On Tuesday after work I headed over to the Amnesty International office in NYC for their event on human rights for sex workers and trafficked people. I had studied a lot about human trafficking in the past, but this event was different than I expected and really brought controversial topics to the surface and created great meaningful discussion.
The guest speaker of the evening was Melissa Sontag Broudo, a staff attorney with the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center in New York City. Melissa chose to highlight 3 main areas: 1)the national sex workers’ right movement, 2) trafficking vs. sex work, and 3) decriminalization.
Melissa spoke about her experience in her career with her clients. She attended law school to help bring justice to these workers-whether voluntary or involuntary. One particular case showed how unfair the judicial system can be when it comes to your rights; or simply between what is right and wrong. One woman was forced into selling herself for money by her husband. She was abused and threatened as he forced her onto the streets or sold her himself. Finally, the police stepped in. The husband ran, but the woman was left alone with a criminal record for being a “sex worker” even though it was not voluntary. Melissa works to get this record withdrawn so that this woman, who ever chose any of this for her life, can move on from this horrific experience and be given a second chance at life.
Situations like this one happen each and every day. It goes back to the idea of not being put in jail for violent crimes. Once you are put into prison for crimes such as drugs, alcohol, or sex work–if there wasn’t violence related to them, you often come out a more dangerous person because of what you experience while in jail. This is particularly shocking when women like the one from the above story are punished for something they had very little or no control over. On top of that, law enforcement often doesn’t take sex trafficking as seriously. Many women are abused by police officers or harassed due to the thought that they “deserve” what they got or made the decision to be in that position. Media is an outlet that doesn’t help with this negative image given to victims.
Melissa expressed her concern on how the human rights response is currently negative. This is where controversy entered the room. One solution addressed was to make voluntary sex work legal. This is already available in a few brothels in Nevada. First, police officers need to be properly trained on how to handle trafficking. Right now the Vice department is arresting voluntary prostitutes. This is taking the attention away from those who are being trafficked, and it also causes a problem with those arrested being able to move forward with their lives. If sex workers who were working voluntarily were able to do so legally they could potentially become allies. This could cause them to be less afraid to come forward and report when they do see something illegal or forced. They are the ones who are behind the scenes in most cases witnessing people who really do need help. However, they feel unable to step up and say anything because they would then be arrested.
As the current legislation runs right no it’s even possible for someone to be arrested for prostitution with the means being their possession of a condom. It is easy for enforcement to obtain a warrant and look for evidence of prostitution-condoms count as this. Which is ridiculous because anything making healthy sex practices less promoted is a sad reality we are left to think about. This causes anyone with a history or a certain look to easily be approached and put into this unfortunate situation.
One solution that has been implemented was closing down adult services on Craigslist. However, this did very little to solve anything. Like most problems, closing dow one medium only pushes people to move to an even less safe medium.
While listening to Melissa, I was reminded of my friend from the Democratic Republic of Congo. He was writing a novel and including a woman he met earlier in his life who had chosen to enter into prostitution in order to put her brothers through school. They went on to become doctors, but she was left with a negative label for the rest of her life. This friend of mine wanted to show that a woman who enters into this lifestyle should never be judged harshly or abused my law enforcement or the clients who are coming to her. They are the ones who are giving it means to continue and not coming up with better solutions for her to have a different life, but instead allowing the practice to continue in a less safe way.
And so the controversial debate erupted into the Q&A session–is it OK to sell your body for money or not?
Melissa answered in her opinion on how there will always be a market for prostitution. It’s up to us to find the least harmful and safest way. For example, the brothels in Nevada run with health cards, weekly check-ups, and a health background check.
So what is the right answer? Is the best solution to make prostitution legal? Are there ways to legalize it but still enforce safe practices? Is there a better solution all together? If we legalize it how can we stop the spread of disease? How can law enforcement be better trained to deal with trafficking?
For additional information on Melissa’s cause visit sexworkersproject.org