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Perceptions of “Victim Hood” of Sex Workers (Part 1 of 2) February 19, 2010

Posted by Athiqah Nur Alami in Gender, International Relations, Women.
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There have been various opinions on the nature and understanding of “victim hood” of sex worker. It may diverge depending on theoretical and practical perspectives among feminists, governments and sex workers. Some of them argue that sex workers are not always viewed as ‘victims’.

After investigating the literatures, however, I contend that all sex workers are victims and potential to be victims in various different ways. Sex workers can be victim in the sense that they enter into the industry of their own volition, they can not be held responsible for the atrocities which are committed against them, and they can still be the victims of abuse and slave labor.

Unfortunately, their status as sex workers often makes them disbelieved and undeserving of support or legal justice. Therefore, it is important that all sex workers need assistance and protection to prevent victimization on them.

There are deep divisions of perspective among feminists in framing prostitution as sex work and its relationship to the trafficking of women which then influence their perspectives on sex workers as victims. The radical feminist discourse views sex workers as victims of exploitation and violence.

The other which developed by sex work feminist and liberal feminist insist that sex workers are not victim because sex work is a possible option or a strategy of survival taken by women as a job, which should be respected.

The developments of debates on the issue of sex work or prostitution have lead to widespread and by the 1980s these issues have became the political agenda of many states. However, there is significant diversity across the state in their laws and regulations which impact on how sex work is carried out.

There are governments which view sex workers as victims that should be saved by curbing prostitution, endorsing the abolitionist agenda and providing alternative jobs. Meanwhile, other governments regard sex workers are not victims by legalizing prostitution and establishing some mechanism of regulation for sex workers.

Another significant perspective that should also be considered is from sex workers in perceiving themselves as victims. Some sex workers see themselves as ‘workers’ and refuse to be identified as victims that should be rescued from the industry.

On the other hand, forced sex workers view themselves as victims of luring with false promises of jobs or have been trafficked into the industry.

This essay approaches the issue based on the diversity perspectives of insiders and outsiders of the sex industry. Firstly, it discusses the various viewpoints from the outsiders of the sex industry about sex worker as victims.

Then the second section elaborates sex workers’ perspectives as the insiders in perceiving themselves as victims. To deal and reduce the likelihood for victimization, sex workers need basic legal and personal protection.

The third section explores the levels of assistances and protections that exist to prevent sex workers becoming victims. Finally, the paper concludes that all sex workers are potential to be victims, although they varied in the way they enter the sex industry.

Perceptions of Sex Workers as Victims

This section discusses the different perceptions among governments and feminists in viewing sex workers as victims. Both perceptions are relevant in observing two sides of sex workers, they are only different on the emphasis of their perception.

The first perception which scrutinizes sex workers as victims comes from governments who have agendas on abolition of prostitution and anti-trafficking policy, and radical feminists who suggest that sexuality is used to dominate and oppress women.

The government argues that sex workers are victims that should be rescued. The U.S. government, for example, has dispersed $300 million over the past four years to international and domestic NGOs to “rescue” victims. The anti-trafficking campaign has become big business.

Also, the developments in U.S. law and government policy, such as releasing the State Department’s Annual Trafficking in Persons Reports and the End Demand for Sex Trafficking Act of 2005 shows that the issue has been institutionalized. As opposed to the objective of rescuing sex workers, other investigations find that many of the rescued women eventually return to sex work.

However, I argue that sex workers return to the industry because they do not want to go back to the poor condition in their countries which is not better than their condition in the sex industry.

Also, because most of the workers are unlikely to be open about working in the sex industry, even with their family, it is better for them to keep staying in the industry.

Additionally, in some cases, sex workers return to the sex industry because they still have to earn income to pay off a debt as part of bonded practices.

The perception of sex workers as victims of exploitation and violence is asserted by the radical feminists. Sex workers are victims who lack agency, because they do not actively make choices to enter or remain in prostitution. They argue for domestic and international law that makes no distinction between forced and ‘free’ prostitution, between rape and consensual sex work in return for money.

Moreover, there is a claim on moral crusade against prostitution which has been waged by an alliance of the Christian right and radical feminists.

The second perception comes from governments who legalize prostitution as well as sex work and liberal feminists. These governments assert that victimization can be prevented by legalizing prostitution, because it may help reduce trafficking due to greater government oversight of the legal sector, rather than being a magnet for sex traffickers.

For example, in some Canadian municipalities, certain forms of sex work such as escort services, exotic dance and massage parlors, are regulated by municipal licensing and zoning policies. Also, women working in legal prostitution in the Netherlands experience very little violence and legal brothels in Queensland Australia provide a sustainable model for a healthy, crime-free, and safe legal licensed brothel industry.

However, I argue that legalization does not always effectively prevent the victimization of sex workers. In Canada, for example, licensing does not necessarily bring potential benefits for escorts and agency owners, because “it is a way to increase the money in police and municipal offers and it facilitates police harassment”.

Meanwhile, sex work and liberal feminists argue that prostitution should be regarded as job. Sex workers are not victims but survivors. The labels ‘victim’ and ‘survivors’ of trafficking have undoubtedly promoted greater public awareness and consequently led to a greater focus on protection.

They also argue that criminalizing the migrants and the sex industry only “forces them underground, making them more difficult to reach with appropriate services and increasing the likelihood of exploitation.” (Continued to part 2..)

©athiqahnuralami.wordpress.com, 2010.

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