SWOP-USA submitted the following response to the UN Women’s Call for Consultation in Developing a Position on Sex Work and the Sex Trade. The Global Network of Sex Worker Projects brought concerns about this consultation to the attention of sex worker organizations worldwide. Best Practices Policy Project has also published excellent background information on the Consultation as well as how and why to get involved:
UN Women has sent out an email survey to develop an organizational policy position on sex work. Sex worker lead organizations and allies have critiqued this process. Ruth Morgan Thomas of the Network of Sex Work Projects has said that this process is “not an accountable, transparent way to connect with sex workers” because it uses complex bureaucratic UN language and because the process is occurring on an extremely short time frame.
The Call for Submissions has been extended until October 31, and individuals and groups can submit responses to: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the Best Practices Policy Project Website for more background information and additional steps you can take.
Written Submission to UN Women’s Call for Consultation in Developing a Position on Sex Work and the Sex Trade
Sex Workers Outreach Project-USA
Who We Are
Founded in 2003, the Sex Workers Outreach Project-USA (SWOP-USA) is a non profit organization and the national coordinating body of a United States network of peer-led, grassroots organizations devoted to advocacy, public education, and small-scale service provision for sex workers.
For more than a decade, SWOP-USA has operated a community support hotline for sex workers and their communities, conducted research, and engaged in direct advocacy. We also support over 30 SWOP chapters across the United States through leadership development, technical assistance, resource creation and aggregation, funding, and networking.
Concern with Consultation Process
SWOP-USA stands alongside sex worker rights organizations globally in our concern about the integrity of UN Women’s consultation process. In particular, the short timeline, lack of process transparency, and failure to engage existing formal and informal networks whose work centers on this question poses a barrier to accurately capturing the voices of those most impacted by sex trade policy. As a result, the consultation process can lead to the development of a position that does not comprehensively honor the human rights of those most marginalised and harmed by punitive sex work policies.
We urge UN Women to implement a thoughtful and inclusive consultation process by creatively outreaching to sex worker communities who bear the brunt of human rights abuses, including those with little to no internet access and limited literacy.
Responses to Questions
- The 2030 Agenda commits to universality, human rights and leaving nobody behind. How do you interpret these principles in relation to sex work/trade or prostitution?
We applaud the 2030 Agenda’s stated commitment to universality and leaving no one behind, as sex workers are frequently forgotten and excluded from human rights initiatives.
The criminalization of consensual sexual exchange and the policing of safety mechanisms, including condom possession and virtual and physical venues of advertisement and screening, generate grave human rights violations. These violations range from sexual and physical violence at the hands of state and non-state actors with impunity to discrimination by landlords, financial and other private and public institutions. Additionally, stigma exacerbates disparate health outcomes and legitimizes resource isolation.
Sex worker rights are human rights. These rights include the right to associate and organize; the right to be protected by the law; the right to privacy and freedom from arbitrary interference; the right to be free from discrimination; the right to move and migrate; the right to work and free choice of employment; the right to the highest attainable standard of health; and the right to be free from violence and abuse.
The actualization of the 2030 Agenda’s commitment to universality is impeded when the intersectional issues faced by folks in the sex trade are not addressed. The dominant politic frames the sex trade as inherently violent and the source or cause of human rights abuses. This framework is harmful and absolves societal structures of the responsibility to address the root causes of marginalization and vulnerabilities. “End demand” policies are a reflection of this view. Although “end demand” does not directly criminalize sex workers themselves, these policies criminalize clients and compromise sex worker safety by forcing the industry underground. A nuanced discussion about the overrepresentation of marginalized groups in the sex trade must be had in tandem with a critique of structural oppression and should center the agency and resilience of people in the sex trade.
- The Sustainable Development Goals set out to achieve gender equality and to empower all women and girls. The SDGs also include several targets pertinent to women’s empowerment, such as a) reproductive rights, b) women’s ownership of land and assets, c) building peaceful and inclusive societies, d) ending the trafficking of women, e) eliminating violence against women. How do you suggest that policies on sex work/trade/prostitution can promote such targets and objectives?
The rights of sex workers must not be secondary in any agenda, goal, strategy, or politic. The criminalization of sex work and the conflation between sex work and sex trafficking impedes the full realization of the UN Sustainable Development Goals pertinent to women’s empowerment. Decriminalization, the removal of criminal sanctions for the sale and purchase of consensual sex, is a policy that can promote the following targets and objectives:
Reproductive Rights: The criminalization of sex work codifies discrimination against sex workers by family courts and within public benefit law, impeding the right of sex workers to have and raise children. Further, laws that criminalize profiting from prostitution subsequently criminalize children and partners who live off of sex workers’ earnings and share assets. Criminalization also leads to incarceration, where reproductive rights are routinely violated, including forced sterilization.
The UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women noted that many sex workers are forcibly detained and face a persistent lack of legal protection. Many face challenges in gaining access to essential health services, including treatment for HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases. Furthermore, sex workers around the globe face arrests for possessing condoms, where the possession of a condom is used as evidence of intent to engage in sex work. This directly impacts sex workers’ access to their reproductive rights and impacts their ability to negotiate safer sex practices. By expanding resources and decriminalizing sex work, and changing other laws and policies that punish participation in the sex trade, we can promote reproductive rights and reproductive justice.
Ownership of Land and Assets: The criminalization of sex work is often accompanied by asset forfeiture during and after arrest and extortion by law enforcement officials and community members. Further, the criminalization of profiting from or promoting prostitution directly impedes sex workers’ access to housing, lending, and banking, as lenders and renters face criminal liability for engaging in transactions with sex workers. Decriminalization and other policy changes can promote land and asset ownership by limiting vulnerabilities to forfeiture and isolation from financial institutions.
Building Peaceful and Inclusive Societies: Criminalization condones the exclusion of and discrimination against sex workers by public and private institutions. Being associated with the criminal legal system often results in criminal records, which in turn creates barriers to housing, social services, and employment in the formal sector, such as healthcare, childcare, and service industries. Moreover, sex workers, especially street-based sex workers, are vulnerable to constant police interactions, often leading to sexual extortion and other violence at the hands of law enforcement and non-state actors. Thus, building peaceful and inclusive societies requires deliberate steps to address the stigma, discrimination, and harm produced by the criminalization of sex work, in addition to ensuring equal access to justice.
Ending Trafficking in Women: Trafficking in women is not limited to the sex trade. We caution UN Women from supporting draconian anti-trafficking policies that expand policing of vulnerable communities, especially sex workers, often with reckless disregard for their human rights. Instead, we encourage UN Women to call for human rights-based anti-trafficking strategies focused on the root causes of vulnerability, as supported by human rights organizations including the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women, Human Rights Watch, UNAIDS, and Amnesty International. In prosecuting trafficking offenses in the United States, and perhaps elsewhere, a common strategy is to arrest, incarcerate, and threaten felony charges against survivors to coerce their testimony and ensure their presence in court. This practice treats survivors as criminals and conditions resources on testimony that can place them in harm’s way.
Eliminating Violence Against Women: For health and safety, sex workers engage in harm reduction strategies, which include utilizing online platforms to advertise to and screen clients. “Stings” and indiscriminate policing of virtual and physical platforms increase vulnerability to violence at the hands of law enforcement, clients, and other community members. To help prevent and eliminate violence against people in the sex trade, peer networks should not be destroyed. Additionally, sex workers are often left without legal recourse when survivors or victims of violence. There are documented cases, including the serial murders of Black sex workers in Los Angeles over the course of two decades, where law enforcement failed to investigate and labeled the cases “No Humans Involved.” The criminal status of sex work denies access to justice and justifies violence against them.
- The sex trade is gendered. How best can we protect women in the trade from harm, violence, stigma and discrimination?
The 2030 Agenda Goal 5 includes “ We acknowledge the gendered aspect of the sex trade. However, gender operates on a spectrum. It is necessary to acknowledge the disproportionate violence perpetrated against transgender women, gender non-conforming people, and women of color. Indeed, in 2015, 41 or more sex workers were murdered in the United States—while transgender people only make up 0.3% of the general population, transgender women made up 29% of the murders; while Black people only make up 13% of the general population, Black women made up 41% of the murders. To prevent and protect from violence, we must shift the legal status of the sex trade and generate more resources to expand labor choices generally so that no one is forced or coerced to work in any industry. We do not get there by criminalizing choices and punishing survival. Preventing harm in the sex trade requires a change in laws and policies that label people criminal and compound barriers to resources, services, and legal recourse.  https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/post2015/transformingourworld  http://www.december17.org
We acknowledge the gendered aspect of the sex trade. However, gender operates on a spectrum. It is necessary to acknowledge the disproportionate violence perpetrated against transgender women, gender non-conforming people, and women of color. Indeed, in 2015, 41 or more sex workers were murdered in the United States—while transgender people only make up 0.3% of the general population, transgender women made up 29% of the murders; while Black people only make up 13% of the general population, Black women made up 41% of the murders.
To prevent and protect from violence, we must shift the legal status of the sex trade and generate more resources to expand labor choices generally so that no one is forced or coerced to work in any industry. We do not get there by criminalizing choices and punishing survival. Preventing harm in the sex trade requires a change in laws and policies that label people criminal and compound barriers to resources, services, and legal recourse.