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Sometimes, Sex Work is the Least Bad

A crackdown on sex workers has driven many to continue business on the streets or at entertainment centres in Phnom Penh. Credit: Michelle Tolson/IPS.

PHNOM PENH, Oct 24 2013 (IPS) - “We are not saying that all people become sex workers, but you make more money,” Virak Horn, a 32-year-old gay sex worker who works freelance in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh, tells IPS. He earns enough to support his family and pay for his college degree.

It is an observation Melissa Hope Ditmore, a New York-based research consultant on gender, development, sex work and HIV, too makes. “Most of the sex workers I spoke to in Cambodia, the U.S. and elsewhere,” she tells IPS, “described sex work as the least bad among no great options; some even described it as a good option.” Ditmore carried out extensive research for a report she prepared for the rights group Sex Workers Project in 2009.

Are rights groups like Equality Now overreacting then by protesting against the recommendation of the United Nations to decriminalise the sex trade, saying it would “jeopardise efforts to prevent sex trafficking”?

“Most of the sex workers I spoke to in Cambodia, the U.S. and elsewhere described sex work as the least bad among no great options; some even described it as a good option.”

U.N. agencies published two reports in 2012 focusing on HIV prevention – Sex Work and the Law in Asia and the Pacific, by the Joint U.N. Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), and HIV and the Law, by the U.N. affiliate Global Commission on HIV and the Law. Criminalisation of sex work was mentioned as one of the primary reasons affecting HIV responses.

But Equality Now took strong exception to this conclusion, urging the U.N. to “listen to survivors” of sexual exploitation and reconsider its reports.

“Equality Now is trying to say prostitution itself is a human rights violation,” Andrew Hunter, president of the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP) and programme and policy manager for the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers (APNSW), tells IPS. However, he echoed what U.N. Women, the agency for gender equality and women’s empowerment, said in an Oct. 2013 note: that sex work cannot be considered the same way as trafficking or sexual exploitation.

Equality Now declined to comment.

Researchers and sex workers also say Equality Now is unfair in asserting that the reports did not factor in the views of sex workers. The Global Commission on HIV and the Law, they say, received 680 submissions from 140 countries for its report.

For instance, the Purple Sky Network of the Greater Mekong Region, which includes Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam and Myanmar, said the efforts of their transgender and MSM (men who have sex with men) sex workers for safe sex stopped after the police started using condoms as evidence of sex work and closed down venues in Thailand and Cambodia.

Likewise, the Philippines-based NGO Action for Health Initiatives (ACHIEVE) said police harassed HIV prevention outreach workers, and arrested them if they happened to be former sex workers.

Hunter thinks anti-trafficking groups like Equality Now have had an inordinate influence in shaping the policies of least developed countries like Cambodia. “The Trafficking Protocol says trafficking is illegal. But Cambodia’s response went on to include a definition that matched anti-trafficking groups in the U.S. who conflate sex work with trafficking rather than just addressing trafficking, which was how the law was actually written,” he adds.

Prostitution became illegal in Cambodia when this Southeast Asian country implemented the Law on Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation in 2008. Some 381 brothels were shut down in an ensuing police crackdown, forcing sex workers to shift to entertainment venues such as beer gardens, karaoke bars and massage parlours.

Cheryl Overs, a member of the technical advisory group for the Global Commission on HIV and the Law, documents this shift extensively in a September 2013 report on sexuality, law and activism in Cambodia. Some 21,463 new ‘entertainment workers’ emerged between 2008 and early 2009, she tells IPS. They would typically earn 50-110 dollars a month, but needed an average of 177 dollars to survive, she adds.

Phal Sophea, who worked 10 years as a beer seller in Siem Reap in northwestern Cambodia, recounts the horrors of the experience. Her pay was a miserable 50 dollars a month, she was in danger of alcohol abuse, and forced to drink up to 12 beers a night in the company of customers who would touch her and sometimes burn her with cigarettes.

When she was raped, neither her boss nor the police helped her. “The job was hell,” she tells IPS, “but I needed it.”

Sophea is now the Siem Reap representative for the Cambodian Food and Service Workers Federation (CFSWF), an entertainer-led collective which has won several rulings against beer companies.

The plight of street-based sex workers was worse. They bore the brunt of police brutality, says Horn, who is also the MSM project coordinator for the HIV/AIDS service Cambodian People Living with HIV network (CPN+), and a member of the Women’s Network for Unity (WNU), a sex worker-led collective which also supports male and transgender sex workers.

A reported 440 street-based sex workers were arrested in Phnom Penh as part of a cleanup campaign for the ASEAN Summit in 2012, according to Overs.

“It’s about time decriminalisation was taken seriously,” says Susan Lopez, co-founder of the Desiree Alliance sex workers’ rights group.

Sebastian Krueger, communications officer for the Public Health Programme of the Open Society Foundation (OSF), tells IPS that they too support decriminalisation of sex work. “We support sex worker-led organisations and advocates working to end violence and police abuse, ensure access to legal services, challenge and change laws and policies that harm health, and increase access to appropriate health services.”

Sex worker-led groups are expected to be crucial partners in reshaping the country’s sexual health approach. “The Cambodian HIV/STI prevention system collapsed when brothels were shut,” says Hunter. “The whole funding situation changed.”

While recording a decline in overall HIV prevalence rates in 2011 in the country, the National Centre for HIV/AIDS Dermatology and STD (NCHADS) had noted that they remained high among female entertainment workers (14 percent).

The World Health Organisation released a report this month with guidelines to implementing HIV and STI programmes both by empowering sex workers and adopting a community-led approach to “planning, delivering and monitoring service for sex workers.”

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  • Ned Hamson

    My best guess is that today, the number of children and women trafficked and enslaved for sex far out numbers those who may choose sex acts as a means to make a living. This has to be stopped but mostly by getting the employers and enslavers in prison.

  • S

    Ned, your guess is likely based on news stories you read. Problem is that news stories rely on really sketchy statistics known to be erroneous. But as a sex worker for over 17 years, I can tell you I have never run into a trafficked person. But have definitely met hundreds of people who decided to do sex work for themselves.

  • Ned Hamson

    Nope but understand your view. Research, travel, and interviews with those who had been trafficked, as well as those who “chose” the work.

  • Elle

    Ned, this situation cannot be broad stroked. I too have personally researched at great depth, I am digging everywhere I can from every angle. there are big differences between countries and cultures that play a part in this (India as compared to the USA for example) on the other hand there are also so many different circumstances within whatever culture we focus on. There is no way to broad stroke this especially in terms of effective long term social engineering.

    Speaking about the situation in the USA there are vast numbers of functioning adult sex workers who choose the work. Criminalizing these people is destructive to them and to society. How can this be justified?

    Doesn’t it make more sense to decriminalize in the name of HARM REDUCTION? This way healthy and functioning adult sex workers can continue to support themselves and their families and won’t become victims broken by the legal system and the victims of trafficking won’t be further victimized by the legal process.

    Because this is the reality. You may not agree with someone choosing to do sex work, like many people with stigmatized and marginalized perceptions you probably can’t imagine that healthy functioning people choose to do sex work but like them you are wrong. As it stands functioning people are being rendered dysfunctional and victims just get further victimized. How is this a rational means of dealing with this?

    I don’t think its right that people are being harmed because a group of people want their religious views to be law. It’s no surprise to me that the majority of anti prostitution abolitionists are Christian faith based. I think the separation of church and state needs to apply here!

  • Ned Hamson

    Not opposed to legalizing and licensing – and am not for putting lots of workers in jail. But putting slavers and abusers out of business – you bet.

  • Elle

    Your choice to highlight the word “chose” makes me wonder if you were being sarcastic? Do you not believe that people choose to do sex work? Are you one of the people who would try to claim that sex workers who choose sex work are actually sick they just don’t realize it? You know I’m pleased that people who do think along these lines such as Christian and feminist abolitionists are pushing these issues, because it is high time that this subject be addressed! The old mind set which has allowed for the shaming of healthy sexuality needs to be challenged!!

  • Elle

    Ask a sex worker who was earning a living and paying his/her rent and making ends meet who has been arrested if their life is better now that they are in the legal process. I am betting you won’t find a single consensual sex worker who would tell you an arrest didn’t devastate their life. All it does is basically ENSURE that they will be doing WORSE. Until the banksters stop raping the earth and driving poverty to epic proportions who is anyone to tell another person that their means of survival is not acceptable and SIMPLY on moral ground? I think people need to start making their cases with more than moralizing! There ARE healthy sex workers who love their work and who are actually providing a therapeutic modality. This too needs to be figured into the equation. See the film scarlet road a sex workers journey for such an example.

  • Ned Hamson

    Nope – there is a difference between freely choosing and there being next to no other choice to make a living and raise children in societies that demonize women who have children and are not married.

  • sfmistress

    “….the number of children and women trafficked and enslaved for sex far
    out numbers those who may choose sex acts as a means to make a living…” mmm were is your documentation for this statement? I don’t believe it to be true. And even if it were true, it wouldn’t justify arresting us for working as prostitutes. And if you really believe in putting employers in jail for being enslavers, then you’d need to be supporting putting the corporate over lords like walmart, mcdonalds, the koch brothers…and the like in jail as they certainly have negatively impacted the most people currently on our planet and I don’t see you prostitution haters out on those picket lines..

  • normajeana

    Ned, Shouldn’t the person who is a victim be the one to turn in their ‘slaver’ or ‘abuser’? All other victims of all other crimes (except homicide) MUST file a report BEFORE the police will investigate the ‘alleged crime.’ From violent rape and se.xual assault to serious domestic violence and abuse, the police are not given the power or authority to arrest someone against whom no criminal complaint has been filed. This is because a victim must make a claim that someone else has harmed them. Are you suggesting that those who work as prostitutes deserve more ‘protection’ than a woman or child who is abused/ raped/ assaulted by someone who is not a ‘slaver’ or in anyway involved in the ‘trafficking’ of persons? That the rules of law (and the constitution) ought to be dispensed with if the ‘victim’ is a prostitute?

    Your patronizing, condescending, infantilizing of us s.ex workers is truly offensive. Not to mention that you and those like you who propose to arrest people who have NOT harmed us (except in your mind), give the police so much power over our lives which they use to extort us for sex, money and information.

  • normajeana

    Women who are economically coerced into domestic servitude or even into marriage are far more in need of your concern than we are, Ned. In fact, a woman who is economically desperate and finds herself working 18 hours a day cleaning toilets for minimum wage or less definitely has great need of your services to take away her only option which surely she would NOT do unless she was SO desperate for take care of her children that she was ‘willing’ to be treated like a servant/ slave. If there is a difference between ‘freely choosing’ to work in s.ex work and being forced to do so out of economic desperation, surely that same difference exists for those who have NO OTHER CHOICE than to scrub the caked on urine, feces and vomit of strangers, so why do people like you NOT want to arrest and punish the ‘slaver’ employers of those who hire those women?

  • normajeana

    Can you give us a number of those you have interviewed or hired? Because as a s.ex worker rights activist for the past 32 years, I’ve met and know (worldwide) thousands and thousands of people in my industry. And I know that the majority of them do this work because it is the best option out of many or few other options. Some may like their work- others may hate it, but the same can be said for the millions of women who work as domestic servants, or who work in factories or in so many other jobs in which they are forced to work out of economic desperation. Unless someone is born into wealth, or marries into it, we are ALL ‘economically’ forced to earn a living.

    The fact that we MUST earn a living is not a sufficient justification for criminalizing either our employers or those who pay us for our services. The fact that you wish to punish people who make it possible for us to pay our bills shows that you are an elitist snob who thinks that your vision of OUR lives is more important than our own vision. Why not punish people who actually harm us- when we report being harmed? Like the cops who use the laws to extort us for ‘free samples’? Why is it that when we report being raped by a law enforcement agent, prosecutors do not wish to prosecute because they claim it was consensual. When a cop says “give me a BJ or you go to jail” and we comply, IT IS NOT CONSENSUAL!

  • Ned Hamson

    Agree that those types of “enslavers” should not be able to abuse their workers and should be subject to arrest if they do.

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