Sex workers attending the Commission on the Status of Women were concerned by comments made about sex work during the panel of a side event yesterday. The side event ‘Free to Decide, Free to Choose’ was sponsored by the French and Swedish governments, and discussed sexual and reproductive health and rights. Comments from the Swedish Women’s Lobby during the event suggested that no woman’s rights can be respected while sex workers exist.
Sex workers were unable to attend due to overbooking of the event, meaning they were unable to respond to comments from the panel. The event was organised by the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), Planning Familial (France) and the She Decides movement, with support from the French and Swedish Coordination of the European Women’s Lobby and the Jean Jaurès Foundation. The panellists were from the governments of Burkina Faso, France and Sweden, She Decides, YSAFE, Campaña Nacional por el Derecho al Aborto Legal, Seguro y Gratuito and the Swedish Women’s Lobby.
The event flyer advertised a discussion on a ‘human rights-based approach to social protection and full access to sexual and reproductive rights’, but a speaker used her panel speech to advocate for the criminalisation of sex work. No sex workers’ rights organisations were invited to speak at the event, and sex workers were unable to join the discussion in the room as the event was overbooked. NSWP was disappointed to see the Swedish Women’s Lobby use SRHR spaces to promote an anti-sex work agenda, particularly without the opportunity for sex workers to respond.
Both France and Sweden implement ‘Nordic Model’ laws, which criminalise the purchase of sexual services and other activities related to sex work, such as renting property, and France retains the criminalisation of street-based sex work. Legislation in France was introduced in 2016, and a Médecins du Monde study has shown violence against sex workers has increased since this legislation was introduced in France in 2016. Swedish laws have been criticised by sex workers, and by other organisations including Amnesty International.
The governments of France and Sweden recently announced a joint ‘diplomatic initiative to fight trafficking and prostitution in Europe and globally’. The announcement rejected sex work as a form of work, and said that sex work should always be considered exploitation – a position at odds with the protection of sex workers’ human rights and safety. The announcement of France and Sweden’s intention to lobby governments to implement legislation to criminalise sex work is of serious concern.
Globally, sex workers do face high levels of violence, from the police, in their workplaces, in their homes and relationships, from the general public, and from other non-governmental organised groups. Stigma, discrimination, the criminalisation of sex work and police corruption all contribute to violence against sex workers. We reject any assertion that sex work is inherently violent, and framing all sex work as a form of violence or exploitation invisibilises sex workers’ lived experiences of their work. This framing denies sex workers the agency to make their own decisions around work and their lives. We are disappointed to see that sex workers were excluded from this discussion, where speakers used their platform to advocate for the criminalisation of sex work rather than to discuss SRHR initiatives.
Sexual and reproductive health and rights are of critical importance to sex workers. Sex workers are often excluded from SRHR services due to stigma, inadequate funding, and inaccessibility of services. The direct and indirect criminalisation of sex work remains one of the greatest barriers to sex workers’ SRH access, as well as a structural determinant of violence, discrimination, and HIV transmission. Sex workers are frequently viewed as requiring protection, but most ‘social protection’ systems do not uphold the rights of sex workers and fail to address sex workers’ needs.