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What the Decriminalization of All Forms of Work Could Mean for Women in Sri Lanka — and Around the…

We need to validate the legitimate reasons why individuals, in some cases, consent to what some may regard as their own exploitation.

By Melissa Petro


Sri Lankan homes are inundated by floodwaters in Pugoda, Sri Lanka, on May 17, 2016. (Photo: Ishara S. Kodikara/AFP/Getty Images)

I was born in 1979, the year Carol Leigh coined the term “sex worker.” At the age of 19, I became a sex worker myself. First, I worked as a stripper while living abroad as a student in Oaxaca, Mexico, and then, later, across Europe and in the United States; after college, I passed a brief stint as a call girl on Craigslist. All the while, in university women’s studies courses, my classmates and I read radical feminists argue there’s no such thing as consensual sex work. The agency of a few privileged individuals who freely choose to prostitute themselves — these authors argued — should not distort our perception of the reality of hundreds of thousands of people who are compelled to trade sex for money, whether through economic coercion or outright force.

Nearly a decade later, this debate rages on. Radical feminists such as Julie Bindel argue that the sex trade is “both a cause and a consequence of women’s oppression” and that consensual sex work promotes sexual exploitation and human trafficking. Whether it’s consensual or not, she and other proponents of the “Swedish” or “Nordic” model believe that prostitution should be eradicated and that, by punishing the clients, traffickers, and brothel owners, you will stamp out demand.

In spite of pushback, in late May of this year, Amnesty International released a new policy calling for the decriminalization of sex workers. The new and official report logs a strong affirmation that the criminalization of prostitution — including the “anti-trafficking” programs that AI looked at — was found to increase the vulnerability of people who sell sex, placing them at increased risk of exploitation. The report calls for countries to repeal existing punitive laws and to refrain from introducing new laws that criminalize or penalize consensual sex work, including laws meant to “end demand.” Decriminalization, these experts found, is the best way to move sex work out of the shadows, so that the sector can be regulated and protected and so that we can better address the real problem: abuse.

Decriminalization is only step one.

Some see decriminalization as the end goal of an international movement that encourages society to respect sex workers as human beings and afford them equal dignity. But decriminalization is only step one.

People sell sex, quite obviously, for the money. But beyond financial necessity, people often become and remain sex workers as a result of institutional and familial rejection and abuse — complicated factors that are too often oversimplified by individuals on both sides of the sex work “debate.” Even the happiest of hookers has often been systemically locked out of formal economies and must live with the constant risk of violence, owing to the criminalized and stigmatized nature of their work. I write often about the discrimination that current and former sex workers face: We’ve been shut out of private relationships as well as public institutions, often as a result of our participation in the trade. So long as I sold sex, I knew I’d never be hungry or homeless; I felt economically secure. The trade-off, I understood, was a greater likelihood of physical or emotional attack.

Like most sex workers, I’ve experienced sexual violence. And whereas sex work can protect its practitioners from some of the structural violence that comes with poverty, it can also leave a person (most often a woman) more vulnerable to other kinds of harms. The trauma and oppression we experience as sex workers is directly proportionate to the policing of our bodies, so that people of color and LGBTQ individuals are at greater risk.

While sex workers in developed countries face extraordinary risk, that risk is greater in developing countries, and especially in countries ridden with armed conflict. Impunity, lawlessness, dysfunctional state institutions and border controls, as well as a generally high level of violence — these increase the risk of trafficking and susceptibility to harm. Such is the situation in certain regions of Sri Lanka, where my partner and I traveled at the start of the year. Sri Lanka’s current political landscape is the consequence of the nearly 30-year civil war that ended with the defeat (some say genocide) of the Tamil minority in 2009. In September 2015, a report by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for the Human Rights found the Sri Lankan government responsible for gross violations of international law — particularly in the final weeks of war — including unlawful and extrajudicial killings, torture, desecration of bodies, sexual violence, and enforced disappearances that persist to this day.

Conflict occurred and continues primarily in the northern and eastern regions of the country, where Tamils face violence and harassment by members of the security forces, who continue to occupy traditional Tamil lands acquired illegally. According to local activists, the military remains deeply embedded in the local economy, and heavily involved in civilian activities: running shops, farms, hotels, and schools. There is one soldier for every six civilians.

In a report last August on the situation of Tamil women in post-war Sri Lanka, Nimmi Gowrinathan, who directs the Novo Foundation’s Politics of Sexual Violence Research Initiative, and Kate Cronin-Furman, a human rights lawyer and political scientist, described how Tamil women and girls are experiencing a “spectrum of sexual violence” at the hands of Singhalese soldiers. During the war, rape was used in the traditional way as a weapon, to punish the community while stripping the individual victim of dignity. The memory of overt violence haunts Tamil women — the authors call these memories “fear psychosis.” At the hands of the soldiers, women experience a variety of aggressive sexual behaviors. They endure sexual harassment daily. Women and girls, for example, negotiate requests for sexual favors in exchange for access to electricity. They risk sexual violence at the hands of Tamil men as well.

If the movement is to address violence against women successfully, that movement needs to start by acknowledging individual agency.

Employment options that were formerly available to these women — hospitality, farming, selling vegetables — have been taken over by the military, leaving Tamil women to find employment cleaning toilets on military bases. These and other military jobs offer destitute women a meager salary (and a cell phone) in exchange for manual labor. Prostitution rings have sprung up in abandoned houses.

As a result of these real and perceived “threats” of sexual violence, according to local advocates, Tamil women “limit their public outings” and “shrink inside their houses.” A senior educational advisor working across the region is quoted as saying that “girls are afraid to go to school.” Tamil women are being pushed back into the home, under the domination of male relatives (never mind that these men, according to a 2013 United Nations Report, are also a source of violence). Those who don’t live with a male relative often end up in military-run villages for female-headed households; those who wish to avoid these compounds are often offered a hasty or ill-advised marriage as an alternative.

Women’s rights activists, and Tamil women themselves, avoid labeling transactional relationships that occur between the soldiers and civilians as prostitution, let alone “sex work.” To do so would imply that the practice is voluntary and consensual — an income-generating activity and a viable and perhaps, in some cases, preferable alternative to other job options available to Sri Lankan women. The reason these activists argue against such language is because these relationships rely on coercion backed by the established order of state power and a culture of impunity for abuses of women. It’s a similar argument to the one abolitionists make in North America. And yet, from its description, there’s the strong possibility that transactional sex occurring really is “sex work.” For starters, the report highlights that, in at least some cases, relationships between male soldiers and female civilians are consensual. One section of the report by Gowrinathan and Cronin-Furman, for example, talks about how Tamil women ex-combatants and Sinhala soldiers share an identity as soldiers, thus giving them a point of connection. When these or any Tamil women consort with soldiers, they are marked by their community as traitors or spies. All sexual relations between the two are condemned as rape. To be sure, sex trafficking and forced labor is a global concern, with an estimated 20.9 million victims worldwide. Yet experts recognize that there are degrees of freedom as well as forms of subtle exploitation involved in every case.

What’s clear is that, in Sri Lanka and other developing parts of the world, as in the U.S., there exist women who trade sex for things they need, and who may prefer this undesirable activity over even less-desirable alternatives. Amnesty International’s new report recommends that we protect these women as workers, that we position the activity as economically motivated and officially honor the choice of those who choose to enter sex work. Even as it echoes sex workers’ call to recognize their participation in the sex trades as “work,” the report focuses on the high rates of human rights abuses and drives home the painful irony that criminalization creates an environment where law-enforcement officers and other officials can perpetrate violence, harassment, and extortion against sex workers, too often with impunity. The release of this report is a hard-fought win for advocates who have long argued that sex workers themselves must be listened to, that state intervention is not a solution to commercial sexual exploitation, and that, even in cases of human trafficking, police sometimes do more harm than good.

International non-governmental organizations that seek to “empower” or “capacity-build” among Tamil women do so by investing in small-scale projects in the region.

There is much to be said of the importance of recognizing sex work as work. According to one report on Indian sex workers joining the labor unions, the “‘worker’ identity provides an alternative to the existing state relationship to sex workers: as potential criminals, deviant fallen women, hapless victims of sexual violence, or vectors of HIV/AIDS.” The adaption of this terminology is more than just symbolic: A study called Moving Toward Decent Work, for example, reveals how identifying Thai sex workers as “workers” allows them to use the Thai National Labor and OH&S policy as a measure and means to identify substandard working conditions and improve quality of life.

At the same time, it’s clear that prostitution occurring in this community — as in my own, I would argue — is not simply a labor issue. In conservative societies where premarital sex is not generally accepted, let alone sex for money, and where there are restrictive abortion laws and cultural barriers to contraceptive use, sex workers need sex education and access to sexual health care as well as psycho-spiritual support. I know I did. I needed information pertaining to my sexual health. I needed help making sense of my choice. Instead, I was made to hide my truth. When I spoke out, I was condemned and humiliated.

We need to recognize the ways in which sex workers are often not just workers but victims — of clients, sometimes, but also by the state and by society — and pay painstaking attention to these stories. This, I believe, is the future of the sex workers’ rights movement: a community wherein decriminalized sex workers can offer services to improve one another’s labor process that also addresses sex workers’ psycho-spiritual needs, particularly the needs of sex workers who’ve experienced violence in all its forms.

As it stands, international non-governmental organizations that seek to “empower” or “capacity-build” among Tamil women do so by investing in small-scale projects in the region. These include everything from the distribution of chickens, cows, and sewing machines to home gardening and beauty-parlor training. The potential problem with these investments is obvious: Supply of home-sewn craftwork like table runners far outpaces demand. Further, when women have no opportunity for strategic business input, such initiatives can achieve little sustainable change. Additionally, these initiatives ignore the reality — that some women may prefer the more lucrative and arguably less labor-intensive option of selling sex over sewing baby dresses or raising chickens.

While in Jaffna, I interviewed a local Sri Lankan Tamil activist facilitating these kinds of programs. In addition to disbursing cash scholarships to young children to pursue education, as well as helping the elderly support their basic needs, she described her day-to-day work distributing chickens and livestock to war widows and victims of rape. When I asked why she didn’t just give money to the women, as she did to other populations, she told me, “If I gave the girls money, they’d just buy dresses.”

“Tamil women’s identities post-conflict have been absorbed into variations of victim,” Gowrinathan writes, “where labels of ‘widow,’ ‘war’ affected,’ ‘young widow,’ and ‘mothers of the disappeared’ each compete with their own forms of small-scale support, and each in their own ways denying Tamil women agency and homogenizing important differences between them.”

Reading these words, I cannot help but think of our situation in the West, and our preoccupation with knowing whether a woman who trades sex for money is a victim and worthy of services, or a sinner unworthy of sympathy — nothing more than a common whore. If the movement is to address violence against women successfully, that movement needs to start by acknowledging individual agency. We need to validate the legitimate reasons why individuals, in some cases, consent to what some may regard as their own exploitation. The sex workers’ rights movement needs to free ourselves from a debate about consent, and move to talk about exploitation, abuse, trauma, and recovery. Thanks to Amnesty International’s support for decriminalization, perhaps we now can. The complex realities of the industry can no longer remain the currency of those who seek to interfere with a woman’s choice, however desperate that choice might be.