World Policy Journal begins each issue with the Big Question, where we ask a panel of experts to provide insight into the cover theme. The question for the winter 2016/2017 World Policy Interrupted issue is: What do sex workers need to better control their working conditions? Below, Ruth Messinger explains why policymakers must listen to sex workers' stories in order to craft well-informed legislation.
By Ruth Messinger
I met a sex worker for the first time when I traveled to Thailand in 2011. She was a 37-year-old mother of three, and she very succinctly told me about the reasoning behind her career choice. “These were my options,” she said. “I could be apart from my children for 10 hours each day working in a sweatshop sewing buttons on shirts for $2 a day. Or I could spend the day with my kids and at night talk to a Western man, lie down with him for 20 minutes in a familiar, safe place, and make a lot of money. Which would you choose?”
This woman’s story profoundly changed the way I think about sex work. Many assume, as I once did, that every sex worker is a victim of trafficking, and that the trade must be stopped at all costs. But when you listen to sex workers talk about their lives, you begin to understand the difference between a girl or a woman who is trafficked—which is horrific and oppressive to its core—and a consenting adult who sells sex to support her family because she has deemed it her best option.
I learned in Thailand that these women are much like me. They work hard and they care about their kids. Who am I to tell them that their labor is any less valid than my own? Who am I to believe that this woman is any less deserving of physical safety and the right to earn a living—rights that I fully enjoy and have long taken for granted?
Government officials around the world—presidents, legislators, judges, and others—would benefit from paying attention to sex workers. Leaders should aspire to listen before they legislate, using what they hear to inform the development and implementation of laws and policies related to sex work. Yet those in power often fail to do so. As a result, they stigmatize sex work by conflating it with trafficking, and indiscriminately crack down on sex workers by imposing their own values and judgments.
Nearly everywhere in the world, sex workers are detained, arrested, fined, and driven out of their homes or places of work. In both developed and developing countries, discriminatory policies enable police to abuse sex workers under the guise of the public good. Rather than upholding their responsibility to protect all citizens, police often beat and rape sex workers. Rather than ensuring sex workers can work safely, police conduct raids that leave sex workers battered and traumatized. Rather than striving to guarantee the health of sex workers, their clients, and the broader community, police confiscate condoms while health workers refuse to provide care.
By failing to listen and then imposing their own judgments, authorities lose sight of the fact that sex workers are human beings. Like all people, sex workers deserve access to safe working environments, protection from violence, fair wages, and the ability to negotiate with their employers and clients.
Governments that create and enforce laws must listen to sex workers to determine what they need to live safe and fulfilling lives. I would never have known any of this had I not listened—really listened—to the stories sex workers have to tell. Until governments and people in power pay attention to sex workers and respect them as individuals with the right to control their own lives, sex workers will continue to face the same daily injustices.
Ruth W. Messinger is the global ambassador for American Jewish World Service (AJWS), the leading Jewish organization working to promote human rights and end poverty in the developing world. Messinger served as president of AJWS from 1998 to 2016.
[Photo Courtesy of Fibonacci Blue]