Supporting Sex Workers, Supporting Women: Why We Come From A Human Rights Approach
By Laura Winters – SHOP Coordinator
Heather Jarvis – Community Outreach
We support sex workers – we listen to women engaging in sex work as they define their experiences, we see their strengths and skills, we value their autonomy, we treat them with dignity, we ask them what they need and want, and we fight like hell for their human rights.
Our S.H.O.P. program’s mandate is simple: we advocate for the human rights of sex workers in Newfoundland and Labrador, and everything we do is guided by the principles of human rights. But what does it mean to come from a human rights approach to sex work? Let’s unpack what that means for the work that we do, the ways we approach the women we work with, and why this approach is crucial in supporting women and our communities.
Applying a human rights framework to sex work means:
• Beginning from a place of respect for all people and their autonomy,
• Allowing women to define their own lived experiences,
• Ensuring basic civil and political rights for meaningful participation in our community,
• Rooting the work in the belief that everyone deserves access to human rights, including the right to freedom of expression, association and movement, supportive healthcare and safe housing, safe and equitable working conditions, and to live and love with dignity and respect,
• And recognizing and addressing the ways in which certain groups of people, like sex workers, are denied their human rights due to underlying historical power structures and discrimination based on gender, race, socio-economic class, orientation, ability, citizenship status, ethnicity, family status, and moral judgments.
Our goal in a human rights approach is not to eradicate or abolish sex work from our society, as is the case with many anti-human trafficking groups who take what can be called a “rescue” approach to sex work. We see the rescue approach as one that:
• Comes from a moral belief that all trade involving sex and sexual services is wrong and inherently violent,
• Labels all people who sell sex to be “victims” who need outside intervention and rescuing, regardless of their conscious and autonomous decisions,
• Speaks over and for countless women’s experiences and realities, upholding a singular narrative,
• Dangerously conflates consensual sex work with sexual exploitation and human trafficking, and conflates the experiences of adults with that of children,
• Sees the selling of a sexual service as the selling of a person’s entire body and self,
• Inconsistently defines what constitutes consent,
• Heavily relies on the criminal justice system, police and government powers to enact justice, often through arrest, criminalization and incarceration.
In strong contrast, our goal is rights, not rescue. We defend and advocate that sex workers rights are human rights. We recognize that sex work is something that many people consent to – whether they work in a strip club, on the street, in a massage parlour, online, in porn, or independently – and they deserve to be able to work and live safely in communities. We also recognize that some people are involved in the sex trade non-consensually, and experience exploitation or human trafficking (when there is sexual exploitation and movement involved), and that those people also deserve access to their human rights. The needs of people who experience exploitation and/or trafficking are vastly different from people who do consensual sex work but we believe that no matter what someone’s experience of the sex industry, women are the experts of their own lives, and that we must first and foremost listen to them when creating services, supports, policies, or legislation related to sex work. The voice of experience is the most important voice in the conversation, always, and this is the place from which we start our work everyday.
So what about supporting people who don’t see sex work as work? We know, from listening to women involved in sex work in our communities, that there are people in Newfoundland who do not consent to offering sexual services, or who are doing “survival sex” to support chaotic drug use and addiction, to put a roof over their heads when they are homeless. We also know that there are people here who are coerced and forced into the industry by others, and they are sexually exploited against their will. The best approach for serving people with these experiences is still not a rescue approach – it’s harm reduction.
Harm reduction acknowledges that people engage in harmful activities (in some cases, sex work might even be harmful for someone) but it also acknowledges that people cannot or will not stop those activities for many reasons. This approach works to reduce the harm associated with the activities. This is also a part of our human rights approach working with women. If someone is engaging in sex work and for whatever reason it is harmful to them, we don’t tell them they need to stop, or that what they’re doing is bad – this approach more often than not just leads to the person not trusting you, feeling judged, and deciding not to connect with you in the future. Instead, we ask people what they want, what their goals are, and how we can help them get there. This may mean that someone is doing sex work to support an addiction and that the addiction is part of their life right now, but we can offer information on working more safely, offer harm reduction supplies such as needles or crack pipes, offer condoms, information on bad dates, information on where to go if they want to move from working on the street to working indoors, and we can let them know that we’ll be here again next week. Through doing these things, through upholding human rights, harm reduction and supporting people where they are at, we build relationships. When we build relationships, we build trust, so if or when someone is ready to make a change, they know we are here to support them.
We have the utmost respect for all women we work with, and even when people are in bad situations, we still believe they know what’s best for themselves and that things have to happen on their terms, in their own time. Listening to people and believing them leads to the knowledge that there are many people doing sex work, for many reasons, and that everyone’s story and situation is different. There is no one truth about sex work or the people that do it. People have all kinds of sex for love, for pleasure, for curiosity, for business, and for many, many other reasons. The only line that truly separates moral and immoral ‘sex’, is consent. Unfortunately, when money and trade is involved, the logic and significance of consent is too often overlooked. If women are to be believed when they tell us they did not consent to sex, we must believe women when they tell us that they did, including consenting to sex for money.
There are many individuals, groups and organizations out there that say consent is essential, but all sex work is bad, all sex work is a form of exploitation, and all sex workers are victims of violence. This was the position of the Conservative Government of Canada when they enacted new ‘prostitution laws’ in 2013, blatantly stating that their goal was the ‘eradication of prostitution’ and they had no interest in making the sex industry safer for women or protecting the rights of sex workers, because they saw all women who sell sex as victims. It was this rescue approach that guided the misinformed, harmful, and ultimately, unconstitutional laws that we currently have in our country around sex work. It is also, sadly, the position of many influential and financially powerful anti-trafficking rescue groups and organizations across the country and around the world, and it is hugely problematic for many reasons, contributing to ongoing stigma, stereotypes, misinformation, violence, and human rights violations for sex workers.
Approaching sex work and sex workers with a commitment to upholding human rights has brought us to advocate for decriminalization of sex work, and we aren’t the only ones. Sex worker advocacy groups across Canada, often led by sex workers, and many other organizations around the world have listened to sex workers, poured over evidence and research on sex work and human rights and have come to the conclusion that the most supportive thing to do is to call for the decriminalization of sex work. We join the Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform, the World Health Organization, UNAIDS, the International Labour Organization, the Global Alliance Against Trafficking in Women, the Global Network of Sex Work Projects, the Global Commission on HIV and the Law, Human Rights Watch, the Open Society Foundations and Anti-Slavery International and many other sex worker organizations across the world in prioritizing the human rights of all people who engage in sex work.
When human rights aren’t the priority, we’re worried. We’re worried because the moral position embedded in the rescue approach does not start from a place of wanting to understand people and their complex experiences – it starts from a place of telling people who they are and defining what their experiences mean. This silences the voices of people who do consensual sex work, and it’s dangerous because it is often used to justify actions that infringe on human rights, and make life more hazardous and unjust for both sex workers and people who truly are being exploited. It’s not that people who believe in the rescue approach are bad people – on the contrary, they are often concerned, well-intentioned and want to help. The issue – the biggest part of our worry – is that the beliefs of people taking the rescue approach are based in moral assumptions around sex work and upholding one truth about the sex industry, rather than the countless realities of the millions of people in this industry. The only way to know about the realities of the sex industry is to listen to those involved in it – this is what those who take a moral rescue approach to sex work fail to do.
After working with over 100 women in Newfoundland who have engaged in sex work, in one form or another, we know that one experience cannot and should not speak for everyone, and there is no one truth out there about sex work, except for the truth that everyone who trades sex deserves human rights. The women we work with are intelligent, resourceful, critical, funny, kind, loving, creative, and come with skills and knowledge that have informed us on our work from the beginning of this program. We believe wholeheartedly that the first step to increasing human rights for sex workers is to listen to them – they are much more than the one-dimensional people that stigma makes them out to be. Sex workers are multifaceted people with complex lives. They deserve access to human rights, and they alone are the experts on how to make that happen.
*Our sex worker advocacy program is a part of the St. John’s Status of Women Council and Women’s Centre, with the mandate to serve women. We advocate for human rights for all sex workers, across all genders, but through S.H.O.P. we center the serve women-identified people in the St. John’s area.