The letter below is a draft copy which will be sent to the UN and the Council of Europe soon. In the meantime it will be displayed here so that as many women as want to sign on to it will be free to do so. All women who have been harmed in systems of prostitution are welcomed and encouraged to sign, regardless whether or not they are publicly ‘out’ as survivors, regardless where they come from or how they identify in terms of being prostituted and/or or sex-trafficked.
Draft Letter from Sex-Trade Survivors to the United Nations and the Council of Europe.
We, the sex-trade survivors who undersign this document, do so in defiance of the misled notion that prostitution and sex-trafficking are fundamentally different. They are not, and we would know, since some of us are survivors of prostitution, some of sex-trafficking, and some, crucially, of both. Many of us whose experiences fit the term ‘prostitution’ were exploited alongside those of us whose experiences fit the term ‘sex-trafficking’, both on the streets and in the brothels. There are also those among us who were first exploited into prostitution via sex-trafficking and then, afterwards, in what is commonly and erroneously known as ‘free’ prostitution.
In your position as lawmakers who are considering proposals to decriminalise prostitution, you must weigh up whether or not to facilitate the normalisation of prostituted sex as work. We know that it is not; we know that it is compensated sexual abuse. We ask, in this public letter, that you, in the United Nations and the Council of Europe, will first consider and then understand the true nature of what happens to women and girls in the sex-trade. Some are prostituted directly through the tight constraints of life circumstances, often fooled into believing the sex-trade offers some sort of autonomy or escape. Others are duped in a much more physically coercive fashion; but a woman who has been sex-trafficked is ultimately prostituted also, since prostitution is the end-point of sex-trafficking.
Prostitution and sex-trafficking are intrinsically linked. They always have been and as long as the world accepts the oppression of prostitution they always will be, since sex-trafficking is simply a consequence of that system. It is simply a form of overt coercion that responds to the male demand for paid sex. The demand for prostitution is the reason why sex-trafficking happens and the brothels of prostitution are the places where sex-trafficking culminates. We prostituted and sex-trafficked women and girls exist alongside each other and are exploited alongside each other, and we are not people who you can simply categorise into the free and the forced. Our freedoms were curtailed differently, for sure, but please desist in the belief that our oppression itself is different. We do not claim, as you do, that our experiences are different – we assert that, in the most important way, they are the same – and we have the right to make that assertion since we have lived what you are discussing. When you recommend legislating in a way that divides us, you ignore us, and we are no longer prepared to be ignored.
Some of your public statements have bought into and propped up the false assumption that those of us who’ve been prostituted through the traditional routes of poverty and destitution cannot be compared with those of us who’ve been prostituted through the route of sex-trafficking. You are wrong. Please accept that you have made the natural human error of being wrong; and please remember, above all, that not all chains are visible, or tangible, and that sometimes the bonds that bind us most tightly are not discernible to the human eye at all.
Let us assure you that the people who profit from the sex-trade do not fit into neat little boxes any more than the people they exploit, and that many of them act both as ‘pimp’ and ‘trafficker’ at the same time. Let us assure you also that the men who pay for the sex of prostitution use trafficked and prostituted women and girls interchangeably, and, not seeing females as fully human in the first place, they do not care about the circumstances of the ‘bodies’ they exploit.
A second but very much related issue we want to raise here is your use of the term ‘sex work’. For a very long time, those in the United Nations, the Council of Europe and elsewhere have heard exclusively from those who term the abuse we have lived as ‘sex work’. We assert that there is no ‘sex work’; that sex is not work, that it never was and never will be.
Please be aware that the term ‘sex work’, which is found in your public policies and documents, came out of the US sex trade of the 1970’s. It was invented with the particular aim of normalising and sanitising prostitution for the public and for lawmakers in particular, and you have done a great service for those who profit from prostitution by your acceptance and adoption of it. Simultaneously you have also – inadvertently, we acknowledge – levelled a painful insult against us. We are, all of us, sex-trade survivors; the living witnesses of a dehumanising trade, and any acceptance of our abuse as ‘work’ further dehumanises us.
Now let us tell you the truth about that term and what it is designed to conceal: What is bought in systems of prostitution is not sex; it is the right to sexually abuse. What systems of prostitution offer is simply the commercialisation of sexual abuse. It is time that those in positions of legislating power listened to those of us who have lived the brutal realities of prostitution and sex-trafficking, and refer to ourselves collectively under the umbrella term ‘sex-trade survivors’.
Please listen to us as we tell you that a deliberate dichotomy has been constructed that purports to separate us into two sets of women, living two supposedly separate types of experience; one free, one forced; one elective, one abusive; one harmless, and the other a horror against humankind. We ask that you realise the perception that prostituted and sex-trafficked women are different is an illogical one: It makes no sense to distinguish between the prostituted and the sex-trafficked, when the sex-trafficked have been trafficked for the very reason that they are to be prostituted, and that this is the reality they then go on to live.
As well as being illogical, this falsified distinction is dangerous. It is dangerous because it offers the gift of camouflage. It allows pimps and traffickers to conceal the true nature of their actions, which lets them act under the cloak of secrecy, and, as a consequence, with impunity.
- That you desist from referring to the abuse of prostitution as ‘sex work’.
- That you desist from separating the prostituted and the sex-trafficked in your consciousness, and that your policies and positions here-forth reflect that shift in thinking.
You have weighed upon you the very great responsibility of dividing fact from fiction; of seeing inequality that would present itself as equal; of revealing injustice where it would conceal itself as just, and of weeding out what is wrong where it pretends to have sown itself amongst what it right. This is a huge, difficult, and cumbersome task, and we do not envy you in the undertaking of it; but you must undertake it. It is your duty.
We have done our own duty here, as one after another, in country after country, many of us have forsaken our personal identities and faced the full lash of public ridicule to reveal the truth about the oppression of the global sex-trade. We have made this sacrifice at great personal cost, to ourselves and to our families, because we are determined to draw from the wellspring of truth that resides in every one of us and to publicly state what has always been known but so seldom uttered: That prostitution is a human rights abuse in and of itself.
We ask only that you hear us, and that you, too, make the necessary sacrifices to do what you know to be right.
Cherie Jimenez Boston, USA
Autumn Burris California, USA
Rosen Hitcher Saintes, France
Laurence Noelle Paris, France
Bronwen Healy Queensland, Australia
Rachel Moran Dublin, Ireland
Justine Reilly Dublin, Ireland
Roak Elthea Montevideo, Uruguay
Jacqueline S. Homan Erie, PA, USA
Josie O’Sullivan Limerick, Ireland
Bridget Perrier, Toronto, Canada
Linda O’Keefe Dublin, Ireland
Vednita Carter Minneapolis, Minnesota
Tanja Rahm Denmark
Debra Topping Fond du Lac Indian Reservation, Cloquet, Minnesota
R. B. Nord, Canada
David Zimmerman Benton, PA, USA