Category Archives: sex workers' rights

Liberated Style

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.

Sex workers from around the world demonstrate at the XVI International HIV/AIDS Conference in Toronto, August 16, 2006.

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. Continue reading

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Filed under Alternatives to 501c3, arts and culture, Brazil, displacement and gentrification, gender, imperialism/colonialism, police repression, sex workers' rights, sexual violence, Solidarity Project, stigma, trans and gender non-conforming, Uncategorized, Washington, DC, women

The Global Impact of the U.S. Anti-Prostitution Pledge

Ideology Continues to Trump HIV Prevention

SEP. 2007 • Issue 6

The gag rule. The loyalty oath. Where did it come from and what does it mean to people at risk for HIV?

In 2003, Congress passed the Global AIDS Act and the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA), which bar the use of federal funds to “promote, support, or advocate the legalization or practice of prostitution.” These laws require any organization applying for or receiving U.S. funding to combat global HIV/AIDS or human trafficking (forced labor) to sign a statement that it “does not promote, support, or advocate the legalization or practice of prostitution” – parroting the lawmakers’ words.

Organizations that distribute U.S. funding to sub-grantees must ensure that those groups also comply with the oath. Organizations that have to adopt the policy include foreign non-governmental organizations (NGOs) receiving U.S. HIV/AIDS funds and U.S.-based NGOs working abroad.

These funding restrictions are in line with similar – and ever-increasing – efforts to force organizations working in public health to comply with ideological litmus tests that often actually hurt public health practice – and betray human rights standards.

With this policy, the U.S. government has increased stigma and discrimination against sex workers in their home countries. In Thailand, for example, it has led to the breakdown of successful activist coalitions and joint HIV prevention efforts, as groups that were previously allies will no longer work with sex worker groups. Lost funding worldwide has led to serious condom shortages for sex workers. Veteran activists against forced labor within sex work are tarred as supporting human trafficking. And drop-in centers that provided many homeless sex workers with a place to bathe, nap, and find a sense of home and family have closed due to the loss of funds. Their families have been torn apart. People who were active in community HIV prevention can no longer find each other.

U.S. policies run contrary to best practices in public health and undermine efforts to stem the spread of HIV and forced labor.

Thanks to the Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE) and “Taking the Pledge”

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Kumjing’s Activist Passport: Migrant sex workers in Thailand become HIV prevention leaders, despite U.S. groups’ attempts to “rescue” them

By Suzy Subways, with additional reporting by Darby Hickey

SEP. 2007 • Issue 6

When the Thai sex worker activist group EMPOWER traveled to Toronto for the International AIDS Conference last year, one of its most vocal representatives was a puppet named Kumjing. EMPOWER works with many women who come to Thailand from Burma for health care, a way to support their families back home, and freedom from Burma’s military regime. They also come from Burma illegally – which means they cannot attend international meetings as other activists do.

EMPOWER’s Kumjing puppets represented migrant sex workers who could not speak on a panel for fear of deportation at the XV International HIV/AIDS Conference in Bangkok, Thailand

“Think about a poor Burmese travel[ing] from one country to another,” says Noi, an EMPOWER activist. “How would she be treated at the immigration authority? When Kumjing was invited to the Toronto AIDS conference in 2006, we took her like a human being, like an art masterpiece made by migrants… The puppet of human life is telling her story from home, in the journey and in the meeting room – on the panel discussion.”

EMPOWER Foundation was started by sex workers and activist allies in 1985 and produced Thailand’s first HIV educational materials. Now EMPOWER runs its own bar, “Can Do,” collectively owned and run by sex workers, with best-practice occupational health and safety standards, a sex worker-designed security system, condom distribution, and workers who are trained as safe sex counselors.

Three thousand sex workers have studied at EMPOWER University, which offers primary and high school qualifications, computer skills, and safer sex counseling skills, as well as training in leadership, media, research and public speaking. English classes are designed by sex workers who want to learn the language in a way that meets their needs – and helps them protect themselves from HIV. For example, a sex worker who can say to a customer, “I like wine but I don’t like whiskey” and “do you have a condom?” will have a better chance to stay in control and away from unsafe situations. Continue reading

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Excerpt: Durbar Policy Document on HIV Positive Sex Workers

SEP. 2007 • Issue 6

In the Bengali language, Durbar means unstoppable. Based in West Bengal, the region of India with the major global city Kolkata (Calcutta), Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, or Durbar for short, is an organization of 65,000 sex workers. Durbar grounds its work in the “3 Rs” – Respect toward sex workers, Reliance on the knowledge of the community of sex workers, and Recognition of sex work as an occupation. In 1999, Durbar took over a government HIV prevention program, the Sonagachi Project, which now has HIV prevention programs in 49 sex work sites and outreach efforts serving 20,000 street workers and their clients. The group also provides low-cost HIV medications at its own clinics, education and vocational programs for sex workers and their children, cultural activities, savings and credit, social marketing of condoms, and self-regulatory boards in sex work sites to prevent trafficking.

The following is an excerpt from Durbar’s policy document on the inclusion of HIV positive sex workers in its work and leadership. It also offers insight into how stigma, violence and criminalization fuel HIV risk. In this document, “+ve” means “HIV positive.” It can be found in its entirety at http://www.durbar.org/new/a011_policy_document_on_psw.html. Continue reading

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TAKE ACTION — WHAT YOU CAN DO

SEP. 2007 • Issue 6

If you’re part of a sex worker activist project and would like to learn from others doing this work, contact the following groups for insight and inspiration:

Different Avenues
Washington, DC
202-829-2103
www.differentavenues.org
Different Avenues is a peer-led organization working for the rights, health and safety of people at high risk for HIV, and fighting violence and discrimination. The organization works across labels and identities to envision a world where our communities live with justice and well-being. The majority of its constituents are youth and young adults, people who are homeless or just trying to get by, and people who formally or informally exchange sex for things they need. Most of its work is local, but Different Avenues also does its best to support national and global movements for social justice.

Project SAFE
Philadelphia
866-509-SAFE
http://www.safephila.org
SAFE serves women, including transwomen, and distributes a Bad Date Sheet to help street-based sex workers avoid clients who have attacked other women or stolen their money. Workers call SAFE’s hotline or invite SAFE volunteers to visit them at home (where they feel safer talking than in the street) and give a detailed physical description of the attacker and what happened. Reports are anonymous and shared only with women. This keeps the information from johns and the police (who may arrest or dismiss a sex worker trying to report a rape), builds trust and community, and helps women define what rape is and be heard without being stigmatized.

St. James Infirmary in San Francisco, run by sex workers for sex workers, provides free, non-judgmental healthcare.

Stella
Montreal
514-285-1599
http://www.chezstella.org
Stella, a broad-based sex worker activist group in Montreal, Canada, also has a Continue reading

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RESOURCES

SEP. 2007 • Issue 6

Bilingual Links:

Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE) Policy Brief: Implications of U.S. Policy Restrictions for Programs Aimed at Commercial Sex Workers and Victims of Trafficking Worldwide (PDF).
English: www.genderhealth.org/pubs/ProstitutionOathImplications.pdf
Español: www.genderhealth.org/pubs/ProstitutionOathImplicationsE.pdf
This document is from November 2005, but remains an accurate overview of the anti-prostitution pledge and what it means. The document includes recommendations for lawmakers.

Sex workers of Apizaco, Tlaxcala, Mexico meet with the Zapatistas’ Other Campaign (2006)
English: www.allwomencount.net/EWC Sex Workers/MexicoSexWorkersEnglish.htm
Español: www.allwomencount.net/EWC Sex Workers/MexicoSexWorkersSpanish.htm
Addressed to sex workers and supporters of the Zapatistas’ Other Campaign (a movement of marginalized people against capitalism and allied with the massive teachers’ strike in Oaxaca), the CNUC (Women’s Rights Network Collective) of Apizaco, in the state of Tlaxcala, Mexico, calls for sex workers across Mexico to fight for their rights together.


English Links:

Desiree Alliance
A coalition of sex workers, health professionals, social scientists, professional sex educators, and supporters working to reinvigorate the U.S. sex workers’ rights movement.

$pread Magazine
A magazine for sex workers, sex worker outreach and labor rights.

Bound, Not Gagged

A blog for sex workers to respond to the way they are portrayed in the media in the wake of the Deborah Jeane Palfrey scandal.

The Manual (PDF, 2002)
Tips for providers planning services for male sex workers. Compiled by the European Network Male Prostitution, which lost funding in 2003 and dissolved into Correlation, the European Network Social Inclusion and Health. Continue reading

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Top Ten Positive Changes for Agency Staff

By the Young Women’s Empowerment Project (YWEP)

SEP. 2007 • Issue 6

This document was created by YWEP, a group of girls and young women in Chicago, aged 12 to 23, with  experience in the sex trade and street economies. Based on their firsthand knowledge of what has worked – or not worked – for them both as young girls looking for help and youth organizers offering help, these guidelines can help adult activists and social service providers make their efforts more respectful and effective. In the Chicago area, YWEP offers trainings and popular education for girls, as well as trainings for adults (through the Harm Reduction Training Collaborative). They can be reached at 773-728-0127. On its website, www.youarepriceless.org, YWEP offers this document and other resources to download.

YOUTH WORKERS – WANT TO HELP GIRLS IN YOUR YOUTH PROGRAM WHO TRADE SEX FOR MONEY OR SURVIVAL NEEDS?

1) Ask young people currently involved in your program about what they know on this issue. Ask on a one-to-one basis or call for a group to ask what they know.

2) Create a welcoming environment to tell you about it – keep disclosures private (don’t let other youth know, and staff should only talk in private when necessary) and make it known that you are open to listening without judging.

3) Do not have negative consequences for disclosing to staff, like losing level, suspension, or making youth leave your program. Work together to find what the young person wants or needs in their life. Continue reading

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