Sex worker rights are human rights

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed on December 10, 1948. We’ve had less than 100 years to make sense of what it looks like if everyone has basic rights, which has never been the norm in any society. How do we begin to communicate what human rights means and what it entails? 

According to Sunee Chaiyarot, a former human rights commissioner in Thailand, “The big picture includes individual rights, community rights or rights in local areas, and it also relates to the justice system.” Sex workers rights intersect with all the dimensions Chaiyarot mentions:

  • individual rights of sex workers
  • how sex workers coexist with the community
  • the role of sex work in local areas
  • how the justice systems protects or denies the rights of sex workers

Let’s begin to understand how sex workers might exist in the community. 

Help from one (former) sex worker to another

There’s a ton of stigma and misunderstanding surrounding sex work, and groups interested in helping workers get out of the sex trade. For help to be truly helpful, however, it needs to involve people who have been in that situation. For example, CityLight Coffee in Bangkok employs former sex workers. It offers them an alternative to sex trade. They work with other former sex workers who shared similar challenges: physical assault, forced into sex trade, and being viewed as immoral. 

The community aspect as powerful. Twice a week, the cafe also turns into a pro bono hair and nail salon for sex workers. “They are not advertised, but known through word of mouth among the sex workers’ circles.” 

The pros and cons of “harm reduction”

How do non–sex workers help sex workers? Harm reduction seems like a great idea, but in practice, there are so many factors that turn good intent into more harm. In Denmark, an NGO called the Red Van provides “street-based sex workers the option to work in an indoor space equipped with healthcare items like condoms and lube.” The idea is that an indoor space and a third location would make it so sex workers don’t need to follow a customer into their car. 

However, stigma wins out. Residents complain that they don’t want sex work on their street. Sex workers keep their distance. People are careful about being associated with sex work activity, or even being accused of pprofitingoff sex workers, even if they are not customers. 

“Stigma greatly exacerbates the risk of harm for sex workers. It can prohibit sex workers from seeking advice or support and push them into riskier situations.”

Progressive laws that are meant to protect sex workers often have negative effects. The procurement law  passed by the Danish Parliament ended up making it hard for sex workers to rent appartments or get legal and financial help. Sex workers still need landlords and accountants, but the law that is meant to help them makes it so people them down. 

Evaluating solutions

To evaluate solutions or ways to help, let’s go back to the Declaration of Human Rights. 

According to Article 23, “(1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.” and Article 29 “(1) Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible.”

Given that, we have a few questions to ask:

Does the action empower sex workers?

Does it take away or build on their rights?

Does it make it sustainable for them to exist in the community?

Lastly, the only way that solutions will even be helpful to sex workers is if it takes into account their needs. 

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