There is no shortage of sensational reporting about sex workers in the media – the countless public scandals involving politicians and celebrities being ‘caught’ with escorts, and instances like the recent news of the Duke student that was outed as an adult film actor. What mainstream media doesn’t present is a more complex, nuanced depiction of the approximately 41 million people worldwide who work within this massive industry, including the fact that many of these individuals are actively engaged in advocating for the basic rights of sex workers.
March 3rd is International Sex Worker Rights Day, which provides an opportunity to focus the lens on sex worker activism, and away from salaciousness and paternalism. Sex worker organizing has deep roots across the globe, with efforts aimed at demanding recognition of sex worker autonomy, freedom from criminalization and legal protection from violence and abuse.
The celebration of this holiday began in India in 2001, when over 25,000 sex workers gathered for a sex worker festival organized by Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, a coalition of nearly 50,000 current and former sex workers. The festival was organized to provide a space for the community to connect and share the issues they were facing, to celebrate the gains they had achieved and to engage in organizing for future efforts. In 2002, the committee released this statement about the motivation for establishing the ISWRD:
“We felt strongly that we should have a day that needs to be observed by the sex workers community globally. Keeping in view the large mobilization of all types of global sex workers [Female, Male, Transgender], we proposed to observe 3rd March as THE SEX WORKERS RIGHTS DAY. Knowing the usual response of international bodies and views of academicians and intellectuals of the 1st world…a call coming from a third world country would be most appropriate at this juncture, we believe.
As mentioned, the global element of this day is central to its importance to the movement for sex worker rights. Just as violence against and stigmatization of sex workers is global, so too are fierce efforts to resist such abuse and criminalization, and thus, international solidarity is crucial. While some in the West imagine sex work in the developing world to be tantamount to slavery, and sex workers there as voiceless, this is not the case. While some workers certainly experience these conditions, many workers overcome incredible obstacles in order to work together to demand better working conditions and pay and protection from violence.
Why Sex Workers Organize & the Need for International Solidarity
The U.S. government also has a strong legacy regarding sex work- one of excluding both international and domestic workers from conversations about issues that directly affect them, like HIV/AIDS. In the “State of Sexual Freedom in the U.S., 2010 Report”, Melissa Ditmore explained the ways in which the rights of sex workers are threatened, stating, “Sex workers’ human rights have been violated in a variety of ways including violence but also by making sex workers invisible and not recognizing their input into issues that affect them, leading to situations in which sex workers’ concerns are sacrificed for propriety.”
This point was illustrated by the International AIDS conference in 2012. As part of U.S. policy, individuals who are known to be current or former sex workers (as well as injection drug users) are not allowed to enter the states. Due to this discriminatory policy, many individuals from across the globe who have a stake in – and valuable insight into – HIV policy considerations were not present at this conference. Sex workers resourcefully addressed this issue by hosting live video feed from gatherings in India and Thailand in the ‘sex worker village’ at the conference.
In addition to being excluded in important policy conversations, sex workers experience stigmatization and criminalization which often lead to violence, and accountability for perpetrators of violence against sex workers is rare. Many states and localities reinforce, through legislation or practice, the notion that sex workers surrender their basic human rights by engaging in labor that is illegal. This has been demonstrated through countless unprosecuted rapes, beatings and murders of sex workers locally and globally. A longitudinal study published in 2004 found that the homicide rate for female prostitutes is approximately 204 per 100,000, which is a higher occupational mortality rate than any group of women ever studied.
This violence and loss in sex worker communities is commemorated on December 17th each year, which is the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. International Sex Worker Rights Day on March 3rd is focused more on the power of sex worker resistance and international solidarity. In Chicago, the Sex Workers Outreach Project will be hosting a screening of several sex worker films, followed by a letter-writing and photo campaign in support of transgender activist Monica Jones, whose trial is scheduled for March 14th. In other parts of the world, groups will be engaged in direct actions, marches, candlelight vigils and other community-centered events. No matter the nature of the event, the sentiment shared throughout the world on this day is the celebration of sex worker strength, resistance and solidarity in the face of violence and criminalization.