What is International Sex Worker Rights Day, and how did it start?
International Sex Worker Rights Day began in 2001 when over 25,000 sex workers gathered in India for a festival organized by a Calcutta-based group called Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (Unstoppable Women’s Synthesis Committee). In 2002, Durbar invited organizations from around the world to join them in commemorating Sex Worker Rights Day on March 3rd:
We felt strongly that that we should have a day what need to be observed by the sex workers community globally. Keeping in view the large mobilization of all types of global sexworkers [Female, Male, Transgender], we proposed to observe 3rd March as THE SEX WORKERS RIGHTS DAY.
Knowing the usual response of international bodies and views of academicians and intellectuals of the 1st world [many of them consider that sex workers of third world are different from 1st world and can’t take their decision] a call coming from a third world country would be more appropriate at this juncture, we believe. It will be a great pleasure to us if all of you observe the day in your own countries too…We need your inspiration and support to turn our dreams into reality.
Since 2002, sex workers and advocates around the world have organized protests, gatherings, film screenings, art shows, and lectures on and around March 3 to raise awareness about human rights abuses sex workers face.
Ultimately, March 3rd provides an opportunity to shine a spotlight on sex worker activism, resilience, community and strength, and away from salaciousness, violations and paternalism. Sex worker organizing extends across the globe, with efforts aimed at demanding recognition of sex worker autonomy, freedom from criminalization and legal protection from violence and abuse.
Some Global Sex worker Rights Goals
- Stop police harassment and violence against sex workers, including robbery and rape
- Ensure sex workers have safe, fair working conditions
- Eliminate barriers to accessing healthcare, housing, mainstream employment, and financial services.
- End stigma and discrimination.
- Identify and assist victims of sex trafficking and reduce vulnerabilities to trafficking.
- Increase economic, racial and gender equality to address economic compulsion.
- Stop harmful brothel raids, sting operations, and crackdowns on sex worker communities online and outdoors. Decriminalize sex work.
10 Things to Do to Celebrate March 3rd
- Organize a film screening – Show a feature film, like Live Nude Acts Unite! Or The American Courtesans. Or show a half-dozen short films from around the world! There are many amazing sex worker rights videos: we’ve organized some on YouTube, and you can find more on other video-sharing sights.
- March or Protest – Organize a protest at the legislature, the court house, the public square. You can protest a specific local issue, or you can also just demonstrate to raise awareness about sex worker rights!
- Organize a public discussion – About global sex worker organizing, sex worker human rights abuses and what’s being done to stop them, or how to be an ally.
- Hold a community organizing and strategic planning day – Use “International Sex Worker Rights Day” to bring your sex worker community together and create goals and advocacy objectives.
- Use your event to create a consensus statement or new resource – Organize a guided discussion about “decriminalization” or “how to be an ally” or “what I love about myself” or priority issues, take notes, and then turn your notes into a statement or hand out! Or hold a discussion of issues people in your community has and turn the notes into a needs assessment or the start of community participatory action research.
- Launch a social media campaign – Fighting stigma or to raise awareness about a specific human rights abuse or issue. Chose a slogan or hashtag, get poster board or dry erase boards and markers, and take photos of people with the signs – Tweet & FB post!
- Hold a sex worker self-care day – March third is just as much about celebrating sex worker communities as it is about making change — and we need to take care of ourselves too! Organize a potluck picnic or brunch. Play beauty salon. Give each other back rubs.
- Hand out and/or put up flyers in high-traffic areas – If you want to do something public but are short on man-power, handing out flyers downtown, in a train station, or at a shopping center only takes one or two people. Shy? Put up flyers on coffee shop boards and flyer racks.
- Organize an art show – many sex workers are creative, talented people! Showcase some of their work!
- Organize an open-mic night at a local bar or coffee shop!
What Sex Workers and Advocates Say About Sex Worker Rights
We are not ONLY “victims” or ONLY “empowered”- the reality of the sex trade is complicated and our lives don’t fit into a box. Don’t ignore our reality by assuming we are one or the other (we might be both or neither – let us define how we view our lives.
-YWEP & Different Avenues (Source)
[W]e believe that the right to do sex work legally (and as safely as possible) has parallels with the right to legal and safe abortion. Both issues directly involve the rights to life, liberty, security of the person, equality, privacy, and conscience, and in the case of sex work, the right to free expression and association as well…But when abortion or sex work is criminalized, those affected have even less choice and control – for example, they can be more easily exploited or harmed by unaccountable third parties, putting their lives and health at risk. Just like women who have abortions, sex workers face stigma and judgment and are often shamed and silenced, especially women and transgender workers.
-Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada (Source)
The assumption is that sex workers are nothing but spreading disease and that places a heavy stigma on sex workers. If you’re a sex worker it is assumed that you must have HIV or you must be at a very, very high risk, but illogically your access to condoms is cut short.
-Monica Jones in Nothing About Us Without Us (Source)
[We] believes in the essential dignity of every human being and recognizes that marginalized communities must take the lead in addressing the challenges they confront if we are to make lasting progress toward social justice…In many of the countries where AJWS works, sex workers face extreme stigma, violence and discrimination—with severe consequences for their health and human rights. They face multiple barriers to accessing health services and information, including denial of treatment by health care providers.
-The American Jewish World Service (Source)
By equating sex work to trafficking in persons, the very complex phenomenon of human trafficking is narrowed down to a moral issue, an approach that fails to address the economic, political and social root causes of trafficking. Furthermore, trafficked persons in all other industries are not recognised and remain unprotected.
The conflation of sex work and trafficking in persons leads to inadequate counter-trafficking policies and to counter-productive prostitution policies. The two issues are both complex and need their own individual approach and policy.
-La Strada International, Europe’s Leading Network Against Traffic in Human Beings (Source)
If all demands of sex workers could be summarised in one word, it would be decriminalisation. Progressive governments in New Zealand and New South Wales in Australia adopted a decriminalisation model to improve the situation of sex workers. Recently, the New Zealand government and the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective evaluated this model positively. The results of this evaluation demonstrate a significant reduction in the vulnerability of sex workers and improved access to human rights.
-TAMPEP Europe (Source)
Criminalizing sex work, and conflating the buying or selling of consensual sex between adults with trafficking, aggravates the risks sex workers face. It also undermines the response to HIV, and perpetuates harmful patriarchal ideologies and gender stereotypes.
-Women’s Global Network for Reproductive Rights (Source)
As the largest network of service providers to the victims of trafficking in the United States, we are dismayed to see the continued conflation of sex trafficking with sex work, and the ongoing confusion between buyers of sexual services and traffickers. We are concerned about the consequences of such tactics on sex workers and trafficking victims alike. The unintended consequences of these programs include increased isolation and vulnerability to violence and exploitation, as well as a deepening of the rift that prevents many trafficking victims from reaching out to law enforcement when they seek to escape their situation.
-The Freedom Network-USA (Source)
Even for those who believe that sex work is inherently harmful, criminalizing sex work creates harm in and of itself and only adds to the hardship of those working in the commercial sex industry. Criminalization creates stigma. Criminalization allows authorities to harass, intimidate, and exploit sex workers and individuals who are profiled as sex workers. Criminalization entrenches people in poverty and forecloses the ability of people to leave the sex trade. To protest the decriminalization of selling sex is to insist on further harming sex workers, including those trafficking victims who are forced into sex work.
-Urban Justice Center-NYC – Sex Workers Project (Source)
In environments where many aspects of sex work are criminalised – including, for example, soliciting, living off the earnings of a sex worker (the latter generally penalizing families and children of sex workers the most), or other provisions criminalising third parties — sex workers face discrimination and stigma which undermine their human rights, including to liberty, security of the person, equality, and health.
-SANGRAM, (India) (Source)
As we have repeatedly argued, regulating autonomous sex work and repealing any laws that indirectly encourage harassment and violence against us is the suitable way to respect and guarantee the human rights of those who voluntarily choose to engage in sex work.
The key demand of the sex workers’ movement in Burma, in Asia and all around the world is simple. We demand that sex work is recognized as work. But we have one other key demand, specific to certain parts of the women’s movement. We demand that we are not treated as victims.
-Kthi Win, Asia-Pacific Network of Sex Workers (Source)
Legislation that governs sex work without consulting sex workers and advocacy organizations such as SWOP, inevitably falls short of understanding the complex nature of the sex industry. Sex workers demand inclusion. NOTHING ABOUT US WITHOUT US!