The mission of our organisation, the Rights Reporter Foundation, is to advocate for the human rights of vulnerable groups, such as drug users and sex workers, mainly by educating the public with online articles and videos. We were therefore delighted to accept an invitation from Budapest Pride to participate in the video team aiming to document possible human rights abuses, at this year’s march on the 2nd of July. Unfortunately, our joy was not long-lasting. We were told that Pride organisers had excluded from the official program a workshop on sex work, organised by the Hungarian Association of Sex Workers and Transvanilla Transgender Association. According to Pride organisers, this workshop presents a threat to Budapest Pride, because it suggests that sex work can be a voluntary job while it is in fact an institution based on patriarchal oppression.
We were not at all happy with these arguments, and resigned from participation in the video documentation team.
Even if we were to consider each and every sex worker to be a victim of violence and exploitation, engaged in this work because they are forced to do so, it is absurd to refuse to listen to their own experiences from their own viewpoint. Homelessness is largely driven by social exploitation – but we would never exclude homeless people from the public discourse, even if they do not consider themselves victims. It is a very paternalistic approach, to force sex workers to accept the role of powerless victim, and inevitably leads to further stigmatisation. Is it ethical to deny the most affected people the right to speak, simply because we believe they don’t see their situation appropriately? You can come to the workshop and debate their positions, you can attempt to give voice to underrepresented groups among those affected, you can make other perspectives visible by allowing other groups to organise workshops – but you cannot legitimately question the authenticity of their experiences and deny them the opportunity of speaking.
The other argument from the organisers – that they would only consent to a workshop represnting multiple viewpoints – is equally weak. Last year, they allowed a panel on feminist perspectives of sex work – incorporating exclusively abolitionist academics, with no representation of sex workers whatsoever. If we take seriously the “nothing about us without us” principle, it is just as unacceptable not to invite any sex workers to a workshop on sex work, as it would be to organise a conference on women’s rights and refuse to invite any women to take part.
Sex workers played a key role in the origins of the Pride movement, when transgender sex workers rioted against the police in 1969, to protest against violent abuse. According to some accounts, the first brick was thrown by a Latino transgender sex worker, Sylvia Rivera, who later established STAR (Street Transgender Action Revolutionaries) and contributed to the LGBTI civil rights movement in the 70s. The movement for the rights of LGBTI people and the movement for the rights of sex worker are inseparably intertwined.
The same principles stand at the heart of both movements: the right of the individual to sexual self-determination, the right to an undisturbed private life, including in the bedroom, and freedom from discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Young LGBTI people are often affected disproportionally by homelessness, poverty, unemployment and social exclusion, more than their cis/hetero peers, causing many to seek employment in the sex industry. A significant number of transgender people are sex workers, and the vast majority of transphobic murders are committed against transgender sex workers. If we fail to listen to sex workers, we exclude a significant part of transgender people from the public discourse on their own destiny.
This is not to deny that social injustice is often manifest in this field – sex workers are subject to many forms of exploitation and abuse. This does not, however, mean that most sex workers are incapable victims of human trafficking, unwitting, un-self-aware products to be bought or sold. Sex workers often fall victim to double stigma and abuse, precisely because society stigmatises and the state criminalises the consensual exchange of sexual services, and makes no distinction between human trafficking and sex work. The customers of the Stonewall bar weren’t just rioting against the discrimination targeting LGBTI people – but also against this patronising attitude to sex work.
Article: Peter Sarosi
Video: Istvan Gabor Takacs