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Human Rights for Sex Workers: An Interview with Melinda Chateauvert

Fifty countries treat sex work as a legitimate job, and it has been legalized with restrictions in eleven others. Nevertheless sex workers are still widely stigmatized, discriminated against, harassed, and, in those countries where prostitution is considered illegal, treated as criminals. This is especially true in the United States, which is one of the few industrialized nations that continues to criminalize prostitution. As Melinda Chateauvert reveals in her new book Sex Workers Unite: A History of the Movement from Stonewall to Slutwalk, these laws have put sex workers at risk. 

Chateauvert agreed recently to talk with us about Human Rights Day and how important it is that the international campaign for human rights include sex workers, who have always been key activists in the struggles for gay liberation, women’s rights, reproductive justice, labor organizing, prison abolition, and other human rightsrelated issues.

The first SlutWalk in Toronto (photo by Anton Bielousov)
The first SlutWalk in Toronto (photo by Anton Bielousov)

Why is it important that human rights advocates include sex workers in their efforts and activism?

"Prettying up," "normalizing," or "sanitizing" the poster children (or martyred adult victims) of any movement means that the policy solutions will never address the people who are most vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. It's rather instructive, for example, how the mainstream of the immigrant rights' movement places students, military veterans, and "hard-working" successful workers/business people at the forefront. (The same can be said about gay rights organizations too.) This makes them "worthy" and "deserving" of citizenship rights in the US. But what about immigrants who seek residency and asylum because they are transgender or gay or lesbian? Or who, once they arrive, find they cannot obtain "honest" work and turn to the sex industry to support themselves?

For the labor movement, organizing in the sex industry itself is certainly one focus for activism. But in truth, winning a living wage for workers everywhere would mean that a lot of workers could choose to leave the sex industry, especially those who moonlight to make ends meet while holding on to their "legitimate" day jobs.

How do sex workers rights relate to other global human rights issues?

1) Global democracy movements: Sex workers have the right to participate in government as voters, and as officials, elected or appointed.

2) HIV/AIDS: Sex workers are front line adult educators to prevent new HIV infections worldwide. They can only do so however, when government officials, health agencies and law enforcement recognize them as people who have these skills and bring them into the process, and, preferably, let sex workers determine the best harm reduction practices for themselves. 

3) Immigration and migration in a globalized economy: People move from place to place looking for work and economic opportunity, for money to remit to their families back home. That women and men would move from place to place (from Lagos to Capetown to Amsterdam for example) to work in the sex industry should not surprise anyone. What should concern us however is that the criminalization of undocumented or un-permitted migration makes all migrants vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. Without a visa or a passport, public officials as well as criminal traffickers can make the life of undocumented migrants hell.

Over the last few decades, sex workers have sought to reframe sex workers rights as a human rights issue. What are some of the steps they have taken?

Sex worker activists and advocates have historically called on lawmakers and the courts to decriminalize prostitution, so that people could work without fear of arrest and persecution, including harassment, stalking, prohibitions against renting apartments, from holding certain types of jobs, or from obtaining professional licensing. The discrimination that sex workers face is similar to the policies and attitudes that once prevented gays and lesbians from finding jobs and housing, from patronizing public establishments, and that threaten their rights as parents. While securing civil rights for sex workers remains an issue, activists have come to realize that the effects of discrimination perpetuates a climate of hate. Whorephobia—and its cousin slut-shaming—are dehumanizing, reducing "hookers," "prostitutes," "whores," and "hustlers" to people who aren't worthy of concern, and indeed, people who should be chased out of neighborhoods or locked up in prison. More seriously, because the police regard sex workers as lawbreakers, they often ignore or sloppily investigate crimes of violence against sex workers. Rape, battery, assault, domestic violence, armed robbery, and the kidnapping and murders of sex workers is dismissed because their jobs (a.k.a., their "lifestyles") are considered dangerous and they were "asking for it."

Activists have been challenging dehumanization in multiple ways. Recently, Canadian journalist Joyce Arthur called on editors, opinion columnists, and reporters to revise the style guides for terms referring to the sex industry after a Toronto Globe and Mail columnist called prostitutes "lumps of meat."

On Monday this week, a New York Times editorial, "France’s New Approach to Curbing Prostitution", praised the French Parliament for approving a law that would punish the clients of sex workers. It also dehumanized sex workers. The proposed law would "treat prostitutes as exploited and abused victims," but where are the complaints from sex workers themselves about abuse and exploitation by their customers? Indeed, neither the NYT nor the commercial press is reporting on the thousands of French sex workers who are marching and protesting against the proposed law. By failing to acknowledge that sex workers chose to do the work they do, we deny them agency and control over their lives. Even saying that "we" want to "help" them get out of sex work is a denial of their agency and self-determination. Sure, some sex workers hate their work, many would like to change the working conditions, and some would rather do something else entirely. But so do a lot of fast food workers and even some blog editors.

To say “sex workers rights are human rights” is to recognize that people have the right to make decisions about their lives and their work, to say that they have the right to be safe from violence and harassment, to say that they deserve human dignity and to have a voice in society. 



Melinda Chateauvert, photo by Tracey PrimaveraMelinda Chateauvert is the author of Sex Workers Unite: A History of the Movement from Stonewall to SlutWalk. As an activist, she has been involved in many grassroots campaigns to change policies and attitudes about sex and sexuality, gender and antiviolence, and race and rights, and as a professor has taught courses on social justice organizing, the civil rights movement, and gender and sexuality. She is currently a research fellow at the Center for Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.