Are We Failing Sex Workers?

The realm surrounding the world of sex workers, unfortunately, and undeniably, is still significantly stigmatised. The paradigm that prostitution brings forth no less than sheer abomination has persisted through the centuries with many still condemning the profession. Whilst many still hold on to their abhorrence towards these ‘home-wreckers’, we fail to realise and acknowledge the torment, agony and stigma these sex workers have to endure on a daily basis. Little do we know about their stories and their background and to the extent to which they are deprived of their basic rights. The Gryphon endeavours to dig deeper into the lives of sex workers and decipher the misery within this line of work.

Amnesty International’s research has proven that sex workers face little to no protection at all from abuse or legal redress, including in countries where the act of selling sex is legal. It is a common encounter for sex workers to be abused and raped and to exacerbate matters, they frequently receive absolutely no support from law enforcement.

In Papua New Guinea, sex workers are relentlessly beaten, raped, unlawfully detained and killed without recourse. As homosexuality is regarded as a crime, it gives the law enforcement a solid basis in apprehending sex workers. The laws have allowed the police to wrongfully misuse their authority by threatening and arbitrarily detaining these sex workers. The misery fails to end just there. Sex workers have many a time fallen prey to rape and sexual abuse by their clients, police themselves and others until they find themselves too petrified to file criminal reports on these predators or to fight for their rights because they are regarded as “illegal” by the law. When interviewed by Amnesty International, a sex worker herself recollected her encounter with the police where the police started beating her client and herself up. Soon after, six police officers raped her one by one and because they were armed, she had to give in. It is revolting to learn that the sex workers see no feasible avenues as to having their rights protected or simply having a solid guarantee that they are within the vicinity of a safe and peaceful environment.

Hong Kong, unfortunately, does not appear in good light as well in regards to their sex workers. There, selling sex is legal if this means one sex worker working independently from a private apartment. However, working in isolation renders them vulnerable to robberies, physical assault and rape. The police provide little protection for sex workers and sometimes even deliberately targeted them. It is absurd that undercover police officers are permitted to receive certain sexual services from the vulnerable with the justification of intending to secure evidence. There have been recorded instances where police officers or individuals purporting to be the former, initiating sex with sex workers, convincing them that they could avoid legal sanctions if they give in to them. More often than not, transgender female sex workers are often subjected to abusive police practices which involve intrusive and violating full-body searches carried out by male officers.

In Argentina, although the law depicts that the sale or purchase of sex is not illegal, sex workers are nevertheless subjected to punitive measures through a range of laws that punish acts which promote prostitution. These include forbidding landlords to lease properties to sex workers, hotels to host them as well as forbidding clients from picking sex workers up in the streets. It is as though the laws are dictating that they are allowed to breathe but is purposely restricting every possible breath. Ergo, this gives sex workers every reason to fight for the legalization of sex work. Laura, a street-based sex worker informed Amnesty International of an occasion where a client had paid her in his car and as she was about to alight, he grabbed her by the neck and cut her with a knife. She was forced to surrender all her money and cell phone in order for him to release her. When asked why she had not bothered to report this violence or theft to the police, her response was that approaching the police would be a complete waste of time as they won’t listen to her given the fact that she was a street worker. The level of stigma and discrimination to which sex workers experience go as far as even assessing healthcare services. They are either laughed at or are the last ones to be treated by the doctors. One has even confirmed that once, a doctor refused to treat a sex worker based on his reason that his religion denies him of assisting sex workers. When asked about his Hippocratic Oath, he was still persistent in rejecting her. Bear in mind, this is the same society we speak of which has preached and advocated about the lives and rights of same-sex marriages but fail to even project the same benevolence towards the equality of all humankind receiving basic human rights.

Instead of promoting freedom for sex workers, the criminal legal framework might have actually done the contrary in terms of its enforcement; leading towards human rights abuses and violations against sex workers by police, state officials and medical providers. For instance, in order to “enforce” the law, violent raids have been conducted by the officers, unwarranted detainment of workers in the streets as well as the act of soliciting bribes in exchange of freedom. Every day, these sex workers worry about their lives, trying to earn a living in hope that they get to live to see the next day alive. Society tends to forget that unlike most of us, some sex workers see no other options in being able to provide for their families – having no education, funds or maintenance. This is the closest they have to make ends meet and getting food in their stomach. The current legal framework has also impeded the sex workers’ ability in seeking state protection from violence due to their involvement in criminal activity, as we can see. However, even if the state legalises sex work, it has been proven that the air surrounding sex work still encourages the prohibition of it.

Sex workers deserve every bit of human rights, especially the right to voice their opinions and concerns. The right to a safe and protected environment should not need to be requested but already provided. Knowing that sex work is a highly stigmatized activity, the authorities should go the extra mile in ensuring the law does not reinforce or perpetuate stigma and discrimination against sex workers. Being denied medical care, protection, housing and much more reflects the society we live in and generations to come will fall to such ignorance.

Although some may not be able to see eye-to-eye with the profession this does not permit a reason to discriminate and rob a sex worker of their rights. Fight for the rights of sex workers because they deserve as much protection and security as we do.

Andrea Kong