Sex work and violence4 min read . Updated: 18 Apr 2015, 12:11 AM IST
Why did the media fail to report on a groundbreaking study on the lives of people working in the sex industry? Asks Sohaila Abdulali
On 30 January, a mesmerizing report was launched at the Asia-Pacific Intergovernmental Meeting on HIV in Bangkok: The Right(s) Evidence—Sex Work, Violence And HIV In Asia: A Multi-Country Qualitative Study. It is a ground-breaking piece of work for several reasons. It involved an unusual collaboration among governments, sex-worker organizations, communities, UN agencies, and regional agencies in Indonesia, Myanmar, Nepal and Sri Lanka. It is full of fascinating insights into the lives of women, men and transgender people in the sex industry. It finds compelling evidence of widespread violence. It provides thoughtful, evidence-based analysis on causes and possible solutions. It points to a culture of impunity among the police, doctors, and other powerful players that in turn increases the threats of violence, trauma, disease and despair among sex workers, and by extension their families, communities, and customers. It’s full of first-person accounts.
The ultimate juicy news story, and you’ve never heard of it.
Meena Saraswathi Seshu, secretary general of activist organization Sampada Gramin Mahila Sanstha (Sangram), one of the co-authors of the report, talked with me after I had read the report. I know Seshu. She is articulate, and smart. She knows both the media and the landscape of sex work, having organized sex workers for decades. She fully expected the report to create a splash, but instead, she told me, it was greeted with “absolute and total silence".
“It was launched in Bangkok—nobody wrote about it. It was launched in Myanmar—nobody wrote about it. The UN distributes it—nobody writes about it. Media came to all the events. People from TV, people from newspapers—they interviewed people like the study’s interviewers, who were all sex workers themselves. And then nobody wrote about it."
Now, dear reader, you and I both know that sex and violence sell papers. So, when Seshu told me, and I checked to confirm, that the news media everywhere failed to report on this story, I had to scrap my original intention of writing about the report—and there is much worth writing about—and simply ask why nobody else has written about it.
At the Myanmar launch, there was an excellent press note, sex workers and other experts were available for stories, and nobody wrote a thing. “What are they so scared about?" wonders Seshu.
I don’t know the answer. I do know that it’s not that there was no space or interest on those days. In the last few months, in various news outlets worldwide, you would have found a picture of the Pope hugging a weeping 12-year-old Filipina who asked him why God allows child prostitution; breathless accounts of various elected officials caught with their pants down; stories of sex workers who have been murdered in the US; stories about how the good citizens of Rome plan to herd their sex workers into designated areas where innocent babies and nuns won’t have to breathe the same air…the list goes on. But apparently nobody wants to write about a serious report that takes an honest look at sex workers’ lives and at the culture of impunity that exposes them to violence.
Kay Thi Win, a peer interviewer from Myanmar, says in the report: “This research is important for us. We often hear that a sex worker faces violence from different people, but we don’t have the evidence so that we can identify the causes and find solutions to reduce her risk to HIV. Once this research is published, we will hear the voices of sex workers and how they cope with violence."
“The culture of impunity," Seshu told me, “is so much that even the media is scared to touch it. The data is very clearly saying that the police are the biggest violators. At the report launch in Nepal, the police walked out! They didn’t believe we had talked to sex workers even though the sex workers were there."
I want to write about the report. I want to pull out more quotes like these:
“I became involved in sex work because it would give me both money and sexual satisfaction... nobody introduced me. It came from my inner core.... I could get money and get pleasure, too. Double advantage!"
“We have a lot of trouble from the police. They hit us, abuse us, pull us by the hair, kick us, use us (for sex), then they present us in court."
“The doctor said that I had to do a blood test. Then I told him that it was unnecessary to test because I am HIV-positive. Immediately he... put on a mask and gloves and chased me from there, saying that HIV-positive people were not treated there."
I’d like to start a discussion about the conclusions and recommendations of the report. About the grim reality of constant violence; the particular issues that transgender sex workers face; the problematic role of do-gooders who want to “save" all sex workers; decriminalization and its discontents; the urgency of empowering sex workers to have control, legitimacy, and basic human rights.
But instead I’m left asking why this is probably the first you’ve heard of it. Seshu professes herself “bewildered" at the lack of response. Whatever the reason, it can’t be good. Are media everywhere cowed by law enforcement authorities who just want to look good even when they behave badly? Do we simply not care that sex workers are routinely subjected to human rights violations? Do we not want to think about our own roles when it comes to using sex as a commodity? Are we too committed to our vision of sex workers as either innocent children or Big Bad Besharams who deserve what they get to see them as complete human beings?
Sohaila Abdulali is a New York-based writer. She writes a fortnightly column on women in the 21st century.
Also Read: Sohaila’s previous Lounge columns