Friday, March 28, 2014

A Guest Post from Darby Hickey, from Best Practices Policy Project

Stigma kills. That’s an idea that, sadly, many communities understand and experience, including sex workers and people involved in sex trades. The pervasive social and governmental stigma and discrimination against those who trade sex for money or other needs is something that organizations fighting for the rights of sex workers are tackling head-on. Directly related to such stigma are laws that criminalize large swaths of commercial sex. This manifests through indifference and hostility from police, governmental authorities, and society when people who have traded sex for money are killed, attacked or raped—“they were asking for it” is the typical line.  It also manifests in persistent stereotypes of sex workers as “disease ridden” or “vectors of disease”, even as police the world over take condoms from sex workers or use them as evidence of criminal activity. 
The Best Practices Policy Project works to end such stigma and change laws through movement building and policy reform. An all-volunteer group composed of sex workers and allies, BPPP works largely on the national level in the U.S. to support other sex worker rights groups and to encourage the federal and local governments to protect the rights of people engaged in transactional sex in all its forms. Most recently we have been supporting the campaign of Monica Jones and SWOP-Phoenix to stop racist and gender profiling in Arizona and end a terrible program there that claims to give sex workers alternatives to jail but actually increases arrests and incarceration. We documented the work in Phoenix as an example of harmful policing practices in a report we submitted to the United Nations—which we used to pressure the U.S. government to address rights violations against sex workers.

One of the newer forms of stigma facing our communities is spread by some groups claiming to fight human trafficking. But instead of addressing this terrible phenomenon, these organizations claim that all commercial sex is violence and that the only solution is to increase criminal penalties and arrest people in order to save them. This approach not only does tremendous harm to sex workers, it also distracts from efforts to help people who actually experience coercion and exploitation, in the sex sector and the many other sectors where trafficking occurs. What’s more, these groups are now directly trying to undermine years of work to establish best practices for HIV interventions with sex workers. Well-financed organizations are attacking UNAIDS, for example, for its human rights approach to sex work, while also condemning extremely effective HIV outreach and treatment programs working with sex workers. Shockingly, groups promoting these “rescue” efforts view an increase of stigma as a positive development in their efforts to “eradicate” commercial sex.

From our perspective, criminalization and stigma go hand in hand, and we must combat both at the same time. When people are criminalized and stigmatized, they cannot claim their rights and are subject to serious rights violations. When sex workers and other people involved in sex trade are not criminalized they can better organize and demand protection of their human rights. Removing stigma helps people to see that sex workers are not deviants or victims but simply people trying to make a living just like others. When society and governments treat sex workers as human beings deserving of all the rights that any human has, people in the sex trades can be valued for their expertise. As sex workers all over the world say—we are not the problem, we are part of the solution.  


We would like to thank Darby for her guest post. If you would like to see more about what Darby or the Best Practices Policy Project does, check out her twitter feed.

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