Global Sex Workers and the “Freedom Festival”

There is a theme in critiques of pro-sex worker rights movements, that the only sex workers advocating for sex worker rights are the privileged few. The middle-class, stereotypically attractive, able-bodied, educated, and often white individuals who have enough choices available to them that they can claim that sex work is a legitimate choice for anyone.

I have some issues with this critique, as I think it places poor, differently-abled, uneducated and coloured sexuality in some other category, where sex-for-pay is only ever exploitative. On the one hand, I believe that multiple intersections of oppression leave people more vulnerable to exploitation. On the other hand, I think if we can accept that privileged individuals can freely choose sex work, then denying that anyone else could also freely choose it is a tricky bit of cognitive contorting.

However, I realized, based on my reaction of “oh, wow!” to this article that I have, at least to a certain degree, internalized this belief. (Perhaps because there is some element of truth to it in certain circumstances? Thoughts for later.)

The article discusses the response of global sex workers to being barred from attending a prominent US conference on AIDS. The sex workers created a separate conference in Kolkata, where they are working together to draft policy and discuss how they can protect themselves and other sex workers (and clients, and everyone) from HIV/AIDS.

These are not the “privileged few” that are often seen as the only sex workers advocating for sex worker rights. These are sex workers who would easily be cast by the ethnocentric North American mind as oppressed and exploited.

(And, let’s be honest here, I mean my mind. My ethnocentric, North American mind would have said, quietly, “probably sex workers in India are oppressed, no matter what I think about liberated and autonomous sex workers here. Probably they have no choice – how could they, they are so much worse off than we are! Probably they are people that we should be advocating not for their right to work but for their right to be liberating from that work.” And how arrogant is that?! Yuck. Internalized racism… YUCK! I hate running into those nasty little pockets of prejudice and holier-than-thouness in my mind. It’s not even logical, this idea that “they” would be “worse off.” That idea blinds me to both the injustice that happens here – the sex workers here who are experiencing what I assumed any sex worker would experience elsewhere, and it also blinds me to the activism that is happening elsewhere. It makes feminism here something that we can share with the needy world, rather than what it should be – fighting our own battles and recognizing that other people are fighting other battles. Bleh. I am ashamed of my “oh wow” reaction because of everything that it indicates in my own unexamined views of global sex work.)

So, what are these sex workers advocating for?

According to the article, “The Kolkata meeting will deliberate on the “Seven Freedoms” — the right to move, work, have access to healthcare, participate, organise, be free of violence and discrimination — without which sex workers say they cannot reduce their vulnerability to HIV.”

The right to move, work, have access to healthcare, participate, organize, be free of violence and discrimination… sounds a lot like what sex workers in North America are also advocating for.

I’ve been thinking a lot about harm reduction, and it seems to me that if the people impacted by the industry want and say that they need harm reduction strategies to be put into place, then it is necessary that people who study the issues and legislate about the issues should listen to that. Whether you want to abolish sex work because you think it’s immoral or because you think it’s necessarily exploitative, or you want to see it legalized because you think it’s a legitimate choice for people to make about their bodies and their livelihoods – either way, when a group of people feels strongly enough about an issue to organize and advocate for harm reduction in order to keep themselves safe… that seems important.

And no matter how shady and uncool the reasons for my “oh, wow” reaction may have been, this article made me say it. I think this is amazing. I think it requires a lot of thought. And I think those sex workers are amazing for pulling together their own conference in the face of being barred from the larger US conference. That takes dedication and commitment, and I think that’s really cool.

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