Sex Workers' Rights Are Human Rights
Posted on: Tuesday, January 17, 2012
Like all people, sex workers are protected under international human rights standards. Their job as sex workers should not bar them from accessing health care, exercising their rights or reporting abuse.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes the rights to be free from harm, to access adequate health care and housing and the right to fair employment that pays a living wage. The failure to recognize sex work as labor means that sex workers are denied these rights and their access to health benefits and employment regulations that protect other workers’ health and safety.
Sex Workers Should Not Be Criminalized
- Criminalizing sex work drives transactions underground, where unsafe conditions flourish. Policies that treat sex workers as criminals and sex work as inherently degrading disempower sex workers and make it more difficult for them to secure their human rights. For example, if a sex worker suffers abuse on the job or poor working conditions, she or he has no legal recourse. Even seeking emergency medical care can make a sex worker vulnerable to prosecution.
- A US policy signed into law under President Bush requires all organizations that receive HIV/AIDS funding to explicitly denounce prostitution and discontinue services to sex workers. Cutting off aid to the most vulnerable populations only serves to endanger the lives of sex workers and their communities. MADRE has joined a lawsuit to put an end to this harmful policy.
- Sex workers in many places report that police verbally, physically and sexually abuse them with impunity. When they file complaints against police, they are ignored or blamed for the crimes themselves. Transgender people, in particular, report that police routinely harass them and arrest them for sex work—whether or not they are actually engaged in sex work at the time of arrest.
Sex Work Does Not Equal Sexual Exploitation
- It is important to recognize that sexual exploitation can occur in sex work, as in many jobs where workers are denied full human rights protections.
- Sexual exploitation occurs when individuals who engage in sex work do so because they lack other options—usually as a result of poverty. Exploitation is best combated by expanding economic opportunities and protecting human rights.
Sex Work Does Not Equal Trafficking
- Trafficking people for purposes of forced labor into any sector—agriculture, manufacturing, domestic service and the sex industry—is a violation of human rights. But trafficking is not the same as prostitution. Those who seek to abolish prostitution and conflate it with trafficking negate sex workers’ ability to make autonomous decisions.
Sex Workers Need Rights, Not Rescue
- Rather than view sex work as inherently harmful to sex workers, we should recognize peoples’ agency to choose sex work as a means to support themselves and their families, and to recognize that sex workers’ rights are human rights.
- Sex workers would benefit most from a human rights-based approach, which must include participation of sex workers themselves and support for those who want to leave sex work. Governments and other agencies need to respect, protect and fulfill the human rights of sex workers both through efforts to reduce stigma and discrimination and through increased training, education, wages, housing, health care and other income security.