Her name, when she is working, is Claire. She is 23, and a graduate of one of the best liberal arts colleges in America. Blond, petite, strong-willed and intelligent, she speaks softly as she explains her current job. "At first, I sold my panties online," she says. "It was a good way to make money while I was in college. Then I started stripping. But the club I worked for fired me because I blew the whistle on their workplace violations. It was hard to find a job. So I went straight to the rich guys. I started doing commercial sex work. It pays well and gives me lots of freedom for my other interests." Those interests include working toward a master's degree in psychology, serving as a doula (birth coach), and starting a self-help organization for young girls.
Claire is part of a growing number of 'commercial sex workers' globally who are organizing and networking for human rights, safety and dignity. "Sex workers have the same human rights as everyone else, particularly rights to education, information, the highest attainable standard of health, and freedom from discrimination and violence, including sexual violence," says the Canadian organization Blueprint for Action on Women & Girls and HIV/AIDS.
At the Global Village site of the 16th International AIDS Conference in Toronto in August, Stella, a Montreal-based sex workers' organization, shed light on the abuses that sex workers face. In some countries, for example, sex work is punishable by the death penalty.
Workers are often subjected to physical and sexual assault by law enforcement agents and are frequently denied legal protection when they suffer abuse or violence. In many places where sex work is criminalized, sex workers cannot carry condoms because police use them as proof of the crime of prostitution, so their risk of HIV/AIDS is dramatically increased. And in some countries HIV/AIDS treatment is denied to sex workers. "The isolation that results from hyper-criminalization means that many sex workers are subject to violence, poor working conditions, and little access to health care," says a Stella handout. Further, many are forced to undergo 'rehabilitation' while in prison. Often, HIV testing is done without seeking consent and without confidentiality.
Stella points out that sex workers are among the first to be targeted by research and clinical trials of new HIV-prevention and treatment technologies or sero-prevalence studies, but they are often the last to have access to the information, new technologies and treatment. One group of sex workers in Cambodia reported receiving no information about possible side-effects or risks involved in products to be tested. In Mali, sex workers denounced a team of researchers who had recruited subjects by entering brothels accompanied by police who intimidated workers into participating in the study.
Sex workers who have voluntarily chosen the trade also resent being seen as victims of trafficking and, therefore, being subject to 'rescue and repatriation' raids. In Thailand, the sex workers' rights organization, Empower, has joined Stella in pointing out, "There is increasing support for anti-trafficking campaigns that conflate sex work and trafficking and that use means contrary to a human rights framework. These have included curtailing women's freedom of movement, repressing migrant and non-migrant sex workers through brothel raids, and imprisonment, forced rehabilitation, forced HIV-testing, dangerous deportations and laws that criminalize the sex trade."
In Thailand, one worker says, police now focus on women who have migrated from Burma, China, Laos and Cambodia because the penalties for illegal entry into the country are much higher than those for prostitution. "The easiest illegal migrants to target are those working in sex work - due to the nature of our work, we have to be visible. So here we are; instead of being targeted as sex workers, we are being targeted as trafficking victims and illegal immigrants. We are seen as empty pages that the anti-prostitution lobbyists and other misled bleeding hearts can write upon. They do not respect us as adult women with full histories, lives, skills, plans and dreams of our own. They think we are stupid and ignorant, and pity us and judge us as powerless. We are not recognized as working women and family providers who support five to eight other adults."
The International Network of Sex Work Projects, of which Empower is a member, is also concerned that anti-prostitution lobbies fail to recognize the economic factors driving sex work. As one Thai worker put it, "There are more opportunities in society. We have nothing at home. This is work we can do after our other work. We can learn languages, cultures. And we are good businesswomen, psychologists even. We have become experts at negotiation. Believe me, we are professionals. You should worry about students and housewives [getting AIDS], not us."
Sex worker Jo Weldon, reflecting on the financial aspects of sex work at a Sex Work Matters conference in New York earlier in 2006, had this to say: "Much of the current psychological literature about sex work refers to either deviance or post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from sexual abuse.... It seems to me that without the financial element entering the equation in any form, [study results] can only provide a fragmented view of the psychology of sex workers."
She adds, "Financial desperation is examined, but never financial motivation. Beliefs about sex and morality are examined, but rarely beliefs about money and work ethic.... It's a fact: a sex worker can apply for a job in one day, work that night, and make enough to pay a bill the next day. There is no substitute for this in society, and until we acknowledge the unique economic need sex work fulfils, there can be no useful approach to solve any of the problems in and around the sex industry."
According to Alys Willman-Navarro, a co-organizer of the conference where Jo Weldon spoke, "The sex industry is a global, multi-billion dollar business employing millions of women." One 1998 study by the International Labor Organization (ILO) suggests that in four Asian countries alone (Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Philippines), the sex sector accounts for 2 to 14 per cent of GDP and employs between 0.25 and 1.5 per cent of women in those countries.
The women at Stella and Empower, and like-minded sex workers across the globe, are outraged at current US policy requiring INGOs receiving HIV prevention funding from the US government to have a policy explicitly opposing prostitution (along with requirements to promote abstinence and faithfulness). Speaking at the AIDS 2006 conference, former US President Bill Clinton said, "Policymakers must be free to act upon evidence. Conditionality is destructive. We must dialogue with sex workers. We can say we disagree with prostitution, but we must save lives. To me, it's a no-brainer."
No doubt Claire and her friends around the world would agree.