Sex Workers Protest Discrimination on the World Stage

Photo Courtesy of the Global Network of Sex Work Projects

As you all may know (because we like to talk your ear off about it here on Feministing), the United States currently endorses an explicitly discriminatory policy against sex workers, via PEPFAR, our international HIV/AIDS aid policy that contains an anti-prostitution pledge requirement. This requirement states that no funds “may be used to provide assistance to any group or organization that does not have a policy explicitly opposing prostitution and sex trafficking” which basically means that life-saving materials like condoms, contraceptives, and even information about sex and sexuality can’t legally be distributed to sex workers by any international agencies that accept US funding (domestic agencies have to make no such pledge, although prostitution is obviously not legal in most of the US).

Messed up, right?

Senseless discrimination usually is.

But you’re not the only one who thinks so. Last week, policymakers, diplomats, activists, members of the media, and many more gathered in Vienna for the 2010 International AIDS Conference, and activists were there, protesting this dangerous and unjust policy in a way that the most high-ranking diplomats and representatives could NOT ignore.

More after the jump.

As reported and organized in part by the Global Network of Sex Work Projects, last week’s conference saw the largest delegation of sex workers ever in attendance. While members of this delegation participated in a wide range of activities, one of the most powerful was a lively and loud demonstration against the anti-prostitution pledge during a speech by United States Global AIDS Coordinator Dr. Eric Goosby.

From the press release and blog of the Global Network of Sex Work Projects:

On Tuesday, July 20th, NSWP organized sex workers and allies to disrupt a speech by United States Global AIDS Coordinator Dr. Eric Goosby to demand justice for sex workers harmed by PEPFAR’s discriminatory anti-prostitution loyalty oath.

The blog of the Global Network of Sex Work Projects features several testimonies really get at the significance of such a strong visible display against the harmful policy:

”Penninah Mwangi from the Bar Hostess Program in Kenya ( and the African Sex Workers Alliance (ASWA) was denied funding for HIV prevention and care because the organisation refused to sign. “PEPFAR discriminates against sex workers and prevents us from organizing our communities for the prevention and treatment of HIV,” said Mwangi. “The people making these decisions know nothing about the realities of sex workers in Kenya, yet they make decisions about our lives.”

I also really loved this testimony from Cheryl Overs, an activist affiliated with the Paulo Longo Research Institute, Asia and the Pacific Region:

“On Tuesday, July 20 sex workers’ rights activists marched through the IAC conference centre to protest the PEPFAR Anti Prostitution Pledge at a session at which was to be a presenter. Eric Goosby cancelled his speech to avoid the sex workers and instead held a press conference in the media centre. Sex worker activists followed him there, where we loudly accused him of murdering sex workers and preventing the crucial funding for sex workers. Everyone was upset and challenging him to be responsible and support human rights for all. I sat on the table with my red umbrella and screamed that he was a murderer, and everyone was chanting “SHAME SHAME SHAME!!!!” He tried to escape and fell from his chair, and then he was helped to his feet by security and escorted out. The media stayed in the room and sex workers were venting their issues of concern. For example, in Uganda the only funding is for rehabilitation and there is NO money for condoms. In Kenya there is no funding for necessary sex worker support services, only rehabilitation. All who receive money from USAID’s PEPFAR fund have to sign an anti-prostitution loyalty oath. We left chanting, “sex workers united will never be defeated!!! PEPFAR kills sex workers!!!”

I support the efforts of these brave activists and would like to add my voice to the growing chorus of those internationally outraged by the senseless discrimination inherent to the US anti-prostitution pledge.

Click here to read the press release with the official list of demands. To stay updated on this and related issues, follow the Global Network of Sex Work Projects on Twitter.

Brooklyn, NY

Lori Adelman is Executive Director of Partnerships at Feministing, where she enjoys creating and curating content on gender, race, class, technology, and the media. Lori is also an advocacy and communications professional specializing in sexual and reproductive rights and health, and currently works in the Global Division of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. A graduate of Harvard University, she lives in Brooklyn.

Lori Adelman is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Partnerships.

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Join the Conversation

  • Janelle

    From a question and answer session with Amb. Goosby of PEPFAR on PlusNews Global:

    Q: Why has PEPFAR maintained the so-called “anti-prostitution pledge” that effectively leaves sex workers – a high risk group for HIV – out of PEPFAR’s programmes?

    A: What the clause really was focused on was to ensure that PEPFAR did not fund organizations involved in trying to legalize prostitution and traffic women into prostitution. We have changed it so an organization doesn’t have to sign [a separate document pledging to oppose sex work and sex-trafficking]; we have folded in an agreement that the [beneficiary] organization will not traffic women into prostitution – there is no separate document.

    If someone feels they were excluded or dropped put of care for [being a sex worker], we would get on that like a laserPEPFAR has not de-funded any programme on the planet for these reasons. We want to care for every sex worker out there. If a sex worker comes into any of our facilities, that person will be embraced and followed for the duration of their life on antiretrovirals.

    If there are examples of anybody being turned away [for being a sex worker], if someone feels that they were excluded from or dropped out of care for those reasons, we would get on that like a laser.

  • black south

    I agree 100% that our aids policy should include condoms and any other form of protection and healthcare for all, without any religious bias on our side.

    But the sense of entitlement in this post, and expressed by the sex workers and other protesters is unbelievable. While blame can be put at our feet for many problems around the world, the HIV epidemic is not one of them. And whatever funding we give, well it is ours to give. And we have given our fair share.

    2009 USA GDP- 24.6%
    2009 USA Donor Share- 26.9%

    PEPFAR finances between 40% and 95% of Aids treatment response in Sub-Sahara Africa and 50% of total global health spending (

    Instead of demanding that the US change its policies on this one issue, how about these sex worker organizations ask their own politicians to change their policies? If they find that they cannot effectively work under our terms, how about they find funding elsewhere?

    Of course that’s not going to happen. Because contrary to the poster that woman is carrying, PEPFAR does not kill sex workers, and there would be no one stepping up to the plate to fund the Aids healthcare programs in Africa and around the world if our share was to disappear.

    And yes, I understand that an effective HIV policy must include sex worker organizations. I am not arguing against that. But there are organizations here in the US (Republicans, Christian groups) who would do everything they can to prevent that.

    My point is simply that you and protesters rid yourselves of this distracting sense of entitlement, and end the senseless attacks on PEPFAR, which is our best option in our political and cultural climate, and is doing a lot more good under Obama.

  • makomk

    Unsurprisingly, there seems to be a fair chunk of UK involvement in this; there are some fairly major sex worker activist groups here. Even more unsurprisingly, the only really big UK feminist blog has not a single mention of it, just like with most other sex worker rights issues. Now, attacking the idea of sex worker’s rights, of the term sex worker itself, and even non-judgemental provision of health services to sex workers – that’s A-OK. As is supporting organizations like the Poppy Project in pushing for laws that sex workers feel endanger their safety. How about directing readers to UK Feminista, a group that claims to represent all UK feminism but has no space for sex workers’ rights groups (more in the comments here). Note that this claim has gone largely unchallenged!

    In short, sex workers may have many allies in mainstream feminism in the US, but that isn’t necessarily true elsewhere. In some countries, including the UK, it mostly sides against them and with things like PEPFAR. That’s a problem, because some of these feminist groups are long-established and have real power and funding. (Not quite as much as they’d have liked here, in the end. Their anti-trafficking law was eventually watered down so that it only covered the use of force or coercion, from an original definition that I suspect could’ve even made paying for sex with someone like Belle de Jour a crime. The attempts to stop sex workers talking to the Government worked for a while, but failed eventually.)

    Side note: the official F-Word position is that they have no official position on anything and so are beyond criticism – all opinions are those of the poster – but of course the choice of what posts to solicit and accept and who to write them matters too. Also, even if the F-Word are willing to accept posts from sex worker activists, who’d want to write them given the people in the comments erasing and attacking the experiences of sex workers who aren’t basically slaves, or calling for prostitution to be driven underground in order to protect normal women from its corrupting influence on men (endangering the workers in the process). How much can you do to challenge these attitudes when the rest of the commenters and even the site owner Jess McCabe don’t see anything wrong?

  • Norma Ramos

    To refer to the Prostitution Pledge as “senseless discrimination” displays a basic lack of understanding of what lies at the heart of this policy. The prostitution pledge recognizes prostitution is the world’s oldest oppression. Calling it “sex work,” an sex industry created term that is designed to erase the reality of prostitution does not change this fact. The vast majority of women and girls found in prostitution are not there by choice. It is lack of choice that drives the horrific circumstances that they find themselves in — which includes most often conditions such as poverty, gender inequality and racism. In fact, the Asian Women’s Network passed a resolution that states that to support prostitution is to support racism since the vast majority of the prostituted are women of color.

    Referring to prostitution as “sex work” leaves men’s so-called right to sexually exploit women and girls intact. It ignores the most important factor in fueling the spread of HIV/AIDS through the commercial sex industry—men’s demand for prostituted women and children. In order to achieve gender equality and equal participation in decision-making, the demand side of prostitution must be addressed and curtailed through the criminalization and prosecution of traffickers, pimps and buyers. This is critical as global demand has fueled the trafficking of women and children into commercial sexual exploitation.

    This barrier to women’s equality is further heightened by legalization of prostitution, which exacerbates the widespread sexual abuse of women and girls by increasing the demand for prostituted women and girls, and thus fueling sex trafficking. Rather than recognizing women’s skills and contributions to society, legalization effectively normalizes prostitution and pornography. Legalization policies fail to recognize that prostituted women’s and girls’ lack of negotiating power coupled with the violence that is inherent in prostitution increases women’s vulnerability to contracting HIV/AIDS.

    The way forward on this issue is to support the Swedish approach to ending commercial sexual exploitation of women and girls. First, they recognize that prostitution is in fact violence against women and a significant barrier to achieving equality for women. Secondly, to criminalize the purchase of sex sending a message to men that women and girls are human beings and therefore cannot be bought or sold. This is a human rights-based approach, not one rooted in a Disneyesque fantasy of prostitution which ignores its violent and dehumanizing nature. Norma Ramos, Executive Director, CATW

  • Kristen

    I agree that distributing condoms, contraceptives and information about sex and sexuality is vital to protecting those exploited in prostitution, but it is erroneous to assume that the PEPFAR policy prevents the distribution of these life-saving materials or that its policy under the clause on prostitution harms people in the commercial sex industry. As noted by Amb. Goosby’s quote in Janelle’s comment, the clause was included to prevent PEPFAR funding from going to organizations involved in deliberately trying to legalize prostitution or turning a blind eye to the sex trafficking of women and girls.

    We partner with grassroots organizations around the world who work with survivors of sex trafficking and all agree that that it is absolutely possible, even critical, to conduct harm reduction efforts (including the distribution of condoms and contraceptives) and the provision of comprehensive services with an ultimate goal of harm elimination. Opposing the industry of prostitution as one that causes myriad harms and human rights violations against women is standing in solidarity with those who are exploited in it. Collectively, we need to put pressure on governments and others to provide women and girls with viable educational and economic opportunities, not perpetuate their stigmatization. For more on this approach see Ruchira Gupta’s (of Apne Aap) comments (

    posted on behalf of Equality Now

    • makomk

      Collectively, we need to put pressure on governments and others to provide women and girls with viable educational and economic opportunities, not perpetuate their stigmatization.

      Nice sentiment, but this seems to be more something offered up as a defense of anti-sex work activism than actually done. For example, the next comment up from you – and many feminist organisations – want the Swedish model in which prostitution is effectively illegal. That doesn’t give any more economic choices to women – if anything, it takes choices away – and indeed quite a few anti-captialist feminists are strongly opposed to it for that reason. Yet for some reason the lack of better economic options for women is supposed to justify this!

      (Not just that, but think about which economic choices are being taken away. For example, if a woman has the choice between $20,000 a year for working full time in retail or part-time prostitution earning slightly more, and you take the latter away, then the only choice is working in retail. Which, because retail stores are capital intensive, necessarily means that they have to be working for the direct financial benefit of the capital-owning class and under their control. This is interesting implications. You may be aware that the ECP opposes brothel-based legalisation, which is also quite common, and this does directly financially benefit the capital-owning class.)

  • Pingback: NSWP: Global Network of Sex Work Projects

  • Sina

    @Black south, yeah who do those arrogant twats think they are, demanding not to be discriminated against!

    @Norma , what does opposing prostitution mean? Especially since it’s from the U.S, I doubt they think of the swedish model, but more of total criminalization. It doesn’t take much thinking why that is the worst case for sex workers. Are us-organizations in favor of at least partly legalizing it like in sweden also shut out? If so, then this clause indeed does harm sex workers.

    “Referring to prostitution as “sex work” leaves men’s so-called right to sexually exploit women and girls intact.”

    There is no right to exploit anyone. But there’s the right that a person can do with her body what she wishes.

    “Legalization policies fail to recognize that prostituted women’s and girls’ lack of negotiating power coupled with the violence that is inherent in prostitution”

    When sex work is legalized there is a chance to improve the negotiating power and tackle the actual violence instead of just lumping all prostitution together as “violence”. Sex for money is in itself not violence. If you call that violence- without any coercion- then you trivialize the pain of real victims.

    “sending a message to men that women and girls are human beings and therefore cannot be bought or sold.”

    There I completely agree, human beings can’t be sold. What you still don’t seem to understand is that that there is a huge difference between selling a service and slavery. Yes, there is in some cases trafficking an coercion involved, but there’s a movement inside the sex industry. More and more women do it in a self-concious, self-respecting way- that’s why sex work is a more accurate term.