Statement of Sex Worker Human Rights

To end misconceptions about sex worker human rights, here is the SWOP East Sex Worker Human Rights Statement.  Many thanks to Canada’s IUSW for being the inspiration for this statement.

Sex Worker Human Rights

from SWOP East  http://www.swopeast.org

by Jill Brenneman


Ending criminalization of sex work involving consenting adults creates opportunity for positive social change.  With an end to criminalization, sex workers are no longer marginalized for abuse and victimization by customers, the legal system and law enforcement.  Instead, the legal system would serve to protect sex workers, to represent them in the event they are victimized by a crime.  Rather than having to fear the police and be easy targets for renegade cops abusing their positions, sex workers would be able to access assistance from the police just as any other citizen victimized by a crime.  STORM’s website has many testimonials from individuals victimized in the sex industry that had no recourse due to current social views regarding sex work, criminality and the stigma and marginalization that comes with them.


Current policies of criminalization also really serve no value for those either in the sex industry in a non-consenting situation, trafficking victims or those underage.  Those who; coerce, traffic or exploit both adults and youth are aware that criminalization keeps the victims from viewing law enforcement and the legal system as allies to assist them in getting out of the sex industry.  The victim becomes imprisoned by a system that is allegedly setup to protect them.   It is both unrealistic and simplistic not to recognize that people who prey on those who are coerced into the sex industry will use criminalization – the knowledge that the victim fears being punished by the law as a criminal – as reinforcement in a dynamic of fear that makes it difficult for such a victim to leave. Predators use criminalization and the legal system to coerce and deny access to people under their influence who want to leave the sex industry.


The right to form and join professional associations and unions allows for empowerment of sex workers to have greater authority and rights within the sex industry through the strength of a group and networking.



Sex Work, Taxation, and Representation.


Currently the Internal Revenue Service requires individuals to report income earned from illegal sources.  Criminalization denies the sex worker access to legal rights and representation related to taxation as admission of how the income is earned may not be covered under client privilege.  This causes denial of the ability to receive accurate and complete legal rights and representation.   Ending criminalization would allow the sex worker to fulfill requirements of paying taxes, consult with tax specialists without fear of the session being used against them in court.



Coercion, violence, sexual abuse, child labor, rape and racism.


Sex workers should be entitled to protection from coercion, violence, sexual abuse, child labor, rape and racism just as any employee in any citizen working in any occupation in the United States of America is.  Coercion is enforced by criminalization.  Knowing that turning in the coercing party may lead to the sex worker being arrested is a substantial barrier from leaving a coercive situation.  Those that coerce are aware of this dynamic realizing the victim has little recourse to escape the coercion through the legal system without significant risk.  The victim is likely to think of themselves as a criminal because of current laws and social attitudes and to see the legal system and law enforcement not as those that can bring justice but as those who will likely arrest, prosecute and further victimize the person they should be protecting.


Sexual abuse and rape in sex work is virtually unaddressed as an issue.   Social attitudes most often assume sex workers can not be sexually abused, assaulted or raped by virtue of being a sex worker.   Sex workers are at very significant risk of sexual abuse and rape.  Exchange of money for agreed upon services does not negate the fact that anything beyond what the sex worker consents to is rape.  Payment of money or anything else of value is not a blank check to force any sexual act upon a sex worker.  Yet, current legalities and social attitudes make bringing a rapist of a sex worker to justice virtually impossible.  Many rape crisis centers either will not accept clients that are sex workers or are improperly trained to assist them.  Medical care providers are also often improperly trained or not trained at all to deal with rape and sexual assault of sex workers.  This along with criminalization leaves the sex worker often unable or unwilling to access medical services after an assault.  Sex workers are easy targets for violence.  Violent offenders realize the marginalization and criminalization aspects of sex work leave the sex worker with little legal recourse in the event of being victimized by violence.  Violence sometimes extends all the way to the murder of the sex worker with little legal interest as in the case of the Green River Killer, Gary Ridgeway who killed dozens of prostitutes before finally being caught.  Had the victims been seen as “regular women” rather than prostitutes there would likely have been a much higher emphasis on the capture and prosecution of the killer.


One of the most controversial topics is child labor related to the sex industry.  The vast majority of youth in the sex industry in the US are runaway/throwaway youth.  There is a significant issue that often goes unaddressed.  Critics will state that youth should not be in the sex industry.  They are correct.  However, this requires more than press releases, position statements and pusillanimous policies of government.  The youth that are in the sex industry often have no other way to earn money.  They are in a situation of survival sex which is trading sex for survival needs.  It is nothing short of a waste of time to state this problem exists without concrete solutions.  Suggestions advising the youth to just go home are unrealistic.  Often times the youth left for a reason, the street was safer than home or where thrown out.  Going home may not be an option.  Suggestions advising them to go to the local McDonald’s or like employer and get a “normal job” are absurd.  Where do they get the work permits?  What do they list as an address on the job application?  What telephone number do they give for the job application?  What do they do while they are waiting for this “normal job” to consider and process their application?  Unless resources are created which provide food, clothing, shelter and education this will always be a problem.


In many countries outside the US, child labor is a different issue.  Families so poor they have no choice but to either have the children work in the sex industry or even sell children into the sex trade are common scenarios.  The basic issue is poverty and often sexism as the male child is considered more valuable, the female child more easily dispensable into the sex industry.  Children are not a tourist attraction and it is the responsibility of governments to address this issue including the governments of the “first world” countries to punish their citizens that engage in child sex tours.  It is simplistic to blame the parents of these children.  Poverty has to be addressed as a global issue.  Also, often unaddressed is the myth that a job in a sweatshop making minimal money for epic work hours is a better option for children or anyone for that matter.  Both amount to little more than slave labor.


Compounding the problem is current the US Governments ban on funding unless organizations helping child sex labor victims unless they take a specific anti prostitution pledge.  This is absurd.  The problem isn’t going to be legislated away with a quick stroke of the pen, a nice photo op, with mission accomplished written as the answer to this problem.  Access to needed resources including medical attention, prophylactics, and education on sexually transmitted diseases are being denied by an alleged effort to fight human trafficking by cutting off funding to agencies that “collaborate with traffickers”.  Until the issues of poverty and other factors are addressed in realistic form, this is going to be a problem.  Denial of service for political gain through the December 19, 2003: Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2003 is nothing but a disingenuous play to convince the world that a social problem is being addressed.  What is really happening is an unrealistic US Government has aligned with some feminists and the religious right to posture about fighting trafficking while their actions endanger and often end the lives of victims around the world.  Victims supposedly helped by this legislation.



Legal support or sex workers who want to sue those who exploit their labor.


The focus on fighting to end the sex industry and continuing to maintain the status quo of criminalization places too much emphasis on the punishment of men that are either pimps or clients.  Forgotten is both the reality that women and transgendered bear the brunt of arrests.  Also lost in the fight to end the sex industry is the reality that criminalization takes away civil remedies for sex workers that are exploited for their labor.  The current social and legal environment empowers those who exploit the labor of sex workers as criminalization leaves no option for legal recourse.  Knowing the legal and social implications of sex workers attempting a lawsuit to gain compensation for exploitation of their labor, those who exploit have little to fear in using current circumstances to their advantage.  This leaves the sex worker vulnerable to inadequate payment for doing their job, exploited by having to pay a series of fees to work such as in the case of many strip clubs, overtime pay laws become irrelevant as many sex workers are not even paid an hourly wage but instead tips and only after paying fees to club management, bartenders, security, disc jockeys and other staff.  In the event the sex worker suffers exploitation or harm there is little ability to sue for financial, physical or emotional damages.  In the event of workplace injury there is often no workers compensation, disability pay or other benefits.


Ending criminalization would allow for labor rights allowing sex workers to file suit against those who exploit their labor, to seek compensation for various forms of damages, fair compensation for their work, legal benefits in the event of injury resulting from accident or negligence on the part of the employer and a much stronger legal remedy having the effect of keeping potentially predatory employers accountable for their actions.



Clean and safe places to work


Ending criminalization would bring sex work out from underground.  Without fear of arrest, incarceration, criminal record and other legal issues, sex workers would have the same legal protections as an employee of any other industry.  Rather than having to fear law enforcement, it would become the police’s responsibility to enforce the same laws and same rights afforded employees of other industries.  Ending criminalization, stigmatization, marginalization and other forms of isolation and discrimination would provide opportunities for clean, safe work environments, access to medical services without fear of being victimized by the judgment of the medical provider or denial of services due to their occupation.  Ending criminalization would allow for the same laws which protect workers in other industries from workplace hazards to be enforced providing clean and safe work environments for sex workers.


The right to choose whether to work on our own or co-operatively with other sex workers.


Current legal environments in various countries, states, provinces and municipalities either force sex workers to work together as in the case of legalized brothels in some counties in Nevada, or to not be able to work together in other areas fearing it would bring too much awareness and catch the attention of law enforcement.  Sex workers need to have the right to choose their work environment just as any other individual does.  That choice may be to work for an employer, to work as an independent or to create their own business of the size they choose.



The absolute right to say no.


One of the greatest flaws of criminalization is the absolute lack of protection from clients or employers refusing to respect the sex workers boundaries.  There is virtually no recourse for a sex worker forced into sexual acts against their will either by a client that exceeds the agreed upon terms or an employer that forces the sex worker to go beyond personal boundaries as part of their job.  The exchange of money does not eliminate the sex workers right to say no, it does not give a client the right to exceed the sex workers boundaries and does not give the employer the right to force a sex worker to engage in sexual acts against their will, ones they consider dangerous or simply ones they do not feel comfortable with.  Sex workers have the right to their own bodies and if and when that is violated they need the right to recourse.  Current legal and social stances often deny the sex worker the right to control what happens to their bodies. 

3 Responses

  1. You say…”With an end to criminalization, sex workers are no longer marginalized for abuse and victimization by customers, the legal system and law enforcement.”

    When your basic premise is so completely and totally flawed, all the following is just so much daydreaming.

    What makes you think sex workers would no longer be marginalized? The legal prostitutes in Nevada are shut up behind barbed wire in the desert for weeks at a time and not allowed to go into town except for their weekly HIV test. That sounds like marginalization to me.

    America, is not going to suddenly embrace the hard working prostitute as an upstanding citizen. Especially american women. You are having sex with their husbands for money. Nothing is going to endear you to mainstream American women. Nothing.

    You are a dangerous role model for their daughters. Moms and dads don’t need that crap in their face when they are trying to raise children to be successful.

    Judges are not going to suddenly be giving custody to prostitutes. The justice system is not going to suddenly come to the rescue of every raped prostitute.

    Being a stripper is perfectly legal in some places. But if someone finds out you are a stripper, they are going to judge you as an unfit role model, teacher, aquaintance, and parent. Decriminalization doesn’t change a thing about marginalization.

    Prostitution will always be marginalized because it is bad for women, it is bad for men, and it is bad for society.

    You are selling a fantasy here.

  2. […] Statement of Sex Worker Human Rights « Bound, Not Gagged “To end misconceptions about sex worker human rights, here is the SWOP East Sex Worker Human Rights Statement.” (tags: sexwork prostitution law legal society crime reference important activism) […]

  3. “When your basic premise is so completely and totally flawed, all the following is just so much daydreaming”

    The basic premise isn’t flawed. However in every movement to empower a marginalized, oppressed and disenfranchised population there have always been critics who for their own reasons have proclaimed the movements to end oppression and marginalization as flawed. How many labor, civil and human rights throughout history had their populations and activists told their premise was flawed and daydreaming? Civil rights movement of the 1960’s? Democracy in Chile during the Pinochet years?

    Beyond that it is a poor argument to simply wave a wand, state an entire statement is completely and totally flawed. To make a sweeping statement that the basic premise is flawed thus all the rest is worthless is throwing a blanket over what you are not addressing. It isn’t flawed nor is it daydreaming. If you want to make your point, make your point with fact, not just a waving of a wand of condescending dismissal.

    The premise of advocating sex worker human, civil and labor rights isn’t flawed. Nor is the rest daydreaming. You can state your opinion is that it is flawed and daydreaming but you are only speaking from opinion. Not from fact as you portray it.

    Question. Who are you? You made a point of telling me you have never heard of me. I haven’t ever heard of you either.

    But since my bio is easily accessible on the SWOP East website and I’m not seeking to hide my identity or my views, I have no problem with being open about who I am. Who are you?

    It is easy to be dismissive of others and voice strong opinions disdainfully proclaiming the invalidity of others views under the cloak of anonymity. What is your activist perspective? Your activist history? If my views are flawed, what are your views that you believe will work?

    “What makes you think sex workers would no longer be marginalized?”

    Any steps forward are steps forward. Education is a major step. Breaking misconceptions and myths takes outreach public education. Sex workers have been silent long enough. The silence and the hiding are over. Empowering sex workers through unionization, through networking, through gaining political strength fights marginalization.

    I oppose the efforts to portray all sex workers as victims of patriarchy, as victims of trafficking, as victims of sexual slavery, or as inherently collaborating with some mythical pro porn, pro prostitution movement. It does a great disservice to those truly victimized in trafficking, coerced into sexual slavery to lump anyone working in any position in the sex industry as victimized as sexual slaves. It diminishes the experiences of those truly enslaved and coerced and creates the false sense that all sex work is coerced.

    Conflated studies showing 92 percent of all sex workers want to leave the sex industry are inaccurate. They are piggybacked studies taken from the most marginalized populace in sex work. If one took a study of airport ramp workers working the deicing machines that deice aircraft in a northern city during a snow or freezing rain storm with the awful deicing spray blowing back in their faces in 30 knot northeast wind, in 30 degree snowy, windy weather, or icy weather, there would likely be a 92 percent result for those that wished to be out of that industry immediately too. But it is taking the worst case scenario in an occupation that pays poorly with minimal pay, benefits, and worker rights. Yet would we tell these workers they should just quit rather than fight for labor rights? If we did who would deice the aircraft? Perhaps labor rights, would be a step in the right direction. Rather than taking the worst case scenario and portraying it as representative of all.

    “ The legal prostitutes in Nevada are shut up behind barbed wire in the desert for weeks at a time and not allowed to go into town except for their weekly HIV test. That sounds like marginalization to me.”

    This is a problem of legalization. The law is in the back pocket of the brothel owners. I don’t advocate legalization. I advocate decriminalization and a strong labor and human rights movement for sex workers. An empowered sex worker rights movement with full labor protection is a method of fighting the Nevada situation not a collaboration with the brothel owners. Keeping it status quo until some mythical end of the sex industry arrives does far more harm than good to these Nevada workers.

    Please, if you are going to make points about my statements, quote me accurately. I do not and have never advocated legalization. I advocate decriminalization

    “America, is not going to suddenly embrace the hard working prostitute as an upstanding citizen. Especially american women. You are having sex with their husbands for money. Nothing is going to endear you to mainstream American women. Nothing.”

    What are we defining here? America is two continents. Are we talking about the United States or the hemisphere?

    Go outside of the US and our terminology calling ourselves Americans is viewed as imperialistic and arrogant.

    The US women who are angry about their husbands being with a sex worker perhaps should address their husbands with that issue. The husbands aren’t coerced by some sex worker. Consent is a two way street. If we are going to fight patriarchy one of the steps is to make men responsible for their own sexuality. Not continue to make women responsible for male sexuality. If men are unfaithful to their wives that is a choice on the man’s part to betray his commitment to his wife. It is just a convenient way to make women responsible for men’s actions and sexuality to thrust the blame onto the sex worker. The clients are not being held at gunpoint and raped by the sex worker.

    A fight to end the sex industry is not going to garner support. The same women you reference are viewing sex workers as the enemy. They are likely to see them there by choice and are very unlikely to believe the sex industry will be brought to an end.

    There will always be a sex industry. Breaking myths about sex workers is an important step. Creating education that sex workers are women just like all other women is an important step.

    “You are a dangerous role model for their daughters. Moms and dads don’t need that crap in their face when they are trying to raise children to be successful.”

    No actually I am not a dangerous role model for their daughters. Mom’s and dads need to recognize that there is more to being successful than having their daughters have some successful politically correct career. There is teaching their daughters about social conscience and the importance of respecting and working with marginalized populations toward empowering themselves for positive social change to end their oppression and marginalization. Teaching daughters that they are successful by career definition isn’t teaching success. There is teaching humanity, tolerance, social conscience and respect for disenfranchised populations and teaching them to work with these populations to fight oppression. There is more to being successful than just a career. There is a socially aware daughter that understands and fights oppression by joining the marginalized, oppressed and disenfranchised in empowering themselves to fight their oppression. Better to teach a population how to fish for themselves than to promise to provide them with ample fish to end their starving once a war is won.

    Radical feminists through their perspective of all sex work being bought and sold rape, slavery and trafficking and eschewing harm reduction and sex worker human rights movements are teaching their daughters that the oppressed can not fight their own oppression. They are teaching their daughters that those coerced into sex work or choosing sex work should not be given tools to empower themselves but instead wait while some all powerful war against evil rescues them.

    This is typical US attitude to find some white hat cowboy to ride in to the rescue, to do all the right things and rescue the oppressed. It works great for Bush Administration photo opportunities and cowboy movies. But in reality it is imperialistic, elitist and leaves a disenfranchised population trapped and abandoned while waiting for the war against oppression to be won. Marginalization and oppression end much quicker by empowering the marginalized and oppressed than waiting for some superpower to come in and rescue them.

    Recent historical events have proven the great rescue to be flawed and the idea that a US based movement is the one to do the rescuing while the rest of the world waits for us to save them and portrayal that oppressed populations can’t fight their own oppression, with their own leaders, their own methods are a significant reason the US is so disliked worldwide.

    “Judges are not going to suddenly be giving custody to prostitutes. The justice system is not going to suddenly come to the rescue of every raped prostitute.”

    No they aren’t but it is a step in the right direction. Waiting for the sex industry to end isn’t the answer. It isn’t going to end.

    “Being a stripper is perfectly legal in some places. But if someone finds out you are a stripper, they are going to judge you as an unfit role model, teacher, aquaintance, and parent. Decriminalization doesn’t change a thing about marginalization.”

    Certainly criminalization doesn’t make it better. Nor does promising some victory ending the sex industry. What happens to everyone involved in the sex industry during this war? Do we forget about them in pursuit of this ultimate victory? No.

    There is no reason to leave behind an oppressed population promising them rescue when concrete, real world steps can be taken immediately.

    “Prostitution will always be marginalized because it is bad for women, it is bad for men, and it is bad for society.”

    Prostitution will always exist. So it is imperative we deal in reality.

    “You are selling a fantasy here.”

    No actually I’m not. I’m not selling anything. I’m advocating for human and labor rights for a marginalized, disenfranchised population. With valid and realistic reasoning. You have dismissed it as fantasy for your own reasons. It is wonderful that you think so highly of yourself but you aren’t in a position to dismiss it other than stating it as your opinion. You have no ownership of feminism. Just a perspective on it.
    You have also been very willing to criticize but have offered nothing in the way of answers. It is easy to state what you oppose and to define problems. Much harder to offer solutions.

    What are your solutions? What is your strategy to achieve your solutions? And why do you oppose human rights for a marginalized population? How is that constructive?

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