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For various reasons we never got round to submitting the following information to the Guardian’s Readers Editor at the time this op-ed was published; but rather than waste the time APNSW and NZPC spent checking sources we share it here for the record, and in the hope that fact-checkers of the future may also read it.

On the 13 July 2016, the Guardian published an op-ed (an ‘opinion’ or ‘opposite’ editorial) in their “Comment is Free” section titled “Decriminalising the sex trade will not protect its workers from abuse.

The op-ed does not attempt to argue that the decriminalisation models which have greatly improved legal protections for sex workers in New Zealand (and New South Wales, Australia) cannot be adapted and adopted elsewhere. Instead, it attempts to deny that decriminalisation in New Zealand has been successful in protecting sex workers. This conclusion, reached on the basis of two interviewed sources and a number of false or misleading statements, is completely at odds with the independent evaluation of the law involving interviews with over 700 sex workers. [1]

Op-eds are supposed to express strong and at times controversial opinions. However, among ethical and professional journalism outlets, even op-ed pieces are expected to be accurate with respect to facts. (“Comment is free, facts are sacred” says the full quotation from which the Guardian’s opinion pages take their name.)

And the UK press complaints commission guidelines state, “The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information.”[2]

The following eight points are substantively inaccurate or misleading, and could easily have been discovered by fact-checkers using the public internet and a couple of email or phone calls to NZPC.

1.  “Under this legislation [Nordic model], buying or attempting to buy sex is criminalised, and the selling of sex is totally decriminalised”

Fact check: FALSE

In Sweden, the origin of the so-called “Nordic” model, the selling of sex is only decriminalised in the sex buyers law, not anywhere else. In practice, a whole range of other laws and police actions harass and discriminate against sex workers, whose lives and livelihoods are far from decriminalised.[3]

For the selling of sex to be totally decriminalised, the selling of sex needs to be able to legally occur somewhere – in a space or place of some kind, either public or private.

Sex in public spaces may not be illegal in Sweden, provided the activity is hidden from view.[4] However, such a hidden public space (usually remote and outdoor) is unlikely to be a safe space for sex workers to work.

In private spaces, on the other hand, it is illegal in Sweden to provide premises for sex work to take place. Police will prosecute a landlord if they do not evict occupants after becoming aware that sex work is taking place on the premises. And the Swedish police have been documented reporting the existence of sex work to landlords, therefore forcing the eviction of sex workers from their homes. Swedish police also report sex workers to hotels and other venues “providing premises.”

In Norway, similar laws were used to systematically evict sex workers from their homes and work venues in a police operation incredulously titled “Operation Homeless.”[5]

Sex workers working together for safety in Sweden can be charged with “pimping” one another under a law that predates the sex buyers law. And sex workers’ partners and children can be prosecuted for receiving income from sex work.

Migrant sex workers cannot get a visa or work permit to do sex work, so cannot legally sell sex, and are routinely deported.

The continued criminalization of sex workers even affects non sex workers. A venue that refused entry to “Asian looking women” on the basis that they were assumed to be sex workers, was cleared of wrongdoing in the resulting court case. The court ruled the venue owners had a “legitimate reason” to refuse access.[6]

Sex workers in Sweden report losing custody of their children, with their sex work being cited as the reason for such interventions. In one tragic case, this led to children of a sex worker known as Petite Jasmine being placed with an ex-partner who was a man with a recorded history of violent abuse. The man stabbed Petite Jasmine to death during an unsupervised visit.

Sex workers, therefore, remain very much the focus of law enforcement, and continue in practice to be criminalized and marginalized. To state that selling sex is “totally decriminalized” is not true.

(In September 2016, the Irish news outlet “The Journal” reached a similar conclusion in relation to proposed legislation reform in the Republic of Ireland –  “FactCheck: Would a new government bill really decriminalise sex workers?”)

2. “sex worker and activist Laura Lee has put forward arguments that prostitution is labour, and that the only harm to those involved comes from feminists and police officers.”

Fact check: FALSE

Laura Lee has also written and spoken regularly about harms caused by a minority of clients; how sex workers cannot report these and other acts of violence to police; and how abusive men even take advantage of that fact. (See here, and here. She also wrote: this letter.) In fact the very article linked to in the op-ed (by either the author or a Guardian editor – we do not know which) recounts her own disturbing experience with a threatening client. The article also highlights the dangers the new laws in Northern Ireland have created for sex workers including being unable to screen clients, or warn other sex workers about ‘ugly mugs’.

Ms. Lee, a law graduate, is also in the process of challenging the criminalisation of the purchase of sex in the Northern Irish courts, with a view to challenging it eventually in the European Court of Human Rights.

3. “A New Zealand government-funded report from 2007 found that post-decriminalisation, brothel managers often pressure workers to provide “extra services” without condoms”

Fact check: FALSE and/or MISLEADING.

Submission guidelines for “Comment Is Free” request contributors to include links in the text to back up the arguments presented. No link is provided to the referenced “government-funded” report, and the given statement does not appear in any of five reports from that year.

According to NZPC: “While some clients certainly do try to have “extra services” “without condoms”, Abel, Fitzgerald and Brunton (2007, p13) report that “Most survey participants reported telling clients that it was the law that they had to use condoms, and over half reported refusing to do the job if the client persisted”.[7] Please note, the quote [the author] uses, does not appear in any of the five reports from 2007, nor the Prostitution Law Review Committee report of 2008.”

In one case, in 2014, a brothel manager did treat a sex worker staff member inappropriately. The case did not relate to condom use, but included the operator making sexualised comments to a sex worker working in the venue. A successful sexual harassment case was brought against the operator, and the sex worker was awarded substantial damages. The successful pursuit of this case was only possible due to the decriminalisation of sex work in New Zealand.

According to testimony given by NZPC during this trial, based on regular feedback from a large number of sex workers around the country, the behaviour of the operator in this case was not typical of the industry.[8]

4. “Sabrinna Valisce, … was an on-off volunteer for the New Zealand Prostitute Collective (NZPC) for 25 years”

Fact check: FALSE

According to NZPC: “[Ms. Valisce] was a volunteer, for a few hours a week in the mid 1990s, and again roughly around 2009 for a couple of days with our branch in Wellington.”

However you do the maths (even counting 1991 right through till 2009 is still a maximum of 18 years), and however you interpret the phrase “on-off” (mostly off, would be more accurate), the statement is still incorrect.

5. “Since the change in the law, brothel owners, not the women, set prices for services, and customers demand kissing and unsafe practices, because they had become emboldened, according to Valisce.”

Fact check: FALSE / MISLEADING / FALSE

Although attributed to Ms. Valisce, these statements are presented as facts supporting the author’s argument, rather than as additional opinion.

The issue of clients requesting unsafe practices is addressed in point 3 above: sex workers in New Zealand report being in a stronger negotiating position with clients after decriminalisation, not the other way around. (Based on the views of over 700 sex workers interviewed as follow up to the legislation changes.)

Regarding the setting of prices, the following statement from NZPC gives a more complete picture, which includes the active role of sex workers in “all-inclusive” prices:

The change in ability to negotiate directly with the client happened when payment by credit card became more common in the 1990s, not after decriminalisation. As more and more clients paid by credit card over the old zip-zap machines, more and more sex workers were asking operators to allow them to include their fee on the credit card as well.

“All-inclusive” prices came in way before decriminalisation. In fact, [Ms. Valisce] should know this, because if she had been a volunteer for us for 20 years (though [the author] now claims 25 years) she should be aware of the court case in respect to tax law on proving that sex worker’s earnings were independent, despite the “all-inclusive fee”[9]. This court case was heard between 1997 and 1999 in Christchurch, where indeed she was a volunteer, for a few hours a week in the mid 1990s, and again roughly around 2009 for a couple of days with our branch in Wellington.

In that Taxation Review Authority case the judge, referring to matters from 1994, said (emphasis added):

  1. 19. There was no dispute that the partnership has produced a list of services in a series of leaflets referred to as “menus” some of which were exhibited to me. These menus state the services available at the parlour under the letterhead name of the parlour, list the prices, and state “all prices inclusive”. … The effect of the evidence regarding the expression in the menus “all prices inclusive” seemed to be that this was to indicate to a customer that there was no further charge (other than by negotiation for “extras”) such as a door charge or venue charge… ”

Similarly, at paragraph 24 of the judgement, the judge said:

  1. Some aspects were clarified in cross-examination of one of the partners. “All prices inclusive” does mean inclusive of any sexual service. The services are GST inclusive where applicable so that if a lady exceeded the GST threshold, she would have to pay one ninth of her fee as GST. She could not pass that on to the client.

This indicates that all inclusive prices, with brothel operators setting prices, were already in use in 1994, nine years before decriminalisation, at least nine years before Valisce claims they began.

6. “Decriminalisation also led to an increase in people working in the sex trade, due to increased demand …”

Fact check: FALSE

There is no evidence of the numbers increasing, in fact the numbers of street based sex workers have dropped significantly in Auckland and Wellington. This can easily be seen by comparing the figures from the first estimation completed by the Prostitution Law Review Committee published in 2005 [10], and their later report published in 2008.[11]

7. “aside from 12 that were conducted in 2003 in the first few weeks of the new legislation, only 11 inspections [by health officials] occurred across the whole of New Zealand until January 2015.”

Fact check: MISLEADING.

The implication of the above statement (assuming the figures, which we have not had time to verify, are correct) is that sex industry venues are unchecked and therefore somehow out of control – especially in light of the statements that follow relating to reduced police “powers” of access.

According to NZPC, on the other hand: “Sex workers are not monitored by Medical Officers of Health. Rather, they are able to seek their support as appropriate. Medical Officers of Health prefer to build productive relationships with sex workers and brothels.”

In other words, if there were any issues that sex workers wanted addressed in a venue, support of health officials is just a phone call away. Without additional evidence to support the argument that an absence of inspections is itself causing harm, (such as a pattern of venue related problems, or issues raised by venue-based sex workers not being addressed by health officials) the statement is misleading.

8. “Police powers have been reduced under decriminalisation. Police are now forbidden to enter brothels if they receive intelligence that underage girls or trafficked women are being held, as they could be accused of harassment by brothel owners.”

Fact check: FALSE.

This is an astonishing statement, and it is extraordinary that Guardian fact-checkers did not pick it up.

Regarding entry to brothels, the Prostitution Reform Act 2003 as it stands now is clear. It states:

“30 Warrant for Police to enter

  • An issuing officer (within the meaning of section 3 of the Search and Surveillance Act 2012) may issue a warrant to enter a place if he or she is satisfied that—
    1. there is good cause to suspect that an offence under either of the following provisions is being, has been, or is likely to be committed in the place:
      1. section 23 (which concerns using persons under 18 years in prostitution):
      2. section 34 (which concerns being an operator while not holding a certificate); and
    2. there are reasonable grounds to believe that it is necessary for a constable to enter the place for the purpose of preventing the commission or repetition of that offence or investigating that offence.
  • The provisions of Part 4 of the Search and Surveillance Act 2012 apply as if a warrant referred to in subsection (1) were a search warrant.[12]

In general, Police are required to have a warrant to enter a brothel just as they would to enter any other business or a person’s private home.

However, the Police also have the power to search without a warrant if they have reason to believe that in doing so:

  • they will prevent the commission of an offence;
  • or prevent injury to any person (s14 Search and Surveillance Act 2012);
  • or if they need evidence relating to a serious offence – such as rape (s15 Search and Surveillance Act 2012);
  • or if they have reason to believe that a person is in breach of the Arms Act 1983 (s18);
  • or if they believe a serious drug offence is taking place (s20),
  • or if they are concerned an espionage-type offence is being committed (s25);
  • or to arrest a person unlawfully at large (s7).

It is a very important fact that the Police role changed after decriminalisation. Previously the police used entrapment and undercover work to enforce laws on soliciting and “living on the earnings of prostitution.” Sex workers were prosecuted and harmed by the old laws and how they were enforced. The Prostitution Reform Act (PRA) removed sex work from criminal legal frameworks, and recognised sex work as work [13], subject to health and safety legislation.

Nothing about the decriminalisation in the New Zealand model inhibits the role of the police and their power to enforce the law and protect sex workers who may be underage or trafficked, as is implied in the statement above.

In the words of NZPC:

“Decriminalisation has transformed relationships with the police in New Zealand. To imply the New Zealand police must sit on their hands and allow crime to occur in relation to sex work is not just blatantly false, it is insulting to New Zealand.”

 

This blog post is part of a global series of blog posts to mark International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, 2016. Read the full series at bit.ly/AllinDecrim, or follow the hashtags  #dec17 #IDEVASW on Twitter

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APNSW attends 12th Sex Worker Academy Africa

APNSW’s Project Officer recently attended the 12th Sex Worker Academy Africa, held 6-12 November, 2016, in Kenya, Nairobi. This was the first African Sex Worker Academy attended by an APNSW representative, who was tasked with observing how the Academy is organised and structured, and how the content of the Sex Worker Academy could be tailored to fit the Asia and Pacific context.

The Sex Worker Academy Africa is an initiative of APNSW’s sister regional network, the African Sex Workers Alliance (ASWA). The logistics relating to the Academy, including facilitating the 7-day program are undertaken by the Kenyan Sex Worker Alliance (KESWA). The Academy is held quarterly (every 3 months) in Nairobi, Kenya, and involves 12 representatives from 2 different African nations, in addition to a permanent space for 6 representatives from geographically disparate areas of Kenya.

Prior to each academy, KESWA and ASWA put out a call for participants. There is a rigorous selection process for potential applicants, who must provide evidence of how they are involved in the sex worker movement in their localities, in addition to outlining strategies they will use to share the knowledge and experiences from the Academy with their respective communities. A total of 18 sex worker leaders of various gender identities and expression are selected for each Academy (six from Kenya and 12 from two other African nations). The 12th Academy included participants from Mozambique, Ghana, and Kenya.

In addition to all participants identifying as sex workers, the Academy is completely facilitated and organised by sex workers. As reflected in ongoing evaluation of the Academy, the initiative provides a real-life example of active sex worker mobilisation and empowerment, which has been highly inspirational to all graduates. The Academy serves as an example of how organised and mobilised sex worker communities can operate autonomously to achieve program outcomes with a high impact, using a minimum of resources.

The Academy was founded in 2014, following African sex work leaders undertaking a bilateral exchange program with Indian sex worker collectives, VAMP and Ashodaya. With technical support from VAMP, Ashodaya, and NSWP, the African Academy’s curriculum was developed and faculty members (i.e. facilitators) recruited and trained for the first Academy implemented in May 2014.

The Academy uses an interactive and participatory methodology, and utilises both theoretical and practical approaches to learning. This includes: dedicated discussion times (e.g. “Open Zones”, a concept which dedicates time to discussion, sharing of experiences, debating ideas, and critical analysis of theories and practices); field trips to best practice sex worker run/led spaces; group and individual presentations; films/ videos; games; art and dance advocacy; and classroom-based theoretical approaches.

The Academy aims to:

  • strengthen networks and relationships between African sex worker networks;
  • provide a space in which participants can learn from each other and share their experiences of community mobilisation, including the systemic barriers they face locally, and strategies to overcome these challenges;
  • enable participants to understand approaches to sex work, including developing strategies to strengthen the rights of sex workers in their countries;
  • develop skills in shaping advocacy strategies within each country, including processes for challenging and changing oppressive laws and by-laws;
  • enable participants to understand components of HIV prevention in relation to human rights, community empowerment and violence reduction programs;
  • strengthen the role of sex workers in rights based HIV programs;
  • and to provide a Pan-African capacity development platform for sex worker leaders to ensure sustainability of the sex worker movement.

Throughout the 7-day Academy, participants are familiarised with the key theoretical foundations underpinning the African sex worker movement. This includes: exploration of legislative environments in which sex work occurs; strategies for undertaking advocacy (including non-traditional forms of advocacy, such as art and dance advocacy) ; best practice community health care programs targeting sex workers; community responses to violence; human rights; developing outreach plans and recruiting peers; condom and lube programming; understanding policies and positions; and the impacts of criminalisation on sex worker communities and our ability to mobilise.

Key outcomes of the Academy include country teams developing an arts-based advocacy project, including a banner, illustrating the specific issues faced by sex workers nationally, and a theatrical performance which complements the banner and articulates the issues facing sex workers. Similarly, sex worker representatives of each country collaborate to create a national advocacy strategy, with the aim of implementing the strategy in each respective country over the following year.

The Academy’s finale event involves country groups showcasing their art advocacy and theatrical performances, followed by a graduation ceremony and community party. At the completion of the 12th Academy, all the participants expressed their gratitude to ASWA and KESWA for facilitating the Academy, and shared heart-felt experiences of solidarity, relationship building, self-empowerment, and enthusiasm for continuing the struggle for sex worker rights.

An extensive trip report will be developed and distributed to APNSW members via email in the near future.           

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Sex worker representatives from Asia Pacific region at the SWIT in Accra, Ghana, June 2013.

Sex worker representatives from Asia Pacific region at the SWIT in Accra, Ghana, June 2013.

by: Tracey Tully
Recently,  in June 2013, sixteen sex workers attended a consultation with the World Health Organisation (WHO) in Accra Ghana to develop an implementation tool to operationalise the guidance on Prevention and treatment of HIV and other STIs for sex workers in low- and middle-income countries.     The meeting was supported by the Gates Foundation and USAID and  of the 50 participants in attendance, one third were sex workers with extensive knowledge of sex worker HIV programming.  NSWP held a pre-meeting the day before the consultation started.  This enabled sex workers to critique each section of the draft,  compile a list of non negotiable points and to develop a strategy for how we would approach the two day consultation. This “sex worker only” session is critical to getting the most out of the consultation.  In fact, when NSWP or APNSW meet with UN on important consultations, we now insist on them funding a pre-meeting as a part of the overall process.
We found that most of our requests were considered reasonable and we managed to reach agreement on most things.  Sex workers went in with a clear vision to not vie from the Guidance, or what has affectionately come to be known as the ‘Pink Book’. We tried not to get bogged down in word-smithing, instead opting for driving forward the principles behind our participation in developing The Pink Book.  Two sex workers each engaged about a section and the feedback sessions from section consultations were presented by sex workers.    It still remains to be seen whether what was agreed at the consultation is accurately reflected in the final document.  We hope so and expect things to go as planned. It is important to retain the integrity of the process that has been demonstrated thus far.
SWIT consultation.  Sex workers co-presented.

SWIT consultation. Sex workers co-presented.

From the 30 June– 3 July 2013, the 7TH International AIDS Society (IAS) Conference on HIV Pathogenesis, Treatment and Prevention was held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.   In the leadup to the conference was a two day community forum held with stakeholders from across the HIV sector. Andrew Hunter chaired a session on Day 1 entitledIAS 2013 Community Forum invitation TasP Implementation Science Research Agenda- Concept noteThe meeting had attendees representing a diverse group of researchers, technical experts, policymakers and civil society representatives.  Day two was the more community focused session, so there were plenty of people in attendance from local groups. IAS 2013 Community Forum invitation with Dr Rachel Baggaley of WHO on the experience of SWIT process and spoke briefly about the implications for sex worker organisations on the ground, of the PEPFAR pledge being struck down by the US Supreme Court.  In the short term it will depend on US-based INGOs currently working with sex worker in low to middle income countries developing a policy that aspires to be sex worker led.  We hope to see a gradual shift of power away from top-heavy programming models to models that recognise the intrinsic value of sex worker self determination.   We will continue to lobby for International NGOs to be able to access PEPFAR funding and would ask USAID to consider the ethical implications of funding programmes that violate the free speech rights of anybody, anywhere.  Shiba from APN+ presented on the threat TPP poses to generic medicines.
March against TPP which threatens access to affordable treatment

March against TPP which threatens access to affordable treatment

On the Day the main Conference conference began, Malaysian and regional HIV activists marched through the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre and presented a memorandum to the President of the IAS seeking support to oppose the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) and Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) that threaten access to life saving treatment.  By the end of that day, IAS released a statement in support of our request.  We even got coverage in the Washington Post.  The fight to keep generic medicines on the market is under threat due to TPP and the danger posed by this agreement threatens not only access to affordable medicines for all,  but our ability to end AIDS in Asia by 2015.

All in all, the this scientific conference was more community friendly than any held before. The session on Sex Work Research covered PrEP which is an issue worthy of input from sex workers. This was discussed extensively at the SWIT consultation in Ghana.     It is probably not worth spending vast sums of money to send people this conference, but it is important to have some representation from your community to contribute to discussions.   .

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Kaythi July 2012

We are as pleased as punch to announce that the beloved Chair of our network,  Kay Thi Win has been elected to the International Board of the Association of Women in Development (AWID).  This is an enormous personal victory for Kay Thi whose quiet & charming conviction make her a compelling advocate for any issue about which she is passionate.  As we in the sex worker movement already know, Kay Thi is the consummate solidarity player and this is no doubt the reason TOP, Myanmar is promoted by the United Nations as one of the best practice models for Sex Worker HIV Programming in the world.

 We feel that Kay Thi’s inclusion as part of AWID’s decision making body is a big step forward in bridging the gap between sex workers and the broader feminist movement.  The inclusion of sex workers as part of the 12th AWID International Forum on Women’s Rights in Development in Istanbul last year, as well Kaythi’s powerful plenary which moved the audience to stand in solidarity with sex workers, were most definitely signs of a path to meaningful engagement across all sectors of the women’s movement.  Kay Thi’s  contribution to AWID as part of the Board and her experience  in the area of HIV and Sexual and Reproductive Health will bring insight and perspective that might otherwise remain unheard.
`
Perhaps we can now step off the artificial trajectory that US policy has set the feminist movement upon, and continue to debate our legitimate differences as we did in the days of second wave feminism.   Perhaps it is time for us all to reclaim feminism from the forces that conspire to usurp our collective power.
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How exciting for sex workers that for the first time ever, we have a voice in this most important forum for women’s rights.
~
What can we say, but “congratulations Kay Thi. You do the everybody in sex worker movement a wonderful, invaluable service!”

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The inaugural Trust Women Conference was held in London recently, supported by the Thomson Reuters Foundation and the International Herald Tribune. I was invited to speak on a panel entitled ‘how to put the anti-trafficking business out of business‘ with people who address the issue of sex trafficking including infamous abolitionist, Ruchira Gupta.

'how to put the trafficking business out of business'

‘how to put the trafficking business out of business’

In the days leading up to the  conference, Gupta had issued a series of media offensives upon sex workers which began last weekend with an attack on peer educators in the Indian press. Liz Ford, who is the Deputy Editor of The Guardian’s Global Development section and an apparent abolitionist sympathiser, appeared at the conference only to provide an outlet for Ms Gupta’s unfounded characterisations of women engaged in sex work. Ford falsely claimed in The Guardian that Ruchira Gupta is an ‘activist for sex workers‘. I presume this was a device to undermine any authority derived from my self-disclosure as a sex worker, on the panel discussion that followed these defamatory stories.

Ford published two articles based upon the same interview with Gupta, which  made horrifying and illusory allegations about sex worker activists; in particular those who attended the Sex Worker Freedom Festival in Kolkata earlier this year.  She called attendees “pimps and traffickers” . Gupta spoke using the usual alarmist and disempowering rhetoric that abolitionists tend to employ, invoking terms such as “brutalised”; “raped”; “invaded”; “used-up at 30″ to describe sex work. Predictably, she suggested the need for even more punitive measures against people associated with the sex industry and more funding to combat the problem from “the grassroots”.  It’s illuminating to see what two Harvard undergraduate donors thought about Ms Gupta’s ‘grassroots intitiatives‘ in 2010 after visiting one of her sites.

However

The sensible shoe award for most stigmatising headline of 2012 goes to…..

Guardian journalist Liz Ford  Liz Ford of The Guardian! 

 “Life of a sex worker: disease, abortion,

  debt bondage and death – video.”

One wonders how Ford would react to publicly being labelled a ‘pimp’ or a ‘trafficker’ or whether the woman has any sense of decency at all. What an absolute, unmitigated nerve!

Still, the most shocking claim came to be when Gupta uttered the words, “the average age of a prostitute in India is between 9 and 13“. This alarming statistic was framed in the context of globalisation and the egregious effects of neoliberalisation policies which she claimed was driving demand for prostitutes that are younger and younger.  I mused about where she might have pulled that figure, other than out of thin air. I promptly concluded that she was conflating two figures that abolitionists throw around a lot: the oft-quoted and oft-debunked figure that the ‘average age of entry into prostitution is 13‘ and the research Melissa Farley did in Aotearoa (New Zealand) where she claimed that the ‘average age of entry into prostitution for Maori women was 9.’  In this instance however, Gupta was not even claiming an ‘average age of entry’.  No Siree. This was the average age of a prostitute in India!

Cover of conference booklet on trafficking and prostitution.

Cover of conference booklet on trafficking and prostitution.

What was most striking about the psychological warfare waged upon me by these two somewhat influential women, was how readily prepared they were to employ violent tactics in order to discredit and isolate me from the conference proper. They did this by colluding to proliferate untruths about sex workers; by characterising sex workers involved in the HIV response as ‘pimps and traffickers’ and the rest as people who are “deeply damaged”. Their conduct was coercive inasmuch as they have enough power within patriarchal catacombs such as the mainstream press, to be able to use it in a cynical way to issue their message. Not only did they use the press as a vehicle to spread their ideology, but it was also a systematic attempt to discredit me, as an activist in APNSW, in the mind of anyone who might have viewed those stories prior to hearing what I had to say to the conference.

The logic seems to work as follows: if you have ever worked in the sex industry and you are unwilling to announce that the experience utterly destroyed your life and robbed you of a sense of self,  you are suffering from some kind of disorder.  Let’s call it ‘Stockholm Syndrome’. You have become so accustomed to the ‘brutalization’ of having accepted money for sex, that you consider brutalization to be normal.  Spectators who haven’t suffered ‘death by Powerpoint’ by this stage, must remain alert and remember that these are not the voices of sex workers you are hearing. They are storytellers in the business of telling fictional stories.   Coincidentally it is men and women like Ms Gupta who are in possession of the solutions for the poor  funding stream that is ‘women & girls’ who are unfortunate enough to fall within their purview and be categorised as “trafficked”. And there are a lot of men in the ‘slavery expert’ business. Knights in shining armour abound.

Another noteworthy aspect of the Guardian video is when Gupta iterates that the point of the Trust Women Conference was to focus on the “demand” side of prostitution as a way to fight trafficking.  Here, she and Liz Ford are informing Guardian readers about the primary focus of the conference even prior to the scheduled panel discussion on what the most effective interventions to fight human trafficking might possibly be. The International Herald Tribune did not cover the “women for sale” day in such a pre-determined light and they organised the conference.

The kind of maltreatment I received from Ford and Gupta used to be solely the provenance of the ‘old boys club’.  This is a slightly more sophisticated incarnation of that; where the abuse is being perpetrated by women against one woman (but who is the only representative of millions of sex working women allowed in)…  And it is being done in the name of Feminism. The most ironic aspect of their strategic alliance is that The Guardian Global Development section is supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation whose programmes for sex workers in India are the subject of constant malicious attacks by Ms Gupta and her organisation Apne Aap.  She also calls them pimps and traffickers. How fortuitous for Ms Ford that she can heave her ideological cake and eat it too. Talk about biting the hand that feeds you.

On the panel, Mexican journalist and winner of the Trust Women Award, Lydia Cacho spoke about ‘ending demand’ for  prostitution and the success of the program she runs in Cancun, sensitising boys between 14-18 to not become clients.   The Body Shop guy basically covered for his employer L’oreal, the second largest chemical company in the world which has been accused of greenwashing  and has a demonstrably atrocious history of animal rights abuses.  He called for ‘human trafficking-free’ labeling that guaranteed trafficked-free products.  The Not for Sale guy talked about social marketing initiatives in what appears to be an ethical (Christian?) capitalist scheme that produces soups and juices to sell to sex workers and “vulnerable women”. He stated that he had half a million dollars in pledges for this venture and a call for matched funding of that figure became one of the inputs from our session.  I stressed the need for empirical data on human trafficking and the importance of a consistent definition of terms used in relation to trafficking and the need to gain some clarity before we talk about ‘best practice’ interventions on human trafficking.

Lawyer Karen Silverman, the only panelist with whom I vaguely connected on a human level, iterated the importance of broadening the discussion on migration rights, citizenship rights and labour rights. Although she was approaching the issue from a different perspective, it was refreshing to be in the company of someone who wasn’t just focused on getting a piece of the Anti-trafficking Pie. She also highlighted the fact that many trafficked women are held in custody for long periods of time and that we need to devise strategies to address this problem.

partner NGOs: Equality Now; IJM; Polaris Project; Not for Sale.

partner NGOs: Equality Now; IJM; Polaris Project; Not for Sale.

I was the final speaker on the panel and began by explaining that the advent of the anti-trafficking industry has resulted in an increase in violence against sex workers.  I stated that the impact of criminalisation had driven sex workers underground, making them prone to violence, increased health risks and coercive treatment from others.  I went into some detail about the regularity of human rights abuses that are occurring in arbitrary detention settings in Cambodia, such as the Somaly Mam Foundation and her organisation AFESIP as reported to sex worker organisations in Cambodia. I stated that these abuses were catalogued in a Human Rights Watch Report from 2010.  I warned people consuming human trafficking narratives to be wary of statistics that are quoted and to question the quality of anecdotal information received.  I went on to speak about the recent revelation in the Cambodian press that a high profile story being regurgitated in the mass media had been proven to be untrue.  Long Pross is a young Cambodian woman who is being touted by Somaly Mam’s Voices for Change  program as a victim with an unimaginably horrendous history of being trafficked as a child and having her eye gouged out by the brothel owner. Her story has been exposed as a complete fabrication by an investigative journalist who interviewed a string of people involved, including Long Pross’ parents; the surgeon who removed her eye and the tumor she developed at age 7 ;and the Cambodian anti-trafficking Police whose records revealed that no complaint had ever been filed in relation to this woman being trafficked as a child.

I stated that Long Pross had appeared with celebrities such as Meg Ryan and Susan Sarandon on reality tours they conducted in Cambodia promoting the Somaly Mam Foundation. I stated she had appeared with Hillary Clinton and on Oprah as the “Face of Slavery” and that her testimonial had been profiled on Half the Sky.

This picture of Hillary Clinton hugging Long Pross was being displayed on the overhead when I went on to add that this story had been covered by many popular media sources including Oprah and PBS who had recently screened her ‘testimonial’ on Half the Sky.

This picture of Hillary Clinton hugging Long Pross was being displayed on the overhead when my session was cut short.


 At this point the moderator Tim Large politely interjected and apologetically informed me that we were running short of time and that we would now have to turn to Q&A and develop our inputs for the Conference Call to Action. I may have broken some unwritten protocol by mentioning Half the Sky from the panel, especially as Nicholas Kristof & Sheryl Wudunn are on the advisory board for Trust Women,and also because he had spoken on the video that introduced our session.   The overarching point I was trying to make was that it is crucial for journalists to confirm every piece of information they receive before sending it to print.   I wanted to point out how easily such fabricated narratives can proliferate into the mainstream consciousness if reporters do not exercise caution.

The point at which truth-in-reporting intersects with the profit motive was illustrated quite plainly with the swift end to my presentation.  I was trying to convey the importance of the human rights aspect and emphasise that responses to trafficking must be based in truth.  There were a couple of exceptional moments during the conference when empassioned women spoke about their experiences, but I did not feel I had witnessed a lot of truth-telling in these two days. I did not appreciate the way many of the issues were framed, such as the Arab Spring with more than a hint of anti-Islamism or the focus on the atrocious behaviour of people from the Global South – Female Genital Mutilation, Forced Marriage, When culture clashes with Law.  And of course, Women for Sale. There was little mention of the role Colonisation or Western Imperialism play in the global profile.

During the reading of the Conference Declaration, I was following the official twitter feed on the big screen and saw quite a few positive tweets about my presentation including a two from the Trust Women rapporteur. They disappeared within an hour. Thankfully we have activists in the movement who are vigilant and one diligent observer from $carlet Timor managed to save a few .

 Afterwards, a high-ranking journalist approached me and expressed shock at my allegations of impropriety in relation to Half the Sky. I told her there were journalists in Cambodia working to expose the violence of the anti-trafficking industry because it has become a significant problem. She asked me if I knew that Mr Kristof was a Pulitzer prize winning journalist to which I nodded and she added that the Trust Women conference had been inspired by the stories contained in Half the Sky.  She asked me had I read it.  I said ‘no’. She promised to send me a copy. I told her I would forward the requisite articles that formed the basis of my allegations about the fabricated victim-narrative.

trust-women

When Ruchira Gupta says that the traffickers are becoming wise and “outsmarting us”, I take that as acknowledgement that she recognises there is something authentic about the sex worker movement- a truth.  I think she recognises that we are building something special, having discovered our power as autonomous individuals and as part of the vibrant tapestry of resistance that forms our global solidarity movement. Responses to trafficking must be based in truth, not conflations or exaggerations or imaginings or outright lies. The UN is beginning to recognise the magnitude of the dilemma, as are many journalists and hopefully this awareness will expand into a larger context.

 It was strange to sit on a panel with someone for whom your very existence is a threat. In asserting that the sex worker movement is a self-determination movement, I am informing the likes of Gupta and her abolitionist ilk, that perhaps they are not relevant to our context. There is no place for them in our lives or as part of our stories. If sex workers can do it for themselves, those white saviours and their grateful cohorts don’t have an industry to build around us. And that’s probably the best outcome for all- especially those who have been trafficked.

It is sex workers who are subverting the patriarchy, not the gun-ho protectionists who imagine freedom to go only as far as being “equal” to men. Ours is the feminist project. Ours is a huge global movement that is led by women. And as long as sex workers are at the table engaging in the discourse, we will continue to provide inputs that cannot be ignored.

Sex workers are not the problem. We are part of the solution.

Tracey Tully, APNSW Staff.

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   Launch of APNSW+ and NSWP+

    on Tuesday 24th July 2012

    at Sex Worker Freedom Festival

    in Kolkata, India.

 

We are a group of HIV+ Sex Workers and people committed to treatment access for sex workers living with HIV. We have decided that we need a special platform to fight for the rights of HIV+ sex workers and to bring the sex worker’s issues and the energy and glamour of the Sex workers movement to the treatment activist movement!

Our new platforms ‘Asia and Pacific Network of Positive Sex Workers’ (APNSW+) and ‘Global Network of Positive Sex Workers’ (NSWP+) make these demands:

  • HIV+ Sex workers demand the right to look fabulous- to do this we need better and affordable HIV drugs now
  • WE DEMAND AS POSITIVE PEOPLE THE RIGHT TO WORK AS SEX WORKERS!!!
  • We demand the right to work in all sectors, including in the sex industry
  • We demand that the drug companies from the West stop trying to kill us through their attacks on developing countries right to manufacture, export and import generic ARVs
  • As HIV+ sex workers we face MULTIPLE stigma and discrimination despite 25 years of treatment activism there is an extra layer of stigma if we have HIV and do sex work. As positive sex workers, we demand that this stigma is fought and our specific needs are met
  • We demand not to be last in line for treatment or refused treatment because we are sex workers
  • Treatment needs to be matched to the patient not the patient matched to the treatment
  • Post Exposure Prophylaxis is not available to most people around the world – we need access and availability of PEP, especially for sex workers

AS HIV+ SEX WORKERS, WE DEMAND THE RIGHT TO LOOK FABULOUS!!!


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The most exciting thing about the Sex Worker Freedom Festival is that happened at all. How thrilling it was to have sex workers from over 41 countries, and all over India to come to the parallel IAC conference we held in Kolkata to discuss issues that are important to sex workers everywhere. The week-long conference was organised by NSWP, APNSW & DMSC and was attended by over 550 sex workers.

The festival focussed on the seven freedoms that we are all entitled to:

  • Freedom of movement and to migrate;
  • Freedom to access quality health services;
  • Freedom to work and choose occupation;
  • Freedom to associate and unionise;
  • Freedom to be protected by the law;
  • Freedom from abuse and violence; and
  • Freedom from stigma and discrimination.

We held workshops and heard news and views and analysis from sex workers in attendance from all around the world. APNSW held Information and Communications Technology (ICT) workshops that explored the various platforms of online communication, with a particular focus on social networking. In partnership with the Global Network of People Living with HIV (GNP+), APNSW held workshops for HIV+ sex workers, who got to explore the realms of a potential HIV+ revolution! We held our red umbrella march to coincide with the march in Washington, the ‘Sex Workers can end AIDS Rally’, and it was enthusiastically attended by locals and visitors alike. There was a red carpet night with performances, booze, awards in recognition for significant achievements in sex worker activism. The SWFF saw the launch of APNSW+ & NSWP+, an advocacy platform that aims to make the voices of HIV+ sex workers heard loud and clear!

We feel privileged to have been welcomed so warmly by our local partners, the sex workers of DMSC and treated like family by all of our Indian partners, especially the crews at VAMP and Ashodaya.

NSWP have just issued the inaugural issue of Sex Worker Digest which provides a detailed summary of the topics covered in the official programme and maps out the media coverage that the festival attracted.

 It is ironical that the AIDS conference’s slogan is “Turning the Tide Together” when two of the key populations most affected by HIV, sex workers and those with a history of drug use, are denied entry to the US and cannot therefore be present – we are an essential part of the solution.”

Ruth Morgan Thomas, Global Co-ordinator NSWP.

Obama, when he became the president, he said “I am the president of everyone” — that should include gay people and sex workers. He said ‘Yes We Can’ for change! But there’s no change yet, so he has failed the whole world of discriminating against sex workers and not removing that prostitution pledge.”

John Mathenge, Co-ordinator, Kenyan Sex Worker’s Alliance (KESWA), Kenya.

HIV is our garbo (pride). If it had not come we would not be here. We would have just been lying in the dark getting beaten up. Today we are organised.”

Swapna Gayen  Program Director, DMSC, India.

SW digest Issue 01 Oct 2012

 

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