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Are Sex Workers’ Rights Women’s Rights?

Sex workers must no longer be excluded from the advocates’ fight for sexual and reproductive health and rights, a new report says.
(Photo: eliya/Flickr)

(Photo: eliya/Flickr)

The credit is not entirely owed to her, but the moment the white woman with blonde hair and a pink suit on the stage in Beijing said “women’s rights are human rights” — that was, to some observers, when the issue of women’s rights arrived on the global stage. Those words, from a 1995 speech before the United Nation’s Fourth World Congress on Women, became one of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s catchphrases.

Much less attention has been paid to what then-First Lady Clinton said just a few moments before uttering that famous line: “It is a violation of human rights when women and girls are sold into the slavery of prostitution.”

“As a whole, society sees sex workers as separate, and that gets reflected in our own advocacy. What we’re trying to do with this report is to correct that.”

In Beijing, Clinton cemented a paradox at the heart of the women’s rights movement: Women sex workers, so often reduced by a patriarchal society to their sexuality, are considered as having “women’s rights” only insofar as they concern all women’s right not to do sex work. In just a few words, Clinton conflated adult women with girls, “prostitution” with “slavery.” Her message in Beijing foreshadowed what would become the official American position on sex work, one she was tasked with enforcing as secretary of state: that “prostitution is inherently harmful and dehumanizing, and fuels trafficking in persons, a form of modern-day slavery.” It is an ideological position shared by women’s rights organizations like Equality Now and the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, one in which sex work itself is construed as a violation of women’s rights.

For women’s rights activists, this position on sex work has placed them in the crosshairs of a political debate that goes back much further than Beijing: Should they fight for the rights of women who are engaged in sex work, or should they fight sex work? It’s as if sex workers only get to possess “women’s rights” once they are no longer sex workers.

Women sex workers (obviously) are also women. And they are women, like so many other women, who have been “targeted for coercive public health and social policies that fail to incorporate fundamental human rights principles, such as non-discrimination and equal treatment,” as the Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE) puts it in its new report, “All Women, All Rights, Sex Workers Included.”

CHANGE’s report accounts for how this stance on eradicating sex work has eroded women sex workers’ health and rights, and how it has become part of United States policy. The report also suggests that more women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights advocates are now ready to hold the government to account for these violations.

Perhaps the most stunning example of the American erosion of sex workers’ rights is the fight that landed at the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013, when the government argued that it was more important to fight prostitution than to fund international programs offering HIV education, prevention, and care to sex workers. To this day, any international program receiving such funds from the United States Agency for International Development must sign what’s known as the “anti-prostitution loyalty oath,” or simply “the pledge,” stating that they oppose “ the legalization or practice of prostitution.”

Were it not for the pledge, Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-California) told me in 2013: “We’d save more lives. That’s the bottom line.”

When U.S. policy mandates organizations take a stance opposing sex work, this only magnifies the exclusion sex workers already face from society at-large. Stigma becomes policy, and organizations that do support the rights of sex workers find themselves facing a kind of stigma-by-association. That’s the mutually reinforcing cycle of stigma and exclusion, from the personal to the policy level.

“CHANGE doesn’t have a ‘position’ on sex work,” president Serra Sippel says. “We have a position on sexual and reproductive health and rights forall women, and it doesn’t have a parenthesis, ‘except for sex workers.’”

If sex workers are going to be fully included, then sex workers must no longer be made into a community which is acceptable to exclude. Stigma and discrimination against sex workers, Sippel explains, is, in turn, reflected in how sexual and reproductive health and rights advocacy organizations go about their work, from responding to sex workers seeking sexual health care beyond HIV prevention, to providing access to PrEP that respects sex workers’ rights, to supporting sex workers’ needs around contraception and pregnancy.

Sex workers were not on these advocates’ agendas, Sippel says. “As a whole, society sees sex workers as separate, and that gets reflected in our own advocacy. What we’re trying to do with this report is to correct that.”

This corrective is something sex workers’ rights advocates have been working toward for decades. Sippel points to the recent move by Amnesty International to fight for sex workers’ rights, through advocating for the full decriminalization of sex work. “The tide is turning,” she says. Amnesty’s support “gives some room,” she anticipates, for others to speak out for sex workers’ rights.

More women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights advocates are now ready to hold the government to account for these violations.

In addition to calling for an end to the anti-prostitution pledge (which CHANGE has advocated for the U.S. to drop since 2005), the group hopes for a “public conversation about the decriminalization of sex work,” Sippel says. Though its work has a global focus, the U.S. is where so much disastrous sexual and reproductive health policy originates — like the anti-prostitution pledge — exporting the stigma, discrimination, and criminalization sex workers face here around the world.

Advocates have challenged these kinds of dangerous U.S. policies before, on abortion access and LGBT rights. It’s just that sex workers’ rights issues don’t often get the same support from those advocacy organizations, even when these are clearly overlapping concerns. Sex workers’ rights advocates have already laid the groundwork, showing how laws that criminalize behaviors — whether they are about ending abortion, homosexuality, or sex work — criminalize whole communities, and expose them to danger.

In 2012, after President Barack Obama ended an entry ban targeting people who are HIV-positive, the International AIDS Conference returned to the U.S. for the first time since the 1990s. But sex workers were still banned. A parallel AIDS Conference was held in Kolkata, India, where sex workers who could not or would not try to enter the U.S. gathered instead.

“We are telling the U.S. government to repeal the anti-prostitution pledge which was signed by the former president George Bush,” John Mathenge, a sex worker rights’ advocate from Kenya, told Rewire News at the Kolkata conference. “Obama, when he became the president, he said ‘I am the president of everyone’ — that should include gay people and sex workers. He said ‘Yes We Can’ for change! But there’s no change yet, so he has failed the whole world of discriminating against sex workers and not removing that prostitution pledge.”

Sippel reflected on the growing list of organizations that sex workers have pushed to advocate alongside them, a list that includes Amnesty International, UNAIDS, the Lancet, and others. “For those of us working in public health, those who have been reluctant to take on any policies related to sex workers, the evidence is right in their face,” she says.

“Part of me gets frustrated, that it takes the Lancet or UNAIDS or Amnesty to get people to feel comfortable talking about sex workers,” Sippel says, “when sex workers have been saying this for however long. They have a voice, and that’s been ignored.”