Global Organizing Among Sex Workers – The Socjournal


In light of recent atrocities against sex workers including, the serial killings of prostitutes in Ipswitch England and the gang rape of an exotic dancer by lacrosse players in United States, the issues of safety, dignity, and violence, both structural and individual, against sex workers globally is a necessary discussion but one rarely given much attention. However, increasingly female sex worker advocacy groups specifically those working from within the industry have taken up the responsibility to foster an environment which affirms individual choices and occupational rights. This paper focuses on a number of campaigns coordinated by international and national organizations to challenge the historical association of sex work with dysfunction, drug addiction, organized crime, and powerlessness. The socially constructed notion of sex work is re-conceptualized and utilizes language around work, independence and human rights. Describing the composition of organizing used by numerous activists who are engaged in sex work offers a new way to understand the issues.

This paper analyzes the structure of sex worker run organizations, how sex work is conceptualized, and what strategies are employed to enhance safety and well being. Organizations like Desiree Alliance (USA), The Empower Foundation of Thailand, Bayswan of San Francisco, SWOP (USA) and SWEAT of South Africa form the basis for this analysis.

The organizing efforts of women working within the sex industry who are attempting to legitimize sex work and re-define workers as self determining agents is occurring on an international level. The sex industry encompasses a vast array of voluntary activities having to do with commercial sex, including exotic dancing, pornography, massage, telephone sex and any form of sexual services (Sloan 2000).

Feminist Debates

The specific content of this particularly controversial issue among feminists has been the subject of intense debate (Morgan 2001; Hughes 1999; MacKinnon & Dworkin 1998; Dworkin 1997; Bindman and Doezema 1997; Liedholdt 1993; Willlis 1992, Bright 1991, 2004, Rubin 1984; and Rubin and Califia 1981) but is beyond this discussion. To simplify matters, I propose to divide the debate into two basic camps: anti-pornography/prostitution feminists, who argue for the total elimination of pornography and prostitution in particular and sex work in general. On the other end of the spectrum, are sex worker advocates/pro-sex feminist who demand better conditions related to the work environment.

Anti-pornography/prostitution feminists view any form of commercial sex as a sign of women’s oppression. For instance, Catharine MacKinnon states, “in the past, we had a women’s movement which understood that the choice to be beaten by one man for economic survival was not a real choice, despite the appearance of consent a marriage contract might provide…Yet now we are supposed to believe, in the name of feminism, that the choice to be fucked by hundreds of men for economic survival must be affirmed as a real choice, and if the woman signs a model release there is no coercion there” (MacKinnon,

These mainstream feminists who tend to dominate the current debates, are often accused of lacking an understanding of the complexity of the issue, and perpetuate stigma of sex workers. Often the focus of such positions is on violence and exploitation, yet many claims have been misleading. For instance, some perpetuate the belief that women engaged in the sex industry constitute a disproportionate share of victims of violence particularly rape (Layden & Smith 2004). Layden and Smith (2004) contend that this is actually less pervasive as proclaimed. What appears to be more clear is that the sex worker movement’s proposition to manage the industry substantially increases sex workers physical well being.


The challenge to traditional views of prostitutes as sexual slaves, powerless victims, drug addicts and disposable bodies began in the 1970s and 80s when prostitutes took it upon themselves to act as their own advocates and vocalize a new concept of prostitution and all commercialized sex as sex work (du Plessi Gray 1992). Sex work advocates consider sex work legitimate acts of labor that serves a function in society in that clients receive emotional support, especially for those with the inability to maintain intimate relations, socially or physically, and it helps prevent men from having adulterous affairs.

Strategies: De-criminalization vs. legalization

Two of the main goals of sex worker run organizations are to challenge the stigma associated with sex work and to overturn legal sanctions (Jeness 1993). The two are understood as intimately entwined because criminalization creates the breeding ground for societal stigma which in turn fosters internalized stigma. Criminalization creates certain language and in turn sets the tone for interactions for those considered criminals. Criminals are considered deviant and therefore, subject to moral judgments. Deviant individuals are considered not only problematic but somehow flawed in turn are often treated as less than human and thus less deserving. Treated as less than human easily slips into violent outcomes.

Sex workers are very clear that decriminalization and not legalization is what they seek. Legalization refers to the use of criminal laws to regulate or control the sex industry by setting the legal directives for its operation ( Vary significantly it is often accompanied by strict criminal penalties for sex industry businesses that operate outside the legal framework.

The fight against criminalization, according to Hobson (1987) began in Lyons, France, in 1975 when prostitutes made a list of grievances with a plea for protection from police harassment and repression arising from a revision in French prostitution laws which took them to the streets and thus increased their vulnerability to physical assaults and arrests. Decriminalization removes all criminal laws having to do with the sex industry’s operation. Sex worker advocates seeks to sustain occupational health and safety and workplace issues using standard legal and workplace means (Bayswan 2008).

The relationship between stigma and violence

Many of the organizations considered, such as the Empower Foundation, Desiree and SWEAT do not deal with violence as a separate and unique issue that women in the industry face. Rather they deal with broader issues that they believe violence is tied to; economic, political, and cultural issues are at the forefront of any of their discussion on violence. They believe stigma and discrimination impact all of these forces which create a climate where violence is prevalent.

The stigmatization that sex workers face has led to the societal acceptance of the violence against sex workers because it is seen as inherent to the work. Discrimination and prejudice against sex workers exists in the form of outspoken intolerance and verbal abuse. Adult commercial sex workers are regarded as outsiders to the majority of communities in which they work. As a result of the criminalized status in society and by the fact that they are usually women, sex workers are particularly vulnerable to all crimes of violence against women.

Moreover, in any cultural setting where women are devalued to begin with, the lack of respect for the profession, the stigmatization and discrimination that continues, raises obstacles for the participation of members in community interventions. Furthermore, often internalized stigma further complicates the ability to foster empowering experiences and rather promotes fatalistic expectations that not much can be done.


Organizers adopt innovative nonviolent civil disobedience, theatre, and art, sophisticated media work and direct action. This new direct action represents a new brand of activism one which involves joy, rambunctiousness, the building of new communities and identities built on reproductive social justice.

To deal with these complex issues, sex worker advocates utilize visibility as a mechanism that can improve the issues identified as obstacles to self determined, respected and healthy working conditions. First and foremost the identity as sex workers is embraced and recognized as a practical option and that it contributes to the economy of any given culture. The idea that sex workers have rights which must be respected and protected is forcefully asserted. Workers are the ones that are leading the charge in activist endeavors and are sophisticated thinkers who can articulate their own concerns and develop their own approaches to address those concerns.

Visibility as a strategy allows women within the industry to rewrite the script of damaged bodies, and is achieved in many fashions including celebrations, festivals, web-sites, and conferences. At such sites the revelry of achievements is placed in the spotlight. Such celebrations deal both with societal and internal stigma. Moreover, visibility creates awareness that promotes public understanding about the problems that sex workers face. Connections are made to the oppression experienced by other sex worker groups especially those who have been politically successful and by focusing in on the accomplishments evidenced by work done within the sex industry. The approach allows for women to relate to the positive and material context which makes the possibility for change realistic and practical.


One conclusion that can be gleaned from this analysis is that interventions that attempt to challenge stigma and discrimination through the creation of conceptual alternatives best coincide with concrete changes to the material conditions that produce violence, such as criminalization. This approach promotes true agency in determining how problems are conceptualized and addressed.

Secondly, the terms empowerment and participation have been used frequently within the literature related to international development but lack a nuanced definition. For the most part the terms have been used simplistically and indiscriminately as determined by a matter of degree, more or less participation, more or less empowerment. However, those within the industry offer a more in depth understanding that moves us beyond tokenism to genuine devolving of power to the community. A more qualitative understanding of empowerment and participation that can be generated from organizations like the Empower Foundation is necessary for understanding the different types of activities. The Empower Foundation conceptualizes participation in concrete terms of action in which women may be empowered to take part in.

As a final note, for those who are advocates for women working within the industry it is important to embrace qualitative research projects that allow the voice of women to truly take form. One approach is to adopt a community participatory perspective which includes participant observation, individual and group interviews and a more post modern feminist approach which involves participants in the final writing process of any report generated from such inquiry.


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