The Chinese Government has called for an end to the public shaming of prostitutes in China by police, the New York Times reports this week. Those suspected or accused of prostitution are regularly shackled and paraded in public by law enforcement, exacting the ultimate price for their crime – public humiliation and identification.
Just because the government calls for an end doesn’t mean it will come – law enforcement officials all over the world regularly exploit and abuse sex workers whether they are authorized to do so or not. But the move is a commendable one, since the institutionalized practice of prostitution parading, like a nationalized form of slut shaming, is gross, abusive, and absolutely no doubt hypocritical.
On the other hand… righteous groups of sex workers continue to organize and demonstrate worldwide in an empowered twist on the slut-shaming parade convention. Sex workers demonstrate to call attention to themselves, that they exist as humans with rights and dreams, and to advocate for better services and policies globally.
Just last week, as Emily wrote about, sex workers from all over the world descended on Vienna for the International AIDS Conference to demonstrate, including against the anti-prostitution pledge in PEPFAR, which withheld services and information from sex workers if countries received funds through the program.
I think the demonstration of sex workers is one of the most powerful acts of social justice since one of reasons sex work remains so taboo and sex workers so often marginalized is the secrecy of it all. Demonstrating sex workers are parading themselves, showing their identities and publicizing their professions as a way to call attention to the lower than low treatment most regularly receive.
Last week I read a profile of Meena Saraswathi – the founder and head of SANGRAM, an awesome collective that supports the rights and education of sex workers in India — also supported by the International Women’s Health Coalition.
SANGRAM’s greatest achievement, the Lancet writes, has been to untangle the myths about marginalised populations like sex workers. That is, while no one has the right to abuse the human rights of sex workers by hurting them, raping them, denying them services or publicly shaming them…sex workers do not (always) need saviors, either. Religious mission groups are notorious for taking on the liberation of sex workers as their cross to bear, while the programs and strategies they support are ultimately harmful to the health and rights of these women.
Though there is a sharp edge to the issue. While brothels can be constructive dens of education on HIV and other STIs, and arenas for sexual empowerment and reproductive health, they can still be prisons for women trafficked or prisoner to their economic circumstances. What is the line between giving sex workers voice to empower and protect themselves, and leveraging the law to prevent trafficking? This is a genuine question I continue to struggle with.