As the sex trade becomes an ever more important part of how neoliberal economies handle the poorest and most marginalized, violence against sex workers – particularly against transgender and immigrant women – has become a tragic epidemic. Please join us this Friday, where we will be rallying in solidarity with sex workers all over the world to commemorate two women, Dora Özer and Petite Jasmine, who brutally lost their lives last week in Turkey and Sweden.
Despite being organized at the last minute and many sex workers and allies currently being in Las Vegas for the Desiree Alliance Conference, it is still important for Chicagoans to demonstrate solidarity with the international call for a day of action for sex worker justice.
As the cases of Dora and Jasmine show, the criminalization of sex work is a global problem that is literally killing our communities. It takes global solidarity to combat this kind of systemic, widely accepted form of legitimized, state-sanctioned violence.
Why the Swedish Consulate?
Many people interested in sex workers’ rights have heard of the so-called “Swedish model” — a strategy aimed at decriminalizing some aspects of selling sex, while increasing the criminalization of buying sex. The goal of such laws is to eradicate sex work by “ending demand,” – presenting it as a more “humane” (or even “feminist”) response. While Turkey has an extremely high death rate for sex workers and transgender women, it is also important to challenge the growing number of people (including here in Illinois — see below) who want to follow the Swedish example of pushing ill-informed policies that give stricter punishment for the purchasing of sex. As the tragic loss of Jasmine shows, this false alternative is just another form of violence against sex workers.
This model is not a kinder, gentler alternative to arresting and giving heavy sentences to sex workers. In reality, these laws haven’t eliminated demand. They have only made things worse for sex workers, especially those already most vulnerable — street workers, transgender women (who are often profiled as sex workers even if they aren’t), homeless/street-based young people, undocumented immigrants, etc.
People will continue to do what they need to do in order to survive, and should never be punished or stigmatized for how they do so. By conflating all forms of sex work with violence or human trafficking (which is not the same thing as sex work) or calling sex work ‘sexual slavery’, proponents of “End Demand” policies erase the agency and autonomy of people who chose sex work. Even by criminalizing clients, End Demand denies the reality that sex workers and our clients can have consensual relationships. Far from being feminist, proponents of End Demand are trying to legislate what we can and cannot do with our bodies.
Because “End Demand” policies are coming here — in fact, they already are here. Almost anyone who rides the CTA or drives along the highway has seen prominent ads purchased by End Demand Illinois, an organization pushing (somewhat successfully) for “Swedish model” type legislation in our state. (For further critique of the End Demand ad campaign, check out this from the Sex Workers Organizing Project-Chicago.) Some of these laws, advertising campaigns, and the policies they are lobbying for have already had direct, negative impacts on the lives of sex workers in Chicago and across the state. We don’t want to see the very same laws that contributed to the death of Jasmine in Sweden come here, or anywhere. Now is the time to soundly reject these policies and demand full decriminalization.
More on why the “End Demand” or “Swedish” model is dangerous…
Human trafficking, physical violence, and sexual assault are already illegal, so these new ‘end demand’ laws are totally unnecessary. Criminalizing aspects of sex work, including clients, does nothing to change the fact that there are almost no protections in place for people involved in the sex trade. If it is illegal to sell or buy sexual services, it is harder for sex workers to find help when they actually are confronted with coercive, violent, or potentially violent situations. For example, a sex worker or a client who sees something violent happening may be afraid to ask for protection because either or both of them could be arrested. Further, by perpetuating the idea that sex work is inherently morally harmful, this type of legislation furthers the stigma that makes some people (link=trigger warning) think it is okay to harm sex workers or easy to get away with it.
Whether punishing clients or workers, these laws (including the Swedish model) still stigmatize the sex industry and therefore endanger sex workers. As the case of Jasmine shows (see bottom), for those who truly wish to reduce the actual dangers and harm faced by sex workers, criminalizing and stigmatizing sex workers and our clients has the exact opposite effect — it actually makes our lives more dangerous.
Exploitation, sexism, and violence exist in all industries, including sex work. But by singling out one profession, “End Prostitution By Ending Demand”-type rhetoric only serves to demonize sex workers and portray sex work as inherently wrong. In fact, sex workers want to end things like human trafficking, rape, and exploitation, and many have the expertise to combat these real problems. Instead of listening to the people most directly impacted, governments across the world (including here in the United States and Illinois) are pushing ahead with paternalistic policies they think are best for us — policies that are actually rejected by many sex workers ourselves. We need rights, not rescue!
In some cases, these policies even mean that sex workers or allies who provide support and mutual aid to one another, or decide to share income collectively, can be charged with “trafficking”, “pimping”, or “living off the avails of prostitution.” Likewise, harm reduction organizations that provide resources like medical treatment and preventive health measures like condoms can actually be charged with encouraging illegal activity too! We are literally denied the right to organize or provide mutual aid/harm reduction openly.
These “end demand” policies are based solely on the misguided moral belief that selling sex is inherently wrong or violent. Proponents of sex work abolition seem to think that sex work is more demeaning than any of the other things people do to survive. Sex work is real work. Under the current austerity-capitalist economic system, most jobs are exploitative or degrading to some degree, whether flipping burgers for minimum wage or selling sexual services. Instead of “ending demand,” we should be ending poverty — and transphobia, racism, and all other forms of oppression and domination. That way, people who wanted to leave the sex industry could, while those who continued to choose sex work and their clients would be safer.
Like any other job, some forms of sex work can be fun, boring, dangerous, exploitative, or even rewarding. But for many, from low-income single mothers to students struggling with debt and all kinds of people trying to make ends meet — sex work is the best option. And for others (especially marginalized people like transgender women, street-based youth, and undocumented immigrants) it is literally the only option because of discrimination and prejudice. If sex work is made unsafe, or all of our clients are arrested, many of us will have no other way to support ourselves. Many people will be forced to do even riskier things, and may likely end up in jail, thus funneling even more poor people, especially of color, into the profitable (for the wealthy) and costly (for the rest of us) prison system.
“End demand” policies force sex workers to continue working under unregulated conditions without basic workplace protections enjoyed by people in many other professions. Often, they also give license to abusive police who have a notoriously bad reputation in their treatment of sex workers, especially transgender women and people of color. The sex industry encompasses many different types of work, from stripping and porn to escorting and street-based prostitution. And while all must deal with the stigma and potential for violence, it is often street-based workers who face the highest levels of violence from clients and from police brutality. Unsurprisingly, laws criminalizing sex workers or their clients disproportionately impact those sex workers who are already at the highest level of risk.
The “Swedish model”, rather than alleviating this situation, makes it more dangerous and less safe for those who choose sex work, while doing nothing to protect those who have no other choice. Criminalizing clients leads to more interaction between the police and sex workers, and furthers state surveillance and interference in our lives. (Not to mention, criminalizing the purchasing or solicitation of sex only funnels more people, disproportionately transgender women and people of color, into the prison industrial complex, which does nothing to address the underlying problems. The U.S. already has the highest incarceration rate in the world. We do not need more people in jail.)
Sex worker organizations around the world have rejected these laws and called for the only solution: (1) FULL DECRIMINALIZATION of all forms of buying and selling sex, along with (2) LABOR RIGHTS like fair pay and the right to organize just like many other workers in countries like the United States and Canada, and (3) ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL JUSTICE, an end to poverty, and the elimination of all forms of discrimination such as transphobia. Sex worker rights are human rights!
Both Turkey and Sweden, like many other countries, have vibrant transgender and sex worker rights movements. Last moth, in the wake of the #OccupyGezi protests, Istanbul’s 4th annual Trans Pride march swelled to the thousands after being joined by many other social movement participants. Decriminalization alone will not stop the violence or create liberation. We are in solidarity with all struggles for social and economic justice and must build an international, multi-issue movement for human rights.
More resources for sex workers and our allies in Chicago (links not necessarily endorsements):
More info about Jasmine via the Swedish Rose Alliance:
Our board member, fierce activist and friend Petite Jasmine got brutually murdered yesterday (11 July 2013). Several years ago she lost custody of her children as she was considered to be an unfit parent due to being a sex worker. The children were placed with their father regardless of him being abusive towards Jasmine. They told her she didn’t know what was good for her and that she was “romantisizing” prostitution, they said she lacked insight and didn’t realise sex work was a form of self-harm. He threatened and stalked her on numerous occations, she was never offered any protection. She fought the system through four trials and had finally started seeing her children again. Yesterday the father of her children killed her. She always said “Even if I can’t get my kids back I will make sure this never happens to any other sex worker”. We will continue her fight. Justice for Jasmine! #JusticeforJasmine
More info on Dora via Global Network of Sex Work Projects:
On Tuesday 9th July 2013, Dora, a transgender sex worker in Turkey was brutally murdered. Dora was stabbed by a person posing as a client in Kusadase, Aydin. This has left friends, activists and fellow workers saddened and angry. Dora’s death brings the number of reported murders of trans sex workers in Turkey in the last five years to 32. Levels of violence against sex workers is likely to be significantly under-reported due to the reluctance of sex workers to report violence in contexts where they are criminalised and face extreme stigma.
Stigma and discrimination against trans women in Turkey plays out in numerous ways, including the exclusion of trans people from education and employment. Many trans women begin sex work as a direct cause of this stigma and discrimination and the resulting exclusion from other employment options. For others this stigma is fuelled through involvement in sex work. Harassment by state actors is commonplace, with trans sex workers often complaining of abuse at the hands of police and other authorities. Turkey’s record on human rights remains particularly poor, however what is clear is that certain minority groups are targeted for acts of violence by those knowing that this can be carried out with little repercussion – often with impunity. The laws around sex work in Turkey have created a two-tiered system of criminalisation, in which registered sex workers can work from brothels (although these are being increasingly shut down to satisfy public discontent) and unregistered sex workers must work in high-risk environments, leaving them particularly vulnerable to violence. Under this system, sex workers are not afforded the same protection from law enforcement as others and isolated from vital health services. For trans sex workers in particular, the levels of violence perpetuated against them have soared in recent years.
The tragic death of Dora is symbolic of the multiple layers of stigma and discrimination that trans sex workers face. Transphobia and whorephobia combine to increase the risk of violence, whilse simultaneously denying sex workers’ access to justice. The regular violations of the rights of sex workers in Turkey must be addressed, recognising that stigma and discrimination that is perpetuated by the state leads to violence and in this awful case, led to murder. In the week that Dora was murdered, another sex worker in Sweden was murdered at the hands of her ex-husband. These two horrendous acts of violence have spurred new levels of rage amongst fellow sex workers and other activists, who have now organised protests in over 31 cities this Friday 19 July to stand together and demand justice for Dora and Jasmine. These protests will also demand that governments recognise the stigma and discrimination attached to and perpetuated by the legal frameworks/systems enacted in Turkey and Sweden and the resulting lack of protection for sex workers from violence.