Why the Women’s Rights Movement Must Listen to Sex Workers

by Guest Blogger: Chi Mgbako

Editor’s Note:  In 2008 the US Government gave Malaysia the lowest rating in its annual Trafficking In Persons Report. Rather than address the real labour trafficking issues, the government set out to close down the sex industry. Now nearly all brothels in KL have been shut. Sex workers are forced to work in dangerous and difficult conditions on streets throughout the capital. For its violent efforts to suppress the sex industry the US Government raised Malaysia to tier 2 level in its 2009 TIP report.

Before a hushed audience of over 2000 women’s rights advocates from 140 countries stood Kthi Win, a sex worker and leader of a national organization of female, male, and transgender sex workers in Burma.  With quiet confidence she bravely stated [24]:

“The key demand of the sex workers’ movement in Burma, in Asia and all around the world is simple.  We demand that sex work is recognized as work. But we have one other key demand, specific to certain parts of the women’s movement. We demand that we are not treated as victims.”

This defiant rejection of victimhood by a sex worker, speaking on behalf of the global sex workers’ rights movement [25], took place at the recent AWID International Forum on Women’s Rights and Development [26], one of the largest gatherings of women’s rights activists in the world.  It was an extraordinary moment because there’s a tendency by some in the women’s movement to reject sex workers like Kthi because they dispute the monolithic narrative that all people in prostitution seek rescue.

The characterization of sex workers fighting for their human rights as “prostituted women” engaged in futile attempts to “organize the enslaved” is perplexing.  For five years my students and I have worked with and been inspired by sex workers successfully organizing from the margins of society.  Sex workers in India [27] who fight against police abuse, work as safe sex peer educators, and run afterschool programs for their children.  Sex workers in South Africa[28] who are leading a national campaign to decriminalize sex work.  Sex workers in Malawi who had the courage to sue the government [29] and challenge the constitutionality of forced HIV testing of sex workers without informed consent.  And there are countless more examples [30] of sex workers organizing in Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean, and North America.  To label and disregard these advocates as “victims” who cannot comprehend their true “enslavement” is condescending, disempowering, and untrue.

They are fighting for their human rights with creativity and agency and in defiance of deep societal and legal marginalization, forming a chorus of agitation for the right to work, the right to live free from violence, the right to access healthcare.

Women’s rights advocates who view all people in prostitution as “slaves” and make no distinction between those trafficked into prostitution and consenting adult sex workers who are in the trade by choice or circumstance often advocate for anti-sex trafficking policies that harm adult sex workers.  Kthi, who has personally experienced the impact of strategies like brothel raids, which often involve indiscriminate round-ups of sex workers in an effort to locate trafficking victims, provided a visceral critique of such policies:

“We live in daily fear of being ‘rescued.’  The violence happens when feminist rescue organisations work with the police who break into our work places and beat us, rape us and kidnap our children in order to ‘save’ us…What we need is for the mainstream women’s movement to not just silently support our struggle but to speak up and speak out against the extremists who have turned the important movement against real trafficking into a violent war against sex workers.”

Kthi’s insightful criticisms have been echoed elsewhere.  In Cambodia, an anti-sex trafficking law [31] that was supposed to assist people forced into prostitution has been manipulated by police as a pretext to send sex workers to “rehabilitation” centers where they endure physical and sexual abuse and a lack of adequate food and healthcare, a dire situation documented [32] by groups like Human Rights Watch and the award-winning [33] Asian Pacific Network of Sex Work Projects.  The harsh consequences of brothel raids on sex workers [34]have also been detailed in Thailand [35], Malaysia [36], India [37] and elsewhere.

We must listen to sex workers.  If the women’s movement insists on conflating trafficking with sex work and labeling all people in prostitution as slaves who are incapable of speaking on their own behalf, we will insulate ourselves from hearing important critiques of methods that are ostensibly supposed to help sex workers but invariably lead to more rights violations.  The women’s rights movement should not embrace policies that harm female, male, and transgender sex workers.  At the end of her speech, Kthi echoed this sentiment by repeating the cri de coeur of the global sex workers’ rights movement: “Nothing about us, without us.”


Chi Mgbako is clinical associate professor in the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice at Fordham Law School in New York City. A graduate of Harvard Law School and Columbia University, she has conducted human rights fieldwork and advocacy in Ethiopia, Ghana, Liberia, Malawi, Nigeria, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and Uganda. Her writings have appeared in the International Herald Tribune, the Huffington Post, and the Harvard Human Rights Journal.

This article is reposted with permission from RH Reality Check

[1] http://www.rhrealitycheck.org/user/mgbako
[2] http://www.rhrealitycheck.org/
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[12] http://www.rhrealitycheck.org/blog/tag/awid
[13] http://www.rhrealitycheck.org/blog/tag/awid-forum-2012
[14] http://www.rhrealitycheck.org/blog/tag/prostitution
[15] http://www.rhrealitycheck.org/blog/tag/sex-workers
[16] http://www.rhrealitycheck.org/blog/tag/sex-workers-rights-0
[17] http://www.rhrealitycheck.org/blog/tag/un
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[20] http://www.rhrealitycheck.org/taxonomy/term/8275
[21] http://ow.ly/b4DwX
[22] http://www.rhrealitycheck.org/video/2012/05/16/brothel-broken-brothel-raids-in-kuala-lumpur
[23] http://www.rhrealitycheck.org/video/2012/05/16/brothel-broken-brothel-raids-in-kuala-lumpur#comments
[24] http://apnsw.wordpress.com/2012/04/21/plenary-speech-by-kaythi-win-chairperson-of-apnsw-at-awid-forum-in-istanbul-21-april-2012/
[25] http://www.nswp.org/
[26] http://www.forum.awid.org/forum12/about/
[27] http://www.sangram.org/Default.aspx
[28] http://www.sweat.org.za/
[29] http://www.nyasatimes.com/malawi/2011/11/13/sex-workers-sue-govt-after-forced-hiv-test/
[30] http://www.chezstella.org/stella/?q=mouvement
[31] http://wunrn.com/news/2008/03_08/03_03_08/030308_cambodia2_files/030308_cambodia2.pdf
[32] http://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/cambodia0710webwcover_2.pdf
[33] http://www.aidslaw.ca/publications/interfaces/downloadDocumentFile.php?ref=883
[34] http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/2012/mar/26/nick-kristof-anti-sex-trafficking-crusade
[35] http://www.plri.org/sites/plri.org/files/Hit%20and%20Run%20%20RATSW%20Eng%20online.pdf
[36] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qs5pBVDFjrE
[37] http://www.iwhc.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=3654&Itemid=1341
[38] http://www.rhrealitycheck.org/files/teaser-images/2012-05-22-mgbako_0.jpg
[39] http://www.rhrealitycheck.org/user/login?destination=print%2F19676#comments
[40] http://www.rhrealitycheck.org/user/register?destination=print%2F19676#comments


3 comments on “Why the Women’s Rights Movement Must Listen to Sex Workers


    “We live in daily fear of being ‘rescued.’  The
    violence happens when feminist rescue organisations work with the police who
    break into our work places and beat us, rape us and kidnap our children in
    order to ‘save’ us…What we need is for the mainstream women’s movement to not
    just silently support our struggle but to speak up and speak out against the
    extremists who have turned the important movement against real trafficking into
    a violent war against sex workers.”

    Nothing like objective reporting …Lets clear up some facts!

    Children are often removed to protect their safety. Often cycles of
    prostitution exist in these communities girls that are underage are prostituted
    by their mothers or their mothers pimps…are exposed to violence, drug use and
    emotional abuse etc…Particularly in the brothels of India, Thailand,
    Indonesia etc I have personally witnessed this for myself! Further, it is well
    documented. So if we are not meant to see these women as victims …we should
    have no problem removing children who are exposed to dangerous situations just
    like we would do in any other given situation.

    The onus of abuse is not on feminists! It is the responsibility of males who
    rape, beat, and degrade…But oh yeah….. Is that not why we have a subset
    group of women who sell sex so that men can take out their hatred on them?
    Please let’s start making men accountable and stop trying to blame people like

    The violent war against prostitutes started thousands of years ago when our
    societies became patriarchal so lets keep it real indeed! And not blame
    feminists against prostitution for the violence against women who are being prostituted.  Do your history on prostitution.

    Further; it is also well documented that in countries where prostitution is
    legal and no longer policed….illegal brothels are thriving
    “Australia” is a good example so women who are working legally in
    brothels are earning less and less and having to work harder and longer hours
    because they are competing with illegal brothels full of sex slaves which thrive
    under current LEGAL laws. Legal brothels can not survive in this country they
    are constantly shutting down. Legalizing prostitution only creates a subset group
    of problems and does not necessarily make things safer or bring better working
    conditions for women.  Let’s have that

    One thing is for sure we need to start having a really open
    and honest conversation about the conditions women in prostitution endure…that
    will mean saying and doing things women in prostitution don’t like…

    Further let’s have more objective reporting on these issues
    and give the prostitutes rights movement a little more credibility. There are
    two sides to every story present both…

    • the above is typical of the negitive sex fiministe group. the above artical is hard for these kinds of womens groups to hear…..but it is the truth.learning to separate the consent from the nonconsent is hard work…..but it is the only fair work.   

      • How about a real critique Sam….how about really separating choice and consent from what are obvious human rights abuses…It is not hard for feminists to hear at all! If some women chose to sell sex then that is their choice and I personally believe there are very genuine cases, feminists do not dispute that fact nor do we not support female choice, nor are we sex negative that is what one would refer to as “double speak”. However; to suggest that feminists are responsible for women being brutalised and raped…is lets face it …BULLSHIT! Deal with the facts ….These situations are not as black and white as we would be lead to believe. I think the prostitutes rights movement had a great deal of validity in its origins however; it really needs to rethink some of its strategies if it is to regain some of the creditability it once had. Articles like this are not doing anyone any favour’s it makes a mockery of what is a very serious situation …OBJECTIVE reporting please….

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