The past year was full of activity as sex worker rights activists mobilized across the country to advance the wellbeing of people engaged in sexual exchange. From the halls of the United Nations to the streets of New Orleans, there were important victories, but also challenges. As we enter a new year of struggle for the rights of those involved in sex trade/work, let’s take a moment to reflect on some key moments of 2011.
Aside from all the work that organizations did in 2011, important developments emerged regarding movement groups themselves. Indigenous people and people of color with experience in the sex trades affiliated with INCITE formed a new group, Fed Up and Strategizing for Empowerment (FUSE). SWOP chapters from around the country came together for their first national retreat, with participants from New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Denver, Las Vegas, Tucson and Seattle. Desiree Alliance restructured, bringing in new leadership and creating a Strategic Committee to guide its work from a strong social justice perspective. And Streetwise and Safe established itself as an independent project in New York City led by and for LGBTQQ youth of color in the sex trades. Sadly, the final issue of $pread magazine (the highly anticipated “race” issue) appeared in 2011 as the magazine implemented its 2010 decision to close up shop.
Networks for sex worker rights started the year on a positive note in regards to having their issues heard federally. Demands collected from grassroots organizers were included in the official recommendations to the Obama Administration from the U.N. Human Rights Committee during the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in late 2010. The early months of 2011 were filled with activity as the Human Rights for All coalition consulted with local communities and reached out to the State Department to respond positively to Recommendation 86 that asked the United States to “…ensure access to public services paying attention to the special vulnerability of sexual workers to violence and human rights abuses.” On March 18th, the U.S. delegation to Geneva delivered its official response to the recommendations, including acceptance of recommendation 86. Activist Darby Hickey, who was one of just ten non-governmental organization representatives to speak before the U.N. Human Rights Committee in Geneva on March 18, highlighted the significance of the federal government formally committing to address human rights abuses against people involved in sexual exchange – for the first time ever. Meanwhile in New York City and elsewhere, activists rallied in support of the victory.
Of course, governmental proclamations do not have much practical significance without fundamental change at the grassroots level to defend health and rights. In April we were reminded of the urgent need for better protections for sex workers’ human rights as more bodies of murdered women, who had been involved in prostitution, were found on Long Island – the likely victims of a serial killer active for months. Local groups SWANK and SWOP-NYC spoke out, highlighting how criminalization and stigmatization make people involved in prostitution more vulnerable to violence while police often treat such cases as less important, and victims avoid asking authorities for help due to fear of arrest. Activists called for amnesty for sex workers so that people with information about the murders could come forward – which was reported in news outlets including CNN and The New York Times.
Critiques of current approaches to human trafficking bubbled into the mainstream with a June article in the Village Voice that questioned the statistics of prominent anti-trafficking groups, focusing on the ad campaign of Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore: “Real men don’t buy girls.” The piece, which prompted outrage from Kutcher, followed on the heels of excellent publications from sex worker rights’ activists including Emi Koyama’s zine “War on Terror & War on Trafficking” and a statement from INCITE in response to an article on “simple solutions” to trafficking in Colorlines magazine. Such interventions are critical to helping policies reflect reality, not hype.
Also in June, months of organizing and activism finally paid off in Louisiana when Republican Governor Bobby Jindal signed a bill ending the practice of charging alleged sex workers with felony “solicitation of a crime against nature” (SCAN) and adding them to the state’s sex offender registry. The passage of the law came five months after Women With A Vision and other groups in New Orleans filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the SCAN law and convictions. Although the legislation was a critical success, it failed to remove the sex offender label from hundreds of people – particularly trans and non-trans women of color – with prior SCAN convictions. The lawsuit continues in federal court, as community groups organize to completely correct this injustice.
Given the extent to which concerns about “sex trafficking” have entered the public consciousness via fictionalizations in movies and television series, perhaps a new court-room drama should focus on the epic battles against bad policy regarding prostitution to balance out the picture. July brought the latest chapter in ongoing legal actions regarding the “Anti-Prostitution Loyalty Oath” associated with U.S. funding for global HIV prevention and treatment efforts. The provision requires all entities receiving such money from the U.S. to have a policy condemning prostitution, a policy that has imperiled best practice programming with sex workers worldwide. Judges from the Second Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court’s ruling that the loyalty oath requirement violates the First Amendment rights of U.S.-based organizations that receive funding associated with the oath. The ruling, which the administration is likely appeal, does not apply to foreign groups, which continue to be hampered in their work to ensure the health and safety of people engaging in sex work.
In other HIV news, representatives from Desiree Alliance and Best Practices Policy Project submitted a report to the Global Commission on HIV and the Law regarding the “High Income Countries Dialogue” which took place in September. Desiree Alliance coordinator Sharmus Outlaw attended the session, yet another example of groups successfully collaborating nationally and having a global impact. Also in September, Occupy Wall Street began in New York City, which included sex worker activists from the start. And St. James Infirmary made a splash with the release of compelling posters addressing sex workers’ health and rights. Clear Channel and CBS Outdoor refused to sell billboard space for the posters but St. James Infirmary persevered in their efforts to ensure that the media campaign reached the general public, and the posters did appear on the sides of city buses.
Emboldened by 2010’s successful effort to close the adult services section of Craigslist in the name of anti-trafficking, Attorneys General from many states sent a letter to Backpage, the classifieds section of the chain of newspapers that includes the Village Voice, demanding the shuttering of its adult-oriented ads. Arguing that the ads for phone sex, exotic dancers, and escorts promote sexual exploitation of children, the AGs were backed up by clergy and anti-prostitution feminists. Protests by anti-sex worker rights groups in October brought the issue back into the news, as people with experience in sexual exchange and their allies spoke out about the harms of such approaches. Backpage showed no indication of backing down, and the controversy looks likely to continue in 2012.
Activists from across the southern U.S. gathered in North Carolina in early December for the “Summit on Sex Work in the South” – a landmark event that brought together more than 85 people thrilled to be working on rights and health issues regionally. Many more gatherings happened across the country, and around the world, on December 17 as people commemorated International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers.
The events of 2011 demonstrate the power of people involved in sex work/trade and their allies when they organize for their rights, but also the many challenges that face our communities. Here’s to a 2012 that is full of movement building, opinion-changing, and hustling for human rights.