Mat Southwell gives us his impressions of CLAT 5, the Latin European Harm Reduction Conference. Here he talks to the sex workers and finds some fascinating views and more common ground.
Only Rights will Right the Wrongs -Sex Workers & Junkies Network in Porto
When Erin and I were at the UNAIDS PCB we networked with other community organisations. Organisations of men who have sex with men and people living with HIV/AIDS have organisations which they own and control. However, the situation with sex workers is much less clear. Networks of sex workers include both professionals and sex workers. Sex workers don’t have strong organisations and this creates a climate within which professionals often speak ‘on behalf’ of sex workers.
I was therefore pleased to attend a session at the CLAT conference to hear Pye Jakobson from Rose Alliance in Stockholm speak from a sex workers organisation. Pye described her own journey into sex work and also presented the views of other sex workers who she had interviewed (see PowerPoint Presentation in file store). Her survey, in and of itself, challenged the view that it was impossible to capture the views of sex workers, which legitimises professionals speaking on their behalf.
I was very struck by the parallel struggles of our two communities. Like us, sex workers struggle to make their own unique voices heard above those of the professionals who seek to ‘represent’ them. The lack of self-determination among sex workers and the pattern of professionals speaking on their behalf, leaves sex workers feeling alienated from international advocacy processes. It makes me appreciate the hard fought for progress that we have made with our professional partners in the harm reduction movement.
Additionally, struggles for sex workers is to liberate themselves from the imposition of a victim identity. I was impressed by Pye’s ability to describe the human rights abuses faced by sex workers while still rejecting the victim identity. This is particularly challenging given the current debates around the ‘trafficking‘ of women to take part in the sex trade. This provides an avenue for professionals to assert that sex workers are really victims after all. Once again, I was saw parallels with our community’s experience. In the UK, we are facing problems with Vietnamese gangs bringing in child migrants to work as effective slaves in the houses that are converted into mini-cannabis growing centres. As an older cannabis smoker, I have the choice to source my cannabis from dealers who buy whole crops so they can control the production qualities. However, this is not a choice open to many cannabis users and we once again face the discomfort of buying drugs that fund organised crime and their inhumane practices. However, the ‘trafficking’ problem is created by prohibition in both cases even if the people who use drugs or sell sex are blamed or framed as victims.
Interestingly, sex workers also struggle with the sense of community. The term ‘sex work‘ covers prostitution, stripping, sex call centre workers, porn actors etc and the different groups have varying levels of comfort with the term sex worker. Many groups fear being viewed as prostitutes who are seen as the lowest class of sex workers. The parallels with the internal discourse between different groups of people who use drugs is clear.
I went out for dinner with Pye, an academic ally called Laura Agustin who has written a book looking as the ‘rescuing industry‘. Laura has some interesting and challenging views about the process of helping and rescuing. She asks professionals to reflect on what they get out of their role as ‘helpers’ and challenges the view that only the ‘helped’ gain from the rescuing industry.
Also with us were Satxa Rossello and Jordi Parramon from Plataforma Drogologica which is a coalition of drug users organisations in Barcelona. This includes ASUT, APDO, FAUDAS, AUPAM, and ASUT ORENSE. It was fascinating talking about the different ways our communities are perceived and our networks operate.
We all spent time discussing the challenges of promoting work between sex worker and drug user organisations. We both acknowledged the difficulties of taking up each others agendas because we already face enough stigma of our own. As such, issues for sex workers who use drugs can get missed and people affected by both issues can feel unclear whether they are welcome in either network.
In a great piece of synchronicity, Pye had been at the Swedish Drug User Union Conference (see earlier blogs from Erin) and the Rose Alliance has recently formed an alliance with Svenskabrukarforeningen. In fact, the last meeting that Pye had had in Stockholm was with Kikki from the Swedish Drug Users Union. This is clearly the beginning of a conversation between two marginalised communities fighting for our respective voices to be heard.
If you’d like to read more about Laura’s Agustin’s Book, Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry, you’ll find it on Laura’s blog, which she writes as a lifelong migrant and sometime worker in both nongovernmental and academic projects about sex, travel and work. (click here).