Thursday, December 23, 2010

Sex Work Stigma Kills People

There is a great article in the Guardian today about sex workers and the vicious ways in which some of them are murdered and how a lot of them are in other ways violently abused.

I have written previously on my opinions on prostitution and highlighted some problems with legalising it as well as some problems with keeping various aspects of sex work illegal. This issue about violence against sex workers is one such example of why it is such an important discussion to have.

Sex workers are often stigmatised and ostracised from society. They are viewed as 'used' women, dirty puppets inevitably oppressed by the great big evil patriarchy and males' inherent uncontrollable sexual drive, leading people to believe that they are essentially flesh and blood rag dolls incapable of making their own decisions or having any kind of agency. There are many assumptions made about sex workers, about their motivations, about their lives, about their thoughts and about them as people; how someone must be, think and act to be a sex worker, as if they were all one and the same.

This homogenisation and association with uncleanness in appearance, manner and health leads to a huge stigma to be attached to sex workers. Because of these assumptions they are reduced to nothing more than second class citizens. If the view is not that they are doing something morally repugnant, the assumption is that they are not capable of civic virtues or performing civic duties and are thus in need of rescue. This is where we, the people who presumedly 'know better' have to step in and 'teach' these men and women how to live a life the way it is supposed to be lived.

There are several factors why people enter sex work. Where trafficking is the reason, it is clear that there has been a human rights crime committed, as trafficking per definition includes some kind of coercion or threat and some kind of debt bondage which severely impairs an individual's freedom to self-decision and movement. Trafficking is in every way a crime and should be prevented. But, trafficking does not equal all sex work, and the sooner we understand this, the better. There are men and women who enter the sex trade due to several different reasons, and these people do so voluntarily. If they later find themselves in debt bondage or under coercion and/or threat, it will classify as trafficking, but not all sex workers find themselves in this position, and some sex workers get out of such a position to pursue sex work independently anyway.

The problem with making a blanket assumption about the motivations and reasons why a person is in the sex trade whether it be moral (or as some people think, lack thereof), socioeconomic or other is that it does not make separations between the individuals and the people are all seen as one big lump of sex workers without agency, individuality or personal strengths/weaknesses. They are all made out to be one and the same, and often one and the same with one's own personal moral and philosophical feelings about the sex trade. We end up signing agency to them, or rather robbing them of it as we consequently make the decision (assumption) for them why they are a sex worker. The issue here being that society at large seems to have a great moral problem with sex for money, making the sex trade into a big taboo and so attaching stigma to it; a stigma which automatically follows with the sex worker and makes him/her out to be of less intelligence/capability.

When these assumptions are brought out into society, they become dangerous. People who are viewed as less in any kind of way (moral, intelligence, capability of decision-making over self and other things), they become less. These people are easy targets for violence and other sorts of human rights crimes, because they are not seen as fully human. Because a sex worker is already seen as dirty/dumb/incapable, it is more justified to violate such a person in any kind of way than it would be a person who was capable, or rather viewed as more worth. It would be a greater crime to violate someone who is valued as fully human.

These types of crimes, or rather power displays of people who believe themselves to have the right to assert power over other people they see as of less value stain our history. Race, religion, sex, occupation, bloodline - these have all been reasons why it is justified for one person of higher status to take advantage of or assert power over the one with the lesser status. Sex workers are no different, it is just another occupation, but also one that is seen as lowly, not worthy, only for people with problems/in poverty/of lesser intelligence, and the people in it can therefore be used and abused according to the ruling people's wishes, which in this case is anyone who enjoys higher status than a sex worker. Because sex workers enjoy such a low status in society, this means just about anyone.

People may have their differences about what prostitution/sex work represents, and whether or not it is selling your body or simply a transaction that involves sex, but the problems remain regardless: sex workers are used, abused and violated because they are seen as lesser, because people do not consider their full human value. This needs to stop. Sex work and sex workers need to be taken seriously and respected as human beings of a certain occupation, regardless of what anyone's personal opinions is about the line of work. Otherwise these people will continue to be stigmatised and reduced to second class citizenry where they will struggle to even access their supposedly universal human rights.

To finish off I will leave you with a quotation from David Wilson, professor of criminology at the University of Central England and the vice chair of the Howard League for Penal Reform, from the article above:
"There are always going to be a small but consistent group of people in our culture who will want to do the maximum damage to other human beings. They can't continue to do harm to other people … if they are stopped early enough, if the group of people that they initially targeted are valued enough in our culture for the police to take it seriously. We create the phenomenon of serial killing by not valuing this group of people enough."


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