Response to Feminists might learn a trick or two from Sex Workers

Agreeing with Meena Seshu’s ideas, I’d like to reflect on a related issue: how is it that the (feminist) notion about sex work as symbolizing the exploitation of womanhood, and the conflation between sex work and sex trafficking has spread globally? Since the mid-2000s, researchers from various parts of the world, including myself, converged around the following issue: the debate about human trafficking, using a human rights protection discourse, tends to stimulate actions that contribute to repressing migration and fighting prostitution. This happens in countries with different migratory policies, population flows, legal models related to prostitution, and with different histories of feminism.

In Brazil, for instance, while debates regarding the “sex wars” raged on in the English-speaking world, the feminist movement here was engaged with other topics. During the 1970s and the first half of the 1980s Brazilian feminism concentrated on the struggle against the country’s dictatorship, on combating domestic violence and, later, on reproductive rights. Prostitution was not a central issue, but it received some attention, generating ambivalence regarding the commercialization of sex, but also arising in new perceptions about sexuality.

In the Brazilian context, the idea of sex work as the extreme exploitation of womanhood gained strength later, and by the end of the 1990s it was associated with the expansion of the anti-trafficking debate which by and large ignored Brazilian sex workers’ organizations. In the feminist universe, this expansion was intimately connected to the enlargement of transnational feminist networks. Yet, these feminist ideas are not “responsible” for the paths followed in anti-trafficking policies in Brazil. In this country, an array of different interests has capitalized on feminist discourses in order to develop anti-trafficking agendas that do not consider sex workers’ interests at all.

However, convincing feminists to pay attention to sex workers’ voices regarding what they, in fact, perceive as violence, would be a relevant step in avoiding the conflation between sex work and trafficking in policies that, using a feminist approach, restrict female migrants’, including sex workers’, rights.

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