I don’t normally deal with sex work here, instead preferring to stick to areas somewhat closer to home. But, since I dumped on someone else’s laudable intentions to help sex workers in Cambodia recently, perhaps I’m due. Much more importantly, Cambodia Sex Workers took collective action the other day, in a courageous way that I hope foreshadows the future.
One of my constant frustrations in talking to Americans about Cambodia is the ubiquity of two particular stereotypes: First, that Cambodia is a land of trauma and skulls, and Second, that Cambodia is a land of ubiquitous sex for sale, especially sex with children.
Of course, there’s a fair amount of truth in both statements: Cambodia has, and continues, to experience a massive amount of trauma (of course, the secondary issue there is that the continuing and contemporary traumas receive almost no attention compared to historical traumas). Cambodia also has a booming and predatory sex work industry.
So, whenever I see stories like that from Kate Hardy on Sex Workers uniting in Cambodia to protest the recent police crackdowns, I’m thrilled. The United States has recently upgraded the Human Trafficking status of Cambodia for the first time since 2006, due to a massive and unrestrained police crackdown.
As is usual in such social policing, the people rounded up by the police were not the profiteers and organizers of the industry (pimps, enforcers, protectors), but the workers – the sex workers. They have been rounded up, beaten, raped, and even tortured as a result of this recent wave of policing. As a result, they united in protest. Here’s a quote from Kate Hardy’s blog:
Not only is this affecting the right to coporeal self-determination by the workers and their ability to earn a livelihood, but is also having a profound impact on health. HIV positive sex workers are having difficulty accessing anti-retroviral drugs, condoms are being used as evidence of sex work and many are afraid to access STI services. Andrew Hunter from the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers (APNSW), one of the organisations condemning the crackdown, additionally claims that ‘national HIV prevention programs for sex workers have completely broken down’.
However, in the face of all this violence and repression, sex workers’ organisations are not sitting down. Three grass-roots sex workers’ oprganisations, The Women’s Network for Unity, Cambodian Prostitutes Union and Cambodian Network for Men’s and Women’s Development, alongside the APNSW organised a day of action. Over two hundred sex workers protested, using role play, speech and video evidence to demonstrate the brutality and misery that the new law is causing
So why am I so pleased with this? It is not because I am in favor of legalized prostitution (I’m not against it), nor because I want to encourage sex for sale. Nope, it’s all about returning the power to the people who produce it. If sex work exists, it exists for a reason supported somehow by current circumstances. We can be as utopian as we want, but sex work will continue.
If that’s a given, then why not try to empower the sex workers, instead of their johns and pimps? My union, The Industrial Workers of the World, which occasionally receives a plug here, has long held that sex workers should organize effectively to protect themselves against violence, unsafe conditions, and the predatory behavior of pimps, johns, and police. Here’s a link to that Industrial Union, (690), and an embedded video from the Erotic Service Provider’s Union in San Francisco.