NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–In Union Square here, three members of the Sex Workers Outreach Project stood poised, in black underwear and with red ribbons binding their wrists and mouths, for 86 minutes.
At the tick of 86 minutes and 59 seconds, they untied the ribbons, erased the red targets drawn on their bodies–signifying targets for violence–and cheered for the U.S. approved-U.N. resolution that could change laws and foreign policies that target sex workers.
"We are hoping that this will be the beginning of a dialogue with the State Department about what the federal government will do to address human rights abuses against sex workers and to our knowledge, it is the first time this has really happened," Sienna Baskin, co-director of the New York-based Sex Workers Project, later told Women’s eNews in a phone interview.
The performance art demonstration took place on March 18, eight days after the United States accepted the U.N. Human Rights Council’s Recommendation No. 86 to "ensure access to public services paying attention to the special vulnerability of sexual workers to violence and human rights abuses."
The U.S. State Department’s affirmative response to the recommendation–one of the 228 put forth by countries during a peer-led review of countries’ human rights records every four years–may mark a monumental shift toward protecting sex workers’ human rights.
That’s what many sex workers are hoping.
Making the Distinction
One way the resolution does that, says Carol Leigh, founder of the San Francisco-based sex worker rights organization COYOTE, is by making a distinction between people such as herself who choose sex work and those who get forced into it by traffickers.
"It talks about sex workers as a community as divorced from persons who have been trafficked, and that is a very exciting development," Leigh told Women’s eNews in a phone interview.
But the extent to which anti-trafficking activists applauded the State Department’s acceptance of the resolution depends on how legal and "out of the shadows" this field can or should be.
One group, including sex workers such as Leigh, is pushing for safer conditions on the ground that will make it easier to detect people who are coerced into transactional sex.
Many anti-trafficking activists, however, oppose all prostitution and make a combination of socially-conservative and feminist arguments to support their stance. For them the resolution is a political setback.
Melissa Farley, founder of the nonprofit organization Prostitution, Research and Education, expressed the dissatisfaction of many anti-prostitution activists toward the resolution.
"I think there is a belief by some that if you treat women in prostitution with respect then everything will get better," said Farley. "There is no evidence that changing laws or adopting recommendations will change the behavior of ‘johns’ [the slang term for a purchaser of sexual services]."
Potential for Positive Change
But for Kate D’Adamo, a community organizer for the New York City chapter of the national social justice network Sex Workers Outreach Project, or SWOP, the resolution represents the possibility of tremendous and positive change. (This national social justice group is different from the Sex Workers Project, which is a project of the Urban Justice Center.)
"Eighty-six is a massive step forward," D’Adamo said. "We need to address violence against sex workers and their ability to access services."
D’Adamo said the recommendation is likely to establish better channels of communication between the sex worker activist community and the U.S. government.
She said that a coalition of groups called Human Rights for All has formed in the wake of Resolution 86 to draft specific policy recommendations to give the resolution real-world shape.
One recommendation is to train law enforcers on how to sensitively respond to sex workers’ abuse claims. Another is to repeal laws that target sex workers, such as removing the "anti-prostitution pledge" requirements for the U.S. Global AIDS Act, which only allows U.S. funding for HIV-AIDS programs to go to groups or organizations that actively oppose sex work and sex trafficking.
The resolution alone won’t guarantee sex workers get better access to health care or create safer working conditions, D’Adamo said.
"But it’s just the beginning," she said. "And when I talk to sex workers… it’s made the goals a little more tangible, a little more reachable. Which is, realistically, a victory in itself."
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Amy Lieberman is a correspondent at the United Nations headquarters and a freelance writer in New York City.
The funding for Women’s eNews’ coverage of sex trafficking has been made possible through the generosity of the Embrey Family Foundation and The Body Shop.
For more information:
Human Rights For All: Concerned Advocates for the Rights of Sex Workers and People in the Sex Trade (HRA):
The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women-International:
Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women:
Sex Workers Outreach Project-USA:
Prostitution Research & Education: