Limoncelli suggests that forming prostitute collectives would make it possible to oversee conditions in sex industries and help to identify trafficked women. While this theory sounds reasonable, that is not the way prostitutes’ unions operate in the real world. Many such unions function as advertising agencies for sex industry pimps rather than as watchdogs.
Even though they represent only a tiny minority of all women in prostitution, the unions strongly influence public opinion, projecting what men who buy sex want to hear. When journalists, feminist theorists, or politicians want to learn about prostitution, women in prostitutes’ unions are approached because they are easier to locate than women who have exited prostitution. Yet there is extremely low membership in prostitutes’ unions in the Netherlands, Germany, and in New Zealand. Most women in prostitution avoid prostitutes’ unions because the social stigma of prostitution remains the same regardless of legal status. Furthermore, the unions don’t offer what most women want: alternatives to prostitution.
COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics) in USA, the DMSC (Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee) in India and the NZPC (New Zealand Prostitutes Collective) provide examples of the damaging effects of prostitutes’ unions. All three of these unions have promoted prostitution as work, disappearing the harmful consequences of prostitution and failing to hold men who buy sex accountable for the damages they cause.
Task Force on Prostitution included pro-decriminalization advocates and members of COYOTE. Written with the purpose of decriminalizing prostitution, the Task Force’s Report (1996) flatly denied the overwhelming violence in prostitution, refusing to include the testimony of those who had escaped prostitution because of its harms. In 1994, Norma Hotaling attempted to provide testimony to the San Francisco Task Force on Prostitution, reporting brutal violence that she experienced while in prostitution. She was removed from the Task Force and went on to found SAGE, an organization run by survivors of prostitution. Six other San Francisco organizations who were Task Force members later resigned in protest against the findings of the Report. In response to the Task Force’s denial of violence, the San Francisco Commission on the Status of Women authored a 1998 report,“Violence against Women in Prostitution in San Francisco.” (San Francisco Commission on the Status of Women, 1998).
The DMSC in Kolkata, a prostitutes’ and pimps’ union that controls tens of thousands of women and children in prostitution, is similar in purpose to the San Francisco prostitutes’ union. Former DMSC Director Dr. Samarjit Jana stated that since sex workers fulfill men’s needs, prostitution must be seen as a profession (Dhar, 1999). Behind the prostituting women of Kolkata’s brothel zone and out of public view are organized criminals who traffic women in prostitution, dominate the DMSC and control the money. Despite its description as a cooperative, the DMSC’s women pimps and their male handlers extort 50% of the earnings of the women and children who are trafficked for prostitution in Sonagachi (Farley, 2006). At the time of this writing, the DMSC is lobbying in favor of laws in India that recognize prostitution as work.
Like the San Francisco and Kolkata unions, the influence of the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective (NZPC) came about as a result of public health concerns about HIV in the 1980s when researchers learned about the devastatingly high rates of HIV among prostituted women. Seizing the opportunity to promote a political agenda whilethey also did HIV prevention, the NZPC and other prostitutes’ unions have used public health monies (that became available because of the HIV epidemic) to fund the promotion of decriminalized prostitution.