Neither Victims Nor Voiceless: Sex Workers Speaking for Themselves (VIDEO)

Since becoming a part of the U.S. sex worker rights movement
five years ago, talking about contentious issues concerning bodies, labor,
money, and rights has very much become my calling. In the past year alone, I’ve
been quoted on CNN
about the value of virginity, talked about South Carolina’s Governor Mark
Sanford on WNYC’s The Takeaway,
and admonished the Boston Herald for its slurs toward sex
. Suffice to say, I give my
opinion freely and often loudly.

I thought I knew a lot about sex work, rights, and
organizing when, in September, I set off for two weeks in India with my colleague
Khushbu Srivastava,
Program Officer for Asia at the International Women’s Health Coalition.
But as much as I am accustomed to being an “expert,” I
quickly realized that I knew next to nothing about the nuances of Indian
culture and the dynamics of the local struggle for sexual rights and
reproductive health. While there are many things that I learned during the two
weeks I spent time with our partners at CREA, The YP Foundation, Commonhealth,
perhaps the biggest lesson I learned–as a leader, as an advocate, and as
privileged white lady from the United States who was way out of my element–was
to shut up and listen.

I spent almost a week in Sangli, a
rural district that’s six to nine hours (depending on who’s driving!) southeast
of Mumbai. Maharashtra state, where Sangli is located, has
progressive laws that afford many rights to its citizens, particularly in
respect to accessing healthcare. However, populations that are already marginalized
in their communities and in local institutions—like sex workers, HIV-positive
women, and people who are not literate—do not know their rights or how to
navigate the legal structures and institutions that facilitate access to these
rights and services.

In Sangli, I spent time with the
staff and organizers of SANGRAM, which empowers
individuals with the knowledge and tools they need to understand and claim their
rights. SANGRAM was founded in 1992 to address the growing HIV infection rate
in Sangli district, and they soon realized the value of mobilizing sex workers to
become agents of change in fostering a sustainable and effective response to
the epidemic. Today, one of the
organization’s largest projects is a collective of 5,000 sex workers that
manages a peer HIV prevention education and condom distribution program in
Sangli. This collective also advocates to ensure equal access to health
services and end violence and discrimination against sex workers. While many organizations train and bring
in people from outside the community to help and support people in need (the
social work model), SANGRAM operates under the principle that the only way to
empower people is to provide them with the tools they need to claim their
rights and facilitate change.

It was inspiring to meet the HIV-positive rural women,
illiterate sex workers, and community health advocates who are working together
to facilitate change in their communities. Many told me how for years, doctors in the local primary
health centers refused to provide health services to sex workers or avoided
touching them by giving them inoculations with extra long needles. With
SANGRAM’s assistance, sex workers have been able to form alliances with some of
the doctors and achieve a higher standard of care and respect. Their efforts
have resulted in health system
improvements that benefit the entire community: advocates have been successful
in demanding that the primary health centers be functional, with trained staff,
adequate supplies, and medicine.

In Sangli, I worked with SANGRAM to
document their work and successes.
On International Human
Rights Day, we released a five minute video about sex worker
organizing, the first collaborative media project of the International
Women’s Health Coalition & SANGRAM.

Since we posted the short documentary about SANGRAM and the
mobilization of sex workers in Sangli, it’s been interesting to read the posted
comments and reactions. One of the most frequent responses is a well-meaning
but slightly problematic one. To paraphrase: “It’s so great to see these women getting the
protection and help they need!” Obviously, the respondents want what’s best for
women, but this response doesn’t instill much trust in the agency of sex
workers to realize what’s best for them on their own. Furthermore, it casts sex
workers as damaged goods: victims in need of saving, delicate flowers in need of

Why is it that there has been a shift in how advocates
describe those who experience gender-based violence from “victim” to
“survivor,” but when speaking of people in the sex industry, the word “victim”
has persisted? Why is it that US-funded HIV prevention programs require a
denunciation of sex work by organizations best poised to reach sex workers with
life-saving information and services? Why is it that while in other social
justice movements, the voices of the people most affected are at the forefront,
yet some feminists are quick to leap into conversations about sex work and
trafficking to speak for the affected communities?

The basic answer to these questions is that many people
regard the sex industry as something that must be halted, one that at its core
perpetuates violence against the people who work in it, a business from which
no good can come. I won’t argue that the sex industry is a well-functioning
industry that respects the rights of all its workers, or that most sex workers
feel safe and fulfilled in their jobs. However, there are a variety of
contributing factors that might keep a sex worker in the business, even if the
worker has the choice to leave it for other work.

SANGRAM works to prioritize the voices of sex workers
themselves, so that sex workers can articulate what they need to be safe,
healthy, and able to provide for themselves and their families. Sometimes this
includes an exit strategy, but often the sex workers’ circumstances and the
economic and social climate in which they live make exit from the sex industry

Programs that are designed to rescue and protect sex workers
from the industry usually don’t comprehensively consider the well-being and
economic stability of the people they are supposed to serve. One of the tactics
these programs often employ is abstinence education – and we all know how well that’s worked for sexuality
education. Another recent example of an attempt to rehabilitate sex workers is
an initiative launched in India in which men volunteered to marry sex workers to get
them out of the sexually exploitative situation of the sex industry
As any survivor of intimate partner violence knows, marriage isn’t exactly a safe
haven from violence or HIV infection for women.

a major Open Society Institute report titled “Rights,
Not Rescue
” indicates, programs that aim to get sex workers out of
the industry do little to reduce violence or improve health and working
conditions within the industry.
According to the report, which analyzes rehabilitation programs in

Namibia, and South Africa, “None of the
interviewed sex workers who had completed rehabilitation programs had managed
to obtain gainful employment from their training.” Domestically, in a recent program launched by the
Dallas, Texas police to rehabilitate sex workers
, half of 375 arrested
sex workers chose rehabilitation over being charged with prostitution, but only
21 of those who went through the rehabilitation program had left the business
upon follow up.

these numbers and testimonies by sex workers about the problems with rescue and
rehabilitation programs, getting sex workers out of sex work is widely posited
as the way to end exploitation.

The exercise of human rights should not be contingent on whether
or not you think a person’s choices or circumstances are a good way to live or
be. Entangling morality with a conversation about rights and painting a
portrait of people in the sex industry as victims without voices only perpetuates
their disempowerment.

The feminist movement is built on the principle that women
should have opportunities that are equal to those granted to men, a lot of
which is about economic opportunity – things like pay equity and the ability to
own property. It is also built on the struggle for women’s rights to control
their own bodies and make choices about their sexual rights and reproductive
health that are unfettered by cultural and familial demands. The struggle for
sex workers’ rights is at the intersection of the struggle for economic justice
and bodily rights, and it is perhaps that combination that can often make
discussing sex work uncomfortable.

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  • bellygirlfilms

    This is a really interesting, important aspect of the whole sex workers rights movement. I spent 6 years making a documentary about feminists in the adult entertainment/sex industry, called "Our Bodies, Our Minds." Making that film was really a formative experience for me in terms of how I thought about feminism, gender, and the strength of women whose experiences differed greatly from my own. The film, which was completed in 2001 is only just now available on home video – (DVD – & download available on Just thought you might be interested, even though it does focus solely on American sex workers.

  • bridgett-jensen

    I believe that all people should have rights, regardless of their chosen professions, but how does one distinguish between a sex-worker choosing to work in a field and a sex-slave, a woman or child trafficked into the sex-trade?

    Would you define all women in prostitution-related work as sex-workers?

  • vineeta

    “half of 375 arrested sex workers chose rehabilitation over being charged with prostitution, but only 21 of those who went through the rehabilitation program had left the business upon follow up.”

    This does not indicate these women wanted to be prostitutes, and it is unfair to suggest it is. As a counselor for domestic violence victims, I have encountered many women trapped in abusive, exploitive situations unable to escape without multiple attempts and serious, integrated assistance.

    It is my understanding that the overwhelming majority of sex workers around the world, around 90 percent, say what they want is help getting out. Though it’s possible Indian sex workers could break with the global trend, there’s currently no confirmation that more than 50 percent of Indian sex workers want to stay in the sex industry or would rather leave it for something else. Hopefully collecting that data will be SANGRAM’s next project.

  • audacia-ray

    Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s always simple to define what is "chosen" work and what is not. Anyone under the age of consent cannot by law be defined as being in the industry by choice, but for adults it can be a little tricky. Identifying victims of trafficking can be a bit of a process, but there is some decent information here:

    Also, a note on some definitions – prostitution is not the only form of sex work. Rather, "sex work" is an umbrella term for many different experiences within the sex industry, which may include stripping, domination, phone sex, porn, and many other kinds of work, many of which do not include intercourse. Also, women are not the only people who work in the sex industry, though concern is usually directed at women and children. There are many trans people and men who work in the industry as well. I would define all people making their living in the sex industry by choice or circumstance as sex workers. People who have been trafficked into the sex industry (or domestic labor or the agriculture business) against their will, who are not keeping their earnings or choosing what happens to the money they make, are not workers. 

  • claudine-oleary

    First of all – thank you for your insights Audacia. I work with U.S. teens in the sex trade and I’ve been struggling with the rescue mentality for many years now. I particularly like your point with the title in that sex workers are not voiceless. Just because people are not listening, does not mean people aren’t speaking. 


    But on the above comment, I think Audacia was trying to point out that even very determined exit programs fail to provide the kind of assistance that some people need in exiting sex work. I think this has a lot to do with systemic problems. For example, a 60% unemployment rate in many areas where I live and work in Milwaukee, Wisconsin can’t be changed by a nonprofit program. So while people talk up exit programs, the evaluations show a low success rate. Which many people figure out how to blame on individual womens’ character or on select abusive people’s control (funny how people are quick to name pimps though and not the people who control our economic system or have kicked you out of your home)


    People make conscious decisions (part of our agency/ability) about what makes sense to us. Many exit programs in the U.S. require you to be under enormous scrutiny for lengthy periods of time. Given that or doing a 60 day bid in jail, I’m not surprised many "choose" jail. Just another complicated choice people are making to make their way in the world. The existence of a rescue or exit-focused program can not be the primary solution to exploitation and everyone would do well to listen to more than just the people who confirm your worldview.

  • vineeta

    Thanks for your feedback. I see where you’re coming from but disagree with your interpretation. Audacia’s statement following that quote doesn’t ask for better exit programs, it criticizes the very concept of helping women exit by framing men exploiting them sexually as the women’s "choices or circumstances."

    “Despite these numbers and testimonies by sex workers about the problems with rescue and rehabilitation programs, getting sex workers out of sex work is widely posited as the way to end exploitation. The exercise of human rights should not be contingent on whether or not you think a person’s choices or circumstances are a good way to live or be.”

    There is no information on how many sex workers in India would like to choose legal prostitution if given a chance.
    Audacia mentions a South African rehabilitation program that failed to help even one woman get out of prostitution. But that failure doesn’t acknowledge the 89 percent of South African sex workers who answered an interviewer’s question, "What do you need?" with "to leave prostitution." 75 percent of South African sex workers said they needed job training and only 37 percent said they needed prostitution legalized.
    Indian sex worker’s answers to the question "What do you need?" is what we need to proceed in good faith.

  • wildthing

    I would say the interest in the question of whether they want to be doing what they are doing answers the question. It should be legalized and should be available to woman as well as men like Heidi Fleiss was unsuccessful at doing.

  • ricky

    I won’t be part of a movement that only goes half way, working to make it nicer to be a slave. Fancy trying that with ensalved Blacks in the past century. They deserved full personhood not nicer slave quarters. So too do sexually abused women. I wonder how someone uncleToming the freedom movement would have been viewed? I regard so-called rights workers who are trying to do this with sexually abused women as "uncleToms". Who is directing this initiative? From my experience, it didn’t have its inception with the women. It’s a pimped effort.
    I also note your reference to "abstinence". Huh? The whole world is not the U.S.A. Why do you distill every advocacy down to your nation’s political dysfunction?

    Good reading here, of the opinion from a formerly enslaved sexually abused woman. Note the perspective from when she was still abused and enslaved, to now. 


  • ricky

    I would also add that I do not know a sexually abused (prostituted) woman who would not gleefully choose abstinence. But she doesn’t get to make the choice about what she does with her life. No matter what spin you put on it, she’s an enslaved human being.
    Most sickening is that part of what keeps these women enslaved is the view of so-called feminists that these abused women are behaving out of "agency" or "choice" and making "empowerful" decisions about their lives.


    I have been both a prostituted woman and a journalist. I can say unequivocally the reason you are getting called upon by media is because you are carrying water for the sex-abuse industry. There’s nothing that boosts ratings like a woman putting a positive spin on the sex slave industry. 





  • cmarie

    I’m sure pimps (whether male of female, in India or the U.S.A) would fall all over themselves telling you how enlightened you are.  But, please consider that for every pimp there are hundreds of women who are exploited and abused.