Woodhull Sexual Freedom Alliance

Affirming Sexual Freedom as a Fundamental Human Right

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Sex and Politics

International Sex Worker Rights Day

Saturday, March 3rd, is International Sex Worker Rights Day, which is being celebrated around the world by groups and individuals who seek to recognize and defend the rights of sex workers.

According to Woodhull’s Executive Director, Ricci Levy:

“Research has demonstrated that the criminalization of sex work is associated with violence against sex workers, decreased access to health care, barriers to reporting human rights abuses, and disempowerment in condom negotiation (whether a sex worker’s wishes regarding condom use are respected). Governments should recognize and address the relationship between laws criminalizing sex work and the human rights violations that result from these laws. 

We see the affirmation and defense of the rights of sex workers as an integral part of our work to affirm sexual freedom as a fundamental human right.   International Sex Workers Rights Day isn’t just about securing the rights of sex workers; it’s about securing human rights.”

In the “State of Sexual Freedom in the U.S., 2010 Report”, Melissa Ditmore poignantly explained the ways in which the rights of sex workers are threatened:

“Sex workers’ human rights have been violated in a variety of ways including violence but also by making sex workers invisible and not recognizing their input into issues that affect them, leading to situations in which sex workers’ concerns are sacrificed for propriety. Rights-based programming counters the two great pitfalls of programming with sex workers: not admitting that sex workers’ have agency and denying sex workers of their agency.”

2011 has been a particularly challenging, though exciting, year for organizations working to affirm the agency and rights of sex workers in the United States. Toward the end of 2010, demands from grassroots organizers were included in the U.N. Human Rights Committee’s official recommendations to the Obama Administration as part of their Universal Periodic Review. Among the more than 200 recommendations was recommendation #92.86, known as Recommendation #86, which asked the administration to “Ensure access to public services paying attention to the special vulnerability of sexual workers [sex workers] to violence and human rights abuses.”

Woodhull was one of the many groups that supported a policy brief that outlined concrete ways in which the government “can show progress in addressing human rights abuses against sex workers.” These included:

  1. Building capacity for states to address human rights violations through research and dialogue.
  2. Modifying or eliminating existing federal policies that conflate sex work and human trafficking and prevent sex workers from accessing services such as healthcare, HIV prevention and support.
  3. Investigating and preventing human rights abuses perpetrated by state agents, such as law enforcement officers.
  4. Investigating the impact of criminalization, including state level criminal laws, on sex workers and other groups.

The United States fully accepted UPR recommendation #86 and, in the report released to the United Nations, the U.S. states “We agree that no one should face violence or discrimination in access to public services based on sexual orientation or their status as a person in prostitution, as recommendation [#86] suggests”.

Woodhull is the first organization to ever get the issue of sexual freedom as a fundamental human right “on the table” at the United Nations, and we were especially happy to note that the Obama administration is taking human rights abuses against sex workers seriously, and is willing to stand up for what is right.  It was particularly significant because this was the first time the United States accepted that sex workers’ rights are a different issue from human trafficking victims and that sex workers’ rights are human rights.   

Today we’d like to recognize the work that is being done in D.C. and throughout the country to protect the rights of sex workers, and reaffirm our commitment to achieving the goals outlined above.  If you’d like to read more about the groups working on sex worker rights, check out this site.  Also, Best Practices Policy ProjectHIPS, and Different Avenues.