From Google to Whorespeak: SF's activists fight a complex, uphill battle but keep the dream of decriminalization alive
Activists are currently planning for the July, 2012 International AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C.
Many international sex workers rights advocates have been denied visas to get to the conference. The U.S. typically bars convicted felons — but there's a special exception for people guilty of misdemeanor prostitution charges.
"SWOP has an idea of getting in touch with some of the people denied entrance and asking them what they were going to present on and to try and present their papers in their place, to make sure these organizers voices are heard," said SWOP-Bay Area spokesperson Shannon Williams.
But that's not where the government's weird exclusion of sex workers from its efforts to fight AIDS ends.
The Presidents Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) fund allocates $48 billion to organizations around the world engaged in AIDS treatment and prevention. But thanks to the religious right, the law, approved in 2003, includes a stipulation that all recipient groups must make a pledge decrying prostitution. It's known as the "anti-prostitution loyalty oath."
A court ruling July 6, 2011 declared the oath a violation of the free-speech rights of organizations in the United States, but the U.S. still blocks PEPFAR funding for international organizations based on the "loyalty oath."
"Sex worker activists are going to converge in D.C. for the AIDS conference and talk about the loyalty oath. The US is exporting its ideology through this funding requirement" said Carol Leigh, a longtime activist who curates the annual San Francisco Sex Worker Film and Art Festival.
Sex workers rights activists continue to be engaged in their complex, decades-long struggle with anti-sex trafficking organizations.
People who want safer working conditions say that decriminalization would make it easier for police to distinguish between coerced and consensual prostitution and encourage those with knowledge of crimes perpetuated against sex workers to come forward without risking prosecution for their own illegal work.
But many anti-trafficking advocates dismiss the distinction between forced and consensual prostitution in their efforts. According to a document called "Ten reasons for not legalizing prostitution," on the website of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, "There is no doubt that a small number of women say they choose to be in prostitution, especially in public contexts orchestrated by the sex industry... In this situation, it is harm to the person, not the consent of the person that is the governing standard (emphasis theirs)."
It's this refusal to acknowledge the importance of consent that really pisses off advocates —and has a powerful effect on the policy that governs them.
The federal definition of sex trafficking includes consensual prostitution, and defines coerced prostitution as "severe sex trafficking." "Law enforcement agencies can use anti-trafficking funds to arrest sex workers in prostitution, on the grounds that the feds define all prostitution as trafficking, even though the government distinguishes between trafficking and severe trafficking," said one sex workers rights activist.
According to Leigh, anti-trafficking organizations are not all bad; she named the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women as an organization that "has been allied with sex workers rights movement and takes rights-based approach."
But organizations that conflate consensual and coerced commercial sex are often big-time recipients of public and private funding.