This December marks the 60th
anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The right to livelihood is enshrined
in the declaration. I mention this because it is one of the rights most
often denied to sex workers.
Around the world, people turn
to sex work in the hope that it will enable them to earn a living. But
authorities and misguided anti-prostitution policies routinely deny
them that right.
The Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center has
released two reports highlighting this fact. (See them here). Sex workers interviewed for these
reports described becoming involved in commercial sex for financial
reasons, and they described the difficulties faced by unskilled workers,
especially transgender workers, in their efforts to earn a living wage.
One of the reports, Behind
Closed Doors, quotes one sex worker on her financial
aims: "I have goals that change based on what bills need to be paid,
what expenses I’ve had, and what my current ‘improve my situation’
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
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In the report Revolving
Door, a transgender sex worker describes
what she faced when looking for mainstream work: "I want to get a
job where I’m respected – basically, where I’m not discriminated
against." Sex workers from other countries explain that they came
to the United States to pursue economic opportunities not available
in their native lands.
Sex workers support themselves
and their families with their income. However, their income, personal
safety and human rights are jeopardized by attempts to eliminate sex
work, including prohibitions on it.
In some places, the rule of
law is absent, which leads to violations of everyone’s rights. In
other places like the United States, where sex workers are criminalized,
it is difficult if not futile for sex workers to report incidents of
violence to the police, because the state and its agents – police
and military forces – are the groups most involved in violating sex
workers’ human rights.
Sex workers who are brave enough
to report violent experiences often find that their complaints are not
investigated or even rejected outright. Criminals know they can assault
sex workers with impunity because such crimes are highly unlikely to
Economic motives for sex work
combine with these abusive police practices to create higher levels
of potential violence against women with few economic opportunities.
All people who press forward
with sexual assault cases face intense scrutiny, but in New York State,
for example, the law makes it more difficult for people charged with
a prostitution-related crime to bring such a case. Right now in New
York City, the crackdown has expanded to include even legal forms of
For example, people who work
in venues involving bondage and domination are being targeted in vice
raids and being charged with prostitution, even though the work involves
no sexual contact with clients. Police go after these people because
they are already marginalized as sex workers. Many then plead guilty
to crimes they did not commit because taking their cases to trial could
result in exposure that risks their future ability to get a job in the
In fact, that is perhaps the
worst consequence of prostitution-related arrests: the barrier to finding
other work that the arrest record creates – especially work that offers
a living wage.
Sex workers around the world
use the slogan "Only rights can stop the wrongs." On the 60th anniversary
of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, this statement of fact
highlights the urgent need for a rights-based policy approach to sex
work, the same approach we use for other social issues.