Pandemics and Sex Work



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Women sex workers are trained to tackle the conditions and consequences of a pandemic-like scenario. We have learned to take care of and stand by each other and now that we are facing the global crisis unleashed by COVID-19, we are building on that experience to understand the specificities of this phenomenon and to design prevention tools so we can continue doing what we have been doing for decades: surviving one more pandemic. Our life-long experience with the pandemic of stigma and discrimination has trained us to survive this new one.

By the end of the last century – and on a global scale, just as in a pandemic ¬– those of us who dared to frame the provision of sexual services as work had to face rejection and discrimination based on an invocation of morals – a common reaction to anything related to sexuality.

Nobody questions the provision of services but when the tools of doing it are our genitalia, patriarchal discourses about the sacredness of women – who by the same call are forbidden pleasure and autonomy – emerge. These are the same discourses that restrict our social and sexual roles to reproduction and motherhood.

But they are not the only ones. There are others who say that we should not allow ourselves to be exploited by an oppressive system that commodifies bodies. Even though many of us would agree with that, we need to challenge that assumption because it was the same argument deployed by anarchist labour activists at the end of the 19th century who claimed that creating unions implied validating capitalist exploitation. If that position had prevailed, probably today we would have had a world without unions. This is why we affirm that the lack of recognition of women who are sex workers not only exposes us to exploitation but also deprives us of the capacity to effectively stop abuse by having access to the same rights that other workers do.

We agree on the need to fight for a change in power relations but in the meantime we need, and are entitled to, access to public policies that allow us a better quality of life.

Long before COVID-19 and HIV appeared, we were already facing a violent pandemic of exclusion that unfortunately cannot be resolved in a chemistry laboratory, by a pharmaceutical company, by staying in isolation, or by developing antibodies. It can only be addressed at the cultural and social level, multiplying the minds that are open to understanding, dialogue, discussion and respect for diversity.

We need to be challenged by decolonial and post-patriarchal visions of the world and allow ourselves to ask if there is a need for academic and bureaucratic mandates that tell us what is right and wrong. We don’t think so.

What we need is a feminist world vision that dismantles practices that today condemn us to the virus of marginalisation, manufactured by mafias that are complicit with politicians, and court and security officers.

That feminist world needs to stop questioning those who manage to separate sex from love. One of the main questions it poses for us is how can we have sex with strangers – well, we are working, not courting. This is an anachronistic mandate that restricts how women experience our sexuality even today.

We have always been the first to condemn the trafficking of persons and will continue abhorring it. This is exactly why we beg feminists to stop creating situations that are used by mafias to take advantage of our need to work and to “provide us protection”, contributing to the conflation of our autonomous work with the trafficking of persons and to its dire consequences.

Since 2010 this conflation and confusion has been reinforced through laws drafted and amended. As a consequence, many people who wanted to leave the brothels and/or stop paying bribes to be able to work (autonomously) were targeted by violent and movie-like police operations whose only outcome was to criminalize women sex workers who had created work cooperatives or who had collectively rented a flat where they worked and lived and shared its expenses. The answer is right there for everyone who wants to see it: often those organizing and pushing for these operations are the same people who would miss a very profitable income in bribes if women sex workers organized and worked autonomously.

People who self-identify as women sex workers are a minority but that should never be a reason to deny our rights. We are aware of how it is to fight a pandemic that has been entrenched in our culture for millennia. The moment we move one step forward, we face opponents who force us back two steps. Even though some of those opponents are shockingly violent to us, we don’t see them as enemies. We regret that they often resort to false arguments and personal attacks, and that only exposes how instrumental they are in a hierarchical, elitist and patriarchal model in which only the Enlightened ones can decide what is right and wrong.

For all these reasons and building on the decades of accumulated training, our movement is developing COVID-19 protection tools, as we did in due course for HIV and STDs, while at the same time, we continue working and hoping that society as a whole will understand that the most violent pandemic we need to eradicate from our communities is that of stigma and discrimination.

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