December 17th marks the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. Sex workers and their allies, clustered in intimate gatherings in cities around the world, will light candles and read aloud the names of sex workers who have been victims of violence. These names will echo into a world indifferent to their suffering.
The event will likely pass with barely a whisper of media notice, and many women's rights groups will ignore or remain blithely unaware of the occasion. It is an uncomfortable global truth that we do not regard violence committed against non-trafficked sex workers as violence against women.
Our staunch moral judgment of women who by choice or circumstance participate in the sex industry -- buttressed by laws that criminalize, stigmatize, and condemn many of them to unsafe working conditions without police protection -- results in the shatteringly silent incidents of rapes, assaults, and murders of sex workers. This unforgiving moral judgment is unfair. Most sex workers are trying to do the best they can for themselves and their families in choosing among the options life presents them.
Why do we not view violence against sex workers as violence against women? Because we do not see sex workers as women. We rarely view them through a multi-dimensional prism of personhood. Our distaste for their work and our beliefs about their ethical posture denies their womanhood and disallows us from registering violence against sex workers as violence against women.
Many sex workers reject this moralized dismissal of their personhood. Several years ago I had the good fortune of collaborating on a human rights project with empowered sex workers in India. I still remember one sari-clad, doe-eyed sex worker defiantly noting, "In the past we thought that sex work was not a good thing and anything bad that happened to us we just accepted it and cried. But we learned that we deserve to be treated not as good or bad but as women."
Our underlying moral judgment of sex workers may also account for why many women's rights groups do not actively package and promote violence against non-trafficked sex workers as an urgent issue of violence against women.
Women's rights advocates are often more comfortable focusing their attention on violence against victims of sex trafficking who are forced into prostitution via threats, abduction, or economic exploitation. These trafficked women and girls fit more squarely into society's moral paradigm of the 'innocent victim' than non-trafficked female and transgender victims of violence who may choose to participate in the sex trade.
Feminists, conservative politicians, and religious groups have formed an unlikely alliance that perpetuates this hierarchy of victimhood, which marginalizes the pain of non-trafficked sex workers whose moral positioning is less palatable to the vast majority who disapprove of what they do. This hierarchy renders us less sensitive to their suffering and leaves many women's rights groups strangely silent on instances of violence against non-trafficked sex workers.
Sex trafficking, let me be clear, is rightly condemned as an international crime worthy of sustained eradication efforts. But in their zealous efforts to fight global sex trafficking, many women's rights advocates have supported raids of brothels that have often led to violence perpetrated against non-trafficked sex workers.
The Indian sex workers I partnered with were terrorized when an NGO-initiated raid led by local police purporting to rescue trafficked child prostitutes resulted in the arrest of 70 sex workers in the community, none of whom were victims or perpetrators of sex trafficking.
In seeking to 'save' underage trafficked sex workers, the advocates had perhaps unwittingly fostered violence against women who had bravely created a sex workers' collective demanding freedom from societal and occupational abuse. "We say, save us from saviors!" the Indian sex workers proclaimed.
Indeed, women's rights advocates cannot justify violating the rights of one group of women while trying to save another. Donors and advocates supporting anti-sex trafficking efforts must ensure that police anti-trafficking units are not engaged in abuses of non-trafficked sex workers.
Amid the lit candles and the haunting reading of names, I will attend a vigil to commemorate sex workers who have been assaulted, battered, and murdered, who we have chosen to criminalize instead of protect. There will be signs and posters that say "violence against sex workers = violence against women." There will be passionate appeals for the building of broad women's coalitions to decry this violence. And, hopefully, there will not be an empty seat in the house.
Chi Mgbako is clinical associate professor of law at the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice at Fordham Law School in New York City and is the co-author of "Sex Work and Human Rights in Africa," published by the Fordham International Law Journal.
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