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It’s interesting to note how and why this field has evolved over many centuries and how in many countries in the world the sex work trade or prostitution, if you will, is legal and these workers have access to health and other benefits.   In some places they are even protected under the law.  Yet there are other places where it has become illegal, yet there are adult social clubs and other establishments where it still exists and is proliferating.  There are also numerous International Organizations that seek to protect and monitor those involved in the industry and advocate the use of protected sex (such as condoms) and much more.

The term sex workers’ rights encompasses a variety of aims being pursued globally by individuals and organizations that specifically involve the human, health and labor rights of sex workers  and their clients. The goals of these movements are diverse but generally aim to DE stigmatize  sex work and ensure fair treatment before legal and cultural forces on a local and international level for all persons in the sex industry.  As a result of the movement, fifty percent of countries have legal prostitution policies that include laws addressing the legalization of prostitution, brothel ownership, and pimping; eleven percent have policies that are classified as limited legality; and thirty-nine percent have policies that have classified sex work as completely illegal.   Since the use of the red umbrella symbol by sex workers in Venice, Italy in 2001—as part of the 49th  Venice Biennale of Art—the red umbrella has become an internationally recognized, foremost symbol for sex worker rights.

In most countries, even those where sex work is legal, sex workers of all kinds feel that they are stigmatized and marginalized, and that this prevents them from seeking legal redress for discrimination (racial discrimination by a strip club owner, dismissal from a teaching position because of involvement in the sex industry), non-payment by a client, assault or rape.   Activists also believe that clients of sex workers may also be stigmatized and marginalized, in some cases even more so than sex workers themselves. For instance, in Sweden, Norway and Iceland, it is illegal to buy sexual services, but not to sell them (the client commits a crime, but not the prostitute).

During the 1970s and 1980s, the main topics in feminist discourse on women’s sexuality were pornography, sex work and human trafficking. This led to the birth of the mobilization for sex worker rights in America. Carol Leigh is credited with coining the term “sex work” in the early 1980s and it was later popularized by a book published in 1989 called Sex Work. Around this time, pornography in particular was a prominent debate among feminists campaigning for women’s rights. The feminists involved in these debates held opposing views on how to eliminate sexual violence against women, and those involved were either classified as “liberal feminists” or “radical feminists.” A third group of feminists is described as “pro-sex” or “sex positive feminism,” and this view is considered the true feminist defense of pornography.

The argument of the radical side rests upon the premise that pornography depicts women as subordinates and perpetrates violence against women.  Some of the main anti-porn feminists involved in debates believe that the oppression of women occurs through sexual subordination and that in order for gender equality to exist, subordination must be eliminated. Thus, she states that pornography was an antagonist to equality.   There are those that believe pornography is an act of sexual violence and that it violates women’s civil rights.  A law had been proposed entitled the ‘Anti-pornography Civil Rights Ordinance’ that allowed women to seek reparations for damages done by pornography through civil courts.   Contrarily, the liberal side, believe that women have rights over what they do with their body so they are free to participate in pornography if they chose to. The main thing that these feminists fight for is anti-censorship regardless of whether they agree with pornography or not.   Sex positive feminists believe that no form of sexual expression should be vilified except that which is not consensual. One of the main advocates of this feminist perspective is Carol Queen.   She argues that radical feminists probably generalize too widely as far as women are concerned and do not take into consideration more complicated circumstances such as  sadomachism and prostitution.   

Pornography debates provided leeway for the emergence of the “Sex Wars” debates, a title assigned by feminist scholars. These debates began in the 1980s and centered upon ways that women were depicted in heterosexual sexual relations. The main premise of the anti-pornography movement rests upon the argument that pornography is degrading and violent towards women. These feminists also believe that pornography encourages men to behave violently towards women. However, liberal feminists argued that this argument does not take into account the pleasure that women can experience, stating that these arguments could backfire against women and actually subject them to a greater degree of subordination.

Thus, the debates started to become centralized on the role of dominance within heterosexual relationships and how this dominance is transferred to other areas of women’s lives. These theories of male sexuality and female objectification and sexuality are controversial because they framed later debates about human trafficking, in which coerced workers are distinguished from voluntary workers.

Current policies aimed at reducing human trafficking are referred to as “rescue missions” by sex worker advocates, because they state that laws that call for the abolition and criminalization of prostitution tend to result in large-scale raids that do not differentiate coerced sex workers from those who voluntarily enter sex work.  Liberal feminists believe that this “panic” has led to the construction of a trafficking victim who may actually be a woman migrating for work.  These feminists argue that this can backfire because it does not protect those women who voluntarily enter into sex work

Opponents of the sex workers’ rights movement argue that sex work should be criminalized and abolished because legalization can increase incidences of human trafficking. The New UN Trafficking Protocol argues that many victims are trafficked to countries in which sex work is legalized or decriminalized, and because they are trafficked under the guise of migrants they are not protected.  It also argues that it is impossible to separate the exploitation experienced by local prostitutes from the exploitative experiences of trafficked prostitutes, as they are very similar. Thus, to end sex slavery, the report declares that everyone involved in sex work needs to be criminalized so that the industry can be abolished.  Engagement in voluntary sex work is a decision made by women in the absence of alternative choices, meaning that women cannot feel empowered by their work.

Most activists campaigning for the formation of policies that protect sex workers from violence fall into two main categories: abolitionism and/or criminalization, and legalization and/or decriminalization.   Early reformers identified the key problem with prostitution as male lust that lured innocent women into a depraved life as prostitutes. Thus, abolitionist proponents believe that prostitution is an exploitative system that is harmful to the women involved.  Therefore, these activists believe that in order to prevent violence against women, customers, pimps and panderers should be punished so that the entire institution can be demolished.   Because this policy approach is built upon the idea that women are helpless victims, opponents of this view believe that it is paternalistic and not empowering to women.   Criminalization proponents believe that the way to protect women from interpersonal violence is to punish both sex workers and customers for partaking in the buying and selling of sex.

Many proponents of abolitionism and/or criminalization of prostitution commonly use ten reasons based on studies done on the effects of prostitution in countries where it is legalized and/or decriminalized.   Prostitution promotes sex trafficking; Prostitution expands the sex industry instead of controlling it; Prostitution increases clandestine, illegal, and street prostitution because many women don’t participate in health checks or registration and don’t want to be controlled by businessmen.  Prostitution doesn’t protect women in prostitution.  Prostitution makes it socially acceptable for men to buy sex and women are viewed as sexual commodities that men are encouraged to partake in. Prostitution does not promote women’s health because the condom-use policy is not strictly enforced and it does not enhance a woman’s choice

Legalization and/or decriminalization proponents, on the other hand, believe that the selling and buying of sex exchange will continue no matter what. Therefore, the only way to effectively prevent violence is to acknowledge this and for government to build policies and laws that deal with the issue through regulation of the business.   The legalization of sex work often entails additional restrictions and requirements placed on sex workers as well as registering with official government offices. Additionally, many activists favor decriminalization over legalization. Decriminalization involves a focus on laws which protect the rights of sex workers, such as those against coercion into or to stay in sex work, while all consensual sexual contact between adult sex workers and adult clients would not be criminalized.  Some of the main premises that the pro-legalization and pro-decriminalization of prostitution movement rests upon are:  Prostitution is a transaction where no one is harmed and the persons involved are consenting adults; Prostitution is a free choice; Sex work is no more moral or immoral than other jobs. Sex work could become a legal business and human and worker’s rights could be enforced by effective regulation.  The criminalization of sex workers only exacerbates problems that they are already facing. Therefore, the decriminalization and/or legalization can be a starting point to addressing these issues.

The World Health Organization has released a report focusing on the violence that sex workers face and their vulnerability to HIV/AIDS. It included currently used intervention strategies as well as policy recommendations from the WHO Sex Work Toolkit.   Furthermore, another report addressing HIV prevention in middle to low-income countries was released with policy guidelines based off research conducted by the organization which recommended that sex work be decriminalized and called for the elimination of unjust application of non-criminal laws and regulations against sex workers.    The United Nations has generated a report with suggestions toward the Asia and the Pacific that includes case studies to support ways to improve access to health services. It also addresses some of the factors that hinder sex workers from accessing health services in Asia and the Pacific. Furthermore, the UN released a development report titled Sex Work and the Law in Asia and the Pacific discussing the policies surrounding sex work in Asian and Pacific countries, the effects these laws have on sex workers, and policy recommendations. Some of the policy recommendations for governments included decriminalizing sex work and activities associated with it, providing sex workers with work related protections, and supporting sex workers’ access to health services.  They have also released a 2011-2015 strategy report titled Getting to Zero that aims for the vision of “Zero new HIV infections. Zero discrimination. Zero AIDS-related deaths.” The report states that its goals include reducing HIV transmission by half, getting universal access to antiretroviral therapy for those living with HIV, and reducing the number of countries with punitive laws around HIV transmission, sex work, drug use, or homosexual activity by half all by 2015.

 Kathy Kiefer

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