June 2 Is International Sex Workers’ Day

By Josemaría Moreno

On June 2nd, we commemorate the struggle of sex professionals, who for decades have demanded the basic rights and protections that they deserve as human beings. The origin of this event goes back to France in the early 1970s, when the authorities and the forces of law maintained a yoke of oppression over the sex workers’ union, pushing prostitutes to work with greater secrecy and less safety. A group of over 100 prostitutes entrenched themselves in the Saint-Nizier church in Lyon, declaring themselves on strike and demanding better working conditions. After occupying the church for eight days, the police took the building by force. This was the institutional beginning of the struggle of sex workers.

The labor and human rights achievements of prostitutes have been remarkable in some parts of the world. In Mexico, however, despite the efforts of different groups, such as the Callejera Brigade, and even political representation–as in the voice of the federal deputy María Clemente García–progress has been very limited. In general terms, the debate around the labor rights of sex professionals can be summed up in a polemical position in which two usually opposite poles meet: radical feminism and conservatism.

In simplified terms, radical feminism maintains that prostitution cannot really be exercised voluntarily in any situation, since prostitution itself is dehumanizing and is the product of a patriarchal system. From this perspective, the decision of an individual to engage in prostitution voluntarily is not relevant; decisions like this reproduce patriarchal social structures, damaging the claim for the rights of women and minorities.

From a conservative Christian perspective, prostitution is unworthy. The body and soul are made in the image and likeness of God, and form the human being. Acts such as fornication–any sexual act outside of marriage–corrupts the body and leads away from the grace of God.

As surprising as it may seem, both positions uphold the same harmful principle for the individual: prostitution cannot and should not be regulated. We say that this is a harmful principle: in the light of reason, every human being, by the simple fact of being, possesses inalienable human rights. These include the right to life, the right to equality between women and men, the right to health, and the right to social security, to name just a few obvious examples when talking about prostitution.

There is probably a counter-argument from a conservative human rights perspective that would go something like this: indeed, human rights are inalienable, as long as they do not support illegal activity. If prostitution is illegal, then it doesn’t fit into this discussion. However, we simply maintain that the fact that something is illegal does not imply that it is illegitimate. The 20th century French philosopher, Gilles Deleuze, maintained that the foundation of jurisprudence is its ability to transgress the law for the good of the individual, and thus establish precedents that make the law more inclusive. There is no need to add the following parenthesis, but it may not be too much: when we talk about prostitution, we are referring to a voluntarily chosen activity, never to an act of coercion, which would be, rather, slavery and the subject of a very different discussion.

Denying prostitutes the basic safety and health conditions to be able to employ themselves of their own free will in this ancient profession is to plunge them into a sea of violence, discrimination, and even death–something that is perfectly irrational and, in ideal terms, easily avoidable and morally unnecessary. Human rights cannot discriminate against anyone, and if the aim is legitimate, everyone deserves the protection of the law. We believe this is essentially achievable.