As stigma remains, one sex-worker works to correct the myths

Ruth Jacobs – WNN Features

Police talk to sex-worker on the street in Vancouver, Canada
A police officer talks to sex-workers on the streets of Vancouver, British Colombia, Canada.  Issues of human rights abuse uner numerous regional and local laws along with discrimination against adult women who have chosen to work inside the sexual services industry is causing activists and women’s advocates around the world to now speak out. Image: Jacobin

(WNN) London, UK, WESTERN EUROPE: In a candid and honest interview rights activist and independent sex-worker Jemima talks with Ruth Jacobs, global women’s advocate, author and campaigner based in the UK. Working to dispel public misinformation on the lives of adult sex-workers who choose to enter the consensual sex industry world, Jemima seeks to set the record straight. The difference between the forced exploitation under human trafficking is different than the life of those adults who have chosen freely to go into the sex services industry. But discrimination against sex-workers is pervasive, she says; especially against trans people.

As an online activist Jemima is working today to stop what she describes as “exploitation.” She does not consider her own work as a woman sex-worker to exploitative.

The issue of sex-work today though is a controversial one for many in society who see the buying and selling of sex as something inherantly bad. Because sex-workers are often considered to be persons who are working in a persecuted career they are often identified with those who are being exploited. This means that personal judgements, discrimination and moral issues often over crowd the real need for sex-workers to stay safe. Often unconditional support for sex-workers is non-existent. But things are beginning to change in the corners of new feminism and human rights campaigns today.

Regardless of this the issue continues to be an ongoing and contentious topic and one that sex-workers like Jemima are hoping to de-mythologize.

“The term sex-work has a broad meaning…it refers to sexual behavior of consenting adults, which involves physical contacts in exchange for monetary gains. Thereby, this term refers strictly to voluntary sex-work, to distinguish it from criminal exploitation,” said a study on the situation for both legal and illegal sex-workers in Austria reported through the UN Office of the Commissioner for Human Rights in 2013.

But human rights for those who are most often considered criminals by much of our global society only leads those most vulnerable into a path of more violence and discrimination.

“Ignorant of the reality of the lives of women in sex-work, policy-makers worsen their situation,” continues the United Nations report.

This fact is why it is important to hear from those today who are coming-out into the public to share their own experiences as a sex-workers.

“…many sex-workers say they are willing to engage in this work because they can earn more than they would be able to in other jobs. Those who do want to get out lament the lack of financial and emotional support available to them, and equate leaving sex-work to tumbling into a bottomless, moneyless rabbit hole,” says a 2014 article on the topic in The Guardian News.

In the Western developed world numerous sex-workers also often hold down other jobs and careers. Because the pay is relatively high many sex-workers work part-time, especially those with children or those who are studying in higher education. In contrast to what most of the public believes sex-workers work does not always center around only sex per se. Sometimes sex-work includes providing company and/or solace to clients who just need someone to talk to.

But this does not mean that it’s easy being a sex-worker.

What happens to a sex-worker in Bangkok, Thailand may be very different for a sex-worker in a large western city like New York, where chances of facing danger, rape, violence, intimidation and exploitation by a pimp, agent or client could be different. Or it could be just as harsh in certain circumstances and also very real. It’s protection, safety and dignity for women who have made a choice in the work they do, dangerous or not, that may be one of the most important keys in their desire to receive equal human rights for all.

To help dispel the myths, Jemima shares her insights from the UK and a deep wish for the global stop-human-trafficking-stop-slavery movement to begin to work more closely with the world community of sex-workers as one of the first lines of defense. Standing up for social justice against underage prostitution, oppression, sex-trafficking and sexism wherever it exists is Jemima’s goal.

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Ruth Jacobs: Could you share how you became involved in the sex worker rights movement and why it’s so important to you?

Jemima: It honestly was Twitter for me. I was a sex-worker, but like most isolated by the nature of the work. Whilst I knew the law as it applied to me I was unaware there were people campaigning to change the laws, or that other countries had different systems, many of which were a lot worse than the UK. I started talking to and reading other sex-workers writings, and attended a few events. Realizing that I was not alone was such a huge moment for me.

The isolation of sex-workers, and the way it feeds into our various oppressions, increases stigma, makes it less likely for crimes to be reported, and in my opinion is a cause of stress and ill health and is something I feel very strongly about, and have written about.

Another thing that concerns me greatly is that wherever sex-work is criminalized, either the de facto criminalization of Sweden, or the outright [laws] of the US, it [criminalization] primarily hits the most vulnerable: trans women, women of color, drug users, the young. For me sex-worker activism is simply an extension of my social justice activism. It is impossible to campaign on issues such as trans rights or racism without seeing how sex-workers are multiply oppressed.

R.J.: What does your activism involve?

J.: Currently for reasons of security, it is only online. Sadly, I have been targeted more than once by people who don’t like what I am saying.

R.J.: You are also concerned with sex-trafficking. What do you think needs to happen so the two movements {sex-worker rights and the stop sex-trafficking movement] are more aligned? Do you agree it would be beneficial that they are?

J: I think firstly the conflation that is made by people like Nick Kristof between all sex-work and trafficking has to be challenged at every opportunity, as must the ability of law enforcement agencies to make money from [highlighting] trafficking, along with NGOs and charities.

Currently they are all encouraged to define sex-work as [human] trafficking, especially if they are WoC [Women of Color] or migrants as they can then demand bigger budgets.

This matters for two main reasons:

1. Victims of trafficking in other areas [outside the UK] are ignored. Domestic labor is a huge hidden area where women are trafficked, particularly from Asia. A number of cases have made the news in the UK. However, because all the focus is on sex-trafficking, police and other authorities have neither the training nor desire to combat this area.

We have currently children in jail who have been trafficked to grow drugs from Vietnam and their plight attracts little attention.

2. Those who are raped and who are then defined as trafficked/sex-workers or even worse, child prostitutes, are tarred with the stigma of whorephobia. Someone who is raped is treated worse, often arrested or imprisoned because another person has made money off their rape. This is a huge injustice, and only happens because society is so whorephobic that victims are no longer deemed innocent because of their association, even against their will, with sex-work.

Adult woman sex-worker attends Washington D.C. Conference on AIDS 2012
An adult woman sex-worker makes the statement, “Sex Worker Rights Are Human Rights” at the XIX International Conference on AIDS in Washington, D.C. in 2012. Sex-Workers from around the world attended the conference to discuss AIDS awareness, health and safety. Image: PJ Starr

R.J.: Why do you feel it’s important for the sex-worker rights movement and the anti-human trafficking movement to work together?

J.: Because we both want the same thing. The idea we have different aims is one created by those opposed to sex-work.

New Zealand shows that when sex-work is decriminalized it takes away any market for criminals who would traffic people. It is also the case that sex-workers and clients are those best placed to inform the authorities of people they believe might be trafficked. We should all be working together with the authorities to root out those who exploit and abuse.

R.J.: What legal improvements or changes would ensure sex-worker rights and help abolish sex-trafficking and sexual exploitation? Can the two groups be ensured their human rights and the protection of the law simultaneously?

J.: Yes, basically the introduction of the New Zealand model, very simply works: sex-workers are safer, more able to contact the police; and it has meant there have been no cases of trafficking since 2010. Contrast this with Sweden.

R.J.: For anyone else who wants to be involved, what can other people do to help?

J.: The first and most important thing I think [of] would be to read and listen critically. Most of the people who want to criminalize sex-work have other agendas, either Christian right or radical feminist. You would not listen to someone who had never cooked telling you how to bake a cake, but when it comes to sex-work people with nothing but opinions are given a voice over those with direct experience.

Sometimes sex-workers are also survivors of trafficking, a complex situation that seems to be ignored by many, but people need to look for and accept this complexity, not dismiss it.

Those who are able to, whenever sex-workers are having a rally for their rights, attend. We live with the threat of being outed. One of the greatest things people can do is stand alongside us.

R.J.: What are your plans for the future?

J: Make it through a month without someone threatening to out, sue, rape, or otherwise harm me.

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During the All About Women conference at the Sydney Opera House in Australia in 2013 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Leymah Gbowee speaks, along with Liza Mundy and Brooke Magnanti to discuss the need in dignity for all women, including sex-workers. Is sex-work empowering or is it exploitation? This 4:14 minute July 2013 Youtube video release has been produced by the Vox Pop discussion series from Ideas at the House.

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For more information on this topic:

Sex-Worker Forum of Vienna, Shadow Report,” United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights with CEDAW Secretariat, February 2013;

Briefing Paper #03: Sex work is not trafficking,” NSWP, December 2011;

Leaving No One Behind: Reaching Key Populations through workplace action on HIV and AIDS,” ILO – International Labour Organization, July 2014.

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Ruth Jacobs is the author of Soul Destruction: Unforgivable, a novel exposing the dark world and harsh reality of life as a call girl. The main storyline is based loosely on events from her own life. Ruth studied prostitution in the late 1990s and has firsthand experience of many of the topics she writes about such as post-traumatic stress disorder, rape, and drug and alcohol addiction. In addition to fiction writing, Ruth is also involved in non-fiction, journalism and broadcasting for charity and human rights campaigning in the areas of anti-sexual exploitation and anti-human trafficking. Learn more about Ruth at ruthjacobs.co.uk and soul-destruction.com

The introduction to this interview has been provided by Lys Anzia at WNN – Women News Network.

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