“I feel current sex workers should have a bigger place at the table than I do. I [..] should not be the prominent voice when it comes to what people doing the work, right now, need in order to stay safe and have access to human rights.”
Dr. Brooke Magnanti
When it comes to sex workers’ rights it should be sex workers themselves who should be heard first. “Nothing about us without us” they would say, and I could not agree more. Too often sex workers are talked about, things decided for them, laws and regulations are passed without their input ‘for their own good’. Sex workers are silenced by calling them victims with no free will, victims with false consciousness who don’t know what they’re talking about, they are called pimps or ‘pimp lobby’ or are told they are unrepresentative, all to shut them up. Sex workers’ rights organisations are rarely consulted by government and other organisations, instead they ask psychologists and feminists and police to give their biased opinions. The last thing we need is another expert or professional talking about sex workers.
But I can’t shut up. I’m not a sex worker, but I can’t keep silent. Not only because my sense of justice forces me to speak up when other people are victims of discrimination, abuse and violence, but also because these are not just sex workers’ rights. These are women’s rights. These are people’s rights. These are my rights.
The criminalisation and strict regulation of sex work means that my freedom to have sex with other consenting adults under circumstances I decide is restricted. It means that I am being ‘protected’ from my own choices, that a government can tell me what to do ‘for my own good’ even when I am harming no one. The ‘Swedish model’, ‘Nordic model’ or ‘end-demand’ tactics are even more offensive. In Sweden a 17-year old boy was convicted under these end-demand laws for having sex with an adult sex worker. The adult woman is defined as unable to give consent to sex under those circumstances, while the male minor is criminally culpable.
There is overwhelming evidence of the harm criminalisation, strict regulation and end-demand causes for sex workers. But the myth is that if you stay away from the sex they don’t approve of, you’ll be safe. The myth is that erosions of women’s rights and human rights won’t hurt all of us. “We’re only coming for the whores” is a lie.
Condom-possession is now used as evidence of prostitution. In some areas, simply carrying a condom is enough to be harassed by police or even arrested for prostitution. In other areas, a condom can be used to label you a victim after which you lose all your rights. Laws against sex work never stop with sex workers. In Arizona you can get arrested for looking like a whore, waving at cars or talking to people. They can film your private sex life if they think you’re a whore (yaknow, evidence!). The stigmatisation of sex workers not only heavily increases police violence towards sex workers, it also means you are more likely to be battered or raped by cops if they just think you’re a whore. Anti-sex work laws restrict women from traveling alone or being alone on the streets. They are increasingly being used to take away privacy, restrict the internet and increase surveillance.
These are our rights to have sex when we want, dress as we want, go where we want and not be assaulted, raped or detained. We can’t be silent about this.
It’s a mistake to think that prostitutes are fundamentally different from other people. It’s a mistake to think that sex is obviously and clearly different from non-sex, that sex work is strictly different from other types of work, that prostitution is clearly different from non-prostitution. Violence against sex workers should be stopped, regardless whether it’s violence from the hands of police or pimps, but it’s a mistake to think that violence won’t harm us all. There’s no clear line between sex workers and the rest of us, we’re all people.
We cannot allow the human rights of sex workers to be breached, because these are our rights. We are the whores.