6
The “DC Madam” is in the news again. Some sex workers on the streets of the nation’s capital may be glad that Deborah Jeane Palfrey (accused of running an illegal escort service for 13 years) has helped reveal the hypocrisy of moral crusader David Vitter, the Republican Senator from Louisiana, who has admitted to being a client of the service. At the end of April this year, Deputy Secretary of State Randall Tobias – the man responsible for implementing the policy that forces all organizations to denounce prostitution in order to receive U.S. global AIDS funds – also resigned after being linked to the alleged prostitution service. Although it may be a joy to watch Vitter and Tobias tumble, many DC sex workers want to know why Palfrey is getting so much media attention while most sex workers regularly face violence and police arrest.
You won’t hear about sex workers organizing for their rights in DC in the media frenzy surrounding Palfrey’s case – but they are organizing. Transgender women, African-American exotic dancers, online escorts, male street-based workers and sex workers from many different fields are coming together to push for change in the District and to support broader activism by people trading sex for money and other things they need for survival.
Washington, DC: Safety in the Streets
In 2005, community members and organizations such as Different Avenues, HIPS (Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive), La Clinica del Pueblo, and HIV/AIDS groups, organized to form the Alliance for a Safe & Diverse DC to work against proposed repressive legislation targeting people in public spaces. Although the legislation passed, the organizing effort built community among those involved. People were determined to keep up the fight for the rights of some of the most marginalized communities in our city. One of the most alarming aspects of the law was to create “prostitution free zones” where police could arrest anyone in the jurisdiction they believed were there for the “purpose of prostitution” – even if they weren’t breaking any law. Basically, the legislation gave legal backing to long-standing practices of police profiling of certain individuals and communities. For example, these techniques pushed transgender sex workers out of a downtown stroll into a much more dangerous area located on the literal edge of the city where they are not only robbed, raped, shot at and more, but also have greater difficulty interacting with health outreach teams.
To help support our claims about the negative impact of the legislation, the Alliance for a Safe & Diverse DC started the Community Research Project. The Project is examining ways that DC’s prostitution policies affect communities, including trans people, the homeless, and women of color. Community based research in this case means research directed and conducted by members of the affected communities, rather than by academics. Our diverse research team will use anthropological and sociological techniques in gathering surveys, observing police activity, and conducting interviews to get as much information as possible. Very little research has been done on the impact of prostitution policies and issues in the United States, and little of that sparse research has been led by people who engage in commercial sex.
We wanted to do this research to show lawmakers that they should make decisions based on evidence-based research and careful thought rather than knee-jerk reactions. By continuing to pass new anti-prostitution laws without having more information, they are not making good policies and are even contradicting their own efforts – like HIV prevention. The District has among the highest HIV rates in the country, but increased criminalization and harassment by police of suspected sex workers drive the workers further underground, further from services like health outreach and HIV counseling and testing. Police harassment also decreases sex workers’ ability to negotiate condom use or even to carry prevention materials, since police sometimes seize the materials or use them as an excuse to arrest someone on prostitution-related charges.
Building the movement to push back against repression, members of the Alliance and other individuals and groups are working with national sex worker networks to organize the first Sex Worker Leadership Training Institute this fall in Washington, DC. The Institute will bring together a small group of activists from communities of sex workers to receive training in skills to make social change – like organizing a rally, working with the media, and planning an advocacy campaign. Since people with experience trading sex for things they need rarely have been supported as activists (because we’re viewed as criminals or victims), we see this as an important step toward strengthening our local movements as well as the national effort.
Brazil: Activists on the Runway
Movements for sex workers rights are much stronger in other parts of the world. In Brazil, for example, groups have been organizing since the 1970s, not only on health issues – and later, HIV – but also to fight against stigma and state violence and for labor rights. “Any group, when it is organized, can better demand their rights,” said a representative (who preferred not to be named) of the group Davida, an organization of sex workers in Rio de Janeiro. In 2005, when the Bush Administration implemented its policy requiring that U.S. global AIDS funds could only go to groups that denounce prostitution and sex worker empowerment, Davida and other sex worker groups in Brazil were instrumental in persuading the Brazilian government to reject $40 million in U.S. aid rather than sign the pledge – the only country so far to do so.
Davida’s representative said the group recognized that there was a problem with being dependent on outside funding sources even before this policy, so Davida started its own fashion line – Daspu. “Daspu is really helping the movement, in the sense that people are better informed about us and our demands, even wearing clothes that symbolize our struggle,” they said. “When people see prostitutes showing their faces with no shame, going on catwalks, showing their clothes, or watch [us] on TV, they can’t ignore us any more.”
Davida’s representative added that decreasing stigma and increasing self-esteem, as the Daspu project does, are essential not only to organizing, but also to preventing the spread of HIV. People exchanging sex for things they need will feel more empowered to demand safer sex techniques, access services without facing discrimination, and value their own lives more – leading to greater self care around HIV and other issues.
Expanding Sex Workers’ Rights
By fighting discrimination, violence and criminalization, sex workers are fighting HIV. Communities that trade sex for money and other necessities are often isolated, and an important step for sex worker rights is to make connections across movements. Sex workers are the people best positioned to stop HIV in their own communities – they are positioned to change community norms (including clients’ norms) around condom use and needle sharing. They are the experts on what will work best for their communities. They are also best positioned to run their own programs, as they are less likely to sustain the discriminatory behaviors of biased service providers.
Our marginalization makes us vulnerable to repressive policies – like a recently approved law in Tennessee that forces convicted sex workers to undergo mandatory HIV testing – and we need the support of other AIDS activists. As sex worker activists united to say at the 16th International AIDS Conference in Toronto, “You can’t fight HIV without sex workers – and we can’t fight HIV without human and workers’ rights!”
Darby Hickey is Co-director at Different Avenues, where she works on programs, finance, fundraising, and more. Darby is also a writer and reporter who has been broadcast/published by Free Speech Radio News, Pacifica Radio, $pread Magazine, DC North, ColorLines, Left Turn, and others. If not doing any of the above, you’re likely to find her DJing, dancing, agitating for trans and economic justice, or gathering with friends for a cookout.