By Emily Bazelon
Last November, Meg Muñoz went to Los Angeles to speak at the annual West Coast conference of Amnesty International. She was nervous. Three months earlier, at a meeting attended by about 500 delegates from 80 countries, Amnesty voted to adopt a proposal in favor of the “full decriminalization of consensual sex work,” sparking a storm of controversy. Members of the human rights group in Norway and Sweden resigned en masse, saying the organization’s goal should be to end demand for prostitution, not condone it. Around the world, on social media and in the press, opponents blasted Amnesty. In Los Angeles, protesters ringed the lobby of the Sheraton where the conference was being held, and as Muñoz tried to enter, a woman confronted her and became upset as Muñoz explained that, as a former sex worker, she supported Amnesty’s position. “She agreed to respect my time at the microphone,” Muñoz told me. “That didn’t exactly happen” — the woman and other critics yelled out during her panel — “but I understand why it was so hard for her.”
Muñoz was in the middle of a pitched battle over the terms, and even the meaning, of sex work. In the United States and around the globe, many sex workers (the term activists prefer to “prostitute”) are trying to change how they are perceived and policed. They are fighting the legal status quo, social mores and also mainstream feminism, which has typically focused on saving women from the sex trade rather than supporting sex workers who demand greater rights. But in the last decade, sex-worker activists have gained new allies. If Amnesty’s international board approves a final policy in favor of decriminalization in the next month, it will join forces with public-health organizations that have successfully worked for years with groups of sex workers to halt the spread of H.I.V. and AIDS, especially in developing countries. “The urgency of the H.I.V. epidemic really exploded a lot of taboos,” says Catherine Murphy, an Amnesty policy adviser.
Onstage, wearing a white blouse with lace, her face framed by glasses and straight brown hair, Muñoz, who is 43, looked calm and determined as she leaned into the microphone to tell her story. She started escorting at 18, after she graduated from high school in Los Angeles County, picking up men at a dance club a couple of times a week and striking deals to have sex for $100 or so, at a hotel or their apartments. She had a part-time job as a restaurant hostess, but she liked feeling desired and making money on the side to spend on clothes and entertainment. “I really, really did love the work,” she told her Amnesty audience of more than 100. “I was a little reckless.” The same recklessness led her to methamphetamine. When her parents found out she was using, they sent her to rehab. She stopped escorting and using drugs and found a serious boyfriend. When she was 24, the relationship ended, and around that time her parents sold their house. Muñoz started living on her own for the first time. With rent and car insurance to pay, and a plan to save for college, escorting became her livelihood. “I was moving toward a goal, and sex work helped me do that,” Muñoz told the crowd.
A few years later, however, another ex-boyfriend, with whom she was still close, started to take advantage of the underground nature of Muñoz’s work. At first, she told me, he asked her to pay to get his car back after it was towed. Then he started demanding more money and dictating when she worked and which clients she saw. Muñoz didn’t exactly seem like a trafficking victim; she was driving her own car, going to school and paying her expenses. But looking back, she says that’s the way she sees herself. “Because the work I was doing was illegal, he started to hold it over my head. He blackmailed me by threatening to tell everyone, including my family.”
The man was violent, and Muñoz extricated herself with the help of a friend, whom she later married. Haunted by the control her ex-boyfriend had exerted over her, she founded in 2009 a small faith-based group called Abeni near her home in Orange County, to help other women escape from prostitution, as she had. A couple of years later, Muñoz, who now has four children, started letting herself remember the period earlier in her life when escorting served her well, as a source of income and even stability. Struggling internally, she had a “crisis of conscience,” she says, and came to regret her assumptions about what was necessarily best for Abeni’s clients. She stopped taking on new ones, and then turned Abeni into one of the few groups in the country that helps people either leave sex work or continue doing it safely.
At the Amnesty conference, Muñoz told the crowd that she thinks decriminalization would have benefits for many people by bringing the sex trade out from underground. “I believe in the empowered sex worker,” she said. “I was one. But the empowered sex worker isn’t representative of the majority of sex workers. It’s O.K. for us to be honest about this.” She was referring to the social and economic divide in the profession. Activists in the sex-workers’ movement tend to be educated and make hundreds of dollars an hour. The words they often use to describe themselves — dominatrix, fetishist, sensual masseuse, courtesan, sugar baby, whore, witch, pervert — can be self-consciously half-wicked.
Some of their concerns can seem far removed from those of women who feel they must sell sex to survive — a mother trying to scrape together the rent, say, or a runaway teenager. People in those situations generally don’t call themselves “sex workers” or see themselves as part of a movement. “It’s not something people we work with would ever talk about,” says Deon Haywood, the director of Women With a Vision in New Orleans, an African-American health collective that works with low-income women and trans clients. Some of them sell sex, Haywood says, because it’s more flexible and pays better than low-wage work at businesses like McDonald’s.
Human rights advocates tend to focus on people in grim circumstances. “Like many feminists, I’m conflicted about sex work,” says Liesl Gerntholtz, executive director of the women’s rights division at Human Rights Watch, which took a stand in favor of decriminalization four years ago. “You’re often talking about women who have extremely limited choices. Would I like to live in a world where no one has to do sex work? Absolutely. But that’s not the case. So I want to live in a world where women do it largely voluntarily, in a way that is safe. If they’re raped by a police officer or a client, they can lay a charge and know it will be investigated. Their kid won’t be expelled from school, and their landlord won’t kick them out.”
Amnesty and Human Rights Watch, along with other groups that support decriminalization — U.N.AIDS, the World Health Organization, the Global Commission on H.I.V. and the Law and the Open Society Foundations — acknowledge that there can be grave harms associated with the sex industry, but say that they see changes in the law as a precondition to reducing them. Last year, an analysis in The Lancet predicted that “decriminalization of sex work could have the largest effect on the course of the H.I.V. epidemic,” by increasing access to condoms and medical treatment. Governments can free themselves to crack down on trafficking and under-age prostitution, human rights advocates argue, if they stop arresting consenting adults.
It’s a pragmatic argument. But the sex-workers’ movement also hinges on an ideological conviction — the belief that the criminal law should not be used here as an instrument of punishment or shame, because sex work isn’t inherently immoral or demeaning. It can even be authentically feminist. “Once you’ve done it, you always know: When it comes down to it, I have everything I need to survive,” says Anna Saini, a former escort who is now a sex-worker activist and law student living in Brooklyn. “That’s powerful.” This view poses a deep challenge to traditional Western feminism, which treats the commercial sex industry as an ugly source of sexual inequality.
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