An Argument for Decriminalizing Sex Work

Abstract of a red light
Abstract at a Red Light. James Loesch. Creative Commons for Flickr.

Different human rights groups support or have called for the decriminalization of sex work. Some of which include Amnesty International, World Health Organization, UNAIDS, International Labour Organization, the Global Alliance Against Trafficking in Women, the Global Network of Sex Work Projects, the Global Commission on HIV and the Law, Human Rights Watch, the Open Society Foundations, and Anti-Slavery International.

Picking on one, the Human Rights Watch supports the full decriminalization of consensual adult sex work in support and defense of human rights relating to personal autonomy and privacy as, “A government should not be telling consenting adults whom they can have sexual relations with and on what terms.” Joining 61 other organizations, they recently advocated for a bill that would decriminalize sex work in Washington, DC. This Community Safety and Health Amendment Act intends to repeal statutes that criminalize adults who voluntarily and consensually engage in sexual exchange, while it upholds and defends the legislature which prohibits sex trafficking. The HRW affirms that adult consensual sexual activity may be covered by the concept of privacy, rejecting the idea that criminalization was a protective measure against HIV and STIs, and conveying that it was more likely to drive a vulnerable population underground.

However, the demands of these organizations and supporters of sex workers have surfaced controversy around sexuality, health, economics, and morality. Often the idea of sex work may be tied to or conflated with sex trafficking, child sex abuse, and rape. Open Society Foundation simply defines sex workers as “adults who receive money or goods in exchange for consensual sexual services or erotic performances, either regularly or occasionally.” Sex work encompasses a wide range of professions and activities which include the trade of some form of sexual activity, performance, or service for a client to a number of fans for some kind of payment (including prostitution, pornography, stripping, and other forms of commercial sex). It is clearly separated from those services that utilize “the threat or use of force, abduction, deception, or other forms of coercion for the purpose of exploitation”. Decriminalizing sex work would call for the “removal of criminal and administrative penalties that apply specifically to sex work, creating an enabling environment for sex workers’ health and safety.” Amnesty International expands on these definitions in this report.

Many members of society view sex work as immoral or degrading to women, arguing that sex work is inherently exploitative of women, even if these workers find it profitable or empowering- even simply as the power to creatively express one’s sexuality. When we think of sex workers, we tend to assume they were forced into it or assume a desperate narrative with no other options. Then, maybe, we judge their appearance while tying it to their worth or a fantasized idea of sex workers opposed to the ordinariness we associate with other professions and community members. A simple argument says that, like any profession, there are extremely different motivations to pursue these professions and, in the end, it’s a job or choice of work with its own pros and cons for each lifestyle (affording many lifestyles). Also, anyone and any personality can be a sex worker.

People enter and remain in this work for a multitude of reasons creating each individual experience of sex work; however, many face the same response and abuse in the workplace or trade. Owning to the stigma associated with the profession, not many can come out and say they are a sex worker. They must fight to be recognized beyond the stigma or continue to repress or hide their daily lives from their community or society. Sex workers report extreme violence and harassment from clients, managers, police and society and even more cannot report these violences, facing incrimination or even incarceration. Ironically, laws on sex work undermine governments’ own efforts to reduce high rates of violence against women and reduce rates of HIV infection in sex worker populations.

Repressive policing not only further marginalizes sex workers as a whole, but it also reinforces what it promises to remove as it exposes sex workers to different abuses and exploitation by police or law enforcement officials who may arrest, harass, physically or verbally abuse, extort bribes and sexual services, or deny protection to sex workers avoiding the eyes of the law. Some sex work may be illegal because it is viewed as immoral and degrading, but people governed by these laws do not share the same moral beliefs. As police fail to act on sex workers’ reports of crimes, or blame and arrest sex workers themselves, offenders may operate with impunity while sex workers are discouraged from reporting to the police in the future. Then there is the financial toll of criminalization as repeating fines or arrests push some further into poverty. People may be forced to keep selling sex as potential employers will not hire those with a criminal record. Also, if the need for money found some sex workers in the streets, how will fines deter the work?

The work entails forming relationships with a wide range of clients at different levels of intimacy. Unfortunately, sex work offers comfort to predators, or those who mean harm, who also understand and exploit the workers paralleling relationship with police. Working in isolation, workers’ lives are threatened as they avoid the police and are denied these protections in their workplace and, off the hook, predators continue to harm more even those outside of the sex trade. Facing arrest or prosecution themselves, any client may protect themselves from blocked numbers leaving workers in the dark with no evidence of whom they are dealing with, surrendering that safety. Some laws advocate helping sex workers by removing the option of work as it criminalizes only those who buy sex. Now, to incentivize clients and income, workers may be forced to drop prices, offer more risky services, or reach out to potentially abusive third-party management.

Woman holding poster reaing "Sex Workers Demand Safe Spaces"
Sex Workers Demand Safe Spaces. Fibonacci Blue. Creative Commons for Flckr.

Decriminalizing and regulating the work of sex workers would allow them the right to choose their clients and negotiating power or power to cease the service when they feel uncomfortable or unsafe. Criminalization, or the threat of it, complicates and weakens workers’ power to negotiate terms with their clients or collaborate with others for safety. So, for example, it may increase the chance for workers to engage in sex with clients without a condom (which may be used as evidence of the crime). Although variable in different contexts, in low and middle-income countries on average, sex workers are 13 times more at risk of HIV, compared to women of reproductive age (age 15 to 49), so their ability to negotiate condom use is important.

According to a study led by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, sex workers who had been exposed to repressive policing had a three times higher chance of experiencing sexual or physical violence by anyone, including clients and partners. They were also twice as likely to have Sexual Transmitted Infections than those who avoided repressive policing.

In order to be protected from exploitation by third party managers and dangerous clients, to be informed on sexual transmitted infection and other health concerns or vulnerabilities, to be able to unionize and self-manage, and to be able to reach out to law enforcement, sex work should be regulated by the same occupational safety and health regulations that benefit workers in other labor industries. Dedicated efforts must consider the elevated or unique risks, vulnerabilities, and intersectional stigmas surrounding different sex workers, including men, transgender, and other gender identities and portions to improve health outcomes and human rights. Wider political actions are needed to address inequalities, stigma, and exclusion or marginalization that sex workers face even past the criminal justice system to health, housing, employment, education, domestic abuses, etc.

We are faced with opposing or contradictory narratives of the sex work experience, but we have chosen some to represent the entire concept especially those tailored to our own feelings of sex and commerce without concern or consideration of those even more immediately affected. The conversation of sex work needs to open up to understand and share the message to all that the labor itself is the commodity, not the laborer and it requires workers more considerate rights and regulations. If sex work is legally accepted with due rights and respect, it can become something that benefits- even especially vulnerable or marginalized- women and humanity.

What sex workers need is not condescension and invasion into their private lives, but support in achieving decent working conditions.”

Additional Sources:

Open Society Foundations

Vox

 

 

 

Fast-Fashion: Unethical and Unsustainable

Garment workers working at sewing machines in a factory in Gazipur, Bangladesh.
Bangladesh.Gazipur BIGUF.2015.Solidarity Center. Source: Solidarity Center, Creative Commons

Prior to the 1960s, about 90% of the clothes purchased in the United States were also made here.  Since then, it has been reduced to only about 3%.  Over the years, companies have increasingly chosen to outsource their labor to countries with lax labor laws (or a willingness to overlook them) to pay less for the work that is necessary for clothing production.  The purpose of this blog is to highlight the negative impacts of these choices based on the information given in the documentary True Cost.

The term “fast-fashion” refers to the shift in the fashion industry that has resulted in faster production with lower costs.  At first glance, this appears to be an extremely beneficial change, especially for the general United States consumer.  We can buy more clothes and spend less money in the process.  However, it is important that we take time to ask how it is possible to the industry to have changed the way that it did.  What does it really cost?

Garment Workers

When discussing the costs of the fast-fashion industry, one of the most well-known examples is the Rana Plaza building collapse of 2013 that occurred in Dhaka, Bangladesh. At the time, the building was being occupied by garment factories for western companies such as Children’s Place, Joe Fresh, and Walmart.  Workers in the factories told their managers that they had noticed cracks in the building but were told to go back to work.  At one point, the managers were even given an evacuation order (which they ignored).  Nothing was done.  As a result, 1,129 workers died, and even more were injured.

Outside of the tragedies that have occurred in the industry’s factories, many of the factories cut corners on a regular basis to reduce production costs.  Work areas are frequently found to have poor lighting, which can be damaging to the workers’ sight, and toxic chemicals, which can be harmful to their respiratory systems.  As of 2016, the minimum wage in $67 dollars each month, which is far less than fair compensation for the labor of these workers, especially in such poor conditions.  More often than not, these workers cannot simply quit and find work with better circumstances.  They must be able to provide for themselves and their families and lack the education and qualifications for more favorable employment.

Environment

Fast-fashion is also an incredibly unsustainable industry.  Eileen Fisher, a high-end fashion retailer who aims to use sustainable and ethical production methods, has called the clothing industry “the second-largest polluter in the world.”  It’s easy to see why.  In 2013 alone, 15.1 million tons of textile waste were created.  The majority of this waste ends up piled up in landfills.  These piles release methane as they decompose and are a noteworthy factor in global warming.  Even if their relationship with global warming were not an issue, the amount of land required to store of all this waste is simply unacceptable.

Leather tanneries are also a significantly harmful part of the clothing industry.  The chemicals used in the tanning process are extremely toxic and are often disposed incorrectly.  This leads to the pollution of the drinking water, soil, and produce of the communities surrounding the tanneries.  These chemicals lead to serious illness and diseases.  People living in these areas are facing skin problems, numbness of limbs, and stomach problems.  The chemicals are poisonous to both the environment and the health of human beings.  Not only do climate change and pollution have harmful effects that we can see today, but they are also severely damaging to the world and resources that future generations will have access to.

People in the street in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
Wide avenue in Old Dhaka. Source: Francisco Anzola, Creative Commons

Human Rights

The issue of fast-fashion is one that impacts many different areas in human rights.  Regarding employment, Article 23 of the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states that every person has the right to “just and favourable conditions of work,” as well as the right to “just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity.”  The harmful work environments and low-wages involved in the clothing industry prevent workers from accessing these rights. Additionally, Article 25, the UDHR depicts the right to a standard of living that is sufficient to maintain an individual’s health and well-being, which requires an adequate income.

Fast-fashion also has a connection to gender equality.  In the garment industry, 85% of the workers are women.  Often, these women are single mothers without any other real employment options, due to a lack in access to education and other similar resources.  They continue to work in poor working conditions because they want their children to be able to go to school and have better job opportunities in the future.

What You Can Do 

It is easy to fall into feeling like there is nothing you can do on this side of the counter and ocean.  Fast-fashion seems to be a very distant issue.  However, there are changes you can make in your own life to be a part of the transformation of the fashion industry.  First and foremost, it is important that you make an effort to stay informed on the issue and inform others as well.  A problem cannot be solved if no one acknowledges that it exists. Second, if you can afford it, buy from brands such as Eileen Fisher and People Tree who work to produce clothing through sustainable and ethical methods.  Such companies are generally more expensive than what we have become accustomed to because of the fast-fashion industry, but the products are typically of a higher quality.  If you need more affordable options, try to get clothes second-hand, whether that be through clothing swaps or going to thrift shops.  Apps like Depop and Poshmark, make it possible to buy clothes directly from other individuals, or sell your old clothes directly to other people.  Selling your unwanted clothes through apps like these, you can help keep clothing out of landfills.  Donating clothes can be a great option when you want to clean out your closet, but it is best when you can come relatively close to directly giving clothes to the people who will receive them.  Of the clothes that are donated to “mission stores” like Goodwill, only about 10% are purchased in those stores, and the rest have the potential to end up in landfills.

Finally, though the aforementioned options are wonderful and should warrant consideration and use, it is imperative to recognize that we do not need to purchase clothing nearly as often as we do.  Advertising glamorizes things that we do not really need so that we will spend more money.  New trends come out nearly every week, so we feel the need to buy more stuff just to keep up.  Society has become very consumeristic, and this contributes to industries, such as fast-fashion, that disregard the health and safety of their workers to allow people in countries like the United States spend as much money as possible.  By purchasing less of what we do not need, we can avoid supporting these harmful practices while also saving money ourselves.

You may not always be a part of large-scale change, but you can make small, daily changes that, when combined with the efforts of others, can truly make a difference.

Statelessness: Life Without a Nationality

A persons eyes, looking directly into the camera.
Eyes. Source: Demietrich Baker, Creative Commons

Nationality is a privilege which is often taken for granted.  For most, nationality is something that we are born into or that we inherit from our parents.  In these cases, it requires little, if any, effort on our own part.  Because of this, we often fail to realize that not everyone is recognized as a national by a state.  You could have been born in a country and lived there your entire life, and still not be claimed by that country.  This is statelessness.  According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), a stateless person is “a person who is not considered as a national by any state under the operation of its law.”  As of 2014, there were 3,242,207 known stateless persons in the world.  This does not include the numerous stateless persons who were unaccounted for.  The United Nations adopted the Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons in 1954 and the Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness in 1961.

People begin to experience the serious consequences of statelessness as children, when they are most vulnerable.  It impedes their access to a quality education and healthcare.  The effects of statelessness follow them as they grow up, keeping them from finding legal employment and taking care of themselves and their families.  Statelessness is then often passed on to their children, grandchildren, and so on.  It creates a vicious cycle, which is extremely difficult to break.

What Causes Statelessness?

There are numerous circumstances which may lead to person being without a nationality.  Gaps in nationality laws are a significant part of the problem.  An example of such a gap is seen when nationality is inherited from a parent in a specific country.  If the nationalities of a child’s parents are unknown, then the child is not seen as a national of that country, and the child is stateless.  Sometimes, nationality laws have discrimination built in to them.  In countries like Barbados, Iraq, and Sudan, mothers cannot pass their nationality on to their children.  If the father is unknown, the child is left stateless.  Statelessness can also occur if new states are formed or a country’s borders change, and people are left living a different state than they originally did.  For example, when Yugoslavia dissolved, the Roma people and other minorities of the area were left, struggling to gain citizenships in the states that came into existence, and continue to have great difficulty in acquiring documents for identification.  There are even times when an individual’s nationality is taken away by legislation changes or if they live outside of their country for a certain amount of time.

Real People

It is important that, as we discuss the issue of statelessness, we remember that this is an issue that affects real people.  It is more than an abstract concept.  Take Jirair, for example.  Jirair was born to Armenian parents in Georgia.  They moved to Russia soon after he was born but had passports from the Soviet Union (from before it dissolved) and were unable to obtain citizenship.  Jirair did not legally have a nationality.  He had no legal ties to Russia and no proof of his birth in Georgia.  He was unable to work legally or acquire life insurance until 2016, when Georgia’s citizenship laws changed.

The entirety of the Makonde people of Kenya were stateless until 2017.  Though they were originally from Mozambique, many of the Makonde people have been living in Kenya since before 1963.  They lacked citizenship and any official documents.  This made it difficult for them to work, travel, and even to obtain birth certificates.  Generation after generation of the Makonde people experienced statelessness, vulnerable to discrimination, harassment, and poverty.  Everything began to change when Kenya’s 2011 Citizenship and Immigration Act was put into full effect and the Makonde became recognized as the forty-third tribe of Kenya.

Four children, standing together.
Children. Source: Lead Beyond, Creative Commons

Statelessness and Human Rights

Statelessness is heavily tied in with numerous human rights violations.  The first and most prominent violation is found in Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states, “Everyone has the right to a nationality.”  It violates Article 23, which describes the right people have to employment, as statelessness often keeps people from working legally.  Without work, individuals cannot provide for themselves or their families, and will also have an even more difficult time gaining nationality.  Statelessness is also a violation of Article 25, which says that “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family,” due to the poverty and lack of access to basic healthcare that result from statelessness.  In order to have a quality living situation, one needs to be able to afford safe housing, a balanced diet, and basic healthcare and insurance.  Many countries deny access to education to children who are not nationals of those countries, violating Article 26, which says, “Everyone has the right to education.”  Education is key in a child’s ability to have a better living situation in the future and to flourish in life.

In the Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 7 states that every child has the right to acquire a nationality.  Article 24 recognizes the child’s right to “the highest attainable standard of health and to facilities for the treatment of illness and rehabilitation of health,” and Article 28 recognizes the right to an education.  Children do not have access to these rights without a nationality.

The extent to which statelessness inhibits access to basic human rights makes it an issue with a severe need to be addressed.  Though the rights violations it causes are reason enough to justify a change, the problem is magnified by the way statelessness impacts entire groups of people and passes from generation to generation.

Lacking a nationality also impedes an individual’s ability to participate in political processes.  In many countries, such as the United States, you must be a citizen of that country in order to vote.  People who are stateless have a significantly lessened opportunity to have their voice heard, especially since it is not uncommon that entire groups of people are stateless, like the Makonde people.  This makes it even more important that people who do have a nationality of their own help to not only speak up and increase awareness of statelessness, but also to support a platform from which stateless people can be heard.

What Can We Do?

So, what can we do now?  One of the most important things that we can do as part of the general public is promote awareness of the issue.  Many people are not aware that it is even possible to lack a nationality, and more people do not know how serious the consequences of statelessness are.  The more people know about the issue, the more it will be pushed to the forefront of conversations.  Change cannot occur if people do not know that change is needed.

The UNHCR currently has a campaign called #IBelong, which aims to promote awareness of statelessness and work towards its end.  You can sign their “Open Letter to End Statelessness,” which declares the need to end statelessness.  The UNHCR also provides resources to those who are do not have a nationality.  If you are stateless yourself, you can click here.  You can select the country you reside in, and the website will provide you with resources that can help you on a path to acquiring a nationality, documentation that proves your nationality, or civil registration.