The push for sex workers’ rights is heating up in Latin America

The movement for labor rights for sex workers around the world picked up in the summer of 2015 when Amnesty International released a declaration identifying sex workers’ rights as human rights. In nations like Germany and New Zealand, sex work is legal, and not only have rates of sexually transmitted infections between sex workers and the population decreased, but so have rates of violence against sex workers. The dialogue has picked up steam in the United States, but at the 13th Conference on Women in Latin America and the Caribbean this week, the push for sex workers’ rights is heating up in Latin America.

The Association of Argentine Courtesans (Asociación de Mujeres Meretrices de Argentina), a union of sex workers in Argentina that has actively worked to defend their rights since 1995, is calling for a variety of reforms. Among other things, the group is asking for the word “prostitute” to be retired, as well as the legal obstacles around the industry that place its workers in danger and are ultimately rooted in what Association of Argentine Courtesans secretary general Georgina Orellano called “prohibitive” public opinion in an interview with Sputnik News. The commercialization of sex and sexual imagery, Orellano noted, is permitted, but not the line of work that in many cases is a poor woman’s only option for income.

But Orellano additionally pointed out how paternalism exists not only in trying to prevent women from accessing their only means for an income, but in assuming they’re being exploited when that’s not always the case, telling Sputnik that society regards sex workers as “either victims or unable to utilize their own bodies.”

“They want to impose on women what we should or shouldn’t do with our bodies,” Orellano told the newspaper. Contrary to what you might expect, powerful, privileged men aren’t solely responsible for the oppression of sex workers. Many women’s rights activists — from Lena Dunham, to Jimmy Carter, to Hillary Clinton — have all come out opposing the legalization of sex work, claiming it inherently objectifies women, as if sweepingly making choices for them somehow doesn’t.

And despite the fact that the issue of sex workers’ rights and the politics and legal discussion around it affects no one more than sex workers themselves, they are always excluded from it. “Historically, other women have always talked for us. They wrote articles, books, and laws for us. They invent rules — for us. But they’ve never sat down with us at the negotiating table,” Orellano points out.

And the act of selling sex doesn’t inherently transform women into sex objects to be bought and sold. Within the capitalist system, Orellano notes, “there are many other workers who in their heart feel like an object when they sell their labor.” The only reason there’s so much stigma and pervasive criticism regarding how sex work inherently objectifies women is that as a society, we bind a woman’s identity and worth to her sexuality.

But keeping sex work illegal to “protect” women and maintaining “exclusionary and repressive policies,” Orellano concludes, will “eventually lead to pimping and exploitation of the female body.” After all, if violence against women were really the concern here, why not clearly distinguish the differences between nonconsensual sex trafficking of girls and women involved in consensual sex work? Or work on initiatives to prevent sexual assault. Or, hey, here’s a thought — legalize sex work and protect women by offering them labor rights. The criminalization of sex work doesn’t magically prevent it from happening and really only unnecessarily stigmatizes what can be a consensual line of work, placing women in further danger.

All in all, no matter their intentions, laws against sex work don’t empower women but strip them of their autonomy and put sex workers in danger. As per Amnesty International, these laws “often mean that sex workers have to take more risks to protect buyers from detection by the police.”